Chapter 22

The morning sun was beating hot on his back, but the air still held the chill and the scents of the night and the fog. It all felt distant, much further away than the faint, warm pressure of Jim's nod against his hand, and the way Jim's arms shifted, bracing for the final effort. Each one promised to Jim as the last, yet there was always another labor waiting when he was done with what had been asked of him. Blair caught the inside of his lower lip between his teeth and held back the threatening tears. Instead he moved another step toward their goal. It occurred to him that if he let go of Jim with one hand, he could reach the top of the window and swing the car door shut.u

To hell with the door.

Jim's head rose a little. "The car keys," he rasped.

Blair knew he shouldn't really have been surprised, but the simple request caught him unawares and it took a second to figure out what Jim meant. He had to bite harder on his lip against the tears, seeing the evidence of Jim coming back to him in such tiny ways. "Forget them," he said very gently. "Nobody is going to steal this bomb even if I leave the door wide open and the keys laying on the dash."

Jim shook his head, though the scope of the gesture was no more than a change in the pressure against Blair's hand. "At least close the door," he ordered, even as his weight shifted further onto Blair in a helpless attempt to lessen the pain of standing.

"You are impossible," Blair grumbled, holding him closer, his left hand shifting over the side of Jim's face in a caress. "It's going to make noise," he reminded Jim softly. "Can you tone down enough for it?" Losing the car to some local teenager would be far preferable to seeing the pain cross Jim's face at the shriek of the metal hinges.

Again the faint change in pressure, this time of an uncertain nod. Slowly, giving himself as much time as possible to feel the preliminary shivers of a collapse, Blair drew his right hand away from Jim's back and reached for the car's door frame. As he did, he turned his head and pressed his face against Jim's neck. The shivers that ran through Jim's body were the damped tremors of his need for more contact, subtly different from the shaking of his final loss of control. His arms tightened around Blair again, and he stretched his head forward, trying to tuck Blair into the curve of his neck.

Grabbing the top of the car door, Blair tensed, and as he pulled on the door with a single rippling heave of force, he simultaneously pressed his lips to the soft, hollow spot under the corner of Jim's jaw where the pulse moved with slow power close under the skin. The tired, rusted metal of the door swung with the creak he had expected, and the heavy panel slammed shut behind them with finality. The sound echoed loudly around the enclosed motor court, bouncing off the cinder block walls and blank, staring windows of the units.

But Jim didn't flinch away from it, or try to burrow into him this time. He held still and only moaned, a low sound that vibrated against Blair's lips where they touched Jim's throat. Then one hand clenched against Blair's back, and shook, all the muscles in Jim's forearm straining taut, before it relaxed, his palm spreading flat again over the ridge of a shoulder blade.

Blair let out his breath in relief. "Home free now," he whispered softly, the warmth of his voice trapped between them. Jim curled around it, managing somehow to both lean on him and enfold him with support at the same time. Blair's hand returned to the side of Jim's face, and he touched him with gentle fingertips. As if guiding him by touch, he stroked his fingers down and forward across Jim's cheek, taking a step backward at the same time. With a quiet sigh, Jim moved with him.

It was a short few feet to the door of his room, but they took their time crossing the distance. The sun rose slowly, the passing traffic on the highway growing busier as more trucks thundered by on the coastal road. Salt and sand on their skin rubbed where they touched, a stinging coat that grated Blair's skin until he felt raw and inside-out. It had to be far worse for Jim, yet the only sound to pass his lips was a low, sobbing groan at each step, and even that was bitten back until he trembled in Blair's arms with the containment of his agony.

The cold, rough surface of the badly painted door surprised Blair when his shoulders bumped against it, Jim's arms pushing harder against his lower back where they were laced. For a moment he wondered why Jim hadn't warned him they were so close, and then realized the sentinel had to have closed his eyes again, trusting him implicitly with their journey. "I'm sorry," he said softly, stilling his hand on Jim's face.

In answer, Jim only tightened his embrace fractionally, far beyond the ability to do more. Understanding all too well, Blair just nodded and, after a moment's rest, reached for the key. He managed to get it out of his back pocket and after a little blind fumbling, into the loose-fitting lock on the doorknob. It turned easily, admitting them over the threshold so suddenly they nearly fell through the door. Blair spared a half-second to pull the tattered "Do Not Disturb" placard off the back of the door and hang it on the knob outside, his left arm still locked around Jim's shoulders, keeping him close throughout.

He pushed the door shut very carefully, coccooning them in the quiet, dim, warm confines of the small room. For a cheesy, older motel, the walls were surprisingly solid, and the sound of the surf roaring along the shore a hundred yards behind the motor court was abruptly distanced to a muted background of faint white noise. It felt like they had come to the end of a very long trip, and he allowed himself a weary sigh of relief.

Then Jim began to fall.

The concrete had been so cold and sharp, Jim had believed getting inside would be a relief from the constant pain of his own weight on the soles of his feet. But there was no respite for him, and the dull chuff of the door shutting went unnoticed in his awful surprise. Every twisted polyester fiber of the ancient green shag carpet seemed to be digging its own separate needle-thin hole into his already torn skin. With a half-gasped moan, he tried to lean more of his weight on Blair, a hopeless attempt to relieve some of the cruel pressure. Blair leaned harder against him, using his own weight to counterbalance, but Blair's legs trembled and started to buckle, betrayed into failure by his exhaustion. Helplessly Blair sagged, a groan that answered Jim's pulled from his throat as they began to collapse.

For an instant Jim knew what falling to that carpet would be like, and the white flash of memory erased all thought of allowing it to happen. He locked his knees against his own weakness, knowing but not caring he no longer had the strength to stand on his own.

The few moments upright his last effort bought them weren't wasted by Blair. Pivoting and pulling Jim with the grace and unexpected strength of a dancer, he took him the few steps to the side of the first of the two beds. As Jim swayed and began to go down with all the inexorable finality of an avalanche, he felt Blair still guiding him, resisting the fall to cushion his landing. Blair's hold supported him so he ended up lying stretched out safely away from the edge of the bed, rather than in a helpless tangle of his own limbs.

"Aw, Jim. Oh man." Blair's weight was on the mattress behind him, and he was bending over Jim, a sandy tangle of hair brushing along Jim's neck as he leaned closer. "Please, just a little bit more, here, you think? I wanna get you cleaned up, out of these wet clothes."

But after the long depth of night spent on sand and rocks, the coarse, cheaply quilted cover over the poorly sprung mattress was too welcome a haven. Jim pressed back against Blair's warmth, feeling the final exhaustion claim him despite the sand that grated so painfully, the burning of the salt, the agony of his untreated wounds. "Please," he wanted to say. "Please, Chief, just let me rest for a moment."

Blair understood, even though Jim didn't say the words out loud. He stopped trying to coax Jim up again, and instead stretched out behind him, his arm wrapped carefully around Jim's chest, the side of his face pressed to Jim's back. "I've got a better idea," Blair told him, trying to sound conversational despite the rasp in his voice. "What do you say we just take one last break? 'Cause we made it. You did it, just like I knew you would. Everything's gonna be OK now."

His voice broke, and then amazingly, he made himself laugh a little. Jim felt the warm vibrations against his back. "I never doubted it, Jim. Never." His hand spread wide again, flattening over Jim's chest. Exhaustion was making Blair clumsy too, and his touch was rough, scraping sand across Jim's welted flesh. Jim felt his body's flinch, even though he tried hard to stop it.

"Oh," Blair moaned, a heartbroken sound. "Oh, Jim, I'm sorry."

He felt Blair's head turning, Blair's forehead pressed against his back. "We've got to get the sand washed off," Blair whispered, as much to himself as to Jim. "I can't stand hurting you like this."

Moving with agonizing slowness against the exhaustion and pain, Jim managed to catch Blair's hand and pull it up to his face. He felt Blair's pulse thrumming through his own hand, bone deep vibrations that gave him the strength to press Blair's hand to his mouth and whisper against the sandy warm palm trembling there, "Please."

Blair started a little, and he made a quiet sound, not quite a sob, before whispering against Jim's back, "Rest, Jim. I'll be right here." He was crying. Jim could hear it in his voice and, after a moment, he felt the slow, hot tears.

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