Chapter 54

The touch at his temple moved, Jim's fingers circling as if that were all he could give, only the reminder of his affection. Through that touch, Blair knew Jim could feel his heartbeat, and the comfort it brought both of them was out of proportion to the delicacy with which Jim's fingertips drifted over the pulse moving under Blair's skin. Blair's breath slowed, deepened, until he drew the same breath as Jim, and breathed out with him, and Jim lay still in his arms, holding him in return, accepting warmth and giving back the reassurance it was helping. It was enough because it had to be, and they let it become the world.

When Jim's hand stopped moving the world began to expand again, the insulating blanket of their separate peace being drawn away, letting the cold sharp edges of their surroundings touch them again. "Call him now," Jim said, and it wasn't a request or an order, but the sound of someone at home talking out loud to himself.

Blair nodded, with the precise degree of introspection that same man would have upon announcing his course of action, and began to let go of Jim, withdrawing from his place with slow care. This time Blair understood the way Jim had resisted being separated from him all night in a more visceral form than he had experienced it before. Pulling away felt like tearing off a piece of himself, each bit of contact a necessary part of his own body and life. As he inched backward, shifting toward the head of the bed, Jim moved also, turning toward him, letting go with the arm around his shoulders and reaching for him at the same time with his left arm. Blair didn't need to pull Jim along with him, he followed with the instinctive need he had displayed all night, tempered this time by his recovery to a conscious level where he was voluntarily acting on his trust. It made the way he shifted to keep himself close to Blair no less heartbreaking for being deliberate. Blair swallowed against the salty tightness in his throat and murmured gentle words of encouragement, keeping the progress they were making slow but steady and, more than anything, kind.

Although the sheets were coarse, their skin had dried enough they no longer stuck damply to the fabric, and the lack of its clinging drag made moving easier. Wriggling the couple feet closer to the phone was a small thing, but when Blair's back was braced against the cheap headboard and Jim was slowly curling around his side nearly mirroring the position they had been in minutes ago, Blair felt the same surge of victorious pride he'd had when they'd first reached the motel. It was a sense of accomplishment enhanced, not threatened, by the way Jim's head came to rest over his heart, the rest of Jim's body settling as closely and carefully around him as he had wrapped himself around Jim.

Blair stroked his hand over the top of Jim's head, curving his palm and fingers to cradle the tender burden of Jim's skull against himself for a long moment before allowing his hand to drift carefully down Jim's neck, to his shoulders and back. The covers had slipped down as they shifted across the bed. Before Blair pulled them up again he moved his hand over the juncture of Jim's neck and shoulder. The muscles were still tight there, trembling with cold or tension.

Blair bore down carefully with the heel of his hand and the pads of his fingers, a gentle, circular pressure over the tensed muscles. "OK," he murmured out loud, though he was talking mostly to himself. "I'm OK, here, Jim. Calm and everything, so you don't need to worry." He moved his hand up to hold the back of Jim's neck again, feeling the heat of the bruise there. It reminded him of what Jim had suffered alone, and Blair swallowed hard, his promise of control a lie seconds after he'd spoken it. Jim was shivering, so Blair reached down and pulled the sheet and comforter up to cover Jim's shoulder. He let his arm rest across Jim's back over the bedclothes, but Jim shivered harder all the same. Blair bent his head and touched a brief kiss to the top of Jim's head. His hair was almost dry, soft and prickly against Blair's lips.

Jim's arms tightened for a moment, and he drew his knee up, his thigh dragging over Blair's knees. Jim's forearm lay heavily over Blair's stomach, and Jim was wrapped so closely Blair could feel the tiny trembles and flinches of Jim's sensitive belly against his own ribs and sides. "Be warmer soon," he promised cautiously, knowing how Jim would react, but he had to ask the next question anyway. "We could wait just a little while, Jim. Just until you feel stronger."

"No," Jim said. He didn't try to raise his head, but the voice rumbling against Blair's chest was level with conviction. "Call him now." Only a moment's hesitation. "It won't get any easier," Jim said, much more quietly.

Blair turned his head to lay his cheek on the top of Jim's head, knowing Jim could probably feel the way he was swallowing back the tears. No secrets any more between them. Not that there ever had been, not really. Both his arms lay across Jim's back and Blair hated to let go, even long enough to reach for the phone. "I'll talk to him," Jim said in that same quiet voice, as though that were the reason Blair were hesitating.

It did make things easier, somehow, though probably not the way Jim had intended. "No, you won't," Blair informed him. He raised his head and groped for the phone, because it turned out releasing his hold on Jim was easier than allowing Jim to believe Blair couldn't do this. "I've got it." He tucked the receiver between his ear and shoulder and punched in Simon's number. "If I let you talk to him, he's liable to talk you into coming in for a debriefing or something. And I'm telling you now, it's not gonna happen that way, so you and Simon can both just deal."

Smoke was still rising all around them from the blackened skeleton of the beach house, and Simon had lit a cigar in what he considered self defense. His team as well as the FBI field operatives were combing the remains of the building and searching the area surrounding it, but the slumped shoulders of his own group told the story of how much hope they had left. The body count from the house had come out to exactly what was expected, and there had been no evidence of any escapees from the firefight and explosion resulting from the dawn attack on the incoming boat and the group waiting to meet it. Though he'd grown accustomed to Jim's uncanny luck, Banks was afraid this time they'd pushed the odds too far. The line of black body bags along the driveway, trimmed with scorched debris, had tentative ID tags taped to them. One of those tags read "Detective James Ellison."

The politics would come next. Whose idea was it that Jim go undercover, who was supposed to be running surveillance on him, who had lost that contact and why had somebody decided Jim would be safe inside when the operation went into the final active phase. Lots of records would be searched, lots of reports would be filed, endless meetings would be held, and an official finger would be pointed, probably at some convenient technical glitch that would relieve the establishment of saying it was anybody's fault. Somewhere along the line, all the people who had known and cared for Jim would have to be told.

A gust of bitter smoke made Simon squint his eyes shut against the stinging. Of all the calls he had to make, he dreaded the one to Sandburg the most. Blair had known something was wrong, had come to him for answers, and had been turned away with the standard caustic refusal. It was such an automatic response Simon hadn't even thought about it, any more than he paid careful attention to the turns on his route to work in the morning. Banks had no idea how he was going to look into the ocean of betrayal in Blair's eyes and admit what had happened. "Hell," he muttered to himself, staring sightlessly over the row of body bags, "I don't even know what happened."

His cell phone chirped and after a moment, he shook himself out of his reverie and answered it, barking, "Banks."

"Simon, hey. It's me. You got a minute?"

"Blair," he said helplessly, wondering how the one person he least wanted to talk to had known to call him at that instant. For a moment he thought of telling Blair he was busy, asking him to call back later or better yet, wait to hear from the department, but though the urge was overwhelming, his conscience spoke louder. "Sandburg, we need to talk."

Blair spread his hand very gently over Jim's back, careful not to move the coarse sheets over Jim's sensitive flesh. "Yeah, I know," he said. He could feel the renewed tension in Jim at the sound of Simon's voice, a faint tightening of the arm that lay over Blair, the way Jim's head turned down against Blair's chest as if he were trying to somehow curl himself even closer. He told Simon, "It's about Jim."

There wasn't going to be any easy way, Simon could see that. "Blair, listen to me. I'm sorry, but Jim is dead. Something went wrong." That was feeble, it sounded impossibly lame even as the words came out of his mouth. How could he justify not knowing what that "something" was, how could he face Blair's grief and anger with nothing more than the statement he didn't have any real clue what had happened? It embarrassed him, and that made him angry enough not to hear anything Blair might try to say to him. He suspected he'd be grateful for the anaesthetizing emotion once Blair understood what was being said. "I'm sorry, I don't have any more information right now," he added pre-emptively, "I'll call you as soon as we know anything definite." At that, he considered he was being kind in not detailing the condition of the body they believed to be Jim's. There was nothing he could say about it that would make the news any easier for Sandburg to take, and he had the feeling Jim wouldn't have wanted Blair to see it either.

"Simon, what are you talking about?" Blair heard the edge in his own voice, a rising anger despite his promise to Jim to be calm. They'd worked so hard, survived so much, and Jim was getting better, Jim was going to be FINE, damn it. Whatever Simon was saying, it made no sense, and worse than that, it struck too hard and fast and low, before Blair could shut him up. Jim was hearing every word, and wasn't that Simon all over? Never really knew what was going on. Couldn't have, or he never would have sent Jim into that house in the first place.

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