Chapter 3


Jim had been in pain forever.

There was no end, no beginning, only the constant state of it, and it was all he knew.

But outside his ability to remember there had been a beginning, and in the brief moments of sanity he gleaned from the evanescent touch that left him so bereft when it was gone, he remembered the bits and pieces of his life before the pain. The touch was there now, holding him, bleeding away his agony until he remembered who he was, and in the remembering of that, began to recall what had been done to him.

There had been a case, but its details merged with all the others until he wasn't sure of the names or dates. Only the faces stood out. The sly one who had pointed at him and said his real name, the angry one snarling about betrayal, the frightened one that turned to him before going blank and red. The face he saw most often was the leering one with the flat, brown eyes, the one that smiled when the hurting started, and laughed as it grew worse and worse, the leer turning into a death's-head grin frozen in the time that everything had overloaded beyond bearing.

There was more to the memories, something inside that felt very different from the surface of his pain, a fear so large he couldn't name it yet. A whispering voice had asked him something, wanted something he would not give, and the knowledge that he could no longer tell whether or not he had finally answered scared him into retreating from all thought.

Beyond that, he had no past. There was only the perception of pain as it had blossomed within and around him, becoming his entire universe. It was the sun that heated him, the depths of emptiness that froze him, the essence of his being.

Yet though it was all he was and all he knew, there was still a last spark that lived deep within him and sought life. Not mere existence, but the life that touched him now, that seeped warmth into his back. That was what had led him on in blind flight, not knowing his goal, only that he had to find it. Arching against it, he gasped, knowing he had to silence his agony, certain his only hope of staying conscious enough to do it was to sink his very being into the life that held him anchored.

The thin band of warmth across his chest shifted, driving fear through him that it would leave and he would float away on the tide of anguish. Desperately he clutched at it, trying to hold on, knowing it was his one chance at salvation.

Blair felt the sudden change. One moment Jim had been writhing against him, moaning in remembered terror and present pain. It had been all Blair could do to keep his arms locked around Jim's chest, to keep him pulled upright against him in the meager shelter of the rocks. But then Jim pushed his head back against Blair's shoulder. Blair stifled the exclamation of relief that sprang to his lips, and instead simply tried to pull Jim closer. Jim, he thought, and could have wept, feeling the prickle of short-cropped hair on the head pressing harder against him, as if seeking shelter. Still afraid to risk speaking out loud, he gently freed one arm from Jim's desperate grasp so he could touch Jim's face.

A whimper escaped Jim at that contact, though he tried to swallow it back. Gently as he could, Blair eased Jim's head closer, until he could feel Jim's temple against his cheek. Then he finally trusted himself to speak, still without breath. Silently he told Jim they were safe and that he would take care of him. He knew Jim would feel his jaw working, his lips and mouth forming the words, and he prayed it would be enough. "I've got you, and I won't let you go," he said. "You're safe now. No matter what, I'm here, Jim, I'm right here."

More of the tension ebbed from the body Blair cradled in his arms. Shudders still coursed through Jim, but the coil of pain and terror wracking the long form loosened, as though Jim were allowing himself to hear Blair. To believe him.

Blair craned his neck cautiously to peer around the edge of the boulder. The flashlights down the beach didn't seem to be coming any closer. For the moment, at least, he and Jim were safe. Maybe Jim's pursuers had followed his footprints into the surf and assumed he had drowned. Could they really be that lucky?

Safe.

Lucky.

Right, man. Tell me another one. Blair settled his head back again, keeping Jim pulled close. Jim's shirt hung open in tatters, destroyed by the fight in the tide. In the same dim way Blair could see the pale breadth of Jim's chest, he could also see the faint shape of his feet well enough to tell Jim was barefoot too, and knew himself how miserably that would add to the chill of the night. The rain coming down was so bitterly cold, and Jim was shivering so hard. Blair kept one hand gentle on the side of Jim's face, holding Jim's temple and cheek pressed close, and with his other hand he tried to pull Jim's shirt together for whatever slim protection it might afford him from the elements. There was too much material. At first he couldn't make what he found match with what he remembered from the last time he had seen his friend. Blair's careful touch skimmed Jim's bare chest and the bunched, wet cloth hanging on both sides, and then he realized the white tee Jim had been wearing under his shirt had been torn in front from collar to hem.

Blair felt a shudder of cold that started from the inside out, cramping hard in his belly, crawling up his spine and lifting the hairs on the back of his neck. He remembered Jim's shirt tearing away in his hands out in the water, and he realized why it had pulled apart so easily. It had already been in shreds, no doubt ruined by the same hands that had gone on to ruin Jim.

Up until this moment, lost in the struggle simply to survive, Blair hadn't let himself think about what could have taken Jim's reason. He hadn't wanted to think about what could have turned the strong, confident man he knew into the terrified, broken creature that huddled against him now.

He had to think about it now.

He took a deep, shaking breath, trying to calm himself, but it was already too late. Jim had felt his fear and uncertainty instantly. An answering cry of fear spilled from Jim's lips, and he tried frantically to curl closer, pulling his knees up and twisting in Blair's arms so he could clutch at Blair's shirt.

Ah, Jim, Blair moaned to himself, though he didn't allow a sound to escape. He managed to get his arms around Jim's shoulders in that awkward position, allowing Jim to press as close as he needed. Jim's hipbone was bearing down a little too hard between Blair's legs, and the point of Jim's right elbow was forced against Blair's sternum with enough weight to make drawing a deep breath difficult. Blair shifted gingerly, but he kept Jim pulled close, never loosening his embrace until Jim's soft cries of terror finally began to die away.

Blair relaxed a little and Jim responded immediately. He stopped pressing quite so desperately, allowing Blair, after a few moments, to settle him into a more comfortable position. Still close, but with his head tucked against Blair's throat and one arm under Blair's coat and wrapped around his back. Blair felt Jim's hand tighten around a fistful of his shirt between the small of Blair's back and the rock behind them.

OK, Blair thought. OK. So the old way isn't going to work here. No faking your way through scared out of your wits, because you're holding a human lie detector in your arms. And right now, Jim's just not in any shape to deal with your fear as well as his own. All right, fine. Fine. No problem. From here on out, there is simply no fear. Just like those fucking tee-shirts. No Fear. Or if there was fear, at least there would be no lies.

"All right, Jim," Blair said, giving his words just a whisper of breath. If Jim were capable of understanding, he had to hear this. Jim moaned at the sound of Blair's voice, but he didn't pull away. If anything, he seemed only to tuck himself closer into the shelter of Blair's arms.

"I just want to see what we're dealing with here," Blair whispered, encouraged. "I'm not going to let anyone hurt you. I promise, Jim. I promise."

Jim sighed and turned his face against Blair's chest. His grip on the back of Blair's shirt quaked, but otherwise he was still.

Blair smoothed his hand across Jim's head, repeating his promise while he carefully worked his other hand between them, pushing aside the sodden rags to discover why Jim's shirt had been torn.



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