Chapter 25

Jim closed his eyes, pushing it away. He would not dwell on death, not while he held life in his arms. Especially now that he suspected the dimensions of that life. He had a dim recollection of what he had seen on the beach when he had finally permitted Blair to taste his soul. The vision was growing cloudier, as Blair helped him reclaim more and more of himself, but when he touched Blair's throat, or put his hand on Blair's chest, he could still see the wavering outlines and a faint echo of that incandescent white power.

He felt the warmth of it whenever Blair was near him. It gave him strength when he had none of his own left, filled his heart when nothing remained but the bitterness of failure and defeat, insisted he live when it would be easier to die. Tears came to Jim's eyes, but they were easy, painless tears of joy. Blair had simply shown him what he had known all along. It was what he had felt himself, from the very start.

His arms tightened around Blair again, but he knew he was holding his friend in love, not desperation. Blair seemed to relax even further then, a last tension slipping from him as he rolled a little toward Jim, straightening his legs, tucking himself into Jim's embrace. His breaths puffed warmly against the hollow of Jim's throat, and his hands were balled into loose fists and tucked under his own chin, his forearms against Jim's chest.

Jim began to draw his own breath in time with Blair's. He had to concentrate at first, but the slower rhythm of Blair's sleeping breaths gradually pulled him in. His pulse slowed as well as he focused on the steady contractions of Blair's strong heart, falling into closer and closer time until at last it might have been his own heartbeat he heard reflected back from Sandburg's body.

He still hurt, and he couldn't remember the last time he had been so weary. His very soul seemed to ache, everything he had ever believed himself to be battered beyond recognition. Whatever control he had left was only because he could hold Blair in his arms. But it was enough. He could wait without fear of falling further while Blair rested.

Outside, the world flowed around their hiding place, and Jim listened to the dawn. The changing cries of the sea birds. The way tires hummed over asphalt as the rising sun heated the pavement. The distant sounds of life in the other motel rooms. People stirring slowly, water running, voices raised in sleepy disagreement, suitcases slamming shut.

Jim closed his eyes, trying to ignore as much as he could, sinking himself into the rhythms of Blair's living presence. Their soothing cadences grounded him, and he drifted, half aware, conscious of his many hurts as he was of the sounds around him, out to the street, but able to ignore them so long as the quiet metronome of Blair's heartbeat and breath moved time past him in pieces he could encompass.

Sandburg stirred and muttered in his arms. Jim could feel the flicker of eyelashes against his throat, and realized Blair was dreaming.

Must be the last day of the quarter, Blair was thinking as he laid another blue book aside. Grades were due this afternoon before five. That was the only reason he could imagine for dragging Jim down here and then making him wait while Blair read through endless stacks of undergraduate essays. Not that Jim was complaining. He sat at Blair's desk, leaning back, eyes half closed, a cup of coffee cooling on a small cleared space on the blotter in front of him. "Just a little longer here," Blair lied, glancing at the stack of essays still to be graded. "I really appreciate this, man."

Jim nodded a little, or seemed to, and Blair bent his head over the next essay. He was tired, he realized almost at once. Too tired to be doing this. The handwritten scrawl tangled with the blue lines of the paper until Blair couldn't read a single word of it. He shut his eyes and shook his head, then opened them and tried again. Nothing. If anything, it was worse than before. Didn't even look like handwriting anymore. And what in the world had possessed this student to write his entire essay in red ink?

He closed the blue book and laid it aside, thinking he'd deal with it later. He expected Jim to ask him about it. Maybe he was hoping Jim would ask. He felt tired and frustrated, and really wanted to just go home, though he knew he couldn't. Neither one of them could. He groaned and stretched, shivering. He was sitting on the floor by the bookshelves, and it was no wonder he was cold. He looked down at himself and found he was wearing nothing but boxers and a sleeveless T-shirt. He was even barefoot. Good grief, Blair thought. Why in the world had Jim let him go out like this?

It seemed more urgent than ever he get the damned essays graded and get out of here before anyone saw him like this. He opened the next booklet, and a few grains of sand drifted down from the open pages. Blair brushed the grit off his bare legs, irritated. Where in the world had that come from? When he looked up again, he found this essay had been written in red ink as well.

OK, now that was definitely a little weird. Something was going on here. Was he the only one who had been left out of the loop? Wouldn't be the first time, but who could have thought it would be a good idea to write all the final exams in red ink? The next booklet was filled in red, as was the next, and the next. He pushed them all aside angrily. He couldn't work like this. To hell with all of them.

The steady counting beat changed its speed, catching Jim unawares. His own breath caught unevenly as he tried to recapture his synchronization with Blair's, at first not even understanding the missed beat was not his fault for losing his concentration. But it was not a very great disruption, and soon he was able to re-establish the pattern, adjusting to the slightly faster tempo.

"That's it for me," he announced to Jim. "I'm ready to get out of here."

But of course, he never could fool Jim. Jim just continued to sit there, a patient look on his face, and Blair felt a little ashamed of himself. "I know, I know," he said, hoping he didn't sound like he was whining. "But I'm really beat. These don't even look like English to me anymore. I just want to go home and get a little shut-eye. It's not a big deal. I'll talk to the dean tomorrow if there's a problem."

He tried to stack the booklets up in a neat pile, as though that would accomplish anything. His hands were still gritty with sand. He wiped them ineffectually on his boxers, thinking he was really cold and wondering if Jim would lend him his coat. He hated to ask, but the thought of driving all the way home shivering in his underwear made him feel hopeless and miserable. Way more than the simple loss of dignity. He felt as though things were going wrong that were far beyond his ability to put right, even if he did get home and get a good night's sleep.

"Jim?" he asked cautiously.

Blair shivered in his arms, drawing Jim out of his dazed state again. He was cold himself. The room was so much warmer than they had been all night, he hadn't realized how his wet jeans were still sucking the dregs of heat from his body as he lay there. The same would be true of Blair, whose reserves were as depleted as his own. Helplessly, Jim spread his hands wide on Blair's back, as if that would provide more warmth.

Dark memory brought the fleeting impression of Blair's hands stretched across his back, shielding him from the cold rain, trying to give him hope and warmth and life. Jim shifted, letting his touch remain gentle and close. It had worked before for Blair, perhaps it would work now for him.

Still that patient, half-lidded, knowing look from Jim. Blair's head dropped and he sighed to himself. OK, just admit to Jim that you've over extended yourself again, and you need his help. What else can you do? Thinking that calmed him a little, but Jim's gentle trust was so precious and Jim himself was so strong, that Blair still hesitated a little. Then he made a show of stretching his arms over his head and cracking his back as a little demonstration of weariness. Or tried to anyway. When he started to raise his left wrist, he discovered it was handcuffed to the metal bookshelves.

He gave a little yelp of surprise. "Jim? What's going on here?"

Nothing from Jim, who didn't seem to have noticed anything amiss. His eyes were still half closed, and he didn't look toward Blair at all. Blair couldn't understand it. All he had to do was whisper Jim's name from across a crowded room to see the gesture so instinctual Blair was fairly certain Jim wasn't even aware of it. Head tilting toward Blair, eyes flickering in his direction, even if only for an instant. The reaction was so automatic Blair had learned to be cautious of it, because it didn't matter how focused Jim was on the task at hand, and it didn't matter what was going on around him. When Blair called him, Jim came, no matter what.

"Jim," Blair said again. A slow, terrible fear lifted the hairs on the back of his neck. He got to his knees, tugging uselessly at his cuffed wrist and feeling sand grinding under his knees. "Jim, at least look at me, man. Please."

One of Blair's hands moved, the wrist pressing against Jim's chest in an uneven twitch. It hit two of the burned marks on his skin, and he couldn't keep from flinching slightly. At the movement, Blair breathed out a harder sigh, but remained asleep, his eyes moving rapidly under the pale, shadowed lids.

Jim didn't get up. Jim didn't look at him. He only sat there, his eyes calm, as Blair struggled to get his feet up under himself. He was yanking so violently at his tethered wrist the entire bookshelf shifted. He screamed Jim's name over and over again. None of it made any impression on Jim, because Jim had finally found an escape from those senses he'd never really wanted in the first place. He sat there, deaf and blind, at peace at last, while Blair screamed to heaven, and wasn't heard.

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