Chapter 19

Even as Jim made the decision, his body betrayed him, arms tightening around Blair one last time, hands sliding across the smooth planes of his strong, lean back, finding courage in its lithe definition. He forced his next breath to be the one he spoke with. "We need to keep going."

"I know," Blair said, his voice calm and low, as if he could wait forever. "As soon as you want to we'll head out again." His hand rested on Jim's head, still warming and sheltering him even though there was no need to protect him from falling rain any longer.

Jim drew a deeper breath, every nerve protesting what he intended, but his mind overruled the instinct to avoid pain. All he had to do was imagine the consequences of staying in their vulnerable position too long. The man with the flat brown eyes finding them -- taking Blair and hurting him -- touching Blair the way he had touched Jim -- "We have to go," Jim said suddenly. "Now." He began to release Blair from his embrace, giving up Blair's touch with more reluctance than he would have lost his own life. He let his arms slide across, apart, until Blair was free of all but the weight of Jim resting against his chest.

Still Blair hadn't moved, his hand gently pinning Jim's face against his neck and shoulder. Only when Jim groaned, "Sandburg, now," did Blair begin to slide himself back under the steering wheel. He still cradled Jim against him, and with the slow, careful patience of a tai chi exercise Blair helped him shift his weight so he ended up once again lying with his head pillowed on Blair's lap.

The creases in the heavy denim of his jeans were hard lines of pressure on Jim's cheek, and the sand caught in the weave of the fabric added its own little misery to all the rest of the world's burden of pain for him, but he ignored it. With his left arm crossed over his own chest and his right hand resting, clenched in a fist on Blair's leg, he kept his eyes closed and held himself unmoving. Even if the car were seen now, Jim wouldn't be, and they might hope to pass unnoticed.

Hot air blew across him, and he shivered. Blair shifted the car into gear and wrestled it back onto the road. As soon as the uneven bumping of their progress off the shoulder had ended, Blair dropped his right hand off the wheel, laying it on Jim's fist, gently pressing it flat and then lacing his fingers through Jim's. His arm held Jim tucked against him, and he drove with caution, keeping to the low end of the legal range and slowing well before he reached curves so there was no sudden need to jar Jim's rest by reaching for the brake.

Jim didn't know the coastal road that well, not this section of it so far from Cascade, but he could have mapped every foot of it they drove along. The sound of the ocean approached and receded, telling him of the dunes between the road and the water, the way the road wandered a few hundred yards from shore, then swung closer again as if dancing with its proximity.

Every crack in the pavement made the car bounce just slightly, and every blown bar of sand grabbed at the wheels, making Blair's stomach muscles tense as he pulled at the steering with his left hand. The ripples of adjustment in force and balance moved all the way through Blair's body, and his hold on Jim's hand would tighten slightly, then relax in reaction. Those shifting pressures meshed with the slight lift and tense of his thigh as he adjusted their speed. The whole harmony of movement around him gave Jim the momentary illusion he was surrounded entirely by Blair's living presence, being carried along safely within its encompassing boundaries. His grip tightened on Blair's hand and he drew it closer to his face, and rested the edge of his cheek over their entwined fingers.

"It's OK, Jim, we're almost there. It's not much, but I couldn't afford the nicer place in the middle of town. I guess that's just as well, now." For a second he lifted his left knee far enough to press on the steering wheel and hold their line of travel straight, and rested his freed hand on Jim's head before having to reach for the wheel again. "The nicer place never would have let us in looking like this. But this place I got, we'll fit right in."

The fleeting touch on his head was cool, a brief shield from the now stifling hot air being pumped out by the car's heater. Jim didn't complain. Blair was still cold - Jim could feel the small shivers running through him. Besides, Blair would have to let go of Jim's hand to turn off the heater. It wasn't worth it to Jim. He curled his free arm tighter against himself, and pressed his face against Blair's hand. The bruise at the corner of his mouth throbbed in protest at the contact, and he ignored that too.

Blair eased his foot off the gas and slowly began to brake. Though they were going so slowly the ponderous car was all but stopped before Blair started to turn the wheel, Jim's head rolled back on Blair's thigh as their direction changed. The hand Blair had laid over Jim's squeezed gently as the car came to a full stop, and Blair let out a long, deep sigh, as if he had been holding his breath for hours. Jim heard the key rattling out of the ignition, so close to his head he flinched a little, and did not open his eyes. "Chief," he whispered, pleading with him. "Blair, please. We've got to keep going."

Blair swallowed. The keys were placed on the dash with exaggerated care. "Jim, it's OK." He laid his other hand on Jim's shoulder. "We're here. Ocean Dunes Motor Court." Blair's voice sounded as if he were trying hard to smile. "Got to tell you, though, I'll be happy if it's a helluva a long time before either one of us sees another sand dune."

"Sandburg," Jim whispered. "Be careful."

"I am, I promise. I am." Blair's hand came up, the palm and fingertips smoothing over Jim's head again and again, slowly, gently. "There's no one else in the parking lot. The streets are empty. No one followed us. I watched the whole way. We're safe now." Jim felt Blair curling forward over him, and the brush of Blair's fingertips as gentle across his brow as a kiss. "You're safe now, Jim. You made it."

Blair didn't know how he expected Jim to react to that. He didn't know how he expected himself to react. Jim just lay there, shivering as the interior of the car began to cool, and Blair looked through the cracked windshield at the door to his room, only a few yards away. When he'd checked in twelve hours ago, the world had still been a sane place. Blair had been the irrational one, fretting over Jim, worried about being left out of something that might be unpredictably dangerous.

It had been such a short time ago he'd been telling himself he had finally gone over the edge, and that feeling transposed and overlaid the sensation of looking at himself, trying to be the only sane thing left to Jim in a world gone mad. He couldn't tell who was the crazy one any more, everything was so far out of control, beyond his experience or expectation. All at once the emotion was just too huge. It welled in his breast, hurting him like a fire burning too close, or a weight bearing down too hard. Blair couldn't understand it. They were here. They'd made it. For heaven's sake, they were safe at long last, so why was he suddenly on the verge of losing it? It didn't make any sense. He rolled his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. What the hell was the matter with him?

Get Jim up, he told himself. Get him inside. One step at a time, just like you've been doing all night long. This is no different. Just take it one little step at a time.

But the mantra didn't seem to work anymore. Blair had lost the mysterious center of strength that had sustained him for so long, and he couldn't hold back the terrible pictures anymore. All he could see was Jim's torment, his beloved friend surrounded by jeering strangers, his body tied with coarse ropes. Screaming Blair's name as he was hurt over and over again, until there was nothing left but the agony itself.

And the shame of having cried aloud.

Blair felt the weight of Jim's head on his thigh, and he opened his eyes again, hoping the sunlight would burn away the unbearable visions. His eyes were hot and tearless, and he looked again through the cracked windshield at the door to their room. And just sat there, beginning to shake. Ah, no, he thought, as the trembling got worse. No, no, no, not now. Not when they were so close.

It didn't matter what he told himself. He looked down at Jim, at the curve of his shoulder, Jim's hand where his fingers still interlaced with Blair's, the angry red bruises along his ribs Blair had not noticed before.

I ought to be used to this by now, he thought, as the compassion and grief washed through him in a unbearable wave. But he wasn't getting used to it. Every revelation hurt worse than the preceding ones, and he felt like he wasn't strong enough for it, not any more, not after so much. Maybe he never had been. Jim, I'm sorry, he thought again, as he had thought so many times in the night, and lifted his hand from Jim's head, pulling the other loose from the feebly desperate grip that held it. He was shaking so hard it was making him clumsy. He didn't even trust himself to touch Jim any more.

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