Chapter 32

A joke. Jim was teasing him. Blair stopped fighting with the zipper and put both hands on Jim's face for a moment, smiling into his amused eyes. "Nothing I can't handle. And no, you still haven't convinced me that button fly jeans are the only kind a real man would wear."

He went back to wrestling with the zipper. He pulled it back as high as the button, then eased it down again, keeping a smooth, even pressure on it, and this time it went all the way. He heaved a little sigh of relief as he worked his hands under the waistband. Sand was everywhere, gritty, miserably uncomfortable, and it was a struggle getting the half-dried denim down over his hips. He wiggled a little, shoving down on one side and then the other, thinking how much this same chore must have hurt Jim. Without entirely realizing what he was doing he leaned forward so he could balance himself, his forehead pressed to Jim's shoulder.

Jim's careful hands still held him, warm and steady under his ribs. When Blair had gotten his jeans down to the tops of his thighs, he pushed his briefs down as well, thinking it felt good to get rid of at least one irritation. His underwear had been caked with sand inside and out. Another push, bending further, his head pressed harder to Jim's shoulder. When everything was shoved down in a sandy tangle as far as his knees, he braced himself with one hand on Jim's shoulder and lifted the opposite foot, stork-like, trying to step out. It didn't work as easily as he thought it would. "Going to end up on my butt," he muttered irritably, tethered by his own pants. He was beginning to feel ridiculous but he was so tired it made him angry instead of amused.

"Steady," Jim breathed quietly, and Blair stopped fighting. He took a deep breath, letting Jim's calm settle into his own outlook, then lifted his foot free and used it to push down the other pant leg. It was surprisingly easy to lift the second leg clear and with relief he kicked the wadded up pile of clothes to the side, just outside the door. For a moment before straightening up he paused and let his hand rest at the back of Jim's neck, the warmth under his palm a reflection of the twin spots on his sides where Jim was still holding him.

"So, here's the plan," Blair said. Jim was watching him carefully, so weary, but with his eyes still alight. Blair could see the trust and affection there -- a tinge of amusement, the warmth, the abiding love. Even now, when Jim had so little left to still call his own. "Gonna hustle you into the shower here, and get the sand washed off both of us." He grinned hard for a moment, then told Jim the truth, very quietly. "I'm afraid it's gonna hurt you. Maybe a lot. But I'll be right here. Just hold on to me, and we'll get through this together."

Jim nodded, his expression very serious and more than a little grim. His hands eased upward, then clamped hard onto Blair's shoulders. It seemed to Blair he could feel every muscle in the man's body tense for a moment, and then Jim dragged himself to his feet. Slowly, his hands bearing down so hard Blair swayed under the pressure, but he made it.

"I'm gonna get in first," Blair said, angling his back to the tub, drawing Jim forward the half step to its edge. "Then you hold on to me, and step in after. Nice and slow. No hurry." He gave Jim a quick embrace first, standing on tiptoe to press his cheek against Jim's, and then stepped over the side of the bathtub. It was shallower on the inside than it looked from without, and for an instant Blair felt oddly disoriented, not quite staggering, but feeling as though he might lose his balance if he weren't careful.

The water seeping through the hand towel dripped on his shoulder and ran down his back, dislodging salt and sand in an irritating trickle. It would have felt so wonderful to turn the faucets up all the way, let the shower beat down on him, wash away all the sand in a strong, hot torrent of water. That wasn't an option for him, and he dismissed the longing with impatience for its selfishness. He steadied his hands on Jim and said, "Just hold onto me, and you can step right over."

Jim kept his eyes shut tight as he lifted one bruised foot and stepped in with trembling care. It was going to be bad, he realized instantly. Even worse than Blair had warned him.

He couldn't even feel the spray from the wrapped showerhead, but there was a little standing water at the back of the tub where he stepped in. Lukewarm, maybe a quarter of an inch deep, probably less. And it burned. Oh, it burned. All the little scrapes and cuts on the sole of his feet were writhing into life as the water touched them. Like worms burrowing upward, working their way through flesh and bone and blood, leaving fire in their wake. Jim made a sound, it couldn't have been a scream, he didn't have the strength or voice for that, just a groan, and he flinched, deep and hard, recoiling into himself, even though he knew he couldn't retreat. Blair wanted him to do this, so it didn't matter how badly it hurt. His hands tightened on Blair's shoulders. No other way now. There never had been. Blair was saying something that he couldn't understand and couldn't stop to listen to. He pulled his other foot over the edge of the tub and set it in the shallow water.

Then his head dropped forward, and he wept.

Blair's hands.

They had been holding Jim's upper arms, gripping hard, trying to support and balance him. But he felt them move, first one going to his side, high up, over his ribs, then the other. That hand was wet from the shower, and the wet sand hurt, but beyond it was Blair's touch, so he yielded willingly to the pain, as he had so often since Blair had found him, accepting it in order to find the soul-deep comfort that lay beyond.

Against his back now, first one hand and then the other, and Blair's sandy, wet forearms were pressed hard to his ribs. The wounds in his feet burned, distracting him, but Blair was pulling closer, talking to him all the while, and the closer he came, the farther everything else receded. "Hold me, Jim." Blair's words, suddenly clear, so calm, soothing like his touch. "Put your arms around me and hold on."

Jim realized he had been afraid to let go, afraid or too distracted by the pain. He still clutched the tops of Blair's shoulders, fingers digging into muscle and clutching bone as though he feared Blair would slip away from him if he loosened his grip for an instant. No. Afraid that he himself would slip away, and he would, lost forever in a salty wasteland. Hurt, abandoned, alone.

But that wasn't going to happen, and he knew it, better than he knew his own lost strength. Blair was here. Blair would catch his very soul if it fell. He relaxed his desperate grip, and heard the way Blair's soothing litany was broken for an instant by a groan of pain Blair couldn't swallow quickly enough.

He'd been hurting him. Blair. He'd been hurting Blair. Ah god, was there no betrayal beneath him? He froze, unable to come closer, and no more able to push Blair away. The pain rose again, the fire in his bruised feet only the sharpest and closest, but it was all with him at once, and it was so much stronger than he could ever be.

"Jim!" Blair's voice whispered, but violent all the same. "Damn it, Jim." Laughing, crying, on the edge of hysteria, and the only sane voice Jim had ever known. Blair was pulling hard, hurting a little in his insistence. "Come on, man, don't tell me you're going to pull a stunt like this now. Not after so much. Jim, please."

Jim had never refused that voice. He couldn't possibly fight against it now. He yielded, allowing Blair to pull him closer, though there was a frightened core of resistance still in his darkest heart of hearts. And what a black irony it was, Jim thought, trembling with pain and grief. Allowing his torturer every secret of his soul, and trying to keep Blair away. He didn't have enough strength to cry aloud, but he wanted to.

Blair was the one who had strength and breath enough for speech. His arms were wrapped tight around Jim's back, and when he spoke, his breath was warm above the hollow of Jim's throat. "Damn your stubborn hide, Jim. For the last time, put your arms around me and hold on."

Jim did what Blair wanted him to do. Carefully and slowly, as though his arms weren't entirely his own and might lash out without his volition, he wrapped them around Blair's shoulders and pulled him closer. Blair groaned again, this time in relief, and his body relaxed against Jim's even as he supported their combined balance. Blair's forehead pressed against his throat, the solid curve of bone warm and unyielding. Blair's chest was against his own, and Blair's arms were wrapped solidly around his back, trying to shelter Jim with his body. Jim's groin was pressed against Blair's belly, his knees against the muscles knotted in Blair's thighs.

But there was a price to pay for the shelter, there always was. His arms around Blair's shoulders were too close to the shower head. Even muffled by the towel, stray droplets splashed free to strike him every now and again. He felt those drops of water against his wrists and forearms like hot ashes blown on the wind, burning when they touched flesh.

That was where Blair wanted him to go. Under the showerhead, into the heart of the inferno, and Jim did not know if he could bear it. Already he could do nothing but curl himself more tightly around Blair. Sand and dirt, salt and sweat, even their blood and their tears pressed gritty and inescapable between their bodies as Jim wrapped himself closer.

"That's right," Blair was murmuring. His breath heated Jim's flesh, and the salty film burned with the damp heat, a molten second skin. "All right, just like that. That wasn't so bad, was it? Just gonna take it one step at a time."

Jim couldn't help himself. He tensed, afraid Blair meant it literally and was about to step back, pulling him into the spray. Blair's arms tightened around his back in response, and a stab of memory came between them, sharper than any knife, bleeding away Blair's warmth and leaving only the pain in its wake.

His eyes squeezed shut, Jim saw the man who had destroyed him, felt again those hands on his face, on his body. Burning with cold, leaning in ever closer to take everything he could from Jim. And Jim hadn't been able to stop him. He'd permitted that monster his feast, watched his lean and hungry psyche growing fat on Jim's own soul. It went on and on, long after Jim believed he had anything left his torturer could take from him. But there was always something left, always something new for him to claim.

One terrible moment spun out of the tide of memory and wrapped itself around him. He'd been falling endlessly, not even knowing whether the shocks were still raging through his broken body, or if it was just the memory of the pain and the helplessness that kept him twitching and flinching against the rough boards. Their splintered edges were so sharp on his back they drove him forward to find the oblivion of the shocks, but they were always there to catch him when he fell back into their waiting thorny embrace. He hovered between the two, agony merging everything into that infinite fall from grace and light and self.

Then he'd felt the hands on him, and knew. This part was worse than the pain. Hot hands massaging his shoulders in a monstrous parody of concern. That hissing, accented voice caressing the words as obscenely as his hands touched Jim. "Blair must love your strength."

Jim heard the sounds that came from his own throat, answering the horror of Blair's name on his torturer's lips.

"But what would Blair think, if he could see you like this? All that strength..." his voice dropped, and one hand caressed him with rough intimacy, touching flesh, denim, then flesh again, Jim's stomach quivering under the touch he could not escape. "Doesn't help you now, does it? Really doesn't do you any good at all. Did it ever?" Calm speculation, as calculated to hurt as the shocks, merely another instrument of the trade. "Do you think maybe Blair knew all along?"

Return to the Inner Sanctum