Chapter 21


It was the strangest thing, Blair thought, cradling Jim's shaking body against his own. Only moments ago he had been too lost even to carry the weight of his own heart. Now he knew he had enough strength for both of them, for however long it took. Even if it took rest of their lives. "I've got you, Jim." He'd been saying that all night, but at last he knew what it meant. "Everything will be OK. I've got you."

Jim's head nodded again, barely more than a shift in position. His breathing was so shallow Blair couldn't feel the motion of it lifting against his chest, only the faint warmth of an exhalation drifting across his shoulder.

"So, man," Blair whispered, "Next step, OK? Everything will be easy from here on out." He broke off and gave a sad little laugh. "Well, maybe not easy, but the worst is over, I promise. So what do you think -- you want to get out of the car on my side or yours?" He let himself laugh again, because he could feel the slight pressure of Jim's arms when he did, as though his laughter gave some kind of strength. "Whatever works best for you. What do you think?" He didn't wait for Jim to answer. "Tell you what. We're closer to my side, so let's try it this way. Now, I'm gonna let you go a little bit, just so I can open the door. All right? I'm right here, Jim. Not going anywhere. We've pretty much established that by now, haven't we? Just wanna be sure you don't forget."

When he lifted his left arm from around Jim's shoulders, he felt the tiny shudder, and the way Jim tried to press even closer, exhausted as he was. "Shh," he whispered, his lips brushing Jim's temple as he felt blindly beside himself for the door handle. "I'm right here."

He pushed at the door handle, trying not to jostle Jim as he tripped the latch and got the heavy door barely cracked open. He wasn't entirely successful, and winced in sympathy at Jim's soft cry. Cold morning air filtered in slowly through the narrow gap and lifted goosebumps on both their arms.

"You're still with me, right?" His voice was almost as hoarse as Jim's. Probably all the saltwater he'd swallowed. That, and sobbing half the night, he thought ruefully. "Sorry," he whispered roughly, not sure what he was apologizing for. "I need you to do something for me now, and it's not gonna be so easy, but it's the only way I can think of to do this. Can you turn around and put your feet on the floor? Then you can just scoot out after me, and we can get inside and finally get you that hot shower. What do you think? Can you do that for me?"

Jim tensed in his arms for a moment, and Blair wondered what he would do if Jim couldn't keep going after all, at least long enough to get in the room. Blair would have to get help, and the thought of strangers' hands on Jim was more than he could stand. He knew it would be more than Jim could stand.

"C'mon, man," he asked tenderly. "I need you to do this. I know it's too much to ask, but I'm asking anyway. Just take it a little at a time. Can you sit up some more? Here, maybe I can help." He touched Jim's face, giving gentle reassurance of his presence, and then he pushed carefully on Jim's shoulders, easing him back.

Jim's eyes were closed tight, but he let Blair move him, turning painfully, easing his legs out from under himself. His arms slid away from Blair reluctantly, until he was only holding on to him by a trembling grip on his shoulders. His head was bowed and his whole back curved with weariness and pain, but his face was composed in silent, calm trust and his eyes stayed closed as Blair slowly edged far enough away to push the car's door open.

The sounds outside poured in along with fresh air, and Jim's hold on him tightened for a heartbeat before relaxing again, consciously letting him go. Letting everything go. He sagged further, beginning to curl into himself. "Aww, no," Blair said desperately, "Jim, don't give up now. We're so close." He reached over and rested his hand on Jim's head, stroking the top of it with careful gentleness. Jim shivered, and he tipped his head back a little toward the touch, his mouth opening briefly in an unspoken plea.

Keeping that contact, Blair slowly slid his legs out of the car, then edged his butt over to the edge of the seat. With the faintest of pressure on Jim's head, he coaxed him forward by tiny increments, infinitely patient. Jim moved for him, dragging himself sideways, inch by painful fraction of an inch, his breathing growing hoarser and more labored as he struggled to do what Blair asked of him.

Through it all, Blair felt nothing but the vastness of his love for this man whose courage was so endless, who would do whatever Blair asked, even when he was driven beyond his limits. There was nothing Blair would not do in return, he knew it with all his heart, and felt only joy at the knowledge.

When at last Jim had crept all the way to the edge of the seat and could still reach Blair's shoulders where he knelt on the ground outside, Blair laid his palm against Jim's chest and left it there, letting him rest. Under Blair's knees, he could feel the way the cold concrete had been laid with a coarse, combed pattern, and the sharp ridges of the surface hurt even through his jeans. Though there was a damp chill in the air, the slanting rays of the morning sun were already hot on the side of his face. Blair squinted one eye shut against the glare. Still supporting Jim with one hand against his chest, Blair searched for the room key with his other hand, finally finding it in his back pocket, the only place the awkwardly large plastic tag had fit comfortably. He remembered that only after he found it again, his heart slowing from the panic of thinking he had lost it.

Jim swayed forward, pressing against the hand flat against his chest, leaning outward to where his balance depended on his hands on Blair's shoulders. "Careful," Blair murmured, and pressed back against Jim's chest, holding him in place. "Don't want you falling over here, OK? Just a minute." With his free hand, Blair carefully lifted Jim's left leg out of the car, pulling just enough to get Jim to rotate toward him.

As he set Jim's foot down on the pavement, he caught a glimpse of the cruel, reddened bruises marring his ankle. His breath caught in pain, realizing again he had not even begun to assess all of Jim's wounds. He bowed forward, resting his forehead against Jim's knee for a second, fighting to overcome the shaking anger and despair that moved through him. He tried holding his breath, but it didn't help, and the stinging in his eyes just kept getting worse. Jim's fingers tightened on his shoulders, and shifted, the smallest of comforting strokes. When Blair looked up, his eyes were too bright, his smile forced, but Jim's eyes were still closed, so the effort to look in control was wasted. Not that it would have fooled Jim anyway.

"Doing good, Jim," he said carefully, keeping his voice from breaking by pure force of will. "Other one, now." Jim shifted, and Blair guided his other leg out of the car and gently brought his foot to the ground. He was careful to keep his grip away from the narrow part of Jim's ankle where he knew there would be a set of marks to match the ones he had already seen. Injuries he would have to deal with soon, with no more to work with than the items in his own minimalist shaving kit, not even the first aid box that normally rode in the spare tire well of Jim's vehicle. What am I going to do? he wondered, the black despair washing over him again. I'm not prepared for this.

When he looked up at Jim, he knew his fear was showing clear and strong on his face. Jim would see it all as soon as he opened his eyes, and there was nothing Blair could do about it. Strong as he was with Jim's trust and love filling his breast like his own breaths, no strength could take away the sheer anguish he felt for what had been done to Jim. Every mark he saw on his friend's body brought the images to him, the awful guesswork pictures of the way those bruises and burns had been inflicted over the night.

He closed his eyes, trying to shut them out, to shut out the sight of the darkening area on Jim's cheek and jaw and the way his mouth was turned down with the effort to contain his hurt. Reaching up, he laid his left hand flat against Jim's chest next to the other, feeling the flinch and shiver Jim couldn't suppress, and the way he still leaned farther forward even in the face of that pain, putting more weight against Blair's touch. As the weight increased, Blair opened his eyes again, afraid Jim was passing out.

Jim was perfectly conscious. His eyes were open, clear, their brilliant blue more achingly bright than the morning sky overhead. He was reaching for Blair, reaching with his whole body, his eyes, the last dregs of his will, his hands tightening with terrible weakness but implacable determination, trying to draw him closer.

All of Blair responded, as unable to keep from reaching back and giving him that contact as he was unable to stop the blood from moving through his own veins, or the empathetic pain for Jim from curling cold and heavy through his gut. His hands slid across Jim's chest, gentle across those awful marks, around his ribs even as he rose himself, letting Jim's grasp on his shoulders raise him from the car. Jim flowed into his arms, and Blair enfolded him with all the care and resolve he felt, his embrace a vow to make everything right again.

The rounded point of Jim's chin weighing on his shoulder slowly got heavier, and the arms holding him were loosening. "No," he murmured, his hands shifting over the center of Jim's back as if he could find that vulnerable area and send strength back through it. "Not now. Not when we're so close." He edged backward a step, and Jim swayed with him, shuffling forward, an involuntary moan drawn from him at the cruelty of the sharply ridged concrete on his bare, injured feet.

The desire so intense it was a physical pain, Blair wished he could carry Jim, but it was no more possible than it had been any other time during the night, from that first struggle in the surf. All he could do was what he had done then without meaning to, what he had used all along without realizing it: his ability to give Jim enough of a reason to go on himself. He moved one hand away from Jim's back, up to cradle the back of his neck before shifting another step backward.

As Jim followed him helplessly, Blair trailed his hand forward, caressing the curved planes until his palm cupped Jim's cheek, the tense muscles in his jaw hard and trembling under Blair's fingers. As Jim pressed against that touch, Blair whispered, "Come on, Jim, you can do it. For me, man, just this once more."



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