Chapter 7

In a deliberate movement that was a little slow because it was so cold and dark and his hands were about half-numb, Blair cut his own left index finger.

Jim cried out. Blair thought he probably yelped a little too. "It's OK!" he told Jim urgently, fumbling the knife back into his pocket and putting his right hand on Jim's shoulder. "It's OK, now. Just listen to me. I know it's scary, Jim. I know it. And I'm scared too. But you have to trust me. Please. I don't know what else to do any more."

He took his hand away. Jim was making little sounds in the back of his throat, and Blair could see the whites of his eyes, wide with terror.

What the hell are you doing, man? Blair thought for a furious instant. This is no time to throw away the sane and the rational. Don't you know it's all you have left? But that was it. There wasn't anything rational left any more. All he had left were the irrational promptings of his own heart.

His cut finger was beginning to throb. He knelt up over Jim, trying to shield him from the rain as best he could, and drew a line down the side of Jim's face in blood. At least, he hoped that was what he was doing. He couldn't see the line in the darkness, and the rain was certainly washing it away as soon as he drew it.

Jim went still and silent again under his touch. Blair started to talk. "Did I ever tell you about the time I spent with the Caduveo people, Jim? This tribe in Sao Mateo? Yeah, I know, I know. I talk about so many damn tribes I don't know how I expect you to keep 'em straight." He drew a second line, curving at the point of Jim's jaw, then up again. Jim shuddered beneath him, but didn't try to push him away. "I know you're gonna laugh at this, but there's this ritual the old women of the tribe would perform when a girl reached puberty."

He stopped to squeeze hard on his bleeding finger, making sure there was enough blood, and ran his finger across the bridge of Jim's nose. "You'd think it would be a kind of rite of passage, but it wasn't, not really. What it was, man, what I think, anyway, is a way of sharing strength. You gotta understand, Jim, the Caduveo, they're not some lost aboriginal people. They've been living on reservations since the nineteenth century. Almost everything they ever had has been ripped away from them. These are a people who were utterly devastated. Almost nothing left of them at all. Totally broken and lost. But this survived."

Blair drew a looping coil on Jim's left cheek. Jim's eyes were still staring, wide with shock. "Like you're gonna survive," Blair said softly. Another line, this one from Jim's forehead, down his nose, over his lips, his chin, his throat. "I guess this is crazy, isn't it? But you're the one, Jim. You're the one who sees visions. You're the one who can touch the other side." Blair smiled through his tears. "You're the shaman, Jim. All I can do is try to guide you through that too, and try not to make too big a mess of it along the way. So help me out here, OK?" He laid his trembling hand on Jim's lips. "My blood, Jim. My strength."

Jim opened his mouth and tasted the wound. The tip of his tongue was warm and soft on Blair's cut finger.

Blair felt the cold anew. Bared to the rain and the wind, his back and shoulders shrank as though from a blow. The few moments of clarity he had found were receding fast. His tongue was thick in his mouth. He didn't know how he would be able to say the rest, and hoped Jim would understand anyway. Belatedly, he realized he shouldn't have put the knife away. Took so much time and effort to pull it out again, and the whole time, Jim was watching him with such care. Blair could feel the gaze that he could hardly see.

When he had the knife again, he took Jim's hand. "Your strength, Jim. I need your strength too."

Jim closed his eyes and spoke to him. "No."

"Yes!" Blair insisted furiously. Understanding bloomed, dark and warm in his mind. "Jim, it doesn't matter what they did to you. You're still Jim Ellison. And I need you so bad, man. I need your strength. I need everything you are, or we're not gonna make it here." He took Jim's hand gently in his own and turned it palm up. "I'm about to hurt you, Jim. Don't make it be for no reason. Please. Please come back to me. I've given you everything I am. I need everything back from you now." Blair closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and tried again to see Jim's face.

Then Blair cut him, and Jim screamed.

"Jim!" Blair shouted back, trying to hold him, but he wasn't strong enough. "Jim, I'm sorry!" Jim convulsed beneath him, wrenching his hand free. The knife went clattering away into the rocks. Blair tried to get his arms around him and reestablish the contact, but the damage was too great, the shock too devastating. Jim arched up and knocked him away. Blair went sprawling. The wet sand burned his skin as he skidded across it. He rolled and got up, trying to crawl back. Jim was pressed desperately against the rocks, making a terrible kind of sound. Sobbing, crying out loud. The betrayal in his voice cut much deeper than the knife.

How could he have been so stupid? What the hell had he been thinking? "Jim," he moaned, stretching out his hand to him. "It's me. Please."

He touched Jim's arm, and Jim exploded again, coming up into a half-crouch and fighting hard. His open fist hit Blair's face, and Blair heard the dull sound an instant before he felt the pain. He tried to hold Jim's arm, but Jim cuffed him away, a violent blow to the side of his head that sent Blair sprawling again.

This time, Blair stayed down. Jim was close. Blair could hear him sobbing, but he lay where he was, on his back in the wet sand, looking at the sky he couldn't see. The rain was still falling. It stung a little. His jaw hurt where Jim had smacked him, and his finger still throbbed. He thought how this must feel to Jim. Beaten, broken, lost. And the only thing left to him in the world had turned on him and hurt him again.

What an interesting failure this was. Instructive in a way. Who would have thought Blair Sandburg was capable of making such a bad call? Everything else always seemed to work. Just tell Jim to do something and he did it. No matter what the problem. No matter how crazy or desperate. Jim did what Blair told him to do, and it always worked.

The rain beat down on Blair's upturned face while he wept.

He couldn't go to Jim. Couldn't risk even touching him again. He didn't speak either. Not yet. He'd wait a little while longer. Jim was exhausted. Wait a bit, and Jim wouldn't have the strength to push him away again. Blair couldn't undo the damage he'd done, but he couldn't let Jim be alone.

He'd lie there and wait for Jim to wear himself out, and he wouldn't let himself think about what he had done. They had to survive the night first. Save the regrets for later. For when Jim's safe. Blair told himself that was what he was doing, anyway. Lying there calmly in the sand, saving his strength.

He kept his teeth clenched to lock the sounds of grief inside. But he was tired, and when he relaxed for a moment, they escaped in a wail. He clamped his hands over his mouth to hold them in.

Jim stirred beside him, moving a little. Blair could hardly stand to look at him, to see what his own clumsiness and hubris had done. But he turned his head anyway.

Jim was sprawled forward, but his elbows were under him, one knee drawn up, as though he were trying to move.

"Jim," Blair whispered. He rolled to the side and began to sit up. "Jim, man, lie still."

Jim reached for Blair, and, finding him, moved with more certainty. He pulled himself nearer, his groans constant and low, regular as breaths. One of his hands spread against Blair's shoulder. He pushed, weak but absolutely insistent, and Blair allowed Jim push him down again.

A long sigh escaped Jim that was different from the moans of pain. His head dropped and lay heavily upon Blair's chest. After a moment, Blair touched Jim's shoulder, stroking gently. Jim said something and raised his head.

"Hush," Blair said, "Easy --" then broke off as Jim lifted himself above him, until he was almost crouching over Blair in the sand. Blair could see nothing of his face now, just the black silhouette against a sky almost as dark. Then Jim's hand came down and touched Blair's face.

At first, Blair didn't understand. After everything, he came so close to missing it.

Blair had been clumsy with darkness and cold. Jim was far worse off. Even so, there was a delicacy in his touch that made Blair want to weep again when he thought of the animals who could have hurt such a gentle man. Jim's fingers trailed across Blair's cheek, touched his closed eyelids, and swept his brow. Down again, a little awkward, his whole palm resting on Blair's face. Jim stroked his chin, his throat. Even Blair could smell the copper tang from Jim's bleeding fingertip.

He laid his hand on Blair's mouth. Blair's lips parted. He tasted blood, and fear, and agony, and shame.

And courage.

And such strength.

Blair shuddered, wide-eyed, knowing now what Jim had experienced. There was the sense of a circuit closing, something being made whole all around him, power surging unseen and barely leashed between them, frightening in its primal strength. Jim made soothing sounds deep in his throat as Blair began to tremble violently. His hand moved from Blair's mouth. He held Blair's head with both hands and murmured comfort. Wordless and shattered, he still permitted Blair everything. Surrendered everything. And held Blair while Blair tried to encompass the enormity of it.

It seemed to Blair that the moment lasted forever, though it could only have been seconds. Jim was too weak to hold himself up any longer than that. He collapsed over him, and Blair didn't have the strength to try to move him.

He lay there, Jim sprawled over him, and knew it was wrong, that he should be the one trying to shield Jim.

Jim, he thought. Jim, we've got to get up. Find my coat. Figure out some way to get you warm and dry. But he didn't move, and he didn't speak. He just lay there with his eyes open to the rain that was washing Jim's blood from his face and mouth. He was still trembling, deep shudders that worked their way from the inside out, closing his throat, stealing the strength from his arms and legs. He closed his eyes. Just for a moment, he told himself. Just to gather his wits. Jim had given him everything. Now he realized he had no idea if he were worth such a sacrifice.

Blair's head turned to the side, away from Jim's, and he saw a figure standing there on the beach, not five feet away.

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