Chapter 12

Shocked by the gunfire, Blair felt them falling, beginning to crumple toward the ground, and he cried aloud with the frustration of it. Jim flinched again at that, still holding him, and jerked back upright as if he had been commanded to. "Keep going," Blair gasped, pulling Jim away from the edge, in the direction they needed to go. "Just keep going." The first few shots escalated into a fusillade of nearly constant fire, echoing weirdly through the morning silence, seeming to come from all around them in the thick fog.

Though the ground was firmer on the upper plateau than it had been down below in the sand, the hummocks of grass were worse hazards. They hid sharp stones, and kept stray branches locked across between themselves like tripwires. Blair had thought getting across the loose sand down on the beach was difficult, but this was a nightmare.

Holding Blair again had been like coming home after a long trip and finding peace. When it was shattered by the sound of guns firing in the middle distance, Jim flinched from the impact of the noise, and the instinctive knowledge he was about to lose the brief respite of contact he needed so badly.

He didn't know who was shooting at who - it seemed unlikely he and Blair were the targets with the fog so thick around them it was hard to see ten feet ahead. The sound of the shots brought back more flashes of memory, enough to know there were other enemies present, not necessarily the ones who had held him but who would treat him no more kindly if they met. It was barely possible the shots might come from men who claimed to be friends of his, though his conception of friend had narrowed down to a single soul.

Had he tried, he could have extended his focus and listened to the sounds between the shots, heard the calls of the attackers and known who was storming the beach house, but the impact of the reports struck him hard, each one ripping through his fragile control, punching holes in the tattered lace of stability he still retained. It left him not only unable to listen, but unable to care, because it really didn't matter who was killing whom back at the place he had been hurt. There was nothing there for him any more. Nothing for him anywhere but here.

"Keep going," Blair's voice said beside him, and the warmth of his embrace was gone leaving only the cold, sharp sand on Jim's skin. "Just keep going."

There was a pressure on his back as Blair's arm went around him again, urging him forward, and he moved both because of the pull and to escape the clawing agony of the sliding friction it unwittingly caused. His own arm was pulled over strong shoulders, his hand held tight on that side, and he stumbled forward, barely aware of anything but the idea there would be surcease of pain sometime, somewhere. Blair had promised him. Blair never lied to him.

More shots, some rapid and harsh, others crackling faintly. Then, suddenly, the deep roar of an explosion. He felt the passing shockwave crest over his skin, and could not help leaning harder on the wavering support next to him as the sound and heat of it poured over him like a pyroclastic blast. The roar peaked and wiped everything for a moment, the world going white with agony. Jim clung to Blair like a drowning man, and for that moment, even more than he had been in the surf, he was. And yet, somehow, he didn't fall. Blair bore up under him like the solid stone pillar of an ancient temple holding aloft a stone roof of unimaginable weight with inexorable strength.

When the worst of the heat and sound subsided they were still moving, still plowing across the soft ground. They stumbled between the hummocky grasses as if they inhabited a hell all their own which consisted of nothing but an endless struggle to reach some unattainable goal. Jim closed his eyes, surrendering all direction to Blair. Nothing mattered but the arm around his back, the tight grasp on his hand, and the need to stay at his side no matter what.

It worked for a while. He had no way of knowing how long; time had ceased to have any meaning for him some time during the night when everything else that had meaning had been taken from him. Everything but the one holding him up now. Weakly, his fingers tightened on Blair's, and he took another heavy, dragging step. Closer to wherever it was Blair wanted him to go. Closer to the end of the hurting.

Light beat against his eyelids like heat, and he kept his eyes closed, following Blair's leading with utter blind trust. But shutting off one sense as much as he could only let the others push at him more insistently. The shooting had stopped, but the cries of the gulls greeting the morning were loud and angry in his ears and the background roar of the surf pounded harder against him with every step. The taste of salt in his mouth was bitter, mixed with the unfamiliar, disturbingly sweet copper tang of blood. And his skin... he sobbed once, catching his breath around the pain, then holding his jaw tight against it.

"Shhh, we're almost there," Blair told him, though it took several breaths to say so.

Jim really had thought he could make it.

He tried. He kept trying even after the last of his strength gave out. When Blair had let go of his hand and rolled out from under the pinning of his weight on the uneven ground, he kept trying, crawling in the direction he had fallen, still blind but knowing more was needed of him.

"It's only a little ways, Jim, please, we can do it." There was a note of desperation in Blair's voice he recognized. It was the one that meant things were bad, and he had to fix it. "I can see the car, we're almost there." But like everything else he had tried in his life, the closer success came, the more impossible it was to reach it. His arms trembled, sharp pain shooting up from one wrist, and gave under his weight.

Jim lay, stretched on the ground, unable to even crawl any longer, and reached with his arms as if he could find some purchase on the ground and pull himself flat along it. Gentle hands caught his, brought them back down, stilled their trembling. Jim shivered, his breath burning in his throat with frustration and exhaustion. "Just rest for a few minutes, we made it," Blair said, and then Jim felt the jostling as Blair quietly laid down on the cold ground next to him, and pulled him close.

Jim's arms were trapped in front of him, against Blair's chest. He laid his palms against the matted hair, searching for the heat beneath. Slowly he slid his hands upward, feeling the rolling sand catching on his skin, on Blair's skin, tiny sharp corners of the grains tipping and digging in over and over.

Eyes still closed, he moved slowly, his touch feather-light as if trying to read braille. Along the arching points of Blair's collarbone, the hollow of his throat where the pulse beat sure and strong, Jim's touch skimmed, seeking. And then to either side of his neck, over the arteries with their echo of Blair's heartbeat thundering steadily within, until Jim cradled the column of Blair's neck between his hands, fingertips nearly meeting over his spine, thumbs caught on the line of Blair's jaw above.

It was there. The incandescent heat he had felt before, the white light that didn't hurt, the love that had shone from the beautiful, feral avatar of Blair he still confused with the real one. The love that had always shone in Blair's eyes.

Cradling Blair's neck as if it were an infinitely precious and fragile chalice, Jim hesitantly stretched forward, just enough to lay his cheek against Blair's, softly reverent as a kiss. Blair shuddered under his touch, the arms around him going tighter and yet more tender at the same time. Jim breathed Blair's name, and felt the catch of his breath in his throat and chest. Jim's thumbs traced the line of that strong, pointed jaw again, before his hands slid upward, wholly lost in the tangled hair still cold with seawater. The uncountable points of pain that had screamed at him were quieting, and the exhausted trembling of his useless muscles was abating. But the great hollow ache in his chest was still there, and the knowledge that all Blair's love couldn't give him back what he had lost.

He opened his eyes slowly, feeling the brush of his own eyelashes against Blair's skin on that side, aware of the trace they left in the salt coating him. "Please, help me," he whispered. Even he did not know what he was asking for, only that no one but Blair could provide it.

But just as he had always done, Blair gave him what he needed. Blair's embrace loosened slowly, the reluctance of his arms' withdrawal reassuring Jim he was not being let go entirely. Blair didn't truly let go, he only shifted his hands from Jim's back, sliding them carefully until he cradled Jim's head in a mirror image of the way he was being held himself. Then he slowly shifted his face away, even further than Jim's last-minute attempt to follow him and maintain the contact could reach, so he was able to look directly into Jim's eyes.

"You have the strength within you," Blair said, his voice at first hoarse with the depth of his emotion. It smoothed as he continued. "I saw it, Jim, I know it's there." So close their noses nearly touched, his eyes met Jim's intently, dark blue in the gray light. Blair's thumbs ghosted over Jim's cheekbones, outlining the firm planes with such gentle care the touch could not hurt. "You've always had it, and you always will." The delicate stroke repeated, as if Blair were trying to draw Jim's attention to the shape of his own features. "It's who you are."

"No," Jim moaned, his eyes half-closing, knowing who he was, knowing it was not the man Blair thought he knew. There was nothing left of that Jim Ellison but a cracked, fragile shell.

"Yes," Blair said, and gentle as his voice was, it carried unyielding determination. "I know you haven't changed because you showed me, Jim. I saw your soul. I tasted your strength. You gave it to me." His features softened for a moment, puzzlement in his eyes and uncertainty in his touch as he held Jim's face in his hands. "How can you not know that?"

Looking into Blair's eyes, Jim saw himself reflected back, stripped of who he had tried to be until there was only who he was. But the person he was in Blair's eyes was not the lesser for it. It was hard for Jim to believe he could be loved that much. Enough to redeem his soul when he had thought it given away for nothing more than surcease of his body's cries of pain. He looked deep into Blair's eyes, searching for himself, for his lost soul, and found it there, being held safe for him.

"Take it back, Jim. Know your own strength. Taste what you have given me." Blair's lips touched his, and Jim closed his eyes, welcoming home the part of himself that had been lost.

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