Chapter 53

He couldn't afford to linger, all he could do was make his absence as short and effective as possible. Pulling the sheet and blanket up over Jim to shield him from the light that would spill in when the door opened, Blair rolled once again to the side of the bed, pushing himself out as smoothly as he could. He grabbed his hundred dollar bill off the nightstand and was two rapid steps toward the door before he realized he was still naked. The cheap carpet burned his skin as he spun on one foot to stride back toward the bathroom alcove and grab his towel. Knotting it around his waist, he crossed the floor in a few long steps and yanked the door open as soon as he reached it.

Outside, a teenager in cut-offs and a muscle shirt that showed off skinny arms and a white chest, hair hanging down his back in a failed attempt at dreadlocks, was just raising his hand to pound on the door again. Blair grabbed the front of his shirt and drew him close enough to hiss furiously in his face, "I told you not to knock! Can't you follow simple directions?" He glared at the kid, hoping he looked as crazy and angry as he felt. The way the bright morning light outside hurt his tired, scratchy eyes and made him squint fiercely could only have helped the impression.

Pushing back, the gangly teenager tried to free himself with a shove. "Get off me, man!" The weak fabric of his shirt stretched until the neck was pulled out of shape, but he still dangled in Blair's uncompromising grip.

Blair didn't let go. Holding up the list in his other hand, the bill wrapped around the folded paper so its denomination was clearly visible, he whispered in the same angry hiss, "Do you want this gig or not?"

Eyes suddenly alight with greed, the kid reached for it, but Blair yanked his arm back, keeping the money out of reach. "You do it my way, got it? That means you get what I want, you bring it back quickly, you leave it by the door with a full set of clean towels and a couple blankets, and you knock very gently before quietly disappearing. Do I make myself clear?" He released his hold on the shirt, pushing with a flick of his wrist to keep the kid slightly off balance.

"Yeah, yeah, all right." Shrugging his shoulders violently to settle his tattered shirt back in place, he grabbed for the bill again, but Blair still held it out of reach. "OK, man, I'll do it your way," he clarified with bad grace, and Blair let his hand drop low enough for him to snatch the note and money.

"Half an hour, no more," Blair told him, no room for negotiation in his tone. "Don't make me come looking." With all the haughty unconcern of someone who knows they will be obeyed because the consequences of it not happening were too dire for anyone to even consider, he pushed the door shut in the kid's face. Leaning back against the cold metal, he took one deep, deliberate breath, emptying himself of the anger and frustration, forcing the tension out of his muscles as he exhaled. Pulling the damp towel from around his waist, he scrubbed at his hands as he moved back toward the bed, wishing belatedly he hadn't had to touch the guy. He knew the brief contact had left a scum of scent on his skin that would disturb Jim.

He dropped the towel at the bedside and slid between the sheets and across the narrow expanse to where Jim still shivered under the covers. "Shh, it's me, I'm sorry, I had to go but I'm back now," he murmured as he carefully peeled the covers away from Jim's face. Eyes squeezed shut, breathing harshly, Jim hadn't moved at all since Blair had left and didn't seem to hear him, so Blair kept lifting the covers and inching forward until he was nestled along Jim's side, tucked around the curves of his body as closely as he could get.

Although the residual dampness was almost all gone, Jim's skin still felt chilled, and as Blair wrapped his arm over Jim's chest, he could feel the tiny roughness of goosebumps between the larger burn blisters. It sent a stab of tenderness through his chest that felt not much different from the sharp knife of sorrow, and made him move more slowly but with focused purpose as he curled over and around Jim. He spread himself over every inch he could cover, enfolding the larger frame within his embrace, wrapping one leg over Jim's, canting his hips and settling very deliberately into place to avoid crushing himself painfully in the process. "We'll get more blankets soon," he whispered, laying his head gently down on the smooth column of Jim's neck, his nose pressed to the bristly underside of Jim's throat. "You'll be warm soon, I promise." The shift of movement as Jim swallowed tickled slightly, and he pressed closer, willing the warmth in his body to seep into Jim's faster.

Jim shivered and tilted his head down, the hard line of his jaw resting on Blair's skull and the arm that had remained outflung when he was alone moved, curling up and around Blair's shoulders, holding him tightly. He swallowed again, though Blair knew his mouth was dry and still burned with the taste of the ocean's salt. His own did, despite the water they'd shared.

When Jim spoke, his voice was faint and his breath trembled with the clenching of his jaw against the cold, making the words slur together. Even so, one ear plastered to Jim's chest so he heard the breath behind the voice as loudly as the speech, Blair understood what Jim said. "He called you an asshole."

He hugged Jim a little tighter, shifting minutely, feeling his skin slipping over Jim's in some places, sticking in others, as he consciously tried to spread himself over more surface area, wishing he could flatten and extend himself far enough to wrap all the way around Jim like a soft comforter. Blair's smile was unrepentant as he closed his eyes and whispered back, "Good, I was one. Sometimes that's the only way to get through to people."

The hoarse, rasping sound of Jim's chuckle sounded under his ear, echoing inside the arch of Jim's chest. The shivers that rippled over his body were decreasing in frequency, and the tension in his muscles was gradually fading away, making it seem like his body was subsiding into Blair's embrace, sinking into the warmth without a struggle. Sinking back down into sleep, Blair hoped, and was relaxing himself, his head resting infinitesimally heavier on Jim's chest, when Jim asked, his voice smoother, not so muzzy, "Is he bringing clothes too?"

"No," Blair answered, blinking awake. His eyelashes fluttered against Jim's skin and there was a flicker of movement under his cheek, like the skin of a horse twitching at a fly's presence. He held still for a moment, then tilted his head differently so when he blinked again, it wouldn't irritate Jim. "You should be resting," he murmured. "Go to sleep now."

Jim's next breath was deeper and steadier, but it wasn't the sigh of incipient sleep. "We'll need clothes," he insisted doggedly, his arm tightening around Blair's shoulders as if trying to make him listen.

"Shh," Blair sighed out gently, not changing the way he was holding Jim. "It's OK, don't worry." But he knew that tone in Jim's voice, the one that indicated a goal had been set. It was a good thing, a sign of increasing recovery, this desire to plan for being well enough to go out and be normal, and no way was Blair going to squelch that confident hope by pointing out how Jim couldn't possibly stand to have the binding friction of clothes against his skin yet. "I'll go out later, when you're better, and get us some stuff," he mumbled, knowing he needed to appease Jim's awakening anxiety about the future. Without thought, he rambled on, only thinking vaguely he should keep Jim from worrying about being left alone, "Or maybe if you don't want me to go, we could call Simon to bring some things." Shit.

"Simon," Jim breathed, a strange mix of hope and fear in his voice. A moment later he said firmly, "We have to call Simon." A shiver rippled through the length of his body, betraying his own ambivalence.

"No," Blair moaned, and heard the petulance in his own voice but refused to feel embarrassed about it. "Not now, Jim. Would you please get some rest? We can call him later."

Jim's head rolled restlessly in denial. "He has to know." His voice was regaining its earlier hoarseness, his momentary certainty fleeing and leaving the lost, helpless man behind.

Hot anger swept through Blair at the sound of Jim's returning pain. "He already does know," he said, holding tighter to Jim, refusing to let anything between them despite the grunt of pain driven from Jim's lungs at the pressure. "He sent you in there, he was supposed to be watching to make sure you were OK, wasn't he? Where was he? Where was the stinking FBI when you were - "

The weight of Jim's arm around his shoulders had shifted while he spoke but he hadn't noticed it past the terrible images building in his head and spilling out over the walls of control breached by his exhausted rage. Hadn't thought the movement was anything but Jim seeking more warmth from him, which only made him sadder and angrier, until the gentle pressure on his head stopped him in mid-sentence as Jim's palm descended over his ear. Cool fingers laid over his temple, warming as they lingered, holding him steady with nothing more than their own weight. Barely a few ounces, yet it was the ineffable weight of all Jim's trust. Under that touch, Blair felt the tightness in his own body where it coiled around Jim's, and he let it go because it couldn't help. Slowly the anger bled away, loosening its hold inside and without, until it was he who sank unresisting into Jim's presence and drew the strength he needed from the core of their combined power.

A long, slow breath rose and fell underneath Blair's cheek, the small motion reminding him of resting on the swell of the ocean, at ease with its infinitely strong support. "We'll call Simon," Blair said softly, accepting without surrendering. "I'll tell him what happened. Then you can rest."

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