Chapter 20

Blair heard Jim's frightened cry at the loss of contact, and Blair cried out too, a miserable echo of Jim's pain and fear. He clamped both hands down on the steering wheel and held on with all his might. He would just push it all away, damn it. Jim needs you, man. You need him. Now stop screwing around and help him.

It didn't work at all, as badly as he wanted it to. Instead of taking Jim in his arms and gently pulling him up, whispering to him that they were safe, and in no time at all they would be warm and dry too, and most importantly, ah god, Jim, there would be no more pain -- Instead of doing any of the things he wanted, he just kept sitting there, shuddering with helpless reaction. Hoarse, angry sounds came from his mouth, dry sobs that seemed to take the last of his waning strength with them.

Blair hated himself then, he hated his weakness, but his anger only made him weaker still. He felt Jim moving, but he couldn't turn his head to see. He couldn't do anything but sit there, locked rigid with grief, too lost in Jim's pain as well as his own to find his way out again.

Jim's head pressed hard against his thigh, then against his stomach. Springs squeaked in sullen protest as Jim slowly and painfully shifted his weight on the bench seat, moving with the stiffness of obvious agony. Blair was finally able to gasp angrily between the sobs, "I'm OK, Jim, I'm OK. Just -- need a minute -- here."

Jim didn't stop. His hand reached Blair's thigh, bearing down heavily, trembling with strain as he tried to push himself up. His head was against Blair's sternum, and when Blair finally looked down at him, panting in the fruitless effort to calm himself, he saw Jim had managed to get his legs pulled under himself on the seat, and was almost kneeling beside him. "Jim," Blair moaned, "please lie still."

He let go of the steering wheel at last, patting awkwardly at Jim's shoulders and then drawing back, afraid to touch him more, badly as he was still shaking. "Jim, please," he begged, furious with himself. The one thing Jim needed from him was his touch, and he couldn't even give Jim that. "Please don't try to move."

Instead, Jim's hand came up and spread against Blair's chest, leaning harder than ever against his friend's solidity once he was no longer supporting himself with both hands. Breathing noisily with the effort, he reached Blair's shoulder and latched on, using his grip there to drag himself up until he was face to face with Blair at last.

Helpless in his grief, Blair looked into Jim's sad blue eyes from such a close distance and found it still hurt, as much as it ever had. The pain would never go away. He would carry it the rest of his life, long after the marks on Jim's face and body were gone. Blair would always remember that Jim had suffered alone, and it would always hurt, just like this. And he did not know how he could bear it.

"Jim --" he breathed, shaking with exhaustion and grief, and then broke off because he couldn't go on. He couldn't tell Jim the truth, but Jim was watching him carefully, waiting for him to speak. He was breathing hard with the effort of kneeling beside him, getting as close as he could to Blair with the last of his strength. His hands were heavy on Blair's shoulders, his forearms flat across Blair's chest and pressing down a little too hard.

Jim waited, and Blair panicked for the first time that night. "It's OK," he lied. "Jim, we made it."

Jim flinched from the lie as if from a blow, and Blair cried out, heartsick, "I'm sorry! Oh, Jim, please, I'm sorry." Hold him and tell him the truth, Sandburg, that's all you have to do now, and you can't even manage that much anymore, can you?

Oh, Jim, he mourned, though he didn't speak the words out loud. I want to take your pain away. I don't want you to hurt anymore, and I'm not strong enough for that. I'm not strong enough, and I wouldn't know how to do it, even if I had the strength.

Please help me, Jim. Please come back to me.

As if he had spoken out loud, Jim drew closer, his bruised face grave. Kneeling up on the seat until his head was a little above Blair's, he pulled Blair into his embrace carefully, moving one hand to the back of Blair's head to press his forehead gently against his own cheek when Blair hesitated.

Blair drew a harsh breath, but he couldn't get the first word out, even though he needed absolution so desperately. He didn't have the right to ask, not now, not while Jim was still hurting so badly. He shook as Jim eased the other arm around his shoulders and drew him forward, until his back was no longer against the seat, and he was resting all his weight against Jim's chest. Blair still hadn't managed to speak, and part of his soul wondered if he ever would again. Mute at a time like this -- what good was having a voice at all?

Then Jim spoke for him. "Chief," he murmured in a voice so soft and low Blair imagined he could feel his very bones thrumming from the vibration. "Chief," he said again, more softly. Blair shook helplessly in his arms. He wanted to hold Jim too, he needed to so badly, but he was afraid. In the dingy motel's parking lot, the sun warming the interior of the car and revealing every hurt on Jim's body to Blair's miserable gaze, it seemed to Blair he did not have the right.

"You listen to me, Chief," Jim rasped out, his voice slow and ruined.

"Hush, Jim," Blair pleaded, shaking with the effort of speaking gently through his emotions. "Don't try to talk."

"But I want you to know this," he insisted with a determination that sounded so much like Jim, save for the thread of fragility woven through it.

"All right," Blair whispered. "Easy, you've got me." He gently put his trembling hands on Jim's back. He couldn't hold Jim, he was still shaking too hard, but this at least he could do. "I'm listening, Jim."

"I'm glad," Jim moaned, and the arm around Blair's shoulders tightened.

Blair felt Jim's fist clench gently at the back of his head for a moment and then open again. "I understand," Blair said, not understanding at all. He wondered if he were crying again. He didn't know. His throat ached and his eyes stung as badly as they had before. "I'm sorry." It came out like a whimper. "Jim, I'm trying."

"All worth it," Jim said, and Blair knew he must have misunderstood the words.

"Let's get you inside," he told Jim desperately. "You've got to work with me here. I'm not doing such a great job on my own."

Both of Jim's hands moved slowly, an infinite effort until they rested on his shoulders again, and Jim pulled back a little so he could look into Blair's face. When Blair closed his eyes, Jim touched the center of his forehead with his fingertips. When Blair's eyes flew open again, startled, Jim said in a low clear voice, "It was all worth it, Sandburg, to see this."

No, Blair screamed in his mind. Jim, don't tell me this. Nothing is worth your pain. Nothing. He didn't speak a word though. He only stared at Jim, his grief so profound it was almost horror, and Jim looked calmly back at him. The hand touching Blair's forehead slipped down tenderly and caressed his face, then his throat, and Jim let his hand remain there, his palm warm over the ridges of Blair's voicebox. Blair felt the gentle pressure when he swallowed.

Jim put his other hand over Blair's heart, and then, as though the effort had been the last he could possibly make on his own, he rested, kneeling on the seat, his head bowed, breathing hard, his hands on Blair.

Blair didn't try to talk any more. He just waited, bleak with despair, his hands resting lightly on Jim's back. He had slipped away so far, so fast. It had taken no time at all to feel he was a million miles away from everything, even from Jim. If it helped Jim to touch him this way then he would leave something of himself here, this warm husk Jim seemed to need so badly. But nothing else was of any use to anyone, least of all to himself. "C'mon, Jim," he said in a voice that droned as flatly in his own head as a housefly in his bedroom at night. That lonely, quiet, meaningless buzz that kept you from all rest, all peace, all sleep. Blair decided he would not speak again.

So Jim spoke instead. "You gave me this, Blair." His hands were still warm on Blair's throat and chest, and he looked at Blair intently, confident Blair would understand.

Blair shut his eyes again. He was so far away he didn't care about anything any more, he honestly didn't, but he couldn't stand to see Jim's face.

"Sandburg," Jim said. His voice was only a hoarse whisper. "They took everything from me."

Blair's eyes flew open. How could he be hurting like this? Everything was all shut down. He had put it all away in a locked file drawer on a dark little shelf in an unused corner of his mind's attic. Nothing could hurt him any more.

Nothing except Jim telling him, relentlessly, "I asked him to kill me. I begged him to do it."

"Damn you, Jim!" Blair shouted out loud, and Jim flinched sharply from the impact, but he kept his hands where they were, and Blair's next words were quieter, but just as furious. "How dare you? How dare you? Don't you know how bad I need you?" Then he wasn't talking anymore, he was sobbing with fury and grief, open and hopeless and violent and so desperate for Jim that he wrapped his arms around him without thinking about the sand and grit or anything but the need to hold him.

Jim's arms were around him too, and he was saying, whether to himself or to Blair, Blair didn't know, and it didn't matter, "I saw it on the beach. You cut out your own soul, and you gave me back more than they took."

Blair held on tighter, rocking a little, dazed as he had been on the beach.

"Shhh," Jim whispered, his voice as compassionate as if Blair had been the one they hurt. "Easy, Chief."

"I love you, Jim," Blair said, and it was so right and easy to say that he said it again and again. "I love you so much."

"I know," Jim said, and all at once he wasn't supporting Blair any more, he was leaning hard against him, eyes closed, panting with exhaustion, sides heaving. His head dropped, and even the arms around Blair's back began to fall loosely, sliding down, trapped sand grating on bare skin. "I know," he whispered again. He gave a shaky breath of air that gusted warmly over Blair's shoulder. "Took my heart without asking practically the day we met, Chief. Or maybe you had it before we even met. I've never been whole without you."

"Jim," Blair said, eyes open wide in awe, blinking against the morning sunlight.

"I have you here, now," Jim whispered. His hand moved between them, pushing them a little apart, touching Blair's chest and his own. He took a long, deep breath that left him in a sigh. "You won't let me be alone again."

"Never," Blair promised violently. "Never. Never. Oh, Jim."

Jim took another deep breath. Blair could feel his head nodding heavily against him. The hand on his chest dropped. Jim patted his side weakly, and then it seemed to Blair as though Jim simply gave way, something deep and vital in him surrendering completely. All his life and strength were given to Blair's keeping with that last quiet breath.

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