Chapter 28

Blair let his head rest against Jim's shoulder, his face beside Jim's throat, and when he spoke to Jim he tried to keep his voice calm and certain. Everything was going to be all right, and he would never, never leave Jim. That was the truth, and it was all that mattered. It was the only thing Jim really needed to hear.

"Trouble is," he said, hoping he sounded matter-of-fact, "I don't see that we've got a whole lot of choice. If you really can't walk on this carpet, then I can, I don't know, maybe try to stretch the bedspread out over the rug for you, and you could walk on that. But Jim, I think you can do it. It's already a little easier, isn't it? You're already able to stand more than you could just a few seconds ago, aren't you?"

It was true. Jim was supporting most of his own weight, Blair could feel it. He lifted his head to see Jim's face. His jaw was set, his eyes squeezed shut, but he gave a tense little nod, and he allowed Blair to slowly ease his way to his side again, one arm around Jim's waist so they could walk together.

"I'm not gonna lie to you, man," he said softly, waiting until Jim was ready to take the first step. "No short cuts this time. No dialing it down and just shutting everything out. I know you can't do that."

Jim didn't respond, except in the most important way. He took one careful step. Blair felt his whole body wincing as he set his foot down, but he didn't withdraw, and he didn't stop.

"You're probably not in the mood for any more advice right now," Blair said ruefully. One more step, and they had cleared the corner of the bed. Jim's breaths were harsh and shallow, and his eyes were still closed. A straight shot to the bathroom now, Blair thought, trying to feel encouraged. "But maybe it will help if you'll try your best to just concentrate on the here and now, lousy as it is. Don't worry about the future. It doesn't matter. It doesn't exist. Don't worry about the next five minutes. Right now is the only thing."

Another painful step, and another. "I -- don't -- LIKE -- it," Jim ground out past his gritted teeth, and Blair didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He felt like doing both.

He reached up and brushed the back of his fingers over the muscles clenching in Jim's jaw. "I know," he said. "But you'll accept it anyway. Every awful minute of it. Because it's only a minute at a time, and I'm here for every one of them. I don't know any other way. We've been looking forward to getting here all night long, and now we're finally here, and things are still bad, and I don't know about you, man, but I'm --"

He shut himself up before what he was thinking could slip out, but Jim stopped anyway. The arm over Blair's shoulders bore down more heavily. It would have been easy to sit down on the second bed, except, Blair thought with nearly hysterical irrelevance, it would really suck to get wet, sandy spots on both beds. Not to mention the difficulty of getting Jim on his feet again if he allowed them to rest. "You're what?" Jim asked in a rasping whisper.

"Really running my mouth here," Blair said with an unconvincing laugh, knowing that wouldn't work even as he said it, but the words had already escaped by then.

Jim's weight shifted as his free hand came up and grabbed Blair's jaw. It could have been anger, but Blair knew, even as Jim's fingers tightened, that it was something worse. He lifted his eyes to see Jim's face. "Jim," he said, and Jim released him with a sigh, letting his hand fall away, his eyes closing in resignation. He tried to take another step, but Blair was out of synch with him. Trying to drag himself and Blair at the same time was hopeless and he gave it up immediately and just stood there, panting softly, still leaning on Blair because he could not stand alone.

"Jim, stop, easy," Blair moaned. "Listen to me."

"I want to," Jim said quietly. "I haven't got anything else. I don't know if I'll ever have anything else again."

The ache was blunted and dull, but infinite for all that. Blair touched Jim's face again, and spoke through the pain, telling him the truth. "I'm sorry, Jim. Look, all I was gonna say is, I had this sort of fantasy in my head all night. I thought all I had to do was get you off the beach, and then everything would be all right. Well, we're off the beach now, and everything isn't all right. See, I thought it was hope that kept me going, that kept us both going out there-" he broke off, having to gasp for air, and because he didn't want to say the rest. "But," he finally went on, "if it was that hope that kept us going, then it was all a lie, because I know things are still so bad. I'm sorry, man. I'm sorry."

Jim bowed his head, whether in agreement or sorrow, or something else altogether, Blair wasn't sure, but the important thing was, after a moment Jim tried to take another step. This time Blair was ready and moved with him. They took another step. And another. The linoleum in the bathroom alcove looked so cool and smooth, its dull shine visible even in the dim light. Just a little farther, and they would be there. "Not hope," Jim said suddenly, forcing the words from his mouth in a moaning exhalation, dragging one leg forward to take yet another step. "Not hope. You."

Blair ducked his head. He couldn't stop and hold Jim like he wanted to, not when Jim was moving so good at last, but he felt overwhelmed, dizzy and a little faint, as though Jim were the one supporting him, and not the other way around. And who knew? Maybe Jim was. They took another step, and the difference between who led and who followed blurred even further. It didn't matter. That had never mattered to them.

Another step and at last Jim stood trembling on the smooth linoleum tile. Blair looked up at him, smiling hard. Jim's eyes opened again, just a little bit and, seeing Blair, the corners of his eyes crinkled in a smile. "You did it," Blair whispered. "Feel like you won a battle or something? 'Cause I do."

Jim let out a long breath of air. "What now, Chief?"

Blair sighed too. He moved closer to Jim, wrapping his other arm around Jim's waist and letting himself rest his head against Jim's sandy chest while he considered the question. It was a good one. And once again, just like everything Jim asked him tonight, he was damned if he knew.

The bathroom door stood open. The room was tiny. Not even a sink, that was out in the same alcove where they stood. To one side was the little open closet, half a dozen flimsy coat hangers on the rack, and his backpack lying on the floor. Blair had to look away. It reminded him too much of home. "Shower, I think," he said. "I know you've had enough of all this sand."

Jim turned his head to look toward the bathroom. He didn't say anything.

"And it'll feel good to get out of these wet jeans, right?" Blair insisted. He put his hands on Jim's shoulders and moved back a step, feeling the way Jim began to tremble at the loss of contact. "We'll go slow," he said quietly, "and I'll be right here. If anything hurts, just tell me, OK? We'll figure out a way around it."

Jim nodded. Both hands had been on Blair's shoulders, but he let them fall and instead began to work on the top button of his jeans, not saying anything. His head was down, and the wet cloth resisted the efforts of his fingers.

Blair waited, seeing the way Jim's fingers shook, so little strength in them. He could see the sand as well, and imagined how it had to be cutting at his sensitive skin, how painful it must be to try and exert enough pressure against the denim. Like trying to unbutton jeans encrusted in ground glass. Blair hesitated a moment more, then he said quietly, "Let me help, Jim," and put his hand over Jim's to still them. He looked up at Jim's face, seeing the despair at his own helplessness creeping up again. "Aw, I know. Sounds like a really bad come-on, doesn't it?" He grinned until Jim couldn't help but smile back a little. Blair could see it in his eyes, faint as a single star fading away in a dawn sky.

"Do your worst," Jim whispered.

"Geez, you sound real enthusiastic," Blair pretended to complain. "Don't know why I should be surprised, the way my luck usually runs." He lifted Jim's hands and put them on his shoulders. "Hold on. I'll have you out of these in just a second." He eased one hand gently under the waistband of Jim's blue jeans. The denim was half-dried, stiff with salt and grit and sand. No wonder Jim couldn't manage on his own. A cluster of welts marked the soft flesh around Jim's navel. Blair tried not to brush against the burns, but there were so many Jim flinched at almost every touch.

Blair felt a lightheaded, almost exhilarating heat prickle over his arms and up the nape of his neck when he realized how easily he could kill right now. It wouldn't be murder. The men who had done this to Jim had no right to live. A mercy killing. Blair would make it easy on them and do it quick. Easier than it had been for Jim.

A single hot tear spilled down his cheek, and he didn't wipe it away. "Tell me if it hurts," he said softly. Jim's hands had already tightened on his shoulders. Blair tucked his hand behind Jim's fly, trying to protect the sensitive skin on his lower belly while he wrested the buttons back through the stiff denim. He could feel the tender flesh twitching against the back of his hand. There was sand everywhere, trapped under the elastic waistband of Jim's boxers, streaked across his stomach in gritty lines and whorls. Blair knew he was hurting Jim, he had to be, but not a sound escaped him.

Aw dammit, there was no way to be as gentle as he had to be, as Jim needed him to be. Not if they were ever going to get these off. He warned Jim, saying, "Easy, man," and finally punched the button back through unyielding cloth. Jim flinched hard, the muscles in his gut trembling in reaction, though he still didn't allow a sound to escape. He only moved his hands a little, and lowered his head so he could rest his forehead on Blair's shoulder. "You're still with me here, right?" Blair asked, and he patted Jim's side very gently.

Only then did Jim make a sound. A harsh gasp, as though he had been holding his breath. Blair waited, and finally Jim whispered, his forehead still pressed to Blair's shoulder and his hands gripping hard, "... your idea of a seduction, Sandburg?"

Blair laughed softly and started working on the second button. He could feel Jim's stomach muscles drawn tight with every breath. "Is that supposed to be a comment on my technique?"

"Just -- a first-hand look -- at the train wreck," Jim managed as Blair freed the next button. His head was heavier on Blair's shoulder, and he was breathing in short, hard pants.

Blair stopped. "This is really hurting you," he said. "I don't know. Maybe we could try another way. Cut them off or something." With what? he wondered immediately. His little knife was lost back on the beach, and he couldn't have sawed through wet denim with it anyway.

"Chief," Jim whispered. "For god's sake. Just unbuttoning my jeans. If I can't even survive that, what am I supposed to do?"

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