Chapter 5

The pain that defined Jim's world grew a hole, and he pressed himself against the tiny flaw by instinct. All he did was instinct and autonomic function; he had no thought left save for the knowledge that life meant agony.

There were sounds coming through the cacophony battering at him, sounds that didn't hurt so much. They might have had meaning, but he couldn't understand it. All that was important was the small place that didn't hurt so much, and the fact he could pull it closer to himself.

Then he was forced away from that respite, and the loss of it was more than he could bear. Lacking the strength to fight, or even protest, he accepted the loss without struggle. His struggle was done, that was the other thing he found he knew.

Touch moved along his skin, that shell housing him like an iron maiden, and it skimmed the places where his anguish had started. The fire in those contacts was like the acid burning of the air that moved through his throat and the scourge of the sand and cold. But he didn't fight. He couldn't fight any longer. The soft voice drew the last desire for it from him, making the pain only another part of himself, not an invader. He might have cried out. That was beyond his control, had been for some time, if time had meaning.

The touch ceased playing across his wounds, and they ached the more for it. There was pressure across his back, holding him tighter, a prisoner of his rescue. Fear stabbed through him, and was answered by a gentler hold, the sounds that didn't hurt returning to soothe him.

Then the sounds changed, and they carried pain too. A different pain than the universe of it he had known for so long; one that cut deep within, in the places where he had hoarded his last strength and hope. The places that had been broken open at the end, when his reason had been torn from him. It had not occurred to him that he could hurt worse than he did already.

The tiny hole in the pain began to close, its beacon of respite escaping him by slow degrees. He clutched at it vainly, begging it to open to him even though he had nothing to offer in return.

It pushed him away instead, out into the screaming maelstrom that had claimed him before. He had tried so hard to escape it, and now it reached eagerly for him again, endlessly patient, merciless. He cried out, accepting the suffering his voice took as its due for use, but the force holding him away from comfort was implacable. For an eternity he sank into the pain as it claimed him once more, biting at every cell of his body, pulling the little of him that was left into the smallest component parts.

And then he was allowed back to the place of peace. Now warmth was under his touch where there had been a chill blankness before, and he found a smooth softness vibrating with the sounds that brought control back to him. A cold, heavy weight settled across his back, but it meant nothing now, when he could lay his aching head against the promise of release.

Holding to that promise, he rested, and when he was given more contact he accepted it. The lack of pain across the connection now was as intense as the agony had been, overwhelming him, until all he could do was lose himself in it. He needed more, and more was given, a fleeting ache of dragging cloth over his skin giving way to the warmth and soft life that welcomed his shattered soul.

Bits and pieces, drawn together by the sound of the heart that beat under his hand, the breath that moved under his ear, the gentle touch that stroked over his head keeping the cold rain at bay. They all defined something that was part of him.

The shivers that wracked his body were outside his awareness. Through the flat of his hand, the plane of his chest, the side of his cheek, he drew in the feel and essence of the one source of hope in his life.

Bits of memory strobed through him, a kaleidoscope of images. Colored with the warm yellows and oranges of sunlight streaming through high windows, they were distant but clear pictures of laughter and happiness, all centered around the beat of life under his hand. The pictures began to coalesce, giving him an identity, a center to tie himself to. Then the breath that moved under his cheek caught, dragging in a sob, and the weight of pain descended on him from within even as it rested against his temple. He heard his name, and the sorrow in the voice hurt, dredging back his own feeling of being lost. Though he had nothing to give, not even his own self left to offer, he tried.

Moving slowly, because he hadn't the ability to force his body to do otherwise, Jim slid his hand across Blair's chest, around his side, to his back. The cool, wet surface of his skin was dimpled with goosebumps in the chilly night air, but immediately beneath it was the warmth of his life. It was instinct more than anything else that formed the embrace, that drew Blair's name from him as he tried with the last shreds of his will to do what his heart told him was necessary. To make Blair's pain go away.

The voice that had soothed him spoke again, and this time the meaning of the words was clear to him, not washed out by an infinity of pain from every nerve ending. The voice brought reassurance, and the body in his arms told him it was a lie. The pain would have been easier to take, but with nothing else to hang onto, he held the lie closer to himself and cried against it. Until the voice spoke again, he had no hope, only the contact that brought him some measure of relief, that quieted the screaming agony his world had become. But hope came with the next words, soft reassurances that weren't lies, that resonated true within his mind and in the body he held. They called him back, closer to reason, giving him a need to return, to find the energy to fight again.

Cradling warmth, hope, healing in his arms, he listened to the truth within it, and began to find himself. And when he did, when he remembered who he was and what had been done to him, and knew again why he was there, he found there was indeed a more unbearable agony than the torture that had taken him, and still lingered. He knew he had been broken, utterly destroyed. It was then that Jim began to cry.

He wept with the pain that still tormented his body, with the shame that twisted his heart, knowing he had been completely and utterly broken, helpless until found by his friend. Helpless still, if Blair should leave him.

There had been a sort of innocence to never having been so ruined, an innocence he hadn't known he had until it was taken from him, and its loss hurt more than he had ever suspected it could. Now there was nothing left of him, nothing of what he was or had ever wanted to be. Only an empty wreck, lying on the beach like the rotting driftwood from a distant shore. Eaten away from without and within, until all that was left was the pain and the need to stop it.

Knowing what he was doing, afraid of how much he needed it and utterly unable to stop himself, he pulled himself closer against Blair.

Even as he still wept, face pressed against Blair's neck, the line of Blair's collarbone arcing across his jaw, he sought to bring more of himself into that contact. The desperate need for it shamed him further, but he had no pride left to lose. He had nothing at all, nothing but Blair's protection, and he clung to it with his pathetically diminished strength, though his sobs shook him and Blair both with their force.

Everything hurt more than he had ever suspected it could. In his life Jim had been hurt many times, but never so badly, not like this, not so that his mind retreated from the agony and left him a shell without any will other than to find respite from the anguish.

The warmth of Blair's skin against his was more than a heat source, more than the comfort of being held by a compassionate friend. It was a conduit for peace, the sort of peace he had always felt in Blair's presence, now magnified a million times into a refuge. He had no desire left but to surround himself with that refuge, to let it protect him as Blair's hand sheltered his head from the rain, stroking gently, trembling with cold himself.

Peace spread out from the contact, slowly. He felt the damp weight of the coat around his shoulders, the thin band of heat where Blair's arm held it around him. The sharp burning of the torn skin on his wrists where the hemp had dug in, and the grit of salt and sand on his chest, separating him in microscopic intervals from Blair. Gasping, Jim drew back to let the cold rainwater sluice down his chest for a moment, face turned toward the sky, before folding back around Blair, the tiniest bit closer for having let some of the interfering particles be washed away. His own tears were so hot against his skin he could feel them distinct from the cold raindrops. He felt the others too, the ones Blair shed silently, trailing down from where Blair's cheek pressed against his forehead.

When the shame threatened to overcome him, when he felt every bit of his helplessness borne in like the tide that hissed and roared in his ears, when he shook with loathing for what he had become, what he had been made into for his friend to see, it was then he heard Blair's words, and felt the touch of Blair's lips against his temple.

Blair's words had been washing over him like the rain for a while, only another piece of confusing sensory input in a world barely comprehensible as yet. Through his agony, another piece of the universe was reaching inward to him, borne on Blair's soft, breaking voice. Jim felt the brush of Blair's lips forming the words against his forehead, the vibration in Blair's chest as he spoke, the fleeting warmth of breath across his skin with each word.

"Shhh, Jim, it'll be OK now, I've got you. I'm not leaving, I won't let go. You've got me now, shhhhh, just hang on, hold on to me as tight as you need, shhhh...." His voice faltered, rough with tears, breaking repeatedly until he couldn't go on.

There was the brief press of Blair's lips against his temple as his voice stumbled to a halt and fell silent for a moment. The unthinking tenderness of the fleeting kiss started a soft inner warmth glowing where Jim had known only emptiness and fear.

As if he'd drawn strength from the touch, Blair began the litany of reassurance again. This time, Jim heard more of the words, felt more of the need in them, and yet the gulf between how he knew Blair felt about him and how he felt about himself was so wide he could not make the leap. Bridging the gap looked impossible to him, because he knew how little of himself remained.

None of his strength or courage or determination had survived the trial by pain. There was nothing left of the man Blair loved, nothing but the husk that needed him, and called his name in the darkness of its loneliness. Jim laid his cheek against the flat plane of Blair's breast and hated himself for pretending to be someone he used to be, and could never become again.

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