Chapter 41

Jim tightened his grip on Blair's shoulders. This he could do, even if he could manage nothing else for the moment. He could hold Blair and, for Blair, he could endure.

He felt Blair's shoulders rise as Blair took a long, deep breath. "I know it hurts," Blair said. "But this is me, now. I'm right here, and one way or another, we're going to get through this, all right?" He smiled up at Jim again, his expression so brave it broke Jim's heart. Blair smoothed his palm over Jim's stomach, the side of his hand sweeping away the last dark grains of sand in a slow cascade of soap foam. Then he wrapped his arms around Jim's waist again, working up a new lather of soap, and kept washing Jim, his touch as gentle as it was sure.

"This is me," he said again, though there was a different tone in his voice. He lowered his eyes, looking at Jim's chest, at his own hand low on Jim's belly. "I know it's asking a helluvalot, Jim -- but please, let me take the rest all away from you now. Every time they touched you. Everything they said to you. Every time they hurt you. I want to wash it all away from you."

Blair laughed suddenly, a hoarse chuckle that was such a shadow of the old Blair Sandburg's ebullience, and he beamed up at Jim as he gathered another handful of lather. "So I'm doing good to get the sand off, I know, man. But you'll work with me on this, right?"

"Always." Jim felt his lips forming the word, the little bite of pain at the bruised corner eased by the satisfaction of one more success, however small.

Blair seemed to stagger under the weight of Jim's promise, but his head came up again, and his naked eyes showed every nuance of emotion swirling through his heart. The fear was only a shadow behind the blinding light of his love. He kept talking to Jim softly as he washed the sand from the matted curls around his sex. "You've survived everything the world's ever thrown at you, Jim, and come out stronger from it. I know that. I see it every day when I look in your face."

Such gentle nonsense from Sandburg. Such well-meant lies, though he supposed Blair probably believed them. Jim's hands tightened a little on Blair's shoulders, and he lowered his head, eyes closed, feeling the soapy touch of Blair's hand between his thighs. So careful, so gentle. What strength could Blair possibly find in him now, when it took such kindness to accomplish the simplest personal chores for him?

"I wanna get under the shower again," Blair said, after a moment's silence. "You ready?"

Jim nodded, but when Blair tried to urge him forward, his legs refused to carry him. He stood there, knees locked, soap dripping down his thighs, stray droplets from the spray behind Blair's head splashing on his hands where he held Blair's shoulders, still burning him like blown ash.

"Jim," Blair said, voice hoarse from a night of weeping for him. "Hey, listen to me now. You're going to come out even stronger from this too, I know it. So help me out here, OK? Just for a little while longer now."

I can't help you, Jim thought, grieving for the man Blair believed he had once been. I'm sorry, Chief. I can't.

"Jim." Rasping the name, a tremor hovered in Blair's voice from his own exhaustion. He looked like he was freezing from standing under a lukewarm shower for so long. "Jim, look at me. Please."

Jim opened his eyes and looked down to see Blair smiling ruefully up at him. "You don't believe me, do you?" His smile grew broader, his eyes a little brighter. "C'mon, man, would I lie to you?" Blair stepped closer, wrapping his arms around Jim's back, laying his head upon Jim's breast. There was still so much sand trapped in that long, lank hair. It scratched and burned, but Blair held on anyway, to Jim's relief, even when Jim couldn't stop himself from flinching.

"OK, so don't answer that. But listen to what I'm telling you, Jim, because this is the truth too. It will come back. All of it will. But you don't have to be strong right now, because I'm here, and I can be strong for both of us. You know that's true. You know it is."

Jim eased his grip on Blair's shoulders, sliding his arms around Blair's back carefully until he could let his cheek rest against Blair's head, lukewarm from the water, reeking of salt and the sea. Blair's arms shifted across Jim's back, pulling their bodies closer together, bracing Jim with the very strength he'd promised.

Jim relaxed with a sigh, leaning into that strength, letting Blair pull him back under the devastating spray. Blair kept one arm locked around Jim's back, but he had to permit some distance between them to wash off the soap. Jim felt his own shudders and flinches, his flesh crawling under the impact of the water as though it were something entirely separate from him, a sinister cloak wrapped tight around his heart and mind. A mantle of pain he would never be able to shed again. But through it all he felt the touch of Blair's hand. There was a soft splash of water low on his belly, and then the flat of Blair's palm, warmer than the water. "Easy," Blair breathed. "I've got you."

"I know," Jim thought, realizing he'd spoken out loud only when Blair's head came up, and Blair's eyes widened with a bright tangle of emotions. Relief and love, sorrow, surprise -- but mostly that calm certainty. As though Jim were only confirming what Blair had known all along.

"I'll make it better," Blair whispered hoarsely. "I promise." The arm around Jim's waist tightened and shifted, just enough for Jim to feel it, and he realized Blair had clenched his hand in a fist over Jim's ribs, an unconscious physical echo of his determination. His other hand was soft and careful as ever, though. He was cupping it against Jim's belly, guiding a flow of water down to the crux of his thighs. He followed the water with his hand, making sure all the soap was washed away, then beginning again, careful and easy, being so gentle for Jim and managing what was necessary all the same.

His arms still draped around Blair's shoulders, albeit more loosely than before, Jim bent his head. This time, though, he wasn't bowing his head in defeat. He was relaxing further into Blair's infinitely tender care. Blair still asked so much, and he still didn't know if he could possibly achieve what Blair demanded so easily of him. The request had been made as though surrendering all self were a step as self-evident and simple as getting out of bed in the morning. But Blair's touch was such peace, even through the pain, and a man who could touch him that way loved him enough to make anything possible. A dim memory of red lines of strength scrolling away from Blair's naked heart came to him as he felt the splash of water between his legs, softened by Blair's hand. The last sting of soap faded.

"OK," Blair said calmly, quietly. "Did we get it all?"

For a moment Jim wasn't sure whether Blair meant the soap or the pain he had asked permission to wash away. Both had diminished under the touch of his hand, slipping away down Jim's body toward oblivion, intermingled at Blair's request. No, he thought a moment later, the pain was still present, still beating against his will and thoughts like the relentless surf he could hear faintly, even over the hiss and splash of the shower. But the hurt was less, as was the sense of destruction that had made going onward so pointless and difficult. Blair's strength and unstinting love had filled those gaps and begun to make him feel like he could become whole again.

So he answered, "Yes" in his gravelly rasp, and under his hands felt the complicated shift and play of Blair's muscles as he straightened and moved to block the spray from reaching Jim. It had reached the point where it made little difference to him whether the lash of the water fell constantly, or was present only in the lingering ache of all his wounds, but Blair's effort to protect him meant more to Jim than Blair's actual success in cushioning the neverending blows.

"Shhh, just rest a minute here, OK?" Shielding him, holding him close, Blair seemed to surround him entirely, keeping the whole world at bay outside his embrace. It was only an illusion, Jim knew, but it was one he wanted to keep for both of them because he knew it was the only thing giving them the strength to keep doing what had to be done. It was the only thing convincing them anything had to be done at all, when it would have been so much easier to give up long ago. I did give up, he thought with detached recollection. It didn't seem as important as it had before.

Blair had wanted him to give up, to let go of everything remaining. The abrasions on his wrists burned from the soap and the impact of the spray still hitting them, aching as if still chained. Not by his own weakness any more, or by the whim of a stranger; all those fetters had been left behind at Blair's command. What held him now was something far different, something he would never let go of, never lose. His hands slid lower, down from Blair's shoulders, around his back, and Jim sighed with the contentment of knowing Blair would not ever ask him to let go of this last voluntary captivity.

"Hey, we're more than half done. Be out of here in no time," Blair offered softly, as if mistaking Jim's sigh for one of despair. For the moment he rested against Jim without moving even his hands, as if needing the stillness of that contact to recalibrate himself.

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