Chapter 18

"I know," Jim whispered. A fine dusting of sand lay over Blair's right cheekbone, glimmering in the morning sun. Jim lifted his hand and carefully brushed it away. Blair held himself perfectly still, love and hope shining in his eyes. Jim felt his own heart fill with hope as well. Not knowing entirely what it meant anymore, except that it had been life to both of them, he touched two fingers to the center of Blair's brow. Blair drew a deep breath, but otherwise didn't move.

Carefully, slowly, touching Blair only with the pads of his fingers, Jim traced the lines he remembered so clearly he could almost see them. He could see them. With his eyes half-closed, gazing at Blair through the shadow of his own eyelashes, he could discern the fine traceries yet. Lines of power and strength, redder than blood. It didn't matter that his hand had shaken so badly when he drew them out there on the beach. The lines followed the planes and angles of Blair's face with a pure symmetry of purpose despite the artist's trembling hand.

Jim followed every line with his fingers, drawing them slowly across Blair's features, imprinting the memory with the sensuality of touch. He suspected he would no longer be able to see them once he was healed, and he wanted to be sure he remembered. Blair held still for him, wide eyed, panting a little with the cold and the shock of everything he had been through during the endless night. When he was finished, he lay his hand across Blair's face, fingers spread wide, feeling the delicate flutter of his eyelashes, the trembling of his lips. "I won't forget," he promised Blair.

The tenderness of Jim's hand moving over his face was almost more than Blair could stand. It frightened him to realize how clearly Jim seemed to remember what Blair -- what both of them -- had done out there on the beach. Blair had acted out of desperation and fear, and now that the first, most terrible crisis was past, he wondered if he had had any right to expose Jim to such powerful visions, to bind their souls so irrevocably. For chrissakes, Blair thought, he had never even believed he had a soul before tonight.

He realized then that he had closed his eyes, as though afraid of seeing Jim, and so he looked up again to meet Jim's intense gaze. The pale blue eyes were squinting a little in the light, faint creases showing on Jim's forehead and around the corners of his eyes. Blair's hands still cradled Jim's face. He could feel Jim swallowing, and the way his jaw clenched a little, the muscles knotting under the palms of Blair's hands, then easing again.

Jim's hand was touching Blair's face as well, resting lightly against his cheek. No, Blair thought, he still didn't know whether he had a soul -- whether an ineffable something lived on after the body died. And it didn't matter now any more than it ever had. All that mattered was Jim beside him, alive, and willing to fight his way back to wholeness. If either one of them possessed a soul, then it was manifest here, in the aching tenderness with which Jim caressed his face, in the love Blair felt for this good and gentle man who had been brave enough and strong enough not to die that night.

Blair caught Jim's hand gently and pulled it down, making himself look at the cruel abrasions that circled Jim's wrist. As the sun continued to rise and the last of the morning fog burned off, the marks on Jim's body were easier to see, mottled spots of color standing out on his flesh even under the coating of sand and salt. Blair felt the marks in his own heart, and he ached with the desire to take Jim's pain himself.

He couldn't do it. All he could do was offer his Jim his strength and his love. Could that possibly be enough? There was an unknowable depth of pain in Jim's eyes, the desperate hope barely showing beneath it, and the soft indentations of his own teeth along his lower lip marking his efforts at control. Blair felt a stab of uncertainty, suddenly unable to imagine how he would ever be capable of doing enough to take Jim's pain away. "Jim," he said softly. He had to ask. "Are you sure you don't want me to find a doctor? Really sure?"

Jim tried to pull his hand away, but Blair held on firmly, hating the way it was so easy for him to control Jim's action. "I don't know if I can help you enough," he explained quietly and sadly. "I'm not sure I know how."

He tugged once more, then sagged, all resistance gone. Jim dropped his head back down, tentatively laying his cheek along Blair's shoulder again, his hand lying loosely in Blair's grip. "Please, no," he breathed, but Blair heard the surrender in his voice.

His sentinel would do what Blair wanted. Whatever it was, however much it might hurt. The thought of hurting him more made Blair's stomach clench painfully, and he carefully laid Jim's hand down, his own shaking a little with his reaction. "I won't hurt you, ever," he whispered, and stroked his palm over Jim's head where it lay on his shoulder, feeling it settle against him more surely. "Ever. Whatever you want, I'll do." He turned his head a little and gently kissed Jim's temple.

Jim's eyes closed, lashes scraping across Blair's skin, and he lifted his hand to touch Blair's side, cupping nearly the full span of the ribs with his widespread touch. Then he slid his grip slowly around the curve of Blair's body, across his back, drawing him closer as he embraced him. When he had fully encompassed Blair within his arms, he sighed a low, quiet sound that held both peace and need. Blair shivered once, and rested his cheek where his lips had just touched. His hand stilled on Jim's head, resting there, warm and reassuring.

"Turn on the heater," Jim said, his voice low and clear.

Blair tensed, the arm he had around Jim's shoulders going tighter with the memory of how badly the last try had hurt Jim. But Jim's hold on him was so solid, and the car had been running long enough for even its tired engine to warm up. He cradled Jim's head a little longer with his left hand, until he felt Jim's weak nod, then he let go and reached carefully for the control.

This time he turned the fan to low instead of high, and with a swift gesture, blocked the vent in the dash with his hand until he was sure the air coming out was warm instead of cold. It still smelled bad, though, as if something had crawled into the air conditioner and begun to mold some time ago. His nose wrinkled at it. Odd how he hadn't even noticed it the night before when he'd driven over for the first time. There was no way Jim could miss it. Blair knew by the way those long arms tightened around him, the silent press of Jim's face against his skin and the soft heat where the sentinel's breath concentrated on his neck. Cautiously Blair turned the fan up another notch, the incoming heat making him shiver again as he realized how cold he was. Jim was shivering too, shaking in short, sharp bursts. Blair turned the fan up another notch, then all the way to its highest setting. The inside of the windows in the back started to fog over.

Replacing his hand on the back of Jim's head, Blair waited patiently, ignoring his own shivering, holding close to the warmth where they touched. It seemed to him that Jim's trembling was as much from exhaustion as it was from cold, and he knew he was closer to his own limits than he had been in a very long time. The smell from the heater intensified briefly, then began to fade until it was no worse than if a pair of rather old, used gym socks had somehow gotten lodged in the system. Jim's nose pressed against his neck, and he shifted a little, tipping his head so the curve of his shoulder would fit better around the line of Jim's cheek and jaw.

Outside, the morning brightened and the sun began to shine through the windows at a low angle, glaring harshly off the dull paint on the car's hood. Blair squinted at the brightness, wishing he'd thought to bring his sunglasses. There had been no need for them the night before, and he'd never planned on being out on the beach all night. A quick reconnaissance, then back to his motel room to consider his options had been all he had intended.

All the windows had gone foggy, but the defroster was beginning to clear the windshield in little, disconnected oval shapes down at its base. The sound of the fan covered the sigh of Jim's breathing, but the steady pulse of warmth against Blair's neck was growing slower, more easy and regular, and he could feel some of the tension ebbing from the broad back he still had his right arm wrapped around so tightly.

As his jeans absorbed the heat, he grew increasingly aware of how soaked and sand-filled they were. Pockets of grit had accumulated along the creases in the material, holding enough water to cause an itchy, crawly sensation. There had been an advantage to being numb with cold he hadn't appreciated.

Jim moved, his hands shifting restlessly across Blair's back, his breath catching off its rhythm. The hot air from the vents blew across him like the dry wind from an empty desert, and while the warmth had felt briefly better than the eternal cold, before long it had melded with the heat lingering in the burn marks on his skin and the rope-scarred bands of pain around his wrists, elbows, and ankles. The salt-laden moisture warmed, and moved, and dug fresh, sharp claws into every pore. Against his side, a crack in the deteriorated vinyl seat etched a line of pain sharply as a razor pressed to the flesh. But in his arms, Blair was warmer, and not shivering so much, and so he held on silently.

Even with his eyes closed, shielded from the glare outside by the screen of hair as he nestled against Blair's neck, he could tell it was getting dangerously late. They could be seen, and the renewed fear washed through him, more powerful even than the hurt. No rest was worth the risk of being taken again, no easing of his own pain could be bought at the chance of letting any harm come to Blair.

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