Chapter 4

The welts crossed Jim's chest, his skin puckered and raised, blistering in places. Dotted trails like an obscene line-drawing had been sketched down his abdomen and across his sides. Blair touched the wounds with his fingertips, tracing the marks gently as he could. Jim's flesh twitched and flinched under his light touch, and Blair shuddered in sympathy, so dazed with growing horror that at last he had to still his hand and close his eyes.

Then he heard Jim's whimper, and he fought his weakness back savagely. If he wanted to help Jim he had to know the worst. He opened his eyes, shaking his head as if that could clear it. "Easy, man," he whispered to Jim. "Easy. I've got you. No one's going to hurt you anymore."

He gently ran his hand down Jim's left arm. The sleeves of Jim's shirt had been torn away high across his biceps, and threads dangled from the ragged ends. Blair found abrasions above Jim's elbow and more at his wrist, wide bands where the skin was raw. Rope burns, Blair realized a moment later, and the images punched violently through his control, all the more brutal for his attempts to escape them. How coarse the ropes must have been, to have taken the skin off like that. Jim would have been fighting so hard. And how rough the hands had been that had ripped at his clothing, tearing it, tearing at the body beneath....

Blair moaned, starting to shake from the onslaught. Jim had been on the inside for nearly two days. How quickly had his cover been blown? How long had they been at him?

Then he heard Jim's soft, frightened cry, and realized he had tightened his hold, clutching at the big man as though he could erase the past if he could only hold Jim close enough now. He tried to make himself relax, stroking Jim's head with one hand, his other arm around Jim's shoulders, murmuring reassurances the whole time.

"It's all right, Jim. It's all right, I'm here now." Though he didn't stop talking, he couldn't prevent the tears that filled his eyes and roughened his voice. His nose and mouth were still burning from the salt water, god, and it must feel like acid to Jim but far worse was the sting in his eyes, the heavy pressure at the back of his throat.

He thought of Jim in the hands of those animals -- worse than animals -- all that time, and Blair hadn't even known. Hanging around out here half a mile down the beach because he couldn't stand not to be close somehow, but when it really counted, when Jim really needed him -- he had been all alone.

He wondered if Jim had tried to control the pain. Had anything Blair shown him been any help at all? Or had that simply made it worse for him? Holding back, dialing down as long as he could until finally everything broke. Jim's strength, his reason, everything washed away in a black tide of oblivion.

"Jim," Blair said, weeping openly now because there was no point in trying to hold it in. "Oh Jim, I'm sorry."

Jim moaned, answering Blair's grief. He couldn't get any closer, but the hand spread across Blair's chest moved restlessly, as though seeking something.

Blair covered the hand over his heart with his own. "Hush, Jim," he whispered, his voice broken. "I'm here. I'm not going anywhere. I'm right here."

Jim's head shook a little. His fist clenched against Blair's chest, then his fingers spread wide again, trembling with strain.

"What is it?" Blair whispered. "What's wrong?" He could feel the tears still streaming down his own face, and he couldn't stop seeing it. Jim harried by brutes, tied down and being hurt, his beautiful strength torn slowly from him as the terrible hours stretched on.

And suddenly Blair knew, perhaps from the way Jim clung to him now, that Jim must have been calling for him toward the end.

"I'm here," Blair said again, desperately. "You found me, Jim. You made it. It's up to me now. I've got you."

Still Jim's hand clenched and shifted against Blair's chest, as though reaching for something beyond his grasp.

Finally Blair understood. Jim was trying so hard to get closer, but his senses were off the map, all control battered away from him. He was trying to touch Blair, and feeling cold, wet wool instead. Perhaps he couldn't get past the first touch to even feel the heart beating underneath.

"All right, let's try this," Blair murmured, smoothing his hand over Jim's head again, the cropped hair warm and damp where Blair's hand provided some meager shelter from the rain. He glanced up the beach again. It wasn't his imagination. The flashlights were no closer. If anything, they were moving away, fading into a dim, erratic glow. So maybe he had been right after all. They must have assumed Jim had drowned in the surf.

At any rate they were far enough away not to hear Jim if he cried out. Sick with the knowledge he was about to need that margin of safety, Blair said softly, "It's all right. Just trust me for a moment, and everything will be all right." Then he tried to ease Jim away.

Jim shuddered violently, moaning in despair.

Blair hardened his heart and pushed Jim back forcibly, just enough to be able to shrug his way out of his sodden wool jacket.

Jim didn't understand. He allowed Blair to push him back, but he cried out in his terror, voice rising, face turned blindly toward Blair's in the darkness.

Blair yanked his own wet shirt up quickly, pulling it over his head and dropping it to the side. Shivering harder already, he pulled off his tee-shirt as well, baring his chest, and then gathered Jim close again, pulling the wet jacket back up and draping it over Jim's shoulders. Jim trembled as the cold weight fell on his back, but he pressed close to Blair in relief. Head tucked down again, he spread his hand over Blair's chest and this time let it rest there above Blair's heart. His breathing slowed, began to even out. Blair helped him tuck his other arm around his back, and felt Jim's hand spread wide against the small of his back as well, trying to touch as much as he could.

Jim's skin warmed quickly against his, making the contrast with the cold, wet shreds of the shirt hanging on either side the more sharp. Blair shivered again, and felt Jim's arm around his back tighten momentarily in response.

Though the rain still drizzled down on them, he was sheltered from most of it by the bulk of the rock behind them and Jim's body in front. He shifted his hand again, gently smoothing it over the short softness of Jim's hair, feeling the slight way Jim shifted. There was an uneasiness to it, as if he still needed to be closer but couldn't, somehow. As if the pain that still had to be clawing at him was in part due to the contact.

Not with himself, Blair realized suddenly. The way Jim's injured wrist lay against his chest so easily meant it was not just the pain of his wounds that Jim felt. He reached carefully between them again, pulling the shreds of Jim's shirt away, wincing himself as he knew it had to be dragging across the welts on Jim's skin. But Jim didn't cry out, he only pressed his face against Blair's chest and endured as Blair eased the few last remnants of fabric off Jim's shoulders, and then once again pulled his own coat up to try to shield both of them from the rain.

Jim settled against him, and Blair felt the fleeting hot trace of a tear against his skin where Jim's cheek came to rest. In the darkness there was a sense of total isolation, almost dissolution. The hiss of surf and rain was louder than their breathing. The rock poked into Blair's back in a dozen places where its water-carved surface still resisted shaping, but it didn't bother him enough to be worth the effort of rescuing his discarded shirts and using them to cushion his back. He didn't feel the discomfort.

What he did feel was the smoothness of Jim's chest against his, marred by those burns, and he caught his lip between his teeth, fighting against the renewed grief. He stared deliberately down the beach, looking for the lights, trying to feel fury at them instead of at himself, but the hard knot in his chest wouldn't abate.

Every wound on Jim's body was his fault, as was every shiver that wracked the broken man lying against him. Blair had known, beyond certainty, that he would be needed, and still he hadn't been there, not when it would have made a difference. His chest heaved in a sob and he laid his cheek against Jim's head, giving in. "Oh, Jim, I am so sorry, please, please, I'm sorry...." Then his throat closed too far for words, and he shook as he held Jim fiercely close, his fingers combing through the short hair under his hand over and over.

Jim shifted, his hands sliding across Blair's skin as he wrapped both arms around him, fingers still splayed to give the widest contact area. There was an unconscious absolution in the way he held Blair closer then, still so deeply lost his own pain, but reaching out. His voice hoarse, he murmured, "Blair? No."

The sound shocked Blair, reaching past his grief even as the rasp in it told him he had been right, that Jim had screamed, had called for him, and had not been answered until it was far too late. His hand rested on Jim's head as he fought for control, and he tried to concentrate on the cold wool beneath his arm instead of the abrasions on Jim's arms. He could feel the rough heat of Jim's wounds as Jim held him, and still Blair tried to tell himself there was hope, that they were making progress. Jim was coming back to him. Jim trusted him.

That was a mistake. Knowledge of his failure shot through him like a blade, and he tensed with it. The answering moan from Jim was instantaneous. Blair screamed inside at his carelessness, and he whispered quickly, infinitely careful to keep his voice as low as possible. "Shhh, Jim. It's OK now."

And knew with despair that he hadn't believed it enough, when Jim's arms tightened around him and that crushed-velvet voice softly cried, "No...."

"It will be OK," Blair whispered gently. That was true, he knew it. They hadn't died in the surf. The only alternative to everything being OK was to have given up then. "I will make it OK." That was true too. Whatever it took, he knew he could do it. If it took his last breath, he would give it for Jim. "I've got you now. We can do this. You can come back." Basic truths, every one of them. "I need you to come back, Jim. I need you with me." The truths of his life and heart.

Jim's indrawn breath was deeper, as if he were awakening, and his head tilted against Blair's chest, listening to something there, his forehead tucked into the curve of Blair's neck.

Listening for the sound of that heart, and its truth. Finding his own there.

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