Chapter 37

Blair smiled against Jim's neck, and shifted, somehow managing to draw him closer still. "Totally cake," he agreed, as if he were unaware of the odd tightness in his own voice.

An upper edge of the spray crested over Blair's shoulder, and the droplets struck Jim's skin directly. Each one felt like a bullet when it hit, so hot and heavy they should have blasted through him, and as they ran down his skin he could not tell them from blood. His nose filled with the salty, metallic thickness of the remembered scent and he gasped for breath around it. Then it was gone just as quickly, lost under the rising scent of clean, chlorinated water. The pain remained, attached to him like a splash of molten lead.

Blair remained. Jim relaxed a little more, and let the pain flow across himself, opening and accepting it, feeling it without becoming lost in it. The shape of it could be defined and observed, and allowed to exist without having power over him. He was anchored safe from his own internal storms by the weight of Blair's unstinting trust and affection. Holding to that with all his heart, Jim loosened his embrace even further and turned his palms upward, catching the water as it fell, accustoming himself to the unending repetition of impact until it was no more than a single impression of a simple pressure instead of the buffeting of blows. What emerged then, coming to the fore of his awareness sharper and clearer than the force of the water striking him, were the rivulets of it running slow and hot over each band of abrasions the ropes had left him. Those, and the merciless streams that had found their way across the abused skin of his chest, where every mark they touched as they wound downward flared with renewed agony. And all he had to do was step forward and let that punishing torrent cover him freely.

He told himself it was no worse than the rain had been. Falling from the sky or from a faucet, it was only water, and he had always loved being in the water. The clean sensation of it bathing his skin, the freedom to twist and sink and move through it, fly along above it, the way it caressed and supported him, even the mystery of its fluid solidity. It had never been his enemy. It had called to him when he was lost in the darkest part of the night, and he had answered then, going blindly to the sea to shed the pain with his life. It called again, this time offering life instead of surcease, and he answered again. Clear and tepid, the water pooled in his palms and ran between his fingers, sliding back over his injured wrists as it dribbled away, bereft of malice.

In his arms, Blair shifted, easing back a little, tipping his head into the main stream of water. His body moved against Jim's, balance shifting, his chest sliding along the plane of contact between them. The soft hair darkening Blair's breast held sand grains that felt like burrs trapped in silk where they touched the sensitive spots on Jim's skin. Throat upturned, eyes closed, Blair twisted his neck, trying to get the falling water to soak into his matted hair. The pressure was too low, and it merely pattered onto his head and ran off without sinking into the tangles. Trailing ends, heavy with the flow of water, dangled far enough to tickle at Jim's arms. Rising from Blair's tangled hair, the smells of seawater and fishy beach sand flared into the foreground, and faded again, gliding under the astringent chlorine scent of the shower.

It hurt. Scents, movement, contact, most everything still hurt to some degree, and Jim wondered fleetingly if it always would from this night onward. You'd better get used to it, then, he told himself ruthlessly, and before the fear could creep back out to take hold of him again, he reached for the cold water knob and gave it a half turn.

Blair gasped and shivered, even as Jim moved his hand to the other knob and turned it far more cautiously, inching the heat up until he could not bear any more warmth on his broken skin. When he pulled his hand back to press flat against Blair's shoulderblade, the overall water temperature was slightly warmer than it had been, and the spray was strong enough to start soaking deeper into Sandburg's hair. It was nearly strong enough to drive Jim back to the meadow where the storm had caught him, and he clung to Blair with all the courage he had left, grimly determined to remain conscious no matter how much it hurt.

Keeping his head tipped back, Blair tried to catch all the spray in his hair, knowing by the way Jim trembled against him that the force of the water was excruciating. Hands light on Jim's back, he brought his shoulders up too, trying to block the rest of the overspray, wishing he were broad enough to shelter all of Jim's chest from the punishment. A weak, rattling chuckle sounded in his ear, and Jim's arms tightened around him for a moment. "It's all right, Chief, let it hit me. I can take it."

"I don't want you to." Talking with his head back made his throat tense oddly, the muscles taut in an unfamiliar pattern. The warm water was finally reaching his scalp and it felt so good he wondered if he could let go of Jim long enough to reach for the shampoo, and immediately shut down that line of thought.

"What?" Jim asked anyway, his head turning blindly on Blair's shoulder.

"Nothing," Blair mumbled. But it wasn't nothing. The travel-size bottle of shampoo stood on the soap dish by his hip, and it was the most ridiculous thing in the world that it could make him feel so much worse with its innocent presence.

He'd arrived at the motel early the previous night, before the sun had completely finished setting behind the surf, orange and red highlights capping the waves. After checking in and dropping his stuff in the small room, he had walked out to the steeply shelving beach behind the motel, hoping a walk would clear the dullness of the drive from his head and the oddly sick feeling from his stomach, the queasy sense of mixed certainty and doubt that had pushed him on the journey. The entire sunset, colors blazing on the underside of the lowering cloud deck, had gone unappreciated as he meandered along the firm packed sand between the dunes and the waterline, trying to reason out what he was doing so far from home without any logical excuse. There hadn't been an answer, only the same irrefutable knowledge he had to be there that had forced him to rent the car and leave Cascade in the first place. It was making him nuts trying to figure out why he felt the overwhelming urge, and why it refused to be pigeonholed in with his usually controllable anxiety over Jim being on a dangerous undercover assignment. When it had finally turned so dark that he stumbled over a piece of unseen driftwood, he'd given up the search for peace in the salt flavored air outside and returned to the room.

When had Jim been found out? Was he being beaten and tied up even while Blair wandered the beach a few miles away?

There hadn't been anything on TV, hardly surprising in a town with only four channels, and the motel didn't have cable. Even so, he had flipped through the offerings five times before admitting defeat and turning the set off. There were several bars he'd seen along the main strip as he had cruised from one end of town to the other, but he was quite certain the local idea of diversionary entertainment would bore him silly despite the opportunity to observe a small and reclusive population in its natural habitat. Because he never traveled without one, he did have a book to read, but the one he'd carried along proved to be far duller than he had expected. Or maybe it couldn't ever have been interesting enough to distract him from his thoughts, no matter what its topic. Standing in the middle of the narrow open space between the bed and the TV, he'd surveyed his surroundings with increasing confusion. Sometimes his own brain had to be trying to drive him crazy, he thought. After having this inescapable urge to come chasing down after Jim, and having given in to it, it still wouldn't leave him alone. There was no way he was stupid enough to go out and walk into the middle of the operation. Even if he survived the attempt to introduce himself, Jim would flay him afterward.

It was just an expression, it didn't really mean anything, but even so, thinking it now as Jim shivered against him, naked with trust, was an obscenity. Worse than any exaggerated description of the physical mayhem Jim would never have committed would have been the look in his eyes, and the cold sense of having betrayed something irreplaceable Blair would have felt himself. Nothing could have been worse than that.

Nothing but knowing his indecisive delay had cost Jim his sanity. While Blair had pulled out his shaving stuff and retreated to the bathroom, running the water until the entire room filled with steam because he wanted it to be relaxing enough to allow him to go right to sleep, Jim had needed him more than ever before. But Blair had been concentrating on lathering his hair, determined to ignore that little voice until it went away. Pushing the sense of urgency down under his enjoyment of the mild scent of his favorite glycerine soap, carried along because he'd just known any place he could afford to stay would supply a rock-hard little piece of Cashmere Bouquet. He'd felt so smug when he'd seen that tiny white bar in its generic wrapper sitting next to the plastic cup by the sink.

How much of that time had Jim spent screaming in agony, losing his control and his spirit to his captors, crying Blair's name, begging for help that never came? Pleading for death when he couldn't bear the pain any longer, while Blair had been obliviously basking in the infinite supply of hot water. There was no forgetting or forgiving the wasted hours before he had finally given in to that urge and gone to the beach, as if his mind had somehow heard those cries from a great distance, not knowing what they meant but certain he had to answer them. Remembering that, thinking of how he had messed around trying to kill time, trying to force himself to rest while that strange compulsion grew stronger and stronger and he struggled against it harder and harder - Blair's breath caught in a sob. His upturned throat trapped the sound, choking him on the air he drew, and he had to tip his head down and forward to keep from fighting his own body to breathe. "I'm sorry, Jim, I'm so sorry," he moaned, and coughed as another sob caught him inhaling.

Jim's embrace tightened as if the dregs of his diminished strength could be enough to protect them both, and he asked urgently, "Why? Blair, what's wrong?" The shift in position let the harsh spray batter directly on his arms, and they trembled even while he pulled Blair closer.

That small weakness, so out of place in association with Jim, seemed to Blair to be the final sum of everything he had done wrong. His weakness had brought Jim to this, and Jim's weakness had let him do it.

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