Chapter 50

Darkness embraced him again, and when it lifted away, Blair's body was no longer a warm support against his. The cold had come between them, though Blair was still near enough to lace his fingers through Jim's. He tugged irregularly at Jim's arm, and Jim heard the bed springs squeaking and realized Blair was sitting or kneeling on the bed. He was talking to Jim. He had probably been talking all along.

"Like this, Jim. I'm right here. Come on, give me a hand here, all right? For me, Jim. Please." The hand holding his slipped around, Blair's palm hot against the back of his hand, warm fingers curling gently around his wrist, careful to avoid the abraded flesh below the point of bone at the joint. "This way," he whispered. "Come toward me."

Jim's entire body yearned to answer that gentle plea. He came forward, knees pressing unevenly against the side of the bed, and then his palms laid flat on the coarse bedsheets. Blair's hand moved carefully up his arm until his fingers were curled around Jim's biceps. "Almost there," he murmured, and as Jim managed to crawl onto the yielding surface, his knees scraping over the sheet, Blair swayed closer to encourage and guide him. He held Jim's head for a moment, his own close enough for Jim to feel more of the tension leave Blair's throat and jaw as he said, "We're almost done, Jim. Just need to lie down now."

He tried to stay with Blair, but he couldn't seem to force his eyes open, and the darkness came again and again, rushing over him like an advancing tide that retreated less each time, claiming more territory with every sweeping inrush. He was on his hands and knees on the bed, Blair half-bending over him, arm around his back, trying to coax him forward, and then everything was lost to him. When he returned he was propped on his forearms, his head down, and Blair was wrapped around him. Blair's chest was warm against Jim's back, his arms going around Jim's ribs in a brief, fierce embrace.

"I've got you," Blair whispered. Jim could feel Blair's heart beating against his back, a steady, strong rhythm. He relaxed into the pulse of the life that had given everything for him tonight, and felt something more than the strength of body or mind reach him. He wondered if he were asleep again, but it did not feel like dreaming. The heat of Blair's naked chest against his skin was more intimate than any dream could be, and that must mean the rest of it was real as well, the touch of Blair's courageous soul, the coiled red lines of shared strength scrolling over both their bodies.

Jim sighed, not minding even the coarse touch of the sheets against his forehead when his head dropped all the way forward. A shimmering white light shone in the darkness. It surrounded and enfolded him. It blazed through his own emptiness, shining into the hollow places where Blair had taken away all the shame and grief, all that had remained of Jim Ellison after the night on the beach. The light was Blair's, he knew that. Blair's heart and strength. Blair's soul. Jim had nothing left of his own any more, he knew that as well.

But he heard Blair speaking to him. Quiet words, humble with the same awe Jim felt. "Thank you," Blair whispered. "Oh, Jim." His voice was breaking with emotion. "Thank you."

That was no dream either. Blair felt it too, and it wasn't his heart alone that was shining in the darkness, it was the light from their mingled souls, shared strength and hope made into one life now, more than either could ever be alone.

There was no alone anymore. Not for either of them. When the soft darkness took him again he was not afraid. He fell forward willingly, long moments that were deeper and emptier even than sleep. When the world returned in another pulse, the coarse white sheets were under his hip and shoulder. He was curled awkwardly on his side, and Blair was close, bending over him, one hand on his arm for a moment. Then he was closer still, the firm flesh of Blair's belly warm against Jim's ribs, curling hairs dry enough to tickle as he shifted. He looped his arm behind Jim's knees and gently pulled his legs forward, shifting him carefully until his feet were on the bed.

He fell away once more, awaking as the sheet was pulled over his shoulder. He opened his eyes, blinking in the dimness of the motel room, and found Blair very close, gazing down with an expression of great gentleness on his face. His wet hair prickled Jim's cheek.

"Rest, Jim," he said. His eyes glowed in the gray light of the room, so blue and deep Jim half imagined the joined soul he felt so clearly was shining in them now. One of Blair's hands slid under Jim's cheek, lifting his head just enough to slide the stiff foam pillow under his head. Then he released him, but his hand lingered on Jim's face, soft on his brow, then covering his eyes for a moment. "Rest, and I'll be right here, I promise."

Blair lifted his hand away carefully. Jim's eyes were closed again. His brow was smooth, the expression on his face peaceful, as though he had finally escaped the pain at last. Blair wanted so badly for that to be true. "Sleep," he said, moving his lips without speaking out loud, and bent his head so he could lay his cheek against Jim's face for a moment.

When he raised his head again, Jim's eyes had opened. Dark as it was in the shuttered motel room, nevertheless Jim's eyes were bright as a clear sky overhead, the sun of their combined soul shining strong and steady and warm, keeping the clouded gray of pain at bay. Blair felt himself trembling a little, because it was hard to understand how he could feel so much joy when things were still so bad. He smoothed his hand back over Jim's forehead, and realized he was smiling. "Sleep," he said again, and spoke out loud this time. "I'll take care of you."

Jim's eyes closed, giving himself over to Blair as absolutely and as trustingly as he'd done all night long. His breaths went ragged for a moment as sleep claimed him. He shuddered, and the hand that lay open on the sheets closed convulsively. Then as his breathing grew slower and deeper, his fingers slowly uncurled until his palm lay open on the sheets.

Blair drew a deep, shaking breath himself. "That's right," he murmured. "Just rest now." He closed his own eyes for a moment, wanting nothing quite so much as to stretch out beside Jim and join him in what he prayed would be a deep, dreamless sleep. He opened his eyes again before the desire for sleep could become an irresistible force. Not yet. Not while Jim still needed so much.

One hand laying outstretched, palm upward, the other curled over his own heart, Jim looked so defenseless in sleep. The bruises around his wrist were livid against the white sheets, the abraded flesh from the rope burns so dark Blair could almost see the ropes. He moaned at the picture. Jim's strength bound that way, turned against himself, his fight to escape the pain only hurting him more. It must be hurting him still, and there was so little Blair could do to help. He swallowed hard, pushing back the hopeless grief that insistently crept back time after time, no matter how often he vowed to leave behind everything that didn't help Jim. That distancing thing Jim had tried to instill in him so long ago had been the one lesson he had never managed to completely assimilate, but he had never regretted the failure. Not even now, when looking too closely at what had been done to Jim could make his bones feel like lukewarm water.

Jim was shivering, he realized then, little tremors that were more noticeable as he relaxed in sleep. Neither one of them had truly warmed up yet. There were goosebumps on Blair's arms and every draft was a chilly reminder of the night's storm. Moving carefully and slowly, though he doubted anything would wake Jim up at the moment, Blair tucked his own feet under the sheets, and then reached down to pull the comforter up over both of them, tucking it over Jim's shoulder, and pulling it up as high as his own waist. It was a heavy, stiff weight, and he worried a little about burdening Jim with such an uncomfortable cover, but it was better than being cold, he decided.

At the touch of it, Jim stirred a little, his head turning on the uncomfortable pillow, and Blair thought he must have awakened Jim after all. He went very still, watching, but Jim's eyes didn't open again. He was right, nothing would wake Jim up now. The poor man was exhausted. He'd done everything Blair had demanded of him and more, uncomplaining, so strong, even when he couldn't have had any of his own strength left. Borrowing against his own recovery to do what was needed to save them both. Blair laid his hand carefully on Jim's brow, letting all his love for this courageous man fill his heart with tenderness, and didn't mind the pain of unshed tears aching in his throat.

"I need to make that call now, Jim," he said, and his voice sounded hoarse and low as a stranger's. Jim didn't stir. "Just going to get the front desk to bring us some breakfast, a little Neosporin, like we talked about. Some bottled water and stuff, so we can stay in and rest today." He moved his hand to Jim's shoulder, letting his palm rest there until he could feel the warmth of Jim's body even through the coarse bedspread. "That's what we need, more than anything else right now. Rest. And each other." He was a little surprised to hear he had said the last out loud. It was the truth, though, and he was not ashamed of it. The whole rest of the damn world was nothing but distraction and pain to Jim right now. That left only Blair. If he had to be Jim's whole world for a while, then he could do that, even though the responsibility made him shake when he thought about it that way. He took a deep breath, calming himself with the sight of Jim's face, eyes closed in sleep, trusting Blair with everything, then leaned away so he could pick up the telephone on the shoddy night stand between the two beds.

The phone was a heavy old dinosaur, almond colored under an uneven coating of brown grime, with the numbers rubbed off the square buttons. A yellowing card under cracked plastic gave instructions for making long distance calls, and advised that even local calls were twenty-five cents each. The "twenty-five" had been marked out and replaced with "fifty cents" and that in turn had been marked out with a blue pen and "seventy five cents" written in a childishly clumsy scrawl. Blair sighed. What a dump. He tucked the receiver between his shoulder and ear so he could keep his hand on Jim's shoulder while he dialed the front desk.

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