Chapter 71

Leaning on his right elbow, Blair shrugged his upper arm free of the comforter and reached for the high point of Jim's shoulder, cupping his palm around the cool flesh. Of all the things that came to mind to offer as reassurance, none were as clear or heartfelt as the touch of his hand, but even so he said softly, "Go to sleep now. I'm right here." Under his hand a deeper breath sighed through Jim's lungs, emerging in a low, rough exhalation. Blair could hear the echo of every scream in that sigh, and his hand trembled as he moved it to Jim's head and gently caressed the short brush of his hair, all that was visible over the white bar of the sheet's folded top edge.

Jim sighed again, and something seemed to settle deep within the man, some lingering tension Blair had not realized he could even sense in Jim until, with the next breath, Jim released it. Perhaps the curve of his shoulder slumped a bit more, or his head turned slightly on the pillow. Perhaps it was none of those things. Maybe Blair felt him falling asleep without seeing anything at all, because for the first time since he had found Jim in the surf, Blair knew he was alone once more. He left his hand where it lay, soft against the top of Jim's head, even his breathing shallow and careful so he would not risk disturbing Jim's descent into sleep. He could feel Jim slipping away. The brave, weary soul of the man who lay beside him on this uncomfortable mattress was finally withdrawing from the waking world and all its suffering, coccooning itself in the velvety soft darkness Blair felt beckoning to him as well at the far edges of his consciousness. He would wait, though. After all, he had already given in shamefully to sleep once before. This time he would watch and wait, guard Jim until he knew Jim was safe in the arms of a peaceful, healing sleep.

It was easier to make the promise than to keep it, even though he wasn't afraid he would fall asleep before Jim, not this time. His head was heavy on the unyielding foam pillow, and his eyes were gritty with exhaustion. He could feel everything winding down, turning more and more slowly, even his own thoughts tumbling one after another in an increasingly languid procession. All the same, he was in no danger of falling asleep. Not while the loneliness burned dull and hot in his gut. It was the last thing he had expected, and perhaps that was why it caught him so unawares. He felt the warmth of Jim's scalp under the palm of his hand, heard the slow, deepening sound of his breaths, and tried to remember what had happened to them on the beach. Images of startling beauty and strength -- what did they have to do with two broken, exhausted men shivering under the covers at a lousy motor court?

Only one broken man, Blair amended. There was nothing wrong with Blair Sandburg that a little sleep and some decent food wouldn't cure within a day. Even the bruises he could barely feel would fade, and his cut finger would heal. But Jim... what had been done to Jim was beyond imagination. Or should have been, but Blair couldn't keep himself from visualizing it anyway, and feeling a sick weakness in the pit of his stomach as he did.

He tried to shame himself into stoicism, making himself think that after his years riding along with Jim he ought to be able to shut down his emotions when he needed to. Like Jim had told him once upon a time, if he wanted to hang with cops, he had to be able to do the right thing. That was all very good and well, but he wasn't so sure he knew what the right thing was anymore. It couldn't have been the right thing to let Jim take this assignment alone, without any helpful support or hope of rescue. He was Jim's partner; he should have been there to watch over Jim's safety and ensure it was protected even when Jim himself wasn't considering it. He should have found a way to be with Jim no matter what Simon or Jim or anyone else told him his duty was, because he knew what it was. The one time it really mattered, he hadn't been at Jim's side, and that wasn't the right thing at all. Was it any wonder the whole situation had gone so desperately wrong? So wrong Blair could hardly imagine anything ever being right again.

It was growing more difficult to keep the reaction isolated in his mind, insulated from his body's quick betrayal of every thought and feeling. If he was to give Jim this last, necessary gift of peace and rest, he had to accept the loneliness as well as the accumulated grief and guilt, and deal with it all on his own. With a shamed disgust at his blind selfishness, he realized that all the times he had promised himself he could break down later, he had been assuming Jim would be there to hold him in turn, give comfort back, and make everything more bearable with his gentle embrace. The unfairness of being cheated of that sympathy was the last straw, and Blair tasted the heavy saltiness of tears pressing against his sinuses, demanding release. In quiet desperation, he used the last of his strength to lift his hand from Jim's head, not letting any trembling weakness stir the short hair under his palm to give away his treacherous heart's mourning.

Jim's breathing caught briefly in protest, then steadied again. He was too exhausted to fight his way back to wakefulness even though he had clearly felt the loss of contact. Blair froze, breathing as quietly as he could through his mouth. Keeping his respiration slow and even was painful, the insistent pressure of his grief pushing at his throat with the need to sob and gasp, as unforgiving and constant in its own way as the surf. Memories of the abuse he had seen written across Jim's body were welling up faster and faster, uglier and bloodier with every iteration, filling his heart with despair and his ears with the distant sound of hoarse screams he should have been there to hear. If he had been there, he was sure he could have stopped them.

It was impossible to turn off the images. Without the distraction of tending carefully for Jim, there was nothing to stop the accumulated hours of desperation and horror from finally taking their toll. The bottom sheet was cold underneath his bare skin as he rolled onto his back and then to his left side, facing the back wall of the room, the pillow stuffed against his mouth to muffle the sound of his sobs. Hot and stinging on his face, the tears rolled from his eyes, some dripping over the bridge of his nose, others trailing down his cheek and wetting his sideburn. Cascading through his mind was an endless series of pictures: Jim beaten to his knees, tied up and hurt by anonymous men with hands that dripped redly; Jim crying out Blair's name in his agony, unanswered until he pleaded instead for the mercy of death; Jim in the surf, so far gone he only wanted to breathe his last but betrayed even in that by his body's innate strength. Jim, who loved him, looking at him with those sad, infinitely weary and knowing eyes, hurt beyond endurance but trusting Blair with his very soul, trying as hard as he could to do what was asked of him simply because Blair asked it.

It was getting harder and harder to breathe, but Blair stubbornly held the pillow close, as if it could absorb not only his tears but also his grief. He almost didn't notice the warm touch of a hand closing over his shoulder. Then the full length of Jim's body settled against his back, and Blair sucked in a deep breath, his head falling back as Jim's hand moved from his shoulder, over his chest, nudging aside the pillow and wrapping solidly around him, holding him with a firm gentleness Blair knew would never let him go, not so long as he needed it. Jim curled around him as if enfolding Blair entirely within himself, smooth skin and the rasp of gauze and tape where he shifted, until he was holding Blair so closely they even breathed together. Jim didn't say anything as his head came to rest next to Blair's, but his lips touched, and paused, so softly forgiving, on the point of Blair's shoulder.

Though he could not get any closer to Jim, Blair still pressed back, accepting the offered contact even while his eyes ran with uncontrollable tears and his chest heaved with the force of his sobs. He tilted his head up, laying his cheek against Jim's, nuzzling helplessly, blindly seeking the comfort of touch and finding it there, rough with stubble but unrelentingly returned. "I'm sorry," he choked out, though he couldn't begin to list the reasons. For waking Jim up, for not having been there when he should have, for doing everything that had hurt Jim since he had found him on the beach; so many reasons his heart had listed he could not stop his weeping for them. That it didn't matter to Jim, none of it mattered at all to the tortured man who still came out of his own pain to help Blair, somehow only made him cry all the harder.

The force of his grief shook him, and his tears came from a reserve as endless as the great dark thunderheads that drove sheets of rain from the sky. There was no end to the anguish he felt on Jim's behalf, and he wondered bleakly in the spaces between gasped breaths if there would ever be an end to his weeping for it. It didn't matter - Jim held him all the same, and would go on holding him forever, if necessary. Jim's arms would stay wrapped around him just this tightly, Jim's cheek would lay against his with the same gentle surety, Jim's heart would beat strong and certain against his back.

That knowledge, in the end, was deeper and more powerful than any grief or regret. Long minutes passed without words, only Blair's sobs loud in the dim, uncomfortable room. The certainty of Jim's embrace dulled the sharp edge of Blair's sorrow, though, and when his body had worn itself out with weeping, Jim's closeness was the haven to which his mind retreated. He dimly felt Jim's curled arm tighten protectively around him for an instant, and then he fell gently out of the grasp of grief and into that of sleep.

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