Chapter 13

Blair's mouth lingered on his only for a few seconds, and then was gone, but the power of what he had done remained strong with Jim. The air he drew in a great breath seemed cleaner, his mind sharper, the press of Blair's chest to his warmer and more solid. He blinked, a residual image of Blair's features overlain with swirling patterns painted in delicate crimson strokes superimposing itself on his vision. Blair's eyes were dark, his pupils expanded so widely that only a narrow ring of ocean-deep blue showed. His breathing had gone ragged, as if he had felt something of the force Jim had, and his hands trembled on either side of Jim's face.

Jim stared into Blair's eyes, deep, endless wells whose darkness was a comforting haven rather than a thing to fear, and the power of his own emotion rose, beating in his breast like a living thing, winding around his throat until breathing was difficult. He didn't know how to express so much love, because he had never felt it before, never known what it truly was to be loved so greatly in return. Gently lifting one hand, drawing it from the warming tangle of hair, he laid it on the side of Blair's face like a benediction. Nothing but the truth could be given between them now. "You make it stop hurting," he said.

For a moment Blair was silent, but Jim knew he had been heard. The brilliant sparkle of new tears filming over those clear eyes told him. But rather than let them fall, Blair caressed Jim's face one more time, then slid his arms back around to hold him firmly, and whispered brokenly, "That's all I ever wanted to do."

The cold dawn breeze came up, flitting over them like a ghost, stirring the sand around them until it made tiny hissing noises. It touched Jim's skin, and he shivered, drawing closer into Blair's warmth. In his ear, Blair chuckled very weakly. "Well, that and get warm and dry."

Jim could smell cordite on the breeze, and burning wood and plastic and meat, the mix of odors from a messy explosion. It turned his stomach violently and he swallowed down the dry heave with a wrenching spasm of his gut.

"Jim?" Blair's hold gentled on him in concern.

"We need to go," Jim gasped, and buried his face against Blair's neck, dragging in the salted, wet scent of his skin, holding that in the forefront with all his concentration.

Not understanding why Jim needed him so, but not questioning it, Blair waited for him, holding him carefully, spreading out his hands on Jim's back as if he could cover enough area to keep him warmer that way. Jim's breath and lashes tickled at the sensitive skin of his neck, and he shivered, automatically pulling a little closer. "When you're ready, Jim," he said very quietly. "Just let me know, and we'll get in the car, and we are, like, so out of here."

Jim nodded tersely, drawing another breath, nose practically pressed to the point under Blair's ear. Blair shivered again and gasped a chuckle, but didn't push him away. It was Jim who moved first, unwinding his hands from Blair's head, tensing his shoulders with the first effort to get himself upright. At that sign of willingness to go on, Blair drew his legs away from where they had been tangled with Jim's, shifting backward slightly, yet still careful to keep one hand in firm contact with him.

Blair made it to his knees first, kneeling next to Jim, still holding his shoulder. At the withdrawal from full contact, Jim had hissed a small sound to himself, and now his jaw was held tightly as he put his hands underneath himself and pushed his body upward. "That's it, come on," Blair encouraged him softly. Eyes narrowed to where only a flash of their startlingly bright color showed in the milky light, Jim kept going, getting first to his hands and knees and then drawing his legs underneath, forcing himself to stand, slowly unfolding upright. He grasped Blair's forearms and felt Blair's hands tighten on his own, trying to take as much of Jim's weight as he could, bracing Jim as he got to his feet.

Once fully standing, Jim could have laughed, or wept - the two were too much alike for him at the moment to know which he felt more like. He could see the car, about 30 feet away at the limit of visibility in the already thinning fog.

Blair moved against his side, arm fitting around him as solidly, as naturally as it had all night. "See?" he said happily. "Told you, almost there. I can feel the heater now."

Leaning heavily on Blair, Jim shuffled the last ten yards to the car. It was the only one parked by the road, halfway off on the sandy shoulder, looking abandoned. He wouldn't have recognized it at all; it was a decrepit, faded red Chevy Citation with rust all around the wheel wells and a long scrape along the passenger side that ended in a crumpled rear quarter panel.

As if to keep his mind off the distance, Blair kept up a steady stream of encouragement mixed with explanation as they moved, his pace set precisely by how well Jim could move, neither dragging him forward nor slowing him down. "That's good, Jim, we're gonna make it, you'll be OK now, I've got you. Isn't that a piece of junk? I knew I was renting a lemon, but jeez, I'd hoped to get one with some more juice left in it." Another yard covered in slow, agonizing steps. "I'm right here, and I won't leave, so take your time. Nobody will know it's us, I figured your truck might get recognized so I came all the way down in this thing. You wouldn't believe how badly it handles, man. I've had bicycles with better suspension. That's it, you're doing great here, you want to rest any time you just say so, or stop, or whatever. I'm right with you. For good, man, don't forget that." His voice was soft, the words sometimes catching on his roughened breathing as he moved with Jim across the uneven ground.

"So, anyway, when Simon told me what was going on, I couldn't believe it! Jim, you didn't exactly tell me the whole story, did you?" The barest hint of gentle reproach colored his words. "Man, those guys have a rep even on campus, and no way was I going to just hang out at home and wait for you to show up again. Like, been there, tried that, and it totally sucked. Anyway, I'm really hoping you can put the word in for me when Simon hears about this, though. I sorta didn't tell him I was coming down here after you and I stayed totally away from their operation, totally, like miles, Jim, honest." Feet barely lifting off the ground, they shuffled forward another six feet, laboriously going around a big, spiky clump of grass directly in the way. The detour seemed to take forever.

His voice sounding hoarser with salt and exhaustion, Blair kept talking anyway, because Jim's head was tilted toward him and his face was calm even while he staggered, his weight leaning so heavily on Blair's support. "We're so close, Jim, we're going to be there any second now. You're doing so good here. I know you told me everything would be fine when you left, and I really wasn't planning on following you or anything. I mean, I know there wasn't any reason for me to worry, and I did pay the gas bill and everything like you asked.

"I just had this, I don't know, feeling or something." He shivered, a different cold working its way through him, no more explainable than it had been when he first felt it. "I tried, but I couldn't ignore it. It practically hurt, it was so strong. I swear, Jim, all I would have done was hang out nearby, if you hadn't shown up on the beach you never would have known I was around, honest. I promise I won't do it again. You're not mad at me about it, are you? It's kinda stupid, I know, and it turned out to be a good idea after all... but...." He trailed off uncertainly as they reached the side of the car and came to an exhausted stop.

Jim registered the cessation of the wash of soothing sound, and opened his eyes again, wincing at the way the morning sunlight managed to strike down through a hole in the fog from straight overhead and glare off a piece of pitted chrome directly into his eyes. He closed them again hastily and stood, swaying a little, leaning on Blair, waiting to find out what they were going to do next.

"Jim?" A gentle touch along his cheek drew his head down, and he slitted his eyes open carefully. "Stay with me, Jim, we are so close to being OK again." His arm still firmly around Jim's back, Blair fished in his own front pocket with his free hand, wriggling in place at the difficulty of wedging his fingers into the still-wet denim. "Oh, man, I hope I didn't lose the keys...."

Jim watched with detached interest as Blair brought out the cheap plastic tag with the car key on it and leaned over far enough to slide the key into the lock. After some determined jiggling it finally yielded and Blair pulled the door open. The squeal of the rusted hinge shot through Jim's head like a spike, and he winced hard, half-turning away from the car.

"Damn!" Blair caught at him, holding him in place with no more than a touch, shifting against him as if to shield him from the sound with his body. Silently he waited, one arm around Jim, the other laying lightly on Jim's chest as if to anchor him. "I'm sorry," Blair whispered as quietly as he could, barely a breath of sound.

Shuddering, Jim stood with his head down until the urge to crawl away from the pain to some deep, dark hole had passed. When he opened his eyes very cautiously, he saw Blair staring at him, at the marks on his skin where the remnants of the agony still centered, sharp thorns he carried in his mind that festered and oozed a slow, hot pain. Jim reached up and gently lifted Blair's hand away, and when their eyes met, Blair's were full and angry, but Jim shook his head and turned back toward the car.

"OK," Blair said, and the tremble in his voice roughened and then eased away. "Can you fit in here? It's got, like, a bench seat so I had to move it closer so I could drive but your legs are so much longer...." He swallowed, and his arm around Jim's back tightened fiercely for a moment as he stared very hard at the car.

In answer, Jim moved forward and carefully folded himself down through the door and onto the seat, wedging his legs into the space between it and the dash with some difficulty. Blair kept his hand on Jim's shoulder the whole time, not able to really help but not willing to let go.

When Jim was fully inside the car, Blair knelt by the open door, keeping his reassuring grasp on Jim's shoulder. "Um, I didn't really think this through... but there isn't any way for me to get in without letting go here for a few seconds. Are you going to be OK with that? I'm only going around the front of the car, you'll be able to see me the whole time, and I'll be right back." He gazed worriedly into Jim's face. "Will you be OK?"

Eyes locked on his with an almost desperate intensity, Jim nodded, as if he had not heard the words.

"Jim, come on here, I need to believe this."

Reaching up slowly, Jim interlaced his fingers with Blair's where they gripped his shoulder. "I will be," he promised hoarsely. There was no choice, whether he could keep his promise or not.

"I'll be there in just a few seconds, I promise," Blair said intently. He waited another minute, and when Jim nodded and loosened the grip on his hand, he closed the door with care and sprinted around the front of the vehicle.

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