Jim's head snapped up at the unexpected sound, the water running forgotten in the drinking fountain in front of him for a second as he tried to place the direction the noise had come from. The Anthropology building hallway looked the same in both directions and the high ceiling and hard floor bounced sound around so that it seemed to come from everywhere at once.
Then Blair's voice rose in a brief protest, cutting through everything else, and the sick feeling in Jim's stomach coalesced into fear. He sprinted down the hallway, dodging the two or three students in his way, knowing even as he ran that there was no way he could be fast enough. For a panicked moment he couldn't even recall which of the identical office doors belonged to the professor Blair had gone to visit, but Blair spoke a second time, his voice clear and distinct to Jim through all the other noises in the building. That perfectly known voice pinpointed Jim's target for him and he skidded as he made the change in direction, his momentum from the dash down the hall now aimed at an office door. It crashed open against the bookshelves, banging heavy texts to the floor.
The tableau inside took him the merest fraction of a second to assimilate, but even that time was too much.
The dead man lay face down on his desk, blood from the wound in his head pooling around the stacks of books. Blair was backed up against the windows, his hands in the air, but still much too close to the man with the gun.
And Jim was much too far away. He hadn't even drawn his weapon.
Bitter, bloodshot eyes turned briefly in his direction. A detached part of Jim's mind catalogued details about a man who was younger than Sandburg. Thinning, unwashed blond hair, the reek of stale sweat, a dirty white button-down shirt, blue jeans, scuffed loafers. A .38 in his fist. The gun turned with the gunman's attention, all in the same seconds it took Jim to understand what was going on. The shot he squeezed off would have been aimed at Jim, except that Blair screamed Jim's name in that instant. His cry dragged the gun back. The shot exploded in Jim's mind, and Blair shouted again, wordlessly this time.
Jim was still much too far away. The gun was pointed at him now, steady and unwavering, because Blair had gone silent. He was still on his feet, but both of his hands were pressed hard over his belly, and on his face was a look of miserable surprise.
The man with the gun had a voice that rasped from too many cigarettes. Over the stink of blood and gunpowder, Jim could smell coffee and bourbon on his breath. "Get out, OK? This doesn't have anything to do with you."
Jim said, "Put the gun down."
Sandburg's knees buckled. One arm flew back, as if he were trying to brace himself, and smashed through the window behind him.
"I'm a police officer," Jim said. "Put the gun down." Blair slid to his knees while glass pattered down in the shrubbery outside.
The man with the gun spoke more slowly, as though perhaps Jim simply hadn't understood him the first time. "This doesn't have anything to do with you. Just leave me alone."
Just as slowly and clearly, Jim replied, "All right. Sounds good. I'm going to take Sandburg with me, and we'll both leave you alone." He took a step toward the windows. Blair was on still his knees, white-faced and silent. Trying to hold his own life in his hands, but Jim could hear the ebb of it as blood slipped past his fingers and made tiny splashes on the floor.
The man with the gun said calmly, "Take one more step, and I'll kill you too, you son of a bitch."
Jim stopped, even though Sandburg's blood was still dripping down. "OK," he said. "OK, you've made your point. Why don't you give me the gun now? I know you don't want to hurt anyone else."
"You don't know jack."
Everything about Sandburg was wrong. His heartbeat, the sound of his breathing, even his smell. Everything was smashed and blurred almost beyond recognition, twisted up in Jim by a fear that was all too familiar, throwing all his reactions off. "I have to help him," Jim said, trying to keep the desperation out of his voice. Blair made a sound, and Jim couldn't wait any longer. He lunged, trying to reach him.
The gunman fired again without a flicker of emotion. The revolver's hammer moving was loud to sentinel hearing, distinct and deadly above the beacon of Blair's heart, and Jim dropped before the bullet left the gun.
That's three shots, Jim was thinking, face down on the floor, the pain in his ears from the closeness of the discharge utterly inconsequential. Only three left. More than enough to finish the job.
Blair crumpled sideways.
The gunman moved swiftly around from behind the desk. Staying carefully out of reach, he shoved the heavy office door closed. Outside, Jim heard the scurrying of feet as the few students who'd been in the hallway fled. He could only hope one of them had the initiative to call in the incident, but he heard nothing to reassure him any of them felt inclined to be that involved. Besides, he couldn't hold focus outside long enough to be sure. All he could hear was the odd hitching of Blair's breathing. The heavy, metallic scent of his blood filled the small room like a visible miasma.
Jim levered his body upright, drawing his legs under him to move over to Blair. They were kicked out from under him with sudden, brutal force from the side. "Stay right there, pal," the killer ordered him coldly, sounding like he'd watched way too many Dirty Harry movies.
Jim turned his head to see Blair. Sandburg was curled on his side. His arms were crossed protectively over his gut, but he wasn't holding the wound anymore. Blood soaked his flannel shirt and slowly inched in a broadening puddle across the floor. Both his arms were red past the elbow.
"Let me help him," Jim said. "He'll die if you don't let me help."
The man with the gun laughed nervously. "Man, we're all gonna die. Don't you think I know that?"
Jim turned his head back and looked at the scuffed loafers five feet away. He forced himself to lie still, and said in a calm voice, "Nobody else needs to die. Listen to me. Whatever the problem is, I can help. Just let me help Blair first, and we can work something out."
"Are you really a cop?"
Jim brought his arms up slowly, hoping the gunman would let him sit up, but the man screamed, "Hold still, dammit!" and Jim froze.
"Jim," Blair whispered. Just a breath, ragged and broken. "Jim," he said again, louder, a groan.
The floor under Jim's cheek was gritty with dirt that hasty moppings had missed, and stank of cheap floor wax and detergent. His hands clenched into fists. "I can help you," he said again, his voice a growl, but steady. "Just tell me what you want."
"I want my Ph.D! What the hell do you think I want?"
Jim closed his eyes for just a moment, trying to regain control. But one of Blair's legs was twitching a little, his foot hitting the wall behind him with spasmodic raps. The irregular sound broke through his defenses, and Jim was afraid that it was all about to be smashed away from him.
No. He wouldn't let that happen. For Blair's sake, he would hold on. He opened his eyes, looked at the gunman's shoes and said, "Letting Sandburg die won't make things any better for you. We can talk about this, I can help you, but first I've got to help him."
"If you move, I'll kill you. Don't you get it? I've got nothing to lose. Professor Lawrence voted down my dissertation. Six years, man! Six years of my life! What the hell am I supposed to do now?"
"Jim?" Blair whispered, his voice so thin and frightened. "Jim, man, please."
His helplessness in the face of that thready plea almost destroyed Jim. He felt the wash of heat down his scalp as though he were bathing in Sandburg's blood. His eyesight blurred and bile rose in his throat, his rage and despair sickening him. But he lay still on the floor, and spoke to Blair's murderer in a calm, flat monotone. "I can't get your Ph.D. for you. Letting Sandburg die is not going to solve your problem."
The feet in his field of vision shifted, almost shuffling as if close to breaking into some sick dance. "You said you could help, dude."
Jim closed his eyes for a moment. "What do I have to do?"
"You could beg. Like I begged for my degree. Yeah. Try that."
The words made no impression at first. Jim's attention was locked on the hammering of Blair's heart. When he finally processed what the gunman had said, he almost laughed. Begging was what he had been doing all along, and it hadn't helped Blair in the least.
The hissing of Blair's breath was broken by tiny hitches that sounded like he was still trying to say Jim's name. Jim's own breath was coming hard and ragged as he fought to maintain control over his fear.
Maybe he just hadn't begged hard enough. He risked tilting his head to look up at his tormentor. "Please," he said again. "Please."
"Oh, you can do better than that. I certainly did." The gun shifted aim slightly, indicating the dead professor slumped at the desk. "Ask him how I crawled through three, THREE defenses. And what did I get?"
Exactly what you've earned, Jim thought. Twenty to life if you're lucky. An even better chance of my killing you very soon. What he said aloud was, "Please let me help my friend."
"Come on, you bastard, you're not even trying. Do you have any idea how eloquent I was? How brilliantly I defended my thesis? If you can't do any better than that, you don't get what you want. Isn't that how it works?" He broke off in a high-pitched giggle and the gun moved just far enough to indicate the cooling, reeking corpse behind the desk. "He didn't beg for his life well enough. No, not at all." The voice hardened, no less insane for the iron determination in it. "If you don't do better, your friend isn't going to get any help from you, and you won't be around to regret it."
Jim closed his eyes, tensing himself by tiny, invisible increments, and knew that he could do anything at all if it brought him to Blair's side. The faint heartbeat and hissing breaths loaded with pain defined his world, and he feared the ending of it more than anything else. As tight as his throat felt, he was surprised himself at how soft his voice was and how easily the words formed. "Please let me help my friend. He deserves to live, not to die here for no reason."
"No reason?" the gunman parroted back in a rage. "Didn't you hear anything I said? I spent six years of my life on this, and you're telling me it doesn't matter?"
Jim concentrated, listening past the selfish rant to the fading sounds of Blair's life, and he let his heart speak unleashed. "I'm telling you that Sandburg's life has value too. He is necessary to me. His life is more valuable to me than my own. Please. He's a good and compassionate man, a brilliant mind. He has saved lives - he saved mine - I know he would save yours if he could."
The gunman laughed incredulously, but Jim went on anyway. "His life is meaningful to many people, and it's priceless to me. He is the finest friend I've ever had or ever hope to have." Jim drew breath and shifted slightly, gaining leverage, hoping his tormentor was too angry and distracted to notice. "Please. His mother is a kind, gentle woman. Blair's death will destroy her. It will destroy me as well."
"So he'll be missed, and I won't be?" The gunman danced closer and kicked at Jim's leg. "Well you know why that is? Because I gave up everything for this, family, friends, everything. Everything! And it ends like this, without one single person who would weep for me if I turned the gun on myself this very second." He broke off and gave an ugly laugh. "You'd cry for him, though, wouldn't you?"
"Yes." Some part of him already was, deep inside. He ignored it.
"Well, maybe I'd like to see that."
"Whatever it takes. Whatever you need from me," Jim said again. "I'm -- I am begging you. Just let me help him."
"I like that. No pride. I sure as hell don't have any left by this point. Funny what you'll give up when the goal is important enough, isn't it? Earning my doctorate was my life, man." He came closer, crouched slightly, scant feet away from Jim. "Is he yours?"
Jim nodded, a sharp, painful movement. "He is my life."
"Well, I've got some advice for you," the gunman said. "It's not so smart to put all your eggs in one basket. Accidents happen. Things don't work out quite like you planned. I lost my degree. You're losing your friend. See what I mean? Doesn't matter in the end, does it?"
"It matters to me," Jim said, his voice hoarse with the force of his need to get through . He locked his eyes on the pale, agitated features above him. His voice felt deep in his chest, as if it came from a place beyond his control. "If you don't let me help him, nothing at all will help you. That much I swear." He paused, seeing he'd finally made some impact. "Now, let me go to him, or you might as well pull that trigger, because I won't care one way or the other."
Blair sighed a quiet, "No." Jim's vision darkened and narrowed and every muscle in his body screamed with the need to move.
"I could shoot you, too," the gunman said, trying to regain the control he somehow seemed to have lost, even though he still held the gun and Jim was still flat on the floor. "If that's the way you want it to be, I could kill you first."
Blair's breath rattled, harsh in the silence of the room.
"You already have," Jim answered, and launched himself, all the tension in his body uncoiling in a wild surge upward.
The first bullet passed harmlessly over Jim's shoulder, a thin howl in his ears. But almost simultaneously with the roar of the gunman's next shot, Jim felt a dull thump in the side of his chest. It surprised him, throwing him a little off balance and interrupting his forward momentum. His clutching fingers fell short of the bastard's throat, but he latched onto the grubby white shirt.
The killer's face was open and wide-eyed with terror. He tried get the gun between them, but Jim smashed it out of his hand and drew back his fist, intending to end things quickly.
But something was wrong. His legs wouldn't support his weight anymore, so Jim dragged the gunman down with him as he fell. A shadow crossed his sight, and he became aware for the first time of the shock of heat burning across his ribs, spreading sharp and fast into his chest and back. But none of that mattered. He felt strong fingers groping for his throat, ragged fingernails scrabbling against his skin. Jim pushed the hands away and rolled to the side, trapping the gunman against the desk. The gunman hit at him with a balled fist.
It shouldn't have hurt like it did. The pain in Jim's chest shocked him. He heard himself shouting, but even his own hoarse screams didn't block out the fast, soft sound of Sandburg's failing breaths.
Jim's hands wrapped around the gunman's throat at last. He wrenched a little, hardly knowing what he was doing, but it was enough. The blond head lolled back, those bitter eyes locked open in simple, stunned surprise forever.
Jim pushed him away and tried to get up. His legs buckled under him and he fell, the pain in his chest blossoming darkly. He crawled the rest of the way.
Blair was still curled up tight, his eyes open. Jim put his hands on Blair's face. "I'm here, Chief. Everything's gonna be fine. Just hold on for me."
Sandburg blinked. Then, impossibly, smiled.
"I'm gonna move you just a little, OK?" Jim said. "You're doing so good here, Sandburg. You're doing just fine." He pushed Blair's shoulders, shifting him onto his back as gently as he could.
"I know," Jim groaned, both hands on Blair's face again for just a moment, as if he could somehow take the pain himself. "I know. You've got to trust me."
Blair's eyes rolled up, met Jim's. He was moaning in a hoarse, terrible voice, but he answered Jim with the calm trust in those eyes.
Until Jim took his hands away. He had to, he had to shrug his way out of his coat -- it was the only thing available to use as a compress. But in that instant, Blair gave up.
His eyes closed. His head rolled to the side.
"Chief! Damn you! Chief!" Jim wadded the coat up and pressed it to the wound in Blair's belly. With his other hand, he reached up and turned Blair's head. Everything his senses were telling him about Blair was wrong. The reek was more than the stench of blood. The cold seeping from the huddled form was unnatural, unendurable.
"Sandburg," Jim moaned. "Chief, for god's sake. Don't you dare pull a stunt like this." There was no time anymore. Jim released Blair's head and fumbled one-handed for the cellphone, never letting up on the pressure on Blair's stomach. When the 911 operator answered, he said a policeman was down and dropped the phone.
Blair's eyes weren't closed all the way after all, but nothing except darkness shone from under the half-closed lids.
Pressing his coat against the wound, Jim leaned his weight slowly, trying to feel through the wrongness for the point where he was doing more good than harm. Blair breathed out a soundless scream this time, the agony too great for any cry.
"Help is on the way, Blair. You have to stay with me now," he said again. Keeping the pressure up with one hand, he laid his other on Blair's forehead, and that touch seemed to bring Blair back again. His eyelids flickered. Dark with shock, there was still trust in his eyes. Blair's hand moved feebly to pull at Jim's arm rather than push away the pressure that hurt so badly. Still without breath, Blair's lips formed Jim's name, pleading. The tug on Jim's arm was so weak it could have been no more than the weight of Blair's hand, but Jim knew it was real.
As real as the difficulty he was having keeping his treacherous throat from closing on his every breath. The scent of Blair's blood filled his head, making him feel dizzy and chilled. The burning pain along his own side was the only warmth in his world, until he bent forward, leaning close enough to press his cheek to the side of Blair's face. Sandburg's short, shallow panting beat against his chest with an uneven rhythm, and the terribly weak grip on his arm gained strength, holding him in place more powerfully than any chain. Under his cheek was the last, faint warmth of Blair's skin, and the tiny sting of salt as a tear caught between them, shifting its path from Blair's temple to Jim's cheek.
A distant part of Jim's mind registered the sound of sirens in the distance. "Chief," he whispered. "You're still with me here, all right?"
The hand on his arm seemed to bear down a little.
"Hell, Sandburg, at least this is one your student health insurance ought to cover, right?"
It might have been his imagination, but Jim thought he felt a smile tugging at the corner of Blair's mouth, even though he was moaning out loud now, dull, mindless cries that went on and on. Jim pressed closer, trying to be the anchor for that fragile life.
But dammit, something was wrong. Sandburg needed his strength, and he was weakening. Blair needed the warmth of his presence, and Jim felt colder with every passing moment. It wasn't Blair's agony that was confusing him, it was the betrayal of his own body.
No, this couldn't be happening, not like this. He was the strong one. Blair counted on that strength. Blair needed him.
But that didn't stop the vertigo, the rising nausea, the blurring confusion. His eyes snapped open wide when he realized he had been on the verge of collapsing over Sandburg. He could hardly see him anymore, could hardly hear the racing heartbeat, hardly even smell the blood. Everything was turning inward as shock claimed him.
No, Blair, no. Help me, please. Not like this.
Blair never stopped crying out, his body's mindless response to agony, but something must have reached him. The hand that had been resting on Jim's forearm somehow reached up to cradle the back of Jim's head.
"Don't leave me, Chief." Jim didn't have anything else left to offer him. No strength. No comfort. Just selfish desperation. "Sandburg, you have to stick it out for me."
The head beneath his own nodded a little. The hand on the back of his neck knotted in his shirt collar and didn't let go, even as the room filled with people. Finally the paramedic had to pry Blair's fingers loose from that grip. It took two more to lift Jim away from him. Blair's eyes were still open, and they followed Jim as he was pulled away, going dull as the terror and pain reclaimed him.
Jim pulled free for an instant. The fire in his side dimmed his vision, but he had strength enough for this. He held Sandburg's head in his hands. "You're going to survive this, Chief," he told him desperately, willing him to believe. "The worst is already over."
Doubt still shrouded those dull blue eyes, as if Blair knew that Jim was about to leave him again.
Jim pressed his lips to Blair's forehead, then to his cheek, and when he lifted his head, Sandburg's eyes were smiling at him.
There were more hands on Jim now. Too many for him to fight. They pulled him away, and Blair's eyes followed him for a moment, then closed.
Jim stood in the doorway to Blair's room, looking in on the sleeping man. Around him the loft was quiet, and it felt oddly empty, as if they were guests in some stranger's place rather than at home. His own side ached still, its broken rib giving him a hint of the pain Blair was living with as his wound healed.
But more than Jim's side hurt. He seemed to have a weight in his chest all the time now. It was a stone of combined fear and guilt, and every day it grew a little bit larger, crowded out a little bit more of his breath. He took an experimental deep breath and was surprised himself at how it caught and locked in his throat so fast. For a moment he struggled against the sensation of suffocating, trying not to gasp for oxygen like a landed fish.
Bitterly he reflected that he should be more used to knowing he was a failure. He'd failed all his life, in everything he'd ever done, until he'd met Blair. For a while after that he'd been doing well, not perfect but better than he'd ever managed before at protecting his responsibilities. Blair had been endangered, hurt, but always Jim had gotten there in time, managed to take control of the situation in time, and done what was necessary to solve the problem. The close calls that had shaken his confidence somehow hadn't prepared him for the possibility of complete personal failure. Another failure in itself, that blindness to the warnings he'd been given.
The feeling of failure had never left him since that afternoon. He hadn't been there to protect Blair in time; he had come into the room late and unprepared, and not only had he been unable to stop the shooting, it had been Blair who saved him from that first bullet. His entrance and slowness had caused Blair's terrible ordeal.
Whether it had been apology, gratitude, or farewell that had prompted his kiss, he wasn't even sure himself any more. All he'd known was that his heart had demanded it, and he could no more have refused it than he could deny Blair's need for his presence. But what Blair had thought, or felt, or believed it had meant was both important and still impossible for Jim to grasp. He had felt then, and still did, a frightening combination of love, fear, and need. Even now it tugged at him, making him restless with the desire to reach out and touch his friend, to reassure himself physically of the presence he could plainly see.
Blair stirred, his breath catching painfully as he drew too deeply on healing muscles, waking himself the rest of the way. His eyes opened, clouded with momentary puzzlement that cleared to resignation as he took a measured, deliberate breath.
Jim stepped forward, his hand lifting involuntarily before he caught himself and ran it over his own hair, smiling down at Blair's sleepy-eyed grimace. "Need anything?" he asked softly, and hoped the ache he could feel in his voice sounded like ordinary concern to Blair.
Tired blue eyes regarded him thoughtfully, and he felt a sinking certainty that the emotions he'd been wrestling with in the week since the shooting were written clear across his features. In the two days Blair had been home from the hospital the fight within had only grown worse.
"No," Blair said at last, his voice quiet and hoarse from sleep. "I'm OK."
Jim turned away a little too quickly, and Blair said, "Well, unless you're too busy or something, maybe--"
Jim turned back. "I'm not too busy, Chief."
"Maybe you could just sit with me for a few minutes? If you've got time?"
For god's sake, Jim thought. If I've got time. He pulled the desk chair over to Blair's bedside and sat. "You thirsty?" he asked. "Can I fix you some soup?"
"No," Blair said. He was looking at Jim carefully. "Not right now, if that's OK."
"In a little while, then."
Blair nodded. His eyes closed for a moment, then opened again. "So groggy!" he said irritably.
"It's just the medication. Don't worry about it. Better if you sleep anyway."
"I'm tired of sleeping. I dream all the time. It's getting so I can't figure out what's real anymore, everything's getting so jumbled up." Too tired for petulance, Blair's voice was quietly plaintive.
"Don't worry about straightening things out. Plenty of time for that later." He wished he could feel like less of what had happened had been real.
"C'mon, man, please?"
Jim scooted his chair closer to the bedside. "I'm sorry, Chief. Whatever you need. I'm right here."
"I know," Blair said. He reached out with one hand. Jim thought he was groping for a pillow that had slid to the edge of the bed. He pushed it back so Blair could tuck it close to himself, but Blair ignored the pillow and latched onto Jim instead.
His hand was very warm, the palm damp with sweat. Jim grasped it tightly, his own, longer fingers curling around to the back of Blair's hand. He felt the fragile beat of the pulse in Blair's thumb and fingertips, saw how white and slender his hand looked wrapped around Blair's.
"The guy who shot Professor Lawrence. He's dead, isn't he?"
Jim didn't even hear the question at first. Or if he did hear it, it seemed too unimportant to process right away. He was more concerned with the whorls and ridges of Blair's fingerprints, distinct as rumpled corduroy.
Sandburg was alive. He was right here. He had survived that brutal, mindless, meaningless attack, and he had even survived Jim's failure. Maybe if Jim held on to that warm hand long enough, maybe Jim would survive it too.
He thought back. Remembered what Blair had just asked. He dragged his eyes away from the sight of their hands clasped over the blanket and told Blair, "Yeah. He's dead."
Blair nodded seriously. "Right. I was pretty sure about that. I know you told me all this in the hospital, but it's kind of confusing, you know? I didn't like to think about it too much."
"It's all right. You don't have to think about it now if you don't want to."
"I know. But I want to, now. Jim, he's dead because you killed him, right?"
"Yes." That was what the reports said. He barely remembered it himself; the rattle of Blair's breath had been all he'd heard, not the soft, rotten snap of the killer's neck.
Blair squeezed his hand a little harder. "I'm sorry, man. Are you OK with that?"
A bitter laugh escaped Jim. "You expect too much from me, Sandburg. The only thing I regret is that I killed him so fast."
Blair didn't rise to the bait. He just looked at Jim with that thoughtful, serious look in his eyes that pain and the drugs in his system could only dull a bit, never extinguish, and at last he said, "Is that what the problem is? You think I expect too much from you?"
Jim dropped his eyes. "No," he said at length. It was getting difficult to talk. The weight in his chest was crowding everything else out. He could hardly draw a deep enough breath to form words anymore. "No, you weren't expecting too much if you thought I would react to the situation like a cop. You were wrong of course, but no, Sandburg, nobody could accuse you of expecting too much of me."
Blair only said, seriously and quietly, "I'm not sure I know what you mean by that."
Jim didn't say anything, just looked away so he wouldn't meet Blair's eyes.
"OK, something else," Blair said.
"You should rest." Jim studied the wool and beeswax wall hanging behind Blair's bed with careful interest.
"I will. But there's some stuff I'm trying to keep straight in my mind, trying to figure out a little bit. I'm not sure it's something that really happened, or something I dreamed up."
Jim only nodded, he didn't speak.
"You didn't -- you didn't kill him right away, did you? For a few minutes there, he still had the gun didn't he?"
Got that right, Jim thought. How many minutes slipped away while you were bleeding to death, Sandburg and I did nothing but lie there, lame and dumb? Couldn't find the words that would bring me to your side, couldn't find the strength to get up until it was damn near too late.
"You talked, didn't you?"
Jim heard the gentle rustle of Sandburg's hair against the pillow and looked down to see him nodding solemnly to himself. Another of those questions Blair already knew the answer to.
Jim thought perhaps he would have left the room if Sandburg hadn't been holding his hand. But as much as he didn't want to have this conversation, he couldn't bear the thought of relinquishing that contact. So he continued to sit at Blair's bedside, resigned, his palm against Blair's palm, sensual proof they were both still alive. "Wasn't much of a conversation," Jim said.
Blair exhaled sharply, then groaned.
"Chief!" Jim half-stood in alarm, bending over him. Blair's eyes were crinkled with pain, but he was grinning.
"I'm OK," Blair whispered. "Just don't do that anymore."
"I don't understand," Jim said desperately.
"Just don't make me laugh!"
Laughter. Blair had been trying to laugh.
Jim closed his eyes, feeling the helpless fear wash through him again. It added another layer to the cold lump in his chest, like the slow enlarging of a stalagmite built by layers of stone from water. His hold tightened on Blair's hand and his head bowed for a moment before he raised it to meet Blair's eyes. He didn't have the reserves to play at joking about what had happened, not yet, and couldn't pretend he wasn't affected. "What do you remember?" he asked quietly.
Blair looked at him searchingly, as if comparing his face to some memory he had doubts about. Jim felt his reserve growing thin and transparent under that calm, intense gaze, until it was an effort not to look away in shame. If Blair could look through him, into him, and see there was nothing there but failure, then he would stop looking and Jim would have to leave. Ellison wasn't sure he was strong enough to do that. Another inadequacy to hold himself accountable for, when the total was already so great he could never overcome it. How many more will there be? he wondered in despair.
"You said a lot." Blair finally spoke.
Bits and pieces of the exchange strobed through Jim's memory, interspersed with a renewal of the rising desperation he had felt at the time. He found his head shaking without his conscious volition. "All I remember is that it wasn't enough." The part of him that had wept for Blair then had never stopped grieving, and it cried out now, lonely and afraid. "I wasn't there!" Laced with pain, Jim's voice cracked. "Not when it would have made a difference, when you needed me." Jim shivered, his muscles tensing with the effort not to crush Blair 's hand in a tightening grip.
Instead it was Blair's hand that held his harder. "It was enough, Jim, you were there for me. You did everything you could."
Not enough, not nearly. "He almost killed you." The shiver became more pronounced, until Jim was shaking. "I couldn't stop him. I couldn't get to you." He remembered the feeling of need so strong it was like a force living within him, and the knowledge that Blair was slipping away from him second by second. Desperately he stared back up at the wall hanging, concentrating on the puffy skeins of wool, the intricate knotwork of the weaving around it. The thing needed dusting. There were tiny cobwebs forming in the corners of the design. Jim wondered why he never saw the spiders that made the cobwebs. He remembered saying that Blair was his life, and knowing it was true. His sight began to blur and he stared harder, willing the missing spider to be the only thing he cared about.
"It doesn't matter now." The sympathy in Blair's voice nearly broke Jim apart.
Of course it didn't matter. Wherever the spider went to, the web stayed there. He wondered if spiders left footprints. Jim's sight narrowed down to the strands of the web, the dust gathering on each individual thread. He blinked, and felt mortified as the movement of his eyelids drove the tears out and into visibility on his cheeks.
With a tiny sigh of pain, Blair raised his other hand, reaching high enough to rest his palm on the side of Jim's face. His thumb brushed across Jim's cheek, smearing the saltwater there, gentle as a kiss. "You gave me what I needed to hang on long enough to make it. I wouldn't have, Jim, not without you." The touch moved again, soft on his skin, infinitely tender. "You did save me."
He couldn't stand to hear it, kindly as Blair meant the lie, and the words slipped out before he could stop them. "I didn't save you, Sandburg. I almost got you killed."
Blair moaned, and the hand that been stroking Jim's cheek slipped down and grabbed a fistful of shirt. "Aw, Jim, c'mon, man. I'm not in the mood in for this."
"Easy," Jim said, finally letting go of Blair's hand, so he could wrap both around the fist clutching his shirt. "You should be resting."
"You listen to me, Jim." He tugged on the shirt, and Jim let him drag him down until he was looking into those furious blue eyes from a distance of six inches. "You just listen to me for a minute." Blair's breath puffed warm against his face. He could smell the narcotics in his system, the antibiotics. So much else as well, so much masking who Sandburg was, so many reminders of Jim's failure. Drainage from the wound trapped in the layers of bandage. Some blood, still. Even the smell of Blair's sweat. There was a distinctive taint when he was sweating in pain. Jim shouldn't be familiar enough with that smell to recognize it, but oh god help him, he was.
"I heard what you told him," Blair said. "I did hear it. It wasn't a dream. "
Jim closed his eyes.
"You said my life meant something. You told him I deserved to live."
Somehow Jim hadn't been expecting that. He opened his eyes and looked into Blair's. "It wasn't enough," he said softly.
"And you told him you'd cry for me."
Jim let out a painful breath and didn't try to answer.
"Well, you know what?" Blair whispered to him, tugging on Jim's shirt as if afraid Jim would try to get away from him. "I don't want your tears, 'cause I'm not dead. Know why that is?"
"Easy, Chief," Jim said miserably. He put his hands on Blair's shoulders. "Easy. Don't do this now."
"I want you to answer me. You know why I'm not dead?"
Jim shook his head helplessly.
"Jim, you wanted me to live. You said it was important, and I believed you. I thought you meant it."
"Oh my god, Chief," Jim curled forward off the chair to kneel at Blair's bed side. He cradled Blair's anxious, sleep- and- drug bleared features with both hands. "Don't you ever doubt that. Don't you dare."
"I was so scared," Blair said softly. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. "I thought I wasn't gonna be strong enough to keep living, it hurt so bad. I was scared I was going to leave you alone." He gasped unevenly, as if laughing, or trying to suppress a moan of pain. "Scared that I was going to Borneo for good, know what I mean? But I couldn't. Not if you still needed me."
"Always," Jim said desperately. "Always." He doubted so many things about himself, but not that. It was the one thing he was more certain of than anything else.
"Now I know," Blair said, his voice getting weaker, "I know damn well I can't stop you from feeling guilty. It's just what you do, Jim. It's like, more natural than breathing. But you've gotta give me a break here. You've got to start being at least a little bit glad I'm not dead, instead of being totally miserable because it was sort of a close call." He released Jim's shirt, and touched Jim's face lightly with his fingertips. "But if you'll just work on letting it go, one step at a time. I'm not going anywhere."
Not now, he wasn't, but Jim knew the truth, and it had been eating its way into his soul since the moment that day he had seen Blair shot in front of him. Jim knew he could fail. He had, and he would again, and next time they probably wouldn't be so lucky. When that time came, he would lose Blair and have to go on alone, knowing what he had done. "I can't," he gasped, the words more nearly a sob. He turned toward the light touch on his cheek, his eyes still fixed on Blair, pleading for a reassurance he knew he couldn't have.
"Jim...." Shaking with exasperation as well as exhaustion, Blair's voice was sharp, but then he sighed, and his next words were as gentle as his touch on Jim's face. "If you could give me the strength to keep going, no matter how much it hurts, will you let me do the same for you?"
At the pained grunt Blair made as he shifted, Jim drew breath to tell him to stay still, but Blair had already moved, sitting up farther so he could reach. His lips touched Jim's bowed forehead in gentle benediction, then pressed to his cheek with the same careful tenderness. "You are my life, too," he said, drawing back just far enough to look into Jim's eyes, so deeply serious Jim could only nod, wordless, his own hands still framing Blair's face like an afterthought.
A tiny, half-smile lifted the corner of Blair's mouth. "So don't screw it up, OK?" he added, and as he collapsed back down with a harsher sigh, Jim's touch slipped away.
His hands slowly lowering, Jim looked in wonder at Blair. The warmth of the kiss lingered on his skin far longer than he would have thought it could, and he felt so oddly free that it took him a moment to realize what had changed. A light, rising bubble of surprised joy had replaced the cold stone of fear in his chest, and he wondered suddenly if this was what Blair had felt that day, and knew somehow it was.
Blair's fingertips drifted feather-light over Jim's lips for a moment, then his hand dropped, and his eyes smiled up at his friend, echoing the dawning peace in Jim's clear, blue gaze.