Chapter 49

Blair pulled Jim with him, one shuffling step across the wet floor at a time, and Jim followed. He was so weary he felt as though he were dreaming, moving through a world where the rules of reality held only faint sway. He closed his eyes and fell away so far and so fast that for an instant there was nothing in the world but the heat of Blair's arm across his back and the thunder of Blair's pulse.

"Hey," Blair whispered urgently. "Come on. Stay with me here, OK?" and Jim opened his eyes, coming back to a chaos of sensation that staggered him. He couldn't remember where they were, far less why everything hurt so badly. He was naked and cold in a strange, uncomfortable place, unfamiliar smells assaulting him, inexplicable pains clawing at him.

"Blair?" he whispered, frightened.

"I've got you," Blair said. "I'm right here, and I'm not letting go, you understand me?" He moved closer, stepping in front of Jim without ever relinquishing his touch, wrapping both arms around Jim's back and holding on tight, his head on Jim's shoulder, forehead against Jim's throat.

The moment of disorientation passed as quickly as it had come. Must have fallen asleep on my feet, Jim thought, the words barely making sense to himself. His ideas and impressions seemed to be reaching him from a very great distance, as though they were someone else's altogether. He realized he and Blair were standing in the doorway between the bathroom and the alcove containing the sink and the open closet. Beyond lay the bed. That's where Blair was trying to take him. He just needed to say awake long enough to reach it, and then he could rest. Blair would take care of everything.

"Simon," he said, concentrating so the word would come out clearly. The way the sibilant buzzed in his mouth made his head hurt.

Blair asked, "What?" They were two steps further along in this clumsy dance Blair was leading, no music and damned little grace in it as they slid their feet along together, thighs pressed to each others' for each shambling step. But the damp hair on Blair's breast was matted warmly between them, Blair's breaths puffing across his shoulder, Blair's strong forearms locked tight across his back. There might not be music, but perhaps he was wrong about their clumsiness. Such determination was grace in itself.

"Need to call Simon," he said, his voice stronger. The consonants took extra concentration to form, and his eyelids felt heavier than all the rest of his body.

Blair huffed out a noisy sigh, and it seemed to Jim there was an emotion behind it he could not understand.

"Chief?" he whispered, and then that damned carpet was underfoot again. The rasp and bite against the soles of his feet claimed everything for a moment and he clung to Blair, unable to move further until the intensity began to fade. It was the memory of pain more than pain itself, he thought, a door swinging wide when his concentration wavered. He would just have to concentrate, like Blair had told him to, and not let that happen again.

"OK now?" Blair asked with trusting optimism. "Two more steps and we're there."

"Simon," Jim said again. Blair hadn't promised to make the call yet, and they had to let Simon know what had happened, where he was. See if the mission could be salvaged.

Whether Jim Ellison could ever be salvaged was another question altogether.

"I'll call Simon." Blair's voice was hoarse. "Just as soon as we get you all squared away. I promise. Aw man, wish I'd thought to get the bed ready for you. Can you hang on just another second for me here?"

Blair was unwinding his arms from around Jim's back. He was going to let go. Jim began to tremble. "Hey, Jim, listen to me." Blair didn't let go yet. His hands cradled Jim's face, and his chest was still braced against Jim's, the towel around his middle damp and prickly against Jim's thighs. "You can do this for me, I know you can. I'm tired enough to fall asleep on top of the covers too, but this'll be better, OK? Warmer. Warm is good, right?"

Jim nodded wearily, not following the explanation, understanding only that Blair needed this from him. He held himself as still as he could, save for the shivering he was too weary to stop, as Blair eased himself away. He circled Jim's waist with his arm for a moment, probably reassuring himself Jim wouldn't collapse as soon as he let go, and then, with a brief, sideways hug, he released Jim, trusting him to stand alone.

He was still close enough for Jim to feel the heat from his body, and when Blair bent forward over the bed, tugging at the comforter, the damp towel around his waist brushed against Jim's thigh. Jim reached out without thought or volition and laid his hand on Blair's back. The last of the evaporating shower water made his flesh cool, and Jim stroked his palm in a circle, only half conscious of what he was doing, wanting somehow to bring warmth.

"These sheets are going to feel scratchy as anything," Blair murmured, his voice sounding pretty scratchy as well. "I know how much you hate cotton-poly blends anyway." Jim felt the rush of wind as Blair yanked the comforter and sheet back, having to tug hard to get the sheet out from under the mattress. Blair kept talking, a soothing murmur of nonsense syllables as he tucked the lower sheet back in and pushed the pillow back where it belonged. "You know, I see undergrads wearing those polyester bellbottoms and jumpers and I just think, man, Naomi wouldn't even wear that stuff back in the seventies." He straightened up and put his arm around Jim's back once more, an easy, companionable touch, his fingers patting Jim's ribs. "You did it," he whispered. "You don't need to do anything now but rest, get your strength back, and I'll take care of everything, I promise."

Jim found himself looking down at the turned down sheets and overstuffed rectangle of a pillow. The sheets and the pillowcase were harsh white. The weave was coarse, and Blair was right, it would feel scratchy as sandpaper against his over-sensitized skin. He could smell bleach and detergent that masked but could not wholly obliterate the rest of its ensemble of odors, sweat and dirt, cigarette smoke and sex, the lingering microscopic traces of perhaps every body these sheets had ever enwrapped. He felt himself following the scents before he realized what was happening to him, and could not imagine letting those sheets touch his body as well. Not after the night's violations. He couldn't.

He turned away from those vile bedclothes, seeking Blair's touch instead. He folded himself around Blair's warmth, and Blair turned to him as though it were nothing but easy, happy instinct to open himself to Jim's touch that way. His chest was cool too, at first, but beyond the first cool touch was the warmth of his heart's blood. His arms went around Jim as Jim sought him, and he strained up on his toes so he could lay his cheek against Jim's. Jim could feel the strain in his thighs even through the wet bathtowel, and with an impatient gesture, Jim dropped his hand and tugged at the damp towel until the rough knot Blair had tied gave way, and the towel dropped to the floor. Now there was nothing between them, not even a barrier as meaningless as that coarse, wet towel. He heard a moan that must have been his own, and he rubbed his face against the side of Blair's head. The smell of Blair's wet hair and the shampoo he had brought Blair himself, once upon a time, that he had lathered and stroked through Blair's hair with his own hands such a short while ago meant so much more than the tawdry ghosts of scent that rose from the bedclothes.

"It's OK," Blair whispered. "I'm gonna be right here. We'll rest together."

Jim reached up slowly, sinking his fingers into the damp tendrils of hair hanging down the back of Blair's neck, trying to understand what Blair wanted him to do now. The world flickered around him, hot, vivid flashes of raw sensation that flared around him and then faded into the soft, silent darkness over and again, every time dragging him further away. His hands cradled Blair's skull, keeping Blair's face tucked warmly against his cheek and jaw. "Like this," Blair said, his lips moving against Jim's cheek, and in the next hot flare, Jim felt Blair sinking away from him. He followed blindly, feeling the press of the mattress at his knee, and Blair's hands on him, trying to turn him, bearing down gently. "Can you sit down?"

He couldn't understand how this was supposed to work, what Blair was asking him to do, and that frightened him badly. How could he have fallen so far he couldn't understand Blair any more? He tried to speak, to let Blair know what was wrong, but only a whimper escaped him, and even that was muffled against Blair's hair and the side of his head.

"OK," Blair said anyway, in that quick soft tone of his, backtracking fast after a miscalculation, determined to make everything all right anyway. His arms locked around Jim's back, hands spread wide, touching Jim, straining up to press his face against Jim's. "Keep listening to me, come on, now, I know you can do this. This is the easy part, I promise." His body was hot and damp against Jim's, a warmth that promised the end of suffering -- or if that weren't possible, at least rest. Ease, and peace. They both needed it so badly.

"Chief," he moaned, and the sound of his own voice startled him almost as much as it did Blair. He felt Blair flinch in his arms.

"Yeah, Jim, I'm right here," he whispered. "What is it?"

Another of the sharp, black flashes came then, like a shutter slamming down upon the world and leaving him weightless in the dark for endless moments before clattering up again. As it opened, the universe rushed upon him with such force he wondered that Blair could stand against it. The intensity faded almost at once with Blair's arms around him so tightly, and before the enveloping dark could claim him again he forced the words from his throat. "Chief -- we oughtta -- get some rest."

Blair snorted, a hot puff of air against Jim's chest. Jim wondered if he was laughing, but all Blair said in a voice scoured by saltwater and tears was, "Good plan, man. Let's give it a shot."

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