Chapter 11

Jim's head turned slowly, and lifted off the top of Blair's. He seemed to be looking in the same direction Blair was. He had to have been, because Blair felt the motion of Jim's chest hard against his in a sigh that echoed the one he had just given. "We can make it, man," he said firmly. "We got this far and you're doing better all the time, and this is just not that hard." Nope, not at all. Blair nodded as if he had convinced himself.

A faint, uneven sound came from Jim's chest, and it took Blair a moment to recognize the chuckle of amusement. It sounded too much like the sobs he had heard earlier.

Blair grinned, hard, because the only other alternative was to give in to the prickling behind his eyes, and he had done too much of that already. "OK," he admitted, slowly beginning to slide sideways, maneuvering to get them both facing the same direction. "So it's going to be hell. You've done worse. I've done worse. Just keep thinking about the car up there, and how nice it will be to get warm."

He was extraordinarily careful as he moved, lifting his arms away from Jim's back, then moving, then replacing them with as smoothly flat a touch as he could. Jim stood still, letting go of his hold as Blair moved out of his embrace. He shivered at each change of contact, sometimes flinching as sharply as if struck, but made no sound. His right hand locked on Blair's shoulder and stayed there, only the quivering of his fingers to bespeak his weakness.

Blair told himself the first step would be the hardest, and all the rest would have to be easier. Though his left arm was around Jim's back, he didn't try to pull him along. Instead, he reached up with his other hand and wrapped his fingers around the back of Jim's hand where he was gripping Blair's shoulder so fiercely. Blair took a long, deep breath, knowing Jim would feel and hear him. He tightened his fingers momentarily around Jim's hand, then scuffed one foot forward. The wet, crusted peaks of sand broke under the sole of his foot. The drier sand underneath crunched and swelled up a little, sliding up between his toes and across the top of his foot. He thought how Jim would be feeling so much more, and wondered how he could stand it, and why he kept fighting anyway.

But he knew the answer to both questions, and had known even before he'd seen the truth back there on the beach. This was Jim, his friend, the better half of his heart, the strongest part of his soul. And as Blair had known he would, when Blair took that first step across the sand, Jim moved too, more purposefully than Blair, moaning softly, but walking all the same, allowing Blair to guide him toward home.

It was such a slow journey. The sand sucked at Blair's feet, grabbing at him with every step. It slipped and shifted under him so his balance was bad, and even though he moved very carefully, he knew each step was agony for Jim. But Jim never stopped, even though they lurched forward like Frankenstein's monster in stiff-legged, lumbering steps that were more a continuing effort not to fall down than a means of progressing forward.

It wasn't really all that far to the edge of the sand, but Blair was panting as if he had run a marathon by the time they reached it. Jim's grip on his shoulder was so painfully tense he knew there would be a bruise there in a day. He ignored it. Under his left arm, wrapped tightly around Jim's back, he could feel the shivering and flinching of his muscles, as non-stop and involuntary as hiccups.

It was when they stumbled to a halt in front of the five-foot face of crumbling sand and dirt that Blair had a chance to stop and look at Jim again. He felt his heart breaking, an actual physical pain in his chest, at the sight of the tears silently tracking down Jim's cheeks.

They couldn't stop, not now, not when they had momentum going and the light was growing around them, and they had so far to go... and he couldn't care about it. He really couldn't. "Rest," Blair said faintly, pushing the word out between breaths. As if it had been agreed on that rests would take place by having Jim lean on him, he tightened his arm to draw Jim even closer to him, craning his neck so he could press his temple on the arch of Jim's collarbone. "I'm so, so sorry," he whispered.

Jim's chin rested on the top of his head for a moment, then that hoarse, ruined voice rasped, "Keep going."

Blair twisted his neck a little bit more, just far enough to be able to touch his lips to Jim's skin for a second. Then he did as he was told and moved forward again. He heard Jim's hissed intake of breath as they tackled the steep little slope. Five lousy feet up. It might as well have been the south face of K-14.

There wasn't any way to do it with his arm still around Jim's back, Blair realized that as soon as they tried together. Their balance simply wasn't good enough so long as they tried to act as a single climber. Pulling them back the half step to level ground, Blair shook his head and stared along the beach, hoping to see a low spot they could climb with greater ease. But in truth it was only worse for the meager distance he could see, and he knew they didn't have the strength to wander aimlessly along the embankment until they found a better spot.

"This isn't going to work, man," he said heavily.

Beside him, Jim shifted, trying to pull forward, wanting to keep going, afraid to stop moving. For a moment Blair instinctively tried to pull him back, but then he moved with Jim instead. They hit the low, crumbling slope together, and Blair had to take his arm from Jim's back in order to pull himself up. He heard the bitten-back cry as he did, knew the tears would still be rising in Jim's eyes even as his expression stayed fiercely determined, and couldn't let himself slow down to look. If he did, he knew neither one of them would ever get over this obstacle.

The sand slipped away under his feet, giving him no purchase. Grabbing at the clumps of grass, he tried using them to haul himself up, feeling the roots pull out of the weak soil. They weren't much help at all, and the sharp edges of the leaves cut his palms like blades.

Finally, it was nothing but concentrated, constant effort that got him over the barrier. He simply kept digging his feet in and replacing them slightly higher until he was high enough on the face to flop over the edge on his stomach and drag himself the rest of the way. Blair crawled and grabbed at the ground like a hermit crab, wriggling and scrabbling until he was all the way over the lip and on flat ground. He didn't know if Jim had made it beside him, and much as he wanted to lie flat on his belly and rest for just a minute, he couldn't. Not until he knew Jim was OK, was with him. Wasn't huddled alone and despairing a few feet away, unable to join him.

He lifted his head, chin grating on the harder dirt, and began to pull his arms under his chest, trying to lever himself up off the ground. His knees dragged across the sandy soil, bumping on the clumps of grass that stuck up like sea urchins. It seemed to take forever to get to his hands and knees. Getting all the way to his feet seemed premature. Might need to get right back down on the ground again and pull Jim over the top of the slope. Yeah, that was it. Go pull Jim up. He nodded to himself, his hair hanging on either side of his face, crusted with salt and sand.

He turned to look beside himself, a process that involved his entire upper body. He knew he should have expected what he saw, but he trembled anyway, and felt the familiar, terrible ache rise at back of his throat.

Jim had made it on his own, his longer legs and reach giving him a natural advantage on the climb. He hadn't even had to crawl over the top, like Blair's ignominious ascent. Somehow he'd made it and come out standing after all, and Blair wondered fleetingly if Jim would have stood better alone all along. The thought was gone before it finished forming, washed out by the memory of the true, flawless power that had shown white and warm between them. There was no alone for Jim, not any more, not ever.

Jim stood in the soft silence of the fog-bound morning like a lost god, the misting rain that still fell glistening on his bared skin with the sand. Blair's head tilted back as he looked up at Jim, and he revised his metaphor. An abandoned god, one whose images had been desecrated and scarred, yet still endured past their torment. Like a statue dedicated to a war, Jim radiated pain and exhaustion, and still somehow a sense of victory that could not be taken away. The marks on his wrists were plainly visible now, as he bent and reached for Blair. The bruises on his face were shadows that only highlighted the strength of the soul beneath.

His eyes were still leaking slow tears, but Jim didn't seem to know that. Nor did he appear to realize his bare feet were cut and staining the sand crimson where he stood. But the hand that touched Blair's, sliding along the back of it until it grasped his wrist, wasn't that of a god. It was the trembling touch of a man, his friend, and Blair took hold of Jim's forearm in return and put all his effort into standing back up.

Jim drew him in, took an uncertain step forward away from the edge of the slope to reach him, and Blair opened his arms gladly. "You're doing so good," he crooned, not even meaning Jim at the moment but the symbiotic creature they had become in their struggle together.

Jim came to rest against him with a quiet sigh, not asking for what Blair freely offered but accepting what he was given. Though the need had to be clawing at him from within, shaking him with the desire to erase his pain with touch, he only wrapped his arms around Blair gently. It was Blair who guessed his need and pulled him closer, arching his own back a little as if that could broaden the sweep of his chest to give Jim more contact. Blair pressed his face into the crook of Jim's neck, and whispered, "We're going to make it." The pressure against him as Jim nodded gave him more hope than he'd had in what felt like ages.

It would be easy now. Blair held on to Jim and fortified himself with that knowledge for a minute. So when the first shots echoed sharply through the air, he flinched as violently as Jim.

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