Chapter 14

Somebody had spilled mustard on the seat, and the cutting smell of latex told Jim what he would be likely to find under the seat if he cared to look. The heavy, sickening odors of sour milk and cola, sex, and beer- flavored vomit all surrounded him, and they were only the first. With a moan, Jim buried his face in his hands. The scent of Blair's scalp and hair still clung to his skin and he tried to find that, to breathe it in and ignore all the rest. He focused on it, recalling the feel of Blair's warmth against him, the way the ocean salt on his skin had a different scent than the salt of his tears where they had dried on his cheeks, and how the two mingled in his hair. But it was not enough, not nearly strong enough to hold everything else at bay with his concentration ruined beyond recall.

His breath caught in a sob and he folded forward, beginning to retch against the assault of the car's overwhelming collection of odors. He didn't hear Blair unlocking the driver's side door, opening it, or launching himself into the seat.

"Jim! Oh, damn it, Jim, I'm so sorry!" Babbling in his fear, Blair wrapped his arms around Jim, trying to steady him, to be all around for him. It was awkward trying to hold Jim as he curled in pain on the cramped front seat. The best Blair could do was to lay partially against his back, left arm tucked under Jim's throat, the other tight around his waist. The rippling heaves of Jim's reaction shook them both, and Blair felt the horrible helplessness returning. There was nothing he could do but hang on and hope his touch did some good, and it felt like so little when Jim was suffering so much.

The car's interior was ice-cold, the slick vinyl seat seeming even colder than the ground outside had been, leaching the heat from his body. But Blair didn't dare let go of Jim long enough to start the engine, not yet.

Jim gasped, trying to breathe between retching, and only making the reaction worse as his efforts brought more of the stench home to him. Despairing, barely feeling the weight and warmth of Blair resting against his back, he shuddered, tried to sit up as if he could escape the car entirely on his own, and collapsed back into his near-fetal position, curling tighter and burying his face in the hollow of Blair's elbow where it had crossed his throat.

The soft skin there smelled, like all of the rest of both of them, of the sea. Salt and fish, kelp, a hint of oil, the faint touch of seal; Jim was afraid he could pick out the separate scents of each of the orcas in the pod that had passed a day ago. But beneath all that was the anchor he needed, the scent of Blair himself, and all that it meant. Warm mornings in the loft, fresh coffee steaming as it dripped through the maker, the hint of hot electronics rising from the laptop on the kitchen table.

Jim clung to that, trying to imagine the velvety fabric of his robe around his shoulders instead of the cutting grit of the sharp sand that covered his skin with misery. Drawing a deeper breath with his nose pressed to the bend of the joint, he called to his mind the freshness of a basket of laundry warm from the dryer, flannel shirts holding the heat between their folds and sticking to the sheets. It would be morning and Blair's tea would be brewing, probably the delicate Formosa Oolong with its clean, intriguing taste. In the background would be the exotic hint of incense that lingered in the hanging over Blair's bed, teasing at Jim every morning as he passed on his way to the bathroom, reminding him his home had become more than it was.

Jim's heaves quieted slowly, and all the while Blair held him, his cheek laid flat over the broad back, whispering gentle reassurances he tried desperately to believe himself. The humid warmth of Jim's breathing so close against his skin was the central point of contact, all Blair's other sensations spreading out from there. Under his ear he could hear the beating of Jim's heart, the rush of his breathing, and the hoarse rumble of his voice as he sighed, "I'm sorry."

Blair's arm curled tighter around Jim's waist in confusion. "What?" he asked, not sure he had understood. "Jim?"

Jim's breath gusted on his skin, and Blair felt those sensitive lips move slightly where they touched his arm as Jim repeated even more softly, "I'm sorry, Blair."

"No," Blair insisted, curling around him, trying to be more strongly present without pressing too hard and bringing more pain. "No, Jim, you have nothing to be sorry for, you haven't done anything wrong. You... you are so strong, man, I don't even know how to tell you." The sharply exhaled snort of disbelief angered Blair. "You are, Jim. In every way that counts. Listen to me, neither of us would have survived if you weren't."

Jim's head rolled weakly on his forearm. "No." His voice was soft, broken. His hands cradled Blair's arm, and moved restlessly, smoothing across the skin with a touch that trembled slightly. "Not me. You."

"Aw, Jim...." Blair let go his hold around Jim's waist. He had to, in order to move up enough to tuck his chin into the sweep of Jim's neck and shoulder. He reached around Jim's right arm, folding his own so that he covered it and encompassed Jim entirely within the scope of his embrace.

Blair rocked slightly, not enough to move the two of them appreciably, only enough to assuage the same restless need to move that Jim's hands expressed. "You are my strength, Jim, you always have been," he whispered. "If I'm carrying it for you right now, then I'm willing to do what you need, whatever it is." He tipped his head a little further, his voice dropping to the merest breath since his mouth was right below Jim's ear. "Whatever it takes, Jim. Now and forever."

Jim's breathing roughened, and he pressed his closed eyes to the firm curve of Blair's biceps, trying helplessly to stem the tears. He had no control any longer, only the vast, aching need for the comfort Blair provided, and an even greater feeling of such overwhelming love he could only hang on, secure within Blair's hold, and let it hold the pain at bay with its purity.

Blair held him for a while then, as long as it took for Jim's breathing to become steady again, for his grip to lose its fervid tension. When he was calm again, lying quiescent within the circle of Blair's arms, Blair began to speak in a low, soft tone. "Focus now, Jim. Ignore the stuff that hurts, that makes you sick, and concentrate on me instead. Feel my arms around you, my touch." He moved his fingers, caressing Jim's skin lightly, slowly enough to avoid digging the sand in further. "If it helps, use my scent to block everything else." He chuckled weakly. "We have got to get out of these clothes."

A small huff of breath indicated Jim laughed with him. "Aw, that's it, keep coming back." He shifted slightly and Jim's entire body tensed, going rigid with anticipation of the shock. "No, no, I'm not leaving. But I have to close that damned door, or somebody is going to drive along and take it off at the hinges, and you're gonna have to cover the thing because I waived insurance on this bomb." The next huff from Jim sounded more indignant.

Blair smiled tightly into the side of Jim's neck, and pressed his cheek against it briefly before continuing, "You're doing great. Just listen to me, and trust me, and we'll be OK. We got this far, right? All I'm going to do is close that door, and I won't even let go all the way." He raised his head a little and looked out the still-open door, and decided he could probably hook it with his foot if he really tried. Stretching out his leg, he poked at the curve of the handle with his foot, trying to get his toes wedged into it securely enough to give it a yank back toward them. It tipped his balance sideways and he leaned more heavily on Jim, who made a tiny sound before pressing his face harder into Blair's arm.

Blair gave up immediately, going motionless with sick realization, then very slowly resuming his drifting touch where his hands lay on Jim's arms. "Well, how much could they charge us for this thing, anyway? Probably never even notice the door is missing. Did you see that dent in the side? The rear panel is so bent you can't even open the trunk. The hell with it, really. But you know, I have to sit up sooner or later here, because I need to get you to a hospital..." Jim moaned, a terrible, despairing sound.

"Aw, Jim," Blair moaned too, the pain in Jim's voice striking deep into him. "But I have to, you're hurt." He shifted his arm a little, and gently took hold of Jim's right hand with his own. Pulling against the faint initial resistance, he brought it upward, and really saw it for the first time. Dark bruises were starting to show across the back of it, crossing the fine lines of the bones, and his wrist was nearly completely dark under the spotted red abrasions where the skin had been torn. "Jim..." Blair's voice broke, and Jim pulled his hand away.

Blair's stomach was a tight knot of anger and misery, and he felt a strange distant tingling that weakened all his muscles at once, almost as if he were in shock. Knowing how Jim felt every small change in pressure, he could not imagine how those injuries had to hurt, how the pain had to be battering constantly at whatever measure of control the broken sentinel could manage to gather.

"God, Jim." Blair couldn't keep the images from his mind. Jim tied and being hurt, his eyes defiantly open, silent until he had to cry aloud. He had not thought he could feel any more protectiveness, any greater tenderness than he had already, and he wondered blankly at the way it overwhelmed him anew each time. All Blair could do was curl around him and cradle him with all the infinite gentleness of his love and understanding.

Jim trembled in his embrace, as if feeling both the pain of his wounds and the warmth of Blair's body against his. Blair bit his lip, hard, his jaw aching with the desire to cry instead. The second time he tried, his voice started working again. "I should have been there, I know, and god, I wish it had been me instead of you. But I can't take it back now, so you have to let me help you. Please, Jim, let me get you the care you need."

A low groan of denial came from deep within Jim's chest, and he struggled weakly to pull away. After a moment of confusion, Blair let go and as slowly and carefully as he could, disengaged his touch. Even so, as he pulled himself upright, he felt the grit of the sand between them, and the flinch in Jim's back.

Jim pushed himself upright, his breath coming in laborious gasps that caught on the shivers wracking him. With one hand he reached out and caught Blair's shoulder. Blair was surprised at the amount of weight resting on him through that contact.

"No doctor," Jim rasped, his fingers tightening on Blair's skin.

"But..." Blair lifted his hand and let the backs of his fingers rest against Jim's cheek, next to the bruise at the corner of his mouth. "You need help." Pleading with voice and eyes, he begged again, "You have to let me help you here, Jim, I can't...."

Jim shook his head from side to side, more than just a simple denial. "No."

"Why?" Blair asked in despair, dropping his hand to cup Jim's chin and looking directly into his eyes.

"They would touch me." He forced the words out slowly, one at a time, still fighting to keep himself upright by his grasp on Blair's shoulder. "I couldn't... don't let them." Jim dipped his head forward to take a breath directly off Blair's wrist, eyes closing in concentration before he looked up again. His voice was still so hoarse and weak it was barely recognizable. "Everything hurts, except where you are."

Blair's eyes filled, a line from an old song he couldn't even place suddenly running through his head. I'll be all around you... He wanted nothing more than to be able to tell Jim he would be, and knew he couldn't lie. Instead he swallowed hard, and leaned forward to press his cheek against Jim's. "Just tell me what to do," he whispered.

Jim's hand moved tentatively on his shoulder, drawing him closer, and Blair leaned inward, letting his chest come to rest against Jim's, his back twisted a little awkwardly to face him. Jim's voice was a mere sigh of sound, barely audible, as if he were afraid to be heard. "Touch me," he breathed into the soft space below Blair's ear.

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