Chapter 15

Jim's arm slid around Blair's shoulders, holding him near, weight sagging into the support offered. With all the care he had, Blair encircled Jim with his arms, conscious of the way the broad, smooth planes of that strong back shied from the initial contact, then stilled, shivering slightly as he spread his hands wide across them. Jim's breath drifted across his neck again. "Make it stop...."

"Then think of only me, Jim," he said, his voice as soft and quiet as Jim's had been. "I'm here. Close your eyes, and listen to my voice and my heart." He tried to lean further forward, to get more of his skin against Jim's, but it simply wasn't possible in the confines of the car.

He could feel Jim's control slipping, in the way Jim's grasp slowly tightened until he clutched at him desperately, as if drowning. The increasingly ragged laboring of his breathing, the small sound he made even though he tried to bite it back, even the way his muscles spasmed and trembled indicated Jim was losing his tenuous concentration. "Just me," Blair said again, and knew with despair he wasn't making enough of a difference.

Jim tried. He tried so hard to hold on to the warmth where Blair touched him, but the cold, sticky vinyl of the seat covered more area. He tried to hold on to the sound of Blair's voice and heart, and found the screaming of the gulls cutting through him, the surf not so far away crashing constantly like an artillery barrage. The smells of the car were all around, sickening him, overlaid with the stale, heavy reek of old cigarette smoke. Shaking, he caught a handful of Blair's long, lank hair and buried his face in it. Even damp with seawater, it still carried the scents of home and safety, and lay soft on his skin where even the air felt raw and biting.

It wasn't enough. Even the fading scent of the shampoo, with all the images of the loft in the mornings that it conjured, wasn't enough to hold the chaotic battering on his senses at bay. Jim sobbed, knowing he was losing, knowing there was nothing he or Blair could do about it, wanting with every part of his shattered soul to fight it and knowing at the same time he had no strength or will left. Everything had been taken from him, piece by piece over the night, until he had nothing to call his own any longer. Nothing but the few emotions still free of pain that he could hold on to and honor. The only thing he could do at the end of it all was try not to drag Blair down with him as he fell back into the abyss. He took one last deep breath, crushing the silken mass to his face as if to imprint the memory of it on his senses forever. Then, shuddering with effort, he released his hold and tried to back away.

But Blair wouldn't let him. "We can beat this, I know we can!" Looking into Jim's eyes, he saw only a lost pleading, helplessly looking for something he couldn't name or even understand. So much pain, and no hope left.

It was the look in Jim's eyes that did it, that glimpse of a tortured soul trying to hold on at any cost, already having paid as much as he had to offer. Desperation mixed with courage, and Blair acted before he had any idea what he was doing, certain only that he had to do something, his heart taking over before his mind could convince him not to try. As his mouth covered Jim's he felt only the fierce, protective need to take away the pain in any way he could. He hadn't expected to have his own heart go with it, or to know with such irrevocable certainty that he had done exactly the right thing. He'd never known he was capable of such love and tenderness until it was the only thing he had to give.

Jim's eyes closed at the contact, and the spiraling, dizzy anguish he had been falling into slowed, contracted around him, and stopped as all his world became one focused feeling. A feeling that was not unbearable pain, but instead an affirmation of life. The wild fluctuating of his hearing steadied on the beat of Blair's heart, the smells of the car vanished into the warm, underlying scent of Blair's skin, and the salt burning in his mouth faded, lost in the delicate taste that was the essence of Blair's presence. The essence of all that had kept him alive through the long, horrific hours since his capture.

Each of the marks on his skin had flared into being in a hell of agony, and stayed for so long they seemed to be an ineradicable part of himself, no different than if he had been splashed with molten metal that fused to his skin and charred its way into him, sticking to his bones forever. But now, with each passing moment, relief bathed him like a wash of cool, clear water, spreading out from the gentle, hesitant way Blair's lips caught on his. Jim's hand, tangled forgotten in Blair's hair, shook as Jim held on, unable to go through with his intention to free him, unable to do anything but gasp for more of the blessed ease.

He had come to think, during the long night and its endless dawn, that it was the touch of Blair's skin on his that brought surcease from his agony. Only as his tongue met Blair's in a slow, pure caress did he realize it wasn't the contact with his friend's body that had done it at all. It had been the touch of Blair's soul, raw with love as all the barriers between them were taken away, that had brought the suffering to an end. As it always had, since the day he had met him, and known then he was looking into the other half of himself.

Jim drank in the sensations like fresh, sweet water, his eyes stinging with unshed tears that had come straight from his heart. All his world had become the touch of Blair's lips to his, the gentle, unobtrusive way Blair met his uncertain searching, offering the comfort Jim needed without pressure or stinting. He gave in return without demanding, only vaguely aware of Blair's hand sliding up his back to cradle the base of his skull, even less of his own arm going around Blair's waist and holding him with trembling care. For a few moments of sublime peace he floated above himself, drawn entirely away from his imprisoning shell to drift in the perfect acceptance that gave all his control back to him, and he wondered if he wanted to return.

There was no way not to. Tear tracks were cooling on Jim's cheeks as Blair finally, slowly broke the kiss, his breath a faint sob as he did. He buried his face in the curve of Jim's neck as if afraid of what he had done, what Jim had allowed, yet still clinging to him, his left hand cupping the side of Jim's face with the slightest touch. "Please, Jim, please be OK," he whispered.

Beyond words, he turned his face toward Blair's palm, kissing the hollow of it with a brief, delicate sweep of his lower lip. Blair shook harder against him, and then he felt the warm wetness of tears gathering against his skin, the brush of eyelashes moving in a futile attempt to hold them back.

"Shhh. I'm OK," Jim murmured, surprised himself at how true it was. He looked over Blair's shoulder, out the car door, staring blindly at the roadway. Sand grains bounced and rolled across in the constant offshore breeze, collecting in long, thin bars that reached halfway to the chipped center line. He couldn't hear them moving any more. His hand moved, letting go its grip on the damp tangle of hair, and he held Blair's head against him, still stunned at the magnitude of the change, at the power of such a simple gift.

He drew a cautious breath, cradling Blair a little closer, tenderly as though he really were holding the better half of his soul warm in his arms. He was whole again, intact. A paradox, since he knew it was the proximity of another that allowed him to find himself again, distinct from the world around him, no longer the helpless victim of every fleeting sensation. It was a paradox he was in no hurry to resolve. Blair's love was necessary to him, and he had known that for almost as long as he had known Blair. As necessary as Sandburg's touch, the warmth in his eyes and heart, the background of that strong heart beating in the near distance, always.

The memory of Blair's lips warm and soft against his own healed the tattered places in his soul where the world had been rushing through. He was rooted in this place now, and in time as well. Past and future separated in his mind, each receding from the other. The present was manageable at last, no longer an endless extension of what had gone before becoming all he would ever know. Instead he was given the feeling of Blair's tears and snuffling breaths against his shoulder, Blair's arms around him, his hand at the back of Jim's head, holding him so carefully, holding him to the present.

And the future was not so very far away, because Blair had promised him. He would be warm and dry, they both would be. The pain would end, and the morning sunlight would stream into the loft again. Almost impossible to sleep late, the way it lit the high ceiling, even with the eyeshade. Blair loved it, of course, hedonist that he was. He was up to welcome the sun whenever the skies were clear, cradling his coffee cup in both hands, curled in the warmth of the morning sunlight streaming from every window. How on earth had he managed in the warehouse? Jim couldn't imagine Blair living in a home without windows. It occurred to Jim that it was almost as though he'd been preparing for Blair all along when he'd bought the loft. Never knowing the course he was set upon, yet following it faithfully to this distant endpoint.

But there was no way to think of the future without remembering the past, and Jim felt the return of memory like a blow. He must have clutched at Blair a little too hard then, the way Sandburg grunted in surprise, and he tried to make himself let go, to hold Blair more gently and think only of what was happening now, but it was like trying to hold back the tide itself. Memory rolled forward, frothing past the breakwaters in his mind, an arctic current so cold it froze the marrow in his bones.

Some time during that endless night he had emerged from oblivion to feel the sand under his feet and the splintering wood and chipped paint at his back. He had no idea how long they had been at him, but it was very, very late, and he was hardly aware of anything any more but the pain that had undone him, smashed away all control, all reason, all sense. To his horror, though, he was still granted moments of clarity, each more terrifying than the last, just long enough to know how far he had fallen this time.

He realized he was no longer supporting his own weight. The way his back and shoulders ached, he probably hadn't been able to do so for hours. His arms were lashed at the wrist and elbow to the latticework behind him, and he hung forward, head down, the flimsy boards bending with his weight. He was under the deck of the beach house, and he could feel the cold rain at his back. A naked bulb swung to and fro, suspended by an orange electrical cord a few feet away. He wasn't alone, but there were far fewer than had been watching him earlier. The rest had grown bored with a spectacle that had lasted for so many hours.

One face remained. The one who didn't get bored with Jim's pain. The one probably responsible for Jim's living the night through at all, though Jim was hard pressed to feel gratitude. He was very close to Jim, as he had been almost all evening. Watching him, and waiting. His hands were soft and gentle, and he touched Jim sparingly with them. He was touching Jim now. He cupped Jim's chin and lifted his head, forcing Jim to look into his flat brown eyes from a distance of inches.

Jim could smell his own burnt flesh, but by this point the drag across his shoulders hurt almost as badly as the fiery marks across his chest and stomach. It was all beginning to slip together into an undifferentiated whole. Even things that shouldn't hurt were becoming painful. He could feel the thread that stitched his belt loops to his jeans, the elastic in his boxers, and the sharp, square corners of the sand grains under his feet, and he was desperately afraid he knew where it was going to end.

He had to concentrate, he had to remember the things Blair had told him, but oh god help him, he was so tired. The madness of unending agony was close, reflected in those flat brown eyes watching him with such patient hunger.

Please, Blair, he thought. Please, I need you now.

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