Chapter 30

Blair grabbed one of the thin, coarse towels from the rack and shook it out over the cold toilet seat lid. "Here, Jim. Just sit down easy."

Jim did as Blair asked him, legs trembling. None of the tension left him when he was sitting down. He was bolt upright, knees together, hands resting on his thighs. His eyes were still closed. Blair put a hand on his shoulder and bent over him. "Just hang on a little while longer for me." He moved around in front of Jim and once again laid his hands gently on the sides of his face, careful of the angry bruise over his jaw. "You're the medic, so tell me if I'm missing anything, all right?"

To Blair's amazement, another of those weak, lopsided smiles twitched at the corner of Jim's mouth. "Chief, my heart's beating," he whispered, eyes still closed. "I'm breathing. What else matters?"

Blair couldn't answer the smile or the question. He swallowed hard before he managed to say, "Just humor me, all right?"

Jim's eyes flew open. Veined with red, streaming and blinking against the light, but they fixed on Blair's face nevertheless. "I mean it." He lifted his hand and laid it against Blair's throat, as though feeling for the pulse. His palm felt shockingly warm to Blair, and Blair blinked at his own streaming eyes as Jim went on, "Basic triage. Clear the airways. Make sure there's a pulse." He grabbed Blair's hand with his other hand and held on tight. "That wasn't a given tonight. You understand me?"

Blair wasn't sure he did, but he leaned forward until his forehead nearly touched Jim's, pulling their clasped hands to his chest. "You know why I'm still alive," Jim insisted in a harsh whisper. "Even though I wanted to die so badly."

"Jim," he moaned, suddenly unsure whether he could stand this or not, but Jim gave him no choice. He slid his hand up Blair's throat and then around the back to knot his fingers gently in his tangled, wet hair. Holding Blair face to face with him, he rasped, "None of the rest of it matters, Sandburg. You know that. You taught me that a long time ago. Too damn late to back out now. You're stuck with me."

Once again the calm descended. Deeper, more profound each time Blair felt it enveloping his frightened soul. Sooner or later he would reach a point where it no longer left him at all, but in the meantime he would keep muddling along, doing the best he could, trusting Jim to point him in the right direction when he went a little astray. He held Jim's hand against his heart and laid his cheek against Jim's for a moment, raising his free hand to cradle Jim's head on the other side. "I know," he said softly, hearing the love and acceptance that warmed his voice. He straightened up again, moving with slow care, and Jim let him do it, dropping his hands. Blair immediately put one hand on Jim's shoulder. "So I just wanna see what we're dealing with before I toss you in the shower. You with me on this?"

"Do I have a choice?" Jim managed to grumble.

"No." Blair put his hand under Jim's chin and lifted his head so he looked squarely into his bruised face. Jim shut his eyes against the light as Blair touched the swelling on his jaw. "Probably help to get some ice on this, do you think?"

Jim shrugged a little.

"After the shower," Blair said, wondering in the back of his mind if he would be able to leave Jim long enough even to get to the ice machine. Well, maybe it wouldn't be a problem, he sighed to himself. Dump like this might not even have a machine. He released Jim's head so he could take his right hand and gently lifted it, looking at the abrasions around his wrist, then at the ones above his elbow. There was sand crusted around the broken flesh. Angry red bruises were just beginning to appear down the inside of his arm. His own voice sounded a million miles away to him when he spoke to Jim. "Did they have you - um, were you tied to a chair during all this?"

Jim shook his head.

"Standing up?" Blair tried hard not to see those ghastly phantasms, but they were so vivid, so close. Jim hung crucified in his mind, surrounded by mocking faces that were whiter than dead flesh, and redder than his own blood.

"I was standing up," Jim agreed quietly.

Blair took a deep breath, slowly, slowly, and let it out again just as slowly, seeing Jim before him now, needing him, instead of the unendurable image of Jim in agony, beyond his help forever. The past he could never take away. "The thing is -" He swallowed painfully and tried again. "The thing is, Jim, if you were supporting a lot of your weight from your arms, I'm afraid there could be circulatory damage or something."

Jim nodded seriously. His eyes opened for a moment to see Blair's face, and Blair prayed that Jim found what he needed there. Jim shut his eyes again, and carefully curled his right hand into a loose fist. "Feels -- all right," he whispered. He tried to do the same with his left hand and winced, sitting up straighter with a groan.

"Jim?" Blair asked, miserably. He lifted Jim's left arm carefully to look at the wrist. Perhaps the swelling was a little worse, but the cuts and bruises from the rope were so bad he couldn't tell for sure.

"Sprained, I think," Jim whispered. "It happened when I got away."

He opened his eyes and looked at Blair again, and when Blair saw what was in Jim's eyes and on his face, suddenly he was telling Jim, "They had better all be dead. Every last one of them. Because if they're not, I'll kill them myself, I swear I will."

"Hush," Jim murmured. He reached up with his right hand and cradled the back of Blair's neck, pulling him close. "It's all right, Chief. It's all over now."

Just for a moment Blair resisted the comfort of Jim's touch. He wanted to keep his rage, ugly, hot and bright as it was. It felt so dirty and good, like he could lose himself in it forever, never have to hurt again. But the impulse lasted only a moment. He wrapped his arms around Jim's shoulders, trying to avoid the worst bruises, and let himself talk about the pain instead. "This should not have happened," he whispered fiercely. "Never, not to you. Thinking about it just rips my heart in two, man. I wish I could be stronger and do the right thing, but this is all I've got. This is all I am."

"It's enough," Jim breathed, so softly Blair didn't exactly hear the words, but he felt them moving through his heart and mind as clearly as if Jim had spoken aloud. "It's all I need."

Blair remained still for a moment longer, drawing strength from Jim's touch, and then he straightened, pulling back, but he laid his hand on Jim's face, telling the truth with his palm and fingertips against Jim's cheek and temple, even while his voice said, "What you need is to get this sand washed off and some Neosporin on these cuts." He swallowed hard and then plunged on, while the power of Jim's words still emboldened him. "And these -- all these burns, Jim."

He put his hands on Jim's shoulders and looked at him. The traces of the agony that had taken his friend were drawn in streaks and dashes across his broad chest. He felt the spark of hatred again, but though the flame was as bright as ever, it was a little more distant now. Like jackals, they must have been. Vicious, brutal children, to have tried to destroy something so beautiful and strong. "What did they use on you, Jim?"

Jim met his eyes. "He was a professional," he said in a voice little louder than a whisper, but calm all the same. "Probably used to work in El Salvador. Maybe Guatemala or Chile, I don't know. Didn't give me a life story."

Blair actually felt the blood draining from his face. Interesting, he thought distantly. I always thought that was just a bad cliché.

"He had -" Jim gestured with one hand, palm up, as though trying to remember the score for a week-old Jags game. "-it made an electric shock. Like a cattle prod."

Blair held Jim's head in his hands, and didn't scream or weep or cry. He just bowed his head, trembling, and said in a voice that astonished him, "Do you think there could be neurological damage?"

Jim shrugged a little, his eyes glancing away, then back to Blair. He was still so calm and serious. "How would I know?" He smiled faintly, then drew a deep breath, slow and careful. "I doubt it. Don't think I could have gotten this far if there was." He knotted his hand in Sandburg's hair for a moment, pulling gently. "Not even for you, Chief."

Something gave way at last. Blair sank to the floor. He wrapped his arms around Jim's calves and laid his head on Jim's knees, and didn't try to say anything. He just held on. Jim ran his hand over Blair's tangled, sandy locks, gentle strokes, slow with tenderness and care, and said, rasping, "He's the only reason I'm still alive. The rest of them wanted to kill me on the spot." His hand continued to smooth over Blair's head, as he told Blair unbearable things. Blair squeezed his eyes shut, concentrating on feeling all the love in that soft touch.

"How long did it go on?" Blair whispered at last, not raising his head.

"I don't know." A harsh sigh rattled in Jim's throat. He needed water, Blair thought. And food, and rest, needed to be warm and dry, not sitting naked and still covered with sand in a motel bathroom. "Is this Friday morning?" Jim asked.

Blair shuddered, holding on tighter. "Yes," he told Jim, hardly able to get the words out. "It's Friday."

"Thought so," Jim said. He was still stroking Blair's hair. His hoarse voice was thoughtful. "Only one night. I lost track."

There was no reason to ask the next question, but it slipped out anyway. "Why?"

Jim sighed and Blair said quickly, "Sorry, I guess it doesn't matter now." He lifted his head and looked up at Jim. Jim's hand rested easily against the base of his skull, palm curving to cradle his head.

"Wasn't a reason," Jim said, shrugging again. "He wanted to. I couldn't stop him."

"You shouldn't have been alone," Blair whispered miserably. "I'm so sorry, Jim. I knew something was wrong. I knew it. I should have been there."

"No!" The violence shocked both of them. "No," Jim said again, moving to hold Blair's head with both hands. "Don't -- say -- that. Don't think it, Chief. Ever."

Blair nodded quickly, but Jim was still restless and unhappy. His head came up and Blair could see his throat working, muscles tight in his jaw. "Jim, listen to me." Blair sat back and laid one hand gently on his knee. Jim's hands dropped to his shoulders, and he looked down at Blair a little reluctantly.

As though seeing him there, Blair thought with sudden, painful insight. In Jim's place, or at his side, being hurt as well. "Shh," he told Jim then. He reached up and touched Jim's face. "It didn't happen that way. You don't have to be afraid of that anymore."

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