Chapter 8

Dark night. No moon, no stars. Nothing but the endless cold rain from an invisible sky, but it didn't matter. Blair could see the man on the beach clearly, and he wasn't afraid. How could he be? It was so good to see Jim. Even like this. Even though Blair suddenly understood he had flung wide a door that might never be shut again.

Jim was naked, his head up and his shoulders back, standing calmly, but with such strength apparent even in his repose. Blair could see the thin red lines of blood scrolling across his face, down his throat, across his chest, over his belly and down his legs in loops and arabesques. He was gazing down at Blair where he lay in the sand, and after a moment a gentle smile crossed Jim's face. The finely drawn symbols flowed and shifted over his features. Blair stretched out his hand, straining desperately to reach him. The smile on Jim's face changed. There was a hint of sadness in it, and at length he began to turn away.

Jim! Blair screamed without moving his lips. You can't leave us! Jim, please.

Rain was still pouring down from the dark sky, but Blair could see the scrolled lines of blood curving over Jim's shoulder as he turned. The lines swept his ribs and across the back of his hip and thigh, gleaming red against Jim's pale flesh. They were broken in only one place. A wide, clean swath stretched jaggedly across his back. Jim was truly naked there, utterly defenseless and bare.

Blair kept reaching for him, but it was a distance he could not possibly cross. He could only watch as Jim bowed his head and knelt slowly in the sand.

With a gasp, Blair suddenly opened his eyes. "Jim." He turned his head and spoke out loud to the man whose body pinned him to the sand and sheltered him from the pouring rain. "Jim, we've got to go."

Jim's head nodded once, where it still rested against Blair's shoulder. His hands came up and he tried to lift himself. "Easy, man," Blair said. He felt so calm, so distant. Jim seemed to understand. He stopped trying to push himself away, resting with half his weight propped on his elbows, head bowed over Blair. His sides were heaving from the effort of moving only that far, the swell of his ribcage pressing on Blair's chest with each labored breath. He touched Blair's face with both hands, and Blair felt sand and blood as Jim's fingers spread across his cheeks and brow.

Not knowing what else to say, he offered, "I left the car on the road. It's less than half a mile away. Do you think you can make it that far?"

Jim lowered his head until his forehead touched Blair's. "Chief," he said, his voice hoarse and low, coming such a long distance and from such a dark place. "Blair, I can see you."

Blair heard his pulse roaring in his ears. He could still see Jim too, kneeling in the sand a short distance away. All that strength and beauty held in abeyance, in sacrifice. He could not imagine what Jim might be seeing. He was a little afraid to know. Ah, god help us both. It doesn't matter. They had to get out of the rain. "Here, Jim, like this. I can't move. You're gonna have to shift a little. Can you roll to one side?"

Jim moved, taking the last of his weight off Blair, and the cold of the night washed over Blair anew as the warmth of Jim's body was lifted away. Missing that contact more than he had thought possible, Blair began to shiver uncontrollably as he got to his knees. Jim lay quietly beside him, waiting for Blair to guide him.

"Hold on. Just a sec." Blair felt his way to the rocks, looking for his coat and the discarded pile of his shirts. When he had found the little pile of soaked material, he hefted the shirts, thinking briefly of what struggling into the icy, sand-filled material would feel like, and left them behind. It wasn't like they would make him any less cold and wet, after all. Dragging the coat, he crawled back to Jim and touched his shoulder. "OK. Can you sit up, do you think?"

Jim's trembling hand reached up and clutched at Blair's. Despite the darkness, Blair could see Jim wasn't looking at him. His eyes were fixed on an empty place somewhere beyond Blair's left shoulder. Blair didn't turn his head to see. "Jim?" Jim tried to say something, but Blair couldn't make out the words. He bent his head closer, but only so he could tell Jim, "Now, please, man. We've got to go now." Jim's grip on his hand tightened until it was close to pain. "Jim --" Blair said again.

In response, Jim pulled Blair's hand up and pressed a fervent kiss to the inside of his wrist. "I know," Blair whispered, his face so close to Jim's, his heart running ragged in its beating. "I know." He put his arm around Jim's shoulders, and tried more insistently to ease him up. "We're gonna get up and take it one step at a time, OK?"

Jim seemed to nod a little. At any rate, he released Blair's hand and took his upper arm instead, trying to help. "That's right," Blair murmured in encouragement. Jim took a gasping breath of air and allowed Blair to pull him up, his hand locked tight around Blair's arm. Blair could feel Jim's broad shoulders trembling with the strain. When he was sitting up as best he could, his knees drawn up, his head down, panting with the effort, Blair shifted until he was crouching in front of him. "All right, man, it's all or nothing here. You with me?"

Again Jim nodded. Blair got his feet up under himself and wrapped his arm around Jim's ribs, tight under his arms. "On the count of three, ok? One, two --" He began standing up, knowing if Jim didn't help, there was no way he could manage it on his own. But Jim tried. With a sudden, speechless exclamation he pushed upward so violently that he and Blair both nearly ended up on the ground again. But after an instant of surprise, Blair managed to brace them both, and they swayed together, standing upright. "Wow," Blair whispered. "Fantastic! I knew you could do it, Jim. I knew it! Now we're just gonna walk back to the car. Nice little midnight stroll on the beach. Here we go. One step at a time."

Well, it wasn't exactly midnight anymore. Now that they were standing, Blair could see the glow in the east, the pale line of dawn under the lowering clouds despite the rain still beating down on their bare heads.

Blair pulled Jim closer, wrapping his arm around Jim's waist, bracing him as well as he could. Jim moaned and stumbled forward at Blair's urging. One step. Another. Blair had decided their best bet was to go up the beach, away from the water, rather than trying to climb over the tumbled rock breakwater. A third step. Their bare feet broke through the top layers of crusty, wet sand and sank deep. Blair was briefly glad they had lost their shoes. Trying to walk dragging the weight of them filled with sand would have been a shackle he knew neither of them could have overcome. A fourth step. Doing great. Just half a mile to go.

He realized at some point he was still holding his soggy jacket, clutching it against his chest with the arm that wasn't wrapped around Jim's waist. He wondered if there were any way he could get Jim to wear it. Two more labored steps, Jim breathing hard beside him. Nah, not likely. The coat was pretty oversized, but not that big. With that realization, he dropped it.

Maybe a dozen steps now. Jim was going slower and slower, and Blair was feeling winded too from the horror of this night and the effort of supporting so much of Jim's weight, their feet dragging clumsily through the sand. "OK. Just a little break here," he said at last, panting. He couldn't let Jim sit down because he was afraid he'd never get the two of them standing again, but he moved around in front of Jim and held Jim for a few moments, both arms around him, leaning against him a little, allowing Jim to lean against him in turn. Jim's arms were wrapped loosely around Blair's back, his head resting against Blair's. Blair realized his own eyes were closed, and he opened them, looking over Jim's shoulder. He could still see the other on the beach behind them, and though the encroachment of dawn sharpened everything else, Jim was becoming less distinct. He was still kneeling on the beach, faced away from them, still waiting.

Blair took a deep breath and turned away as well, moving until he was at Jim's side again. His cut finger throbbed, and it seemed he could still taste Jim's blood on his lips, though he didn't see how that could be. Surely the rain had washed it all away by now. On an impulse, he took Jim's hand, knowing he had to be hurting as well, hurting in ways Blair could hardly comprehend, and held it to his own chest for a moment.

Jim's eyes opened. He looked down at Blair, puzzled.

"Doing great," Blair said. "Just got to keep going now."

Jim simply kept looking at him with an expression on his face that made Blair go cold inside. No, he thought. No, he had to be imagining things now. There wasn't enough light for him to see Jim's face clearly, so he had to be imagining it, projecting his own sense of failure onto Jim. But he couldn't help it. For an instant there, Jim looked so - disappointed.

No. No, that couldn't be right, no matter how much reason Jim might have to be. Surely he knew that Blair was doing the best he could, and Jim had never asked for more than that. But all Blair had to do was turn his head to see the other one on the beach, the one who had turned away from Blair, whose smile was so sad, and Blair felt a sudden hot, sick flush mounting in his cheeks despite the cold and the rain. What had he released? What had he shown Jim?

Blair shook his head fiercely, refusing to let any of it claim him. All that mattered was Jim was moving again. So slow, but utterly determined. Blair had asked it of him, and Jim was doing his best to comply. Blair put everything else aside and concentrated on helping him. Step by step. So slow, so difficult. Jim was making little sounds, groaning with concentration, staying upright through sheer will. See, man? Blair wanted to tell him. See? You survived. You're so strong. Oh, Jim, can't you tell? You're indomitable. Nothing's changed. Not the important things. But neither one of them could spare the strength for speech, even reassurances.

It was harder going through the last stretch of sand. They were almost to the rocks when Blair had another thought. If the men who did this to Jim were planning an ambush, this is where they'd be waiting.

Blair glanced sideways up at Jim's set face, considering. Another step. Another step. Could he ask Jim to check it out for them? His senses had nearly destroyed him. He suspected the only way Jim had managed to get this far was by somehow shutting them down as much as he could. He'd regained enough control to get up on his feet and walk, and Blair couldn't ask him to jeopardize so much progress. The truth of the matter was, if those men knew he and Jim were here, why would they bother staging an ambush? He considered the state he and Jim were in and almost laughed. Only point of an ambush was if you were scared of your enemy.

"OK, that's it," Blair said at last. The embankment where the path from the road met the beach was so close. Another little rest wouldn't kill them. "How you doing, Jim? Just a little ways further now."

Jim seemed to nod. And then, as though the weight of his head were dragging him down, he just kept sagging forward, taking Blair down with him.

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