Chapter 26

The sharp, sudden spike in Blair's heartbeat was jarring, almost painful. Jim shifted slightly, uneasy, knowing Blair was dreaming but not sure whether he should be awakened or not. Sandburg was so tired, and had done so much. Still had so much more left to do, Jim admitted to himself. Jim was barely able to roll over -- there was no way he would be able to care for his own injuries. He felt an odd combination of dismay and wonder at knowing he would lean on Blair as heavily and for as long as he needed to.

He listened to the increasing speed of Blair's heart, feeling it begin to pound, and a moan caught deep in Blair's throat, as if a scream had been strangled there. Jim knew about nightmares. "Blair," he said softly but firmly, tightening his grip a little, then letting go so he could look down into Blair's face. "Wake up, Chief, it's all right." The weakness in his own voice surprised him. He hadn't noticed his throat was so raw, but it coarsened and broke his speech.

"Come on," he whispered, feeling Blair catch his breath and startle out of sleep. Everything else was gone, for those few moments, from the constant hissing of the surf on the beach outside to the buzzing of the neon in the motel's "Vacancy" sign out front. All the doors slamming in other rooms, even the car that started out front with a grinding as the starter flywheel caught. All of it faded away into a quiet blueness as he looked into Blair's eyes, wide and surprised so close to his own.

"Jim?" he whispered hoarsely.

"Right here, Chief."

The dream still held him, a phantom pain in the wrist that wasn't really cuffed at all, the terror of not being able to help Jim when Jim needed him so desperately. But Jim's eyes were open wide, gazing into his with compassion, and Jim had answered so gently when he called his name.

"Aw, Jim!" Blair moaned in relief. He pulled his arms out from between their bodies, wound them around Jim's neck, and hugged him hard. "Oh man, I'm glad to see you."

Jim seemed to flinch a little, and a sound escaped him that sounded, in Blair's sleep-dazed state, almost like pain. But Jim's arms were around him, hands patting his back reassuringly, and Jim's leg lay over his hip, keeping him pressed close. Blair burrowed deeper into that embrace instinctively, not worrying about anything else but his overwhelming relief. "It's all right," Jim told him quietly. "You were dreaming."

The voice reached Blair first, before any of the rest of it, the sand and grit, the sticky salt taste on his lips, his hair stiff and prickling around his back and shoulders and reeking like seaweed, the cold weight of his wet jeans, his underwear bunched up on one side, wet and every bit as sandy as everything else. Jim's voice. Cracking and hoarse, as though just speaking were an almost intolerable burden.

"Jim?" he whispered, frightened, spreading his hands against Jim's back.

The pressure of Blair's body against his chest woke small fires of pain, and put them out as quickly with the soothing touch of his skin. Sprinkled with acid, then bathed in cool water, over and over. Jim caught his breath unevenly and held on to Blair, muscles tense with the effort not to tighten his grip in desperation. He wanted to be gentle, as kind as Blair had been to him, but he didn't know if he had the strength for it. There was nothing he could do about the way his voice sounded, so terribly unlike himself he could feel the way his words made Blair instinctively uneasy again. Blair felt his struggle, Jim's muscles wincing deep under the flesh, sandy, damp, and warm where they touched. "Jim," he breathed in horror as it all came flickering back, a few stark images at first, then everything in a rush, so overwhelming and terrible he decided he simply couldn't accept any of it. He would have no part of a world where this could have happened to Jim. Hurt again and again, brutalized until his mind and heart had shattered, and suffering it all alone. No. It was impossible. Blair didn't have to believe it. He wouldn't.

Jim's hands trembled as they stroked his back. Blair could feel them shaking. He squeezed his eyes shut and held Jim in despair. There was no escape. This was where Jim was, and so this was where Blair had to be as well, but by all the darkest gods in heaven and earth, by every black-hearted spirit that had allowed this to happen, he wished he could take Jim and simply go away.

He took a long, shuddering breath, trying to come back from that place he wanted to take Jim to, and the first thing he realized was he had fallen asleep and left Jim alone in wet, sandy clothes, his wounds untreated, not even a drink of water after his ordeal, not so much as a word of comfort. He moaned in grief and regret, then tried, too late, to stifle the sound when he heard his pain answered in Jim's voice. He unwrapped his arms from around Jim's neck, though he couldn't bear to release him altogether, and pulled back far enough to look into Jim's face.

Jim saw his own destruction in Blair's eyes. It hurt again, knowing how he had been broken, ruined by his own weakness when put to the test. Not able to be what was needed, not for himself, not even for Blair. Only able to crawl, and cling, and need so hopelessly. Ashamed, Jim shifted his weight backward, pulling his leg off of Blair's hip, letting his arms relax their hold. Freedom was little enough to give, but all he had left any more, and even that had been given to him by Blair.

"Jim." Blair held his head, his hands framing that bruised face. "Lie still, Jim." His voice broke, but he kept talking anyway. "I'm sorry, man. I guess I fell asleep. I'm so sorry."

Jim had to close his eyes.

It seemed to Blair a touchingly childish gesture, as if Jim thought he could spare Blair the sight of his wounds by hiding his eyes. Blair tilted his head forward, touching his forehead to Jim's. *I'm strong enough for this,* he thought. That's what he had to let Jim know. That he was strong enough to take care of Jim, no matter how bad it was. Jim didn't need more idle words from him, though, and he sure as hell didn't need any more tears. He needed to be warm and dry. He needed someone to take the pain away. Blair took a deep breath and said gently, "We've got to get you out of these wet clothes before you end up with pneumonia or something. I know it's gonna be hard, so I need for you to work with me on this."

Jim lifted his hand to cradle the back of Blair's head. "I'll try," he whispered. But he was lying, he knew it. That simple promise to try meant success to Blair, but not to himself. He couldn't even keep his promise to himself to let Blair go, not when he needed so badly to touch him, to use his presence to keep the sounds from outside and the smell of the room and the constant, hot ache of his scraped skin from becoming the only world he had. He had tried already, and failed so many times, and he knew with despair that he would fail again, even though he kept trying.

Blair saw it all. Jim, he thought, his heart aching. There were no words for this, his awe at Jim's strength and courage, far less the depth of his love for this great and good man. Blair brought Jim's face up, slowly and carefully, hoping Jim would open his eyes and look back at him. And he did, eyelashes rising slowly, heavy with hopeless weariness. Blue filtered through layers of exhaustion and sorrow. "You're not alone," Blair said. "I told you, I won't let you be alone anymore."

And then, because the hurt still shone back from Jim's eyes, Blair bent his neck and lifted his head a little so he could kiss him. When he eased back, his lips warm from Jim's mouth, the corners of Jim's eyes were crinkled as though he might smile, and to keep from crying Blair said, "And the next time I fall asleep on you, man, just whap me one, would you? Geez."

Jim did smile. Carefully, mostly with his eyes, but Blair knew a smile when he saw one. "You needed to rest," he told Blair hoarsely.

"And you need to get warm and dry," Blair said, hearing the way his own voice shook. He swallowed, then tried again. "I'm pretty thirsty. You want a drink of water?"

He felt Jim's arms tighten, an involuntary little movement, and Jim couldn't answer him at first. Blair knew why. Jim's fear and his need were so heartbreaking, but Blair knew he could help. There was nothing he couldn't do, if it would help Jim. He touched Jim's face, and an almost lost memory surfaced. Visible strength and power drawn over features that were slack with pain and exhaustion. "It's OK," Blair whispered, not lying. "I'm not going to leave you."

Jim nodded. His arms relaxed a little, but he didn't let Blair go. "I know," he said.

"Glad we've got that straightened out," Blair said when he could trust his voice. "It's up to you. Whatever you feel up to. We're just gonna take it one step at a time here, because I don't know any other way to do it."

Jim nodded again, his face calm and serious. "Whatever you say, Chief," he rasped.

"Wish I could get that in writing," Blair pretended to grumble. He patted Jim's cheek with enormous care, lightly and tenderly as he could. "We've got to get this sand off," he said. "I know it's hurting you." He saw Jim's jaw tighten a little. "I know," Blair said, more quietly still. "Everything hurts right now. But you're gonna get past this. One step at a time, and I'll be here the whole way."

Jim sighed, his eyes closing for a moment, then locking on Blair's again, wide open with trust and need. "Just tell me what to do," he said.

As if I know, Blair thought, humbled again. As if I ever did. He said, "So, how does a nice hot shower sound?"

"Painful," Jim answered in a low voice, honest as ever.

Blair bit his lip, and saw his own fear reflected instantly in Jim's searching blue eyes. "OK," he whispered. "I know. It's not gonna be easy. But we'll take it slow, and we'll figure out a way to do this so it doesn't hurt too much, because we've got to get the sand off. We've got to get you warm and dry."

Jim nodded one more time. His eyes closed again, and this time they stayed closed. His hands came up and lay on Blair's shoulders. Just resting there, no longer holding him. He lay resigned beside Blair, waiting for whatever Blair wanted him to do.

"Let's try it this way," Blair said, whispering so his voice wouldn't shake. "Do you think you can sit up?"

"I don't know," Jim said, and his voice sounded soft and lost.

Return to the Inner Sanctum