Chapter 57

Jim wanted to be who he had been, with all his heart he wanted to be nothing more or less than the man he had known himself as only a day ago. But even if he could act like nothing had changed, he would never be able to pretend everyone else didn't also know there was a difference now. Simon knew, and pitied him without understanding what had happened. Taggart knew even less, and pitied him the more; Jim was certain he had heard someone moving with Simon and while he had no single thing to identify, the pattern of the impressions had been shaped like Joel. Others would find out, and the story would inevitably spread around him like ripples in the wake of a flung pebble, growing wider even though the stone was lost deep under the surface.

Blair knew, and felt the same pain Jim did, and more for not having been present to save him, or to take the punishment in his place. All the anger that had burned through Jim in his defiance, and all the despair that had left him looking for release in death, he knew Blair understood those emotions just as intimately. How could he not? They had the same heart between them. The source of all his strength, the vault of his soul, beating quietly beneath his cheek where his tears made Blair's skin slick. How could Jim not know in return the guilt and desperate sense of protectiveness that made Blair's hand tremble as he stroked Jim's head with such careful tenderness?

All of it surrounded Jim as he curled over the warm strength of Blair's body, holding his heart in his arms. The dark feelings dredged up by hearing Blair's voice crack and break, the memories he could hear in the catch of Blair's voice and feel in the burning of his own abraded skin, everything washing together until he couldn't tell if the guilt was his or Blair's, or the hope, or despair or the protectiveness.

"We'll be OK, Jim, I promise." Blair's voice was as soft as his hand, gliding down the side of Jim's face, making the promise tangible.

Everything blossomed with that promise, intensifying the rest of what they shared in the existence that was the two of them together, and Jim made no effort to separate himself from it. There was open acceptance around the guilt, indomitable determination with the hope, infinite kindness woven through the despair, and an abiding love in the protectiveness.

He had lost himself in the night and everyone who knew him well would see it, know it, but it wasn't a loss he mourned any longer. He'd said goodbye to the last of himself and watched the shackles fall from his wrists with wondering joy. That had been simple, and what he had been given in its place was worth more to him. A lifetime's dependence on one other soul, who gave him that vow of sustenance willingly with every gentle touch. After being alone for forty years, he had finally come home to rest. Jim turned his head a little, his neck straining as his cheek slid over Blair's tear-wet skin, and he pressed his lips to the warm haven that would keep him safe, the few curling hairs on the side of Blair's breast tickling his nose.

The sheet was coarse and cold on his back and along the top of his hip and thigh, but Blair's skin was smooth and warm, even under the prickling tickle of the curling hairs sprinkled over his thighs and concentrating down the centerline of his torso. Jim didn't see the pattern, or even feel it between their bodies, he sensed it as a sort of shadow within the single ball of light that was his impression of the two of them. Eyes closed, he felt the light on his eyelids, and where his lips touched Blair's skin he could feel the difference in texture where the bruised corner of his mouth rested over the silkier, darker skin at the edge of the aureole. As distinct as that sensation was, at the same time everything else around him felt blurry, unreal, except for the clarity with which he could feel Blair's breath catch, and the way Blair's hand gentled on his face even more, impossible as it had seemed a moment ago that his caress could be any more tender.

The sounds were no more than the movement of Blair's mouth shaping the words, but they were still clear, and Jim didn't wonder at it any more than he questioned the way his own thoughts sounded in his head. "You'll make it. I know you will. Rest now, Jim."

Jim's lips were dry, slightly rough, but Blair felt only the tenderness of Jim's next kiss, silent, utterly trusting assent from a man too exhausted for any more words. "Rest," Blair said again, not insisting, only affirming that he understood. Jim's unshaven cheek and chin were rough against his breast as well, every bristle seeming to prickle across the aureole and nipple as Jim moved his head, almost nodding. Blair let his hand move across Jim's face, fingertips over the eyebrow, gentle as a breath over the heat and roughness of a bruise near Jim's temple, softer still over Jim's closed eyelid. The eyelashes met the soft, short lashes under Jim's eye, intermeshed in a line that Blair traced with his index finger, feeling the individual hairs stir.

"I have you," he murmured to Jim, because it seemed Jim relaxed more completely against him when he was speaking. "Just let me take care of everything now." He straightened his fingers so he could stroke Jim's cheek with the length of his fingers, smoothing down from cheek bone to jaw, then curving his fingers again to touch the flesh under his jaw. The day old bristles prickled, but the skin underneath was soft and hot, still a little damp from the shower. He could feel Jim's pulse and the muscles in Jim's throat when he swallowed. "We're both gonna be OK."

It occurred to Blair suddenly that the kid ought to be back with supplies and food soon. The things Blair needed in order to keep his promise and take care of Jim. Blair's heart sank as he thought about freeing himself from Jim's embrace, even just long enough to make it to the door and pick the stuff up. That was assuming the kid followed directions even that far and didn't do something unforgivable like banging on the door. He'd throttle him in the parking lot if he did.

Worry about what happens next when it happens. Not before then. That's what he'd been telling Jim all night long. He needed to remember it himself. Right now there was nothing but Jim's weight in his arms, Jim drifting close to sleep, Blair prayed, if he could just shut out enough of the outside world. Blair bowed his head and rubbed his cheek across the top of Jim's head, and then once more ran his hand down Jim's face. Jim muttered something drowsily against Blair's chest. All Blair could understand of it was his own name. "Yes," he said to Jim anyway. "That's right. The worst is over. I'm right here. I'll be right here." He wondered if he was even making sense anymore. Jim's head moved slowly against his chest. Blair could feel the noble forehead rolling against his breastbone, and then Jim's lips once more.

This kiss was openmouthed, searching. Jim's lips were dry, but his mouth and tongue were wet and warm against his chest, softly rasping across the thicket of curling hair over Blair's heart. Blair's next breath stuttered with emotion. His heart seemed to give a ragged leap, and he could feel the pulse in his throat thundering, racing, running away with him. Jim kissed him again, lips brushing across his chest to find a soft hollow below Blair's collarbone. The touch of his tongue was a warmth and wetness that cut though Blair so tenderly he gasped a little, and then reached to cradle Jim's head with both hands so Jim would know it was all right. Blair understood. His own mouth and nose still burned from the seawater too. It must be some ease to Jim to hold the taste of Blair's flesh in his mouth, as he held the sound of Blair's voice in his head and the beat of Blair's heart in his chest, stronger even than the hurt.

He felt Jim's head growing heavier, rolling at last to the side so he could rest the side of his face against Blair's chest, cheek and temple and jaw bearing down with welcome weight. Jim sighed. Blair felt eyelashes fluttering against his chest, and a last tension escaping the wracked, hurting body that lay over his own. He ran his hand over Jim's head once again, his touch tender and slow and as gentle as he knew how to be, brushing across the drying hair on his head, soft and bristly, warm from the heat of Jim's scalp. "Breakfast should be here pretty soon," he murmured, and lifted his hand to stroke Jim's head again. "Food'll help, right? Some coffee? Probably too much to hope this place'll have decent coffee, but you never know."

His voice was drowsy and low, a little hoarse yet from the salt water, but he kept talking, wishing he could guide Jim into sleep, and half thinking he could if he spoke to him gently enough. At the least he could take away a little more of the pain, and with enough little pieces of it conquered one after another, Jim would be well again. One at a time, the facets of his presence had soothed Jim's senses, from the touch he so willingly gave to stop the hurting in that tormented body to the taste Jim so trustingly took to ease the acid burn of bile and salt. As Jim's breathing became ever slower and easier, Blair knew the sound of his voice was helping too, holding back the memories of whatever vile words had been whispered to Jim, needles of language inserted deftly into his soul's vulnerable eyes, and the echoing sound of his own screams.

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