Chapter 27

"OK," Blair said quickly. "Don't worry about it. How about we get to the edge of the bed and swing your legs around, just like when we got out of the car. That was a piece of cake, right? We'll just do it that way again."

A little huff of air from Jim. Almost a chuckle.

"So you're not a dessert man," Blair whispered. "So sue me. Now what I'm gonna do here, I'm gonna back off a little, and help you sit up on the edge of the bed. Nice and slow, and I'll be here the whole time. Just tell me if something hurts, and I'll stop it. OK? We ready here?"

Jim gave a tight, careful nod. The hands on Blair's shoulders tensed for a moment, then relaxed, though Jim didn't allow them to drop away. Blair put his right hand on Jim's chest, just below his shoulder, avoiding the puckered white burns as much as he could. The trails of them were so thick in places he had to place his hand with care, gritting his teeth to push away the sick, helpless feeling the sight of those marks brought him. Blair kept his touch on there, high on Jim's chest, while he shifted his legs backward the foot or so it took to reach the edge of the bed.

Easing the lower half of his body over the edge was a little tricky to manage without falling off completely, and he found himself biting the tip of his tongue in concentration as he moved. When he looked up, the corners of Jim's eyes were crinkled again, watching him with as much affectionate amusement as intent care. Blair smiled back at him. "You can laugh." He hoped desperately that it was true. "It's only going to get sillier from here on in, you know that, don't you?"

After another couple grunts and a pained "Ow" as his knees hit the concrete slab floor under the poorly padded carpet, Blair ended up kneeling, stomach pressed to the edge of the mattress, Jim's hands still resting on his shoulders. "Oh, man," he groaned. "I have got sand in places it should never even be allowed to think about. Now I remember why I always hated swimming in the ocean."

The hoarse, raspy sound Jim made was closer to a laugh than his last attempt. Blair grinned at him, his heart lightened by it. "Well, that and the fact the water is always so damned cold. Should'a brought your wetsuit on this trip, would have been worth the fishy smell in the car to have it along last night."

"'s not fishy," Jim said indignantly, his voice coming out in a husky whisper.

Blair's grin grew painfully wide, his eyes sparkling overbright for a second. "OK," he agreed, rubbing Jim's shoulder where he still held it, letting the gesture make up for the crack in his voice. "It's not fishy. But we are. So can you sort of bring your knees over this way, and then, like, rotate upward...."

The instructions made more sense to Jim than they did to himself, or perhaps Jim simply knew what was needed and the words didn't really matter. Taking a deep breath, Jim managed the maneuver, getting his calves over the edge of the bed, his weight pushing desperately hard against Blair's shoulders as he brought himself upright. When Jim opened his eyes again, the light blue was colored with surprise at finding himself sitting there, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

"Aw, Jim, that's perfect." Climbing up off his knees but staying bent over so Jim's hands never had to leave his shoulders, Blair carefully sat down next to him. "How you doing?" he asked softly. Jim just swallowed and nodded a little, but didn't speak. "OK. We'll rest for just a sec. Lemme know when you're ready to get up."

Jim nodded again, his eyes closing for a moment. His hands were heavy on Blair's shoulders, and Blair scooted closer, wrapping his left arm carefully around Jim's waist. Dry sand drifted down with their every move, and Jim flinched again and again, tiny pained movements Blair suspected he was trying to suppress. "I know," Blair said. "I know. But the worst is over. You can leave it all up to me now."

Jim exhaled a little too sharply. Blair couldn't quite read the expression on his face. "What do you think?" he asked quietly, believing Jim would find a way to answer. "Wanna try to stand up?"

Jim's arms slipped down, his hands spreading across Blair's back. His fingertips were soft, and the palms of his hands dislodged dried sand that trickled down Blair's back. It tickled a little. Blair grinned, and saw Jim instinctively try to mirror his expression. But it must have hurt -- the swelling at the corner of his mouth was already shading to a darker bruised color -- and the momentary smile became a wince of pain.

"Jim," he said in a miserable whisper, and pulled him closer still, putting his other arm around Jim and hugging him tight, knowing it had to hurt Jim too, but knowing Jim needed him anyway.

Jim's arms tightened fiercely around Blair's shoulders, holding on harder and harder until Blair felt a twinge of pain in his own arms and shoulders from the pressure. "That's right," he breathed, trying to pull Jim even closer, feeling the muscles in Jim's arms knotting hard with strain. "You've got me. Hold on as long as you need to." He hadn't known Jim had so much strength left, but he also knew he shouldn't have been surprised. This was Jim. Nothing else mattered, not really.

"Chief," Jim said as his arms relaxed and his head dropped. That low, ruined voice of his made Blair shiver, still. "What am I gonna do?"

"You're not gonna do anything," Blair said, and though his voice was furious, his touch was gentle, one hand coming up to cradle the back of Jim's head. "Not alone, anyway. You're with me now, and nothing's going to change that, not ever. I won't let it. We're both gonna come back from this, and we're going to do it together. You hear me, Jim? You getting this?"

For a long moment Jim remained tense in his arms, and then he loosened his grip and patted Blair's back twice. "Easy, Sandburg," he said softly. "I hear you. Help me up."

Blair sat back so he could look into Jim's face again. Jim's face was turned down, his jaw tense in anticipation of more pain, more struggles. Blair put his hands on Jim's head, gently framing those bruised features. "When it gets bad," he said quietly, "Just let me know. I'm right here, Jim. No matter what."

Jim looked up. He'd been steeling himself, Blair could see it, but he let the tension go for a moment. "I know," he told Blair, and managed a weak, lopsided sort of smile. "Have you always been such a stubborn bastard, Sandburg, or do I just bring out the best in you?"

"Careful, man, that's my mom you're talking about," Blair said, grinning for real. "Here, let's do it like this. Can you get one arm over my shoulders? That's right." He pulled Jim's arm around carefully, and sat up so he could tuck his own arm around Jim's waist. "Now I'm gonna stand up, and you just lean on me. You ready?"

Jim nodded grimly. Blair felt his muscles tensing, getting ready, and said, "Here we go." He slowly stood, taking as much of Jim's weight as he could. Jim moaned as he straightened up, his arm heavier and heavier over Blair's shoulders.

"Aw, Jim, you did it!" Blair whispered intently when they were standing at last. "Now we just -- " But then Jim's head came up with a snap. He made a terrible, strangled sound, his jaw clenched, the tendons in his neck standing out like cords.

"Jim!" Blair cried out too loudly and moved too fast, afraid he was hurting Jim, but more afraid of letting him fall. He wrapped his arms around him and braced them both. Jim leaned heavily into his support, groaning out loud. What now? Blair wondered in horror. It could be anything. Internal injuries? Broken bones? He hadn't even looked at Jim yet. There was no telling. Oh god, Jim, you've got to tell me what's wrong. "Please," he whispered, his face pressed hard against Jim's neck and shoulder as he supported him, keeping them both upright. "You gotta talk to me. I can't help if I don't know what's wrong."

Above him, Blair heard Jim take a shuddering breath of air. His hands clenched into fists at Blair's back. For a moment his weight bore down so heavily Blair was afraid they were both going to end up on the floor, but Jim locked his knees and remained upright. Blair waited, shaking with fear. So much could be wrong. So much would be beyond his ability to help. Only moments ago he had been so confident he could help Jim. What if it wasn't true?

He thought of strangers' hands on Jim, the lights and noise of an ER, needles, scalpels, blood, narcotics, anesthesia. It would kill Jim. More surely than his injuries, Blair was certain of it. In a hospital Jim would die screaming. "Jim!" he said suddenly, his voice too loud again. "Hush," he said then, trying to quiet himself. "Easy. Please let me help you. Please tell me why this hurts you so bad." Please, Jim, tell me what to do.

After a long moment, the pressure of Jim's arms around his shoulders eased slightly, a little of the tension leaving Jim's battered frame. "Chief," he groaned in a rasping whisper. "It's this -- damned -- carpet."

"What?" At first Blair didn't understand at all. But then he looked down at the faded green shag rug. He rubbed his foot across the synthetic fibers, and had a moment of empathy so powerful he could feel the coarse threads like wires cutting the soles of his own bare feet. He hissed sharply, leaning into Jim. The intensity faded almost at once, leaving only a shuddering, sympathetic horror in its wake. It was just a scratchy green carpet Blair probably wouldn't have walked across barefoot if he'd had any choice in the matter, that was all. To Jim it was a tangled field of concertina wire.

His vision of Jim's world made Blair feel weak at the knees, light-headed with the immensity of the task before them. And Jim had believed him anyway, when Blair promised to bring him home again.

"Right," Blair whispered, still leaning against Jim, not able to look up into his tortured eyes just yet. "Gotcha. So this carpet is murder."

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