Chapter 9

"No, wait, hey, please," Blair pleaded with him, but he couldn't support all of Jim's weight. The best he could manage was to control their fall as Jim's knees buckled. "It's all right," Blair kept telling him, even as the two of them ended up on their knees in the sand. Jim's hands clenched into fists on Blair's shoulders, and he kept trying to struggle up again.

"Jim, listen to me," he said, more insistently. He pulled away a little bit, taking Jim's hands and pushing them back. That got Jim's attention. He stilled instantly, save for his violent trembling. "We're going to stop here and rest for a few minutes. It's all right. Just going to rest now, all right?"

Blair decided to assume Jim could understand him, and gathered Jim into his embrace again. For a moment Jim remained tense in Blair's arms, rigid with fear. Blair pulled that unyielding form as close as he could, trying to get his arms around Jim's broad shoulders, talking to him ceaselessly. "I'm sorry," he said. "I was just trying to get you to listen to me. Jim, I'm not going anywhere. I'm right here. Right here with you. We're just gonna rest for a minute, that's all."

After an endless moment Jim relaxed a little. He released his breath in a long, low moan, and reached for Blair again, not trying to get up this time, just to hold him. "That's right," Blair whispered. "Just like that. Just gonna catch our breath, then we're outta here, Jim. How does a nice hot shower sound? Some breakfast? I'm sure we can find some place in this little hole in the wall town that can make you a decent plate of scrambled eggs."

Jim's arms tightened around him. His head was heavy against Blair's shoulder. It was awkward kneeling in the uneven sand, and not very comfortable, but Blair didn't try to move. It would be hard enough getting Jim to his feet again. Almost impossible, he was afraid, if he let Jim sprawl out on the cold ground to rest. After a time he felt Jim's head move, and Blair hoped it meant he was ready to continue. "OK," he said, and shifted a little, bringing his knee up, getting ready to try to stand. Jim's hold loosened a bit. "All right, man," Blair said, encouraged. "Now let's go. You ready?"

In response, Jim laid one hand heavily on Blair's shoulder. His intent was unmistakable. He was trying to hold Blair still. "Jim?" Blair whispered, confused. "You know we can't stay here. What is it?" Jim laid his other hand on Blair's chest, palm flat, fingers spread wide. His head was a little above Blair's, and he was looking down at Blair with an expression that was utterly unreadable in the still faint dawn light. Blair was already trembling with the cold. The warmth of Jim's hand over his heart made the rest of the world seem even colder. "C'mon, man. I know, I know." He wrapped his hand around Jim's forearm, knowing how his mutilated wrist would burn at a touch, but couldn't bring himself to move Jim's hand away. "We're going to stand up now," Blair said, trying again. "Count of three again. Just like last time. OK, Jim?"

Jim's head came up. He was staring over Blair's shoulder, his eyes fixed on something Blair knew he could not see. Blair shook, beyond cold or fear, when Jim again turned his gaze upon him. He wasn't imagining it. He could still taste Jim's blood on his lips.

"Here," Jim moaned, and his hand bore hard against Blair's chest, over his heart.

"Aw, Jim," Blair said, suddenly on the verge of despair. He did know what Jim was seeing. He was utterly certain of it. The final truth, beyond artifice or explanation. Blair's soul as he was, so imperfect, so flawed. OK, so he had some good points, he would grant himself that. The fine scrolls of bloodwork would trace over his avatar's face, over his arms and legs, symbol of the strengths he could claim. But his heart was naked, clean and blank where Jim's hand pressed, seeking. Nothing there. No wonder Jim was disappointed.

"I don't know," was all he could tell Jim. 'I'm sorry. I'm trying the best I can, but --" Jim shook his head slowly. It was such an effort, but he managed it, managed to stop Blair's apology.

Blair sat back on his haunches, head hanging, defeated. He didn't know what to do anymore. He would give everything he was to Jim, but guess what, man, it wasn't enough. It couldn't begin to be enough.

"I know," Blair said, and did not weep. He covered Jim's hand, where it pressed down over his chest, and once again tried to push it away. "I know. But it doesn't matter. Can you stand up? Can we keep going now, or do you need to rest a little while longer?"

Jim didn't answer, and he didn't allow Blair to remove his hand. Moaning softly, otherwise almost voiceless, he pushed harder, his fingers spread wide against Blair's chest. The rain beat down on his bared head, but in the dim light of a dawn that was not very far away, Blair could see something of Jim's shadowed eyes. They flickered from the empty place over Blair's left shoulder, then back to Blair.

"I know," Blair said again. He tried to wrap his hand around Jim's fingers. "I know -- it wasn't -- maybe it wasn't the right thing to do. But you've got to let it go, Jim, please." He stopped trying to push Jim's hand away, and instead caressed the side of Jim's face, gently, as tenderly as he could, until finally Jim was looking only at him.

"I know, Jim," he said, a third and last time. "I've always known I wasn't strong the way you are. Not my body and not my mind. But you've always forgiven me before now." Blair stilled his hand, letting it simply rest against Jim's cheek. "And now I've seen you too, so I know why you've always forgiven me. Why you'll forgive me this time too."

A few tears fell then. Blair couldn't stop them, and saw no reason to try. It would have cost energy he couldn't afford to squander at the moment. "So that's what I need for right now. If you can see some way to keep working with me, even if it's just long enough for me to get us out of here, that's the way I think we've gotta go. So are you with me here? Can you do this with me?"

Jim moved his hand from Blair's chest. "OK?" Blair whispered. "You ready to get up now?" He drew one knee back up, preparing to stand again, still talking nonstop, coaxing Jim along, hoping he would understand somehow. They still had such a long way to go.

Jim put his hand on Blair's face. For a moment Blair thought Jim was mirroring what Blair himself was doing, his own hand still on Jim's face. "That's right," Blair said. "We're gonna move a little further now. You're doing so great here -- "

But then Jim moved his hand so he could press his palm down over Blair's mouth in an unmistakable gesture. Be quiet.

Blair shut up.

And when he was quiet, Jim got closer, his hands on Blair's shoulders, then on his back, supporting Blair as he urged him backward.

Blair let Jim do what he wanted. Jim kept pushing, so Blair lay back in the sand, supporting himself on one elbow. Jim was insistent, his need so apparent and urgent that Blair could have refused him nothing. He lay down the rest of the way, flat on his back in the sand, waiting.

Sighing with relief, or exhaustion, or some other emotion Blair didn't understand yet, Jim laid his hand on Blair's brow for a moment, then bent over closer, still on his knees beside Blair, and pressed his own forehead to Blair's chest.

Jim, Blair thought.

Jim raised his head and put both hands where his forehead had been. Then he slid his hands away across Blair's chest and laid his cheek there. Blair could feel the muscles in Jim's jaw working. Then his forehead to Blair's chest again, and then his hands, and then the side of his face. Over and over again. More than once Blair felt the press of Jim's lips as he labored over Blair in the sand, trying to get closer to the place where Blair was powerless and naked.

Jim was so silent throughout. Not a moan, not a sigh. Not until the surge of strength and intent slipped away from him, lost so suddenly that when Jim stopped moving, a whimper of confusion escaped him. Whatever he had intended -- whatever he had wanted to do for Blair, to give to him, the strength and will were lost. He remained where he was, kneeling over Blair, but only because he was too exhausted to move. Jim had begun to weep again, quiet sobs that broke from hoarsely from his throat after brief intervals of silence.

Blair couldn't stand it. Not after so much this night. His heart was a wasteland, parched and barren, burning under an august sun. He had the insane, almost irresistible desire to push Jim away, drag himself back down to the surf and throw himself into the water. Anything to stop the anguish of such infertile pain. But of course he didn't. Instead he arched his back enough to reach up and wrap his arms clumsily around Jim's head and neck and try to pull him closer, selfishly seeking comfort from Jim -- from Jim -- tonight of all nights.

In response, Jim moved closer. Trembling with cold and exhaustion, he laid down on the miserably cold, harsh sand, curling around Blair as closely as he could, his arms around the small of Blair's back, one leg drawn up and resting over Blair's thighs, the weight of his head on Blair's chest.

"OK, Jim," Blair whispered, hearing his own broken voice. He resisted the urge to clutch Jim tighter, even though he needed the warmth of Jim's body over his so badly. "OK. We'll rest here for a minute more. Just till you're ready to go."

Jim's head moved against his chest, and his arms tightened at the small of Blair's back. Blair's own head dropped back in surrender and he stared up at the gray dawn sky. The rain was a stinging mist, burning his eyes. Jim was shivering miserably, but he only curled closer to Blair, as though just holding him were some protection from the elements.

But Blair knew the truth. In the depths of his torment, Jim had screamed for him. Had escaped his captors at last, seeking him. And finding him, had found the bitter truth as well. Blair had cut them both to reveal it to him. There was no refuge or protection to be found after all. Blair had nothing to offer him. He loosened his grip so he could spread his hands across Jim's trembling shoulders. This, at least, he could give Jim, even if nothing else. He stroked the back of Jim's head with one hand, his other quiet on Jim's back. So his heart was untested and innocent, a void. He loved Jim all the same, Blair thought with sudden defiance. He loved him with every fiber of his being. That was the truth, he was certain of it.

It grew lighter slowly, the night shading infinitesimally toward day. Blair's head rolled to the side, and in the last lingering shadow of darkness before the dawn, he saw it too.

Whoa, Blair thought, the hair on the back of his neck rising. Sure got that wrong.

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