Chapter 29

"Shut up," Blair said tenderly. "Didn't I tell you not to go there?" He worked his hand down a little farther, struggling to undo the third button while Jim held on tight, his grip nearly painful on Blair's shoulders. "Guess it would have been just too easy if you'd worn khakis today instead of jeans, huh?" The next button slipped through. "Hey, almost there." Blair wondered if he could work Jim's jeans down and off now, but he thought of the rough denim pulled taut, forcefully scraping sand over Jim's hips and winced. It would be easier on Jim in the long run if all the buttons were undone.

He closed his eyes for a moment, shutting out the sight of those puckered white blisters, and tried to feel, sentinel-like, for the easiest way to free the next button. His knuckles were pressing too hard against Jim's lower stomach as he struggled with the stubborn material. The way Jim drew careful breaths told Blair it hurt more clearly than the way he trembled. "I'm trying," Blair moaned in frustration, and suddenly all the rest of the tiny and absolutely insurmountable tasks of the next minutes, and hours, and days reared up before him, and he had no idea how he would survive them. Far less how Jim would.

"Sandburg," Jim said then, his voice low.

Blair gasped and shook his head. "I know," he said. "Sorry, man. I know. One thing at a time." He shut his eyes again, calming himself, and the metal button slipped sideways and through the button hole easily. One more to go. He worked his hand a little farther down, trying to be careful for Jim, and felt wiry curls, crusty with sand. Realizing how intimate his touch had become, he felt a tenderness so profound his own heartbeat seemed to change. Slower and slower, the weight of his love heavier than gold. Jim's breath was a soft warmth across Blair's chest, though the breaths themselves were labored, ragged with exhaustion and pain. Jim held him, shivering, and the last button slipped free without effort.

Jim lifted his head. His hands fell from Blair's shoulders, and Blair instinctively reached to hold Jim's shoulders in turn as he worked his jeans and boxers down over his hips. It took a while, but Jim was patient and determined, and Blair simply held him with all the gentleness in his heart as Jim finally eased his jeans down over his hips. They dropped to mid thigh. Jim sighed and met Blair's eyes. "Think I need a little more help," he whispered.

"Hey, that's what I'm here for," Blair said. "Hold on, OK? Don't want both of us ending up on the floor." He managed a smile for Jim. "Ready?"

Jim nodded and let his hands rest on Blair's shoulders as Blair carefully knelt. It occurred to him belatedly that this would have been easier if Jim were sitting down. Next time, man. There were tender-looking red marks on his thighs that would probably bruise spectacularly in the next couple of days. Blair tugged the jeans over Jim's knees, pushing them down to puddle stiffly around his ankles and lower calves. "So, OK," Blair said. "You think you can lift your foot up out of them now? Hold onto me, and I'll try to keep them from rubbing too bad as you pull up. OK? Is that gonna work?" He looked up at Jim's face.

"All right," Jim murmured, not quite speaking out loud. His hands spread across Blair's shoulders, letting Blair support more of his weight, and he raised his left foot.

Blair slipped one hand down, trying to cradle the bruised ankle with his fingers and keep the rough denim away. Jim hissed sharply and Blair flinched as though he were the one who had been hurt. "Easy," he said, pushing the denim down and away as best he could with his other hand. He heard Jim swallow back a sound like a sob as his foot came free. The bruising around his ankle was already livid, blue streaks spreading from the abraded flesh up his calf and down across the delicate bones of his foot. Dried blood and sand flaked from his sole.

A shudder of cold wracked Blair before he could steel himself against it. He wished he could bend his head and press a kiss to the top of Jim's foot as he held it carefully in his hands. Instead he told Jim quietly, "We've got to get this cleaned up before it gets infected or something." He helped Jim set his foot down gently on the smooth tile. "Other foot now." He glanced up again. He couldn't see much of Jim's face, dark as the motel room was. Jim's eyes were open. Blair could see the glimmer of blue looking down at him, and he inched closer, slowly, so Jim wouldn't lose his balance, and let his head rest against Jim's thighs for a moment. "We're going to get through this," he said. "It's going to get better."

One of Jim's hands came off his shoulder and patted the top of Blair's head. A little clumsy, but infinitely gentle all the same. "I know," he said.

"Ready?" Blair asked, sitting back. Jim nodded, tightening his grip on Blair's shoulders once again. As before, Blair tried to shield the torn skin as well as he could, but there was no way to protect Jim entirely. He pushed the jeans down and helped Jim lift his foot free, leaving the jeans and boxers at last tangled together on the floor. He had an absurd desire to put them away for Jim immediately. It seemed such a violation of his friend's orderly soul to leave wet clothes crumpled on the floor.

"You did it," he said, and got slowly to his feet, the weight of Jim's hands on his shoulders the whole way. "Better already, huh?" he asked, keeping his voice calm and low. "I know how uncomfortable that was getting." He shifted a little himself and grinned. "Boy do I know." He smiled up at Jim, but it was getting more difficult for Jim to answer those smiles, even with his eyes. He clung to Blair, hands clamped hard around Blair's shoulders, trembling. It occurred to Blair that he still hadn't really looked at Jim, and still had no idea how severe his injuries might be.

Because you don't really want to know, do you? The accusation of his own cowardice made him flinch, but it was true. He might find wounds he couldn't care for alone. He didn't know if he were strong enough to face the truth without breaking something inside himself. And he couldn't let that happen. Not when Jim needed him so badly.

Wrong, Sandburg. Once again, you've got it so wrong. He lifted his hands and cradled Jim's bruised face, looking intently into those burning blue eyes. He didn't say what he was thinking, but he suspected Jim already knew.

They had broken Jim tonight. Faceless strangers Blair would never know had taken everything, and left nothing of Jim's spirit but ashes. Blair knew Jim believed that. How could a man as strong and self-sufficient as Jim help but believe that about himself when he was reduced to this, shivering naked in a motel bathroom so far from home, bloody and bruised, smeared with sand and salt, helpless in Blair's arms. Afraid there was nothing left of himself to go on any longer.

But it wasn't so. Everything that was purest and most true was still here, clearer than ever through the pain and despair. He would make Jim believe in himself again. No one else could do that for Jim, but Blair knew he could. He would help Jim rebuild what he once had been, and it would start with this. The signs on Jim's body, the least of what he had suffered.

Blair was strong enough for this. Of course he was. His entire life had been only prologue and preparation for this moment at Jim's side. Nothing else would ever matter so much. "Jim -- " he started to say, and saw Jim cock his head just a little to one side, that absolutely instinctive response to Blair's voice even when they were this close, Blair's hands gentle on his face. He stopped, and said the practical things first. There would be time for everything else when Jim was finally resting, warm and dry. "Jim, I think we need to triage here, OK? I'm gonna turn on the light so I can get a better look. You're gonna be all right with this. Just think it would be a good idea for me to make sure."

As soon as he said it he wondered if Jim would ask, "Sure of what?" and how he would answer the question if he did, but Jim only nodded and closed his eyes. Blair covered those closed eyes with his own hand, and with the other reached around behind himself for the wall switch. "Turning on the light now. Easy."

Jim flinched anyway when the dim yellow lights blazed over the mirror. Blair did too, in reaction to Jim's discomfort as well as to the reflection of Jim's back in the mirror. He hadn't noticed those injuries before. Scrapes and bruises, a few long scratches stretching the breadth of his shoulder blades and upper back. How much else was there that he hadn't seen yet? He breathed in deeply, looking for strength for himself and for Jim. "I'm taking my hand away now. Are you going to be all right?"

By way of answer, Jim lifted his own hand and gently removed Blair's. His eyes opened for a moment, but then closed again almost at once, the creases at their corners deepening with strain. "OK," Blair said again. "You know what? Let's come in here so you can sit down while I do this." He put his arm around Jim's waist and gently led him into the cramped little bathroom. Jim shuffled blind and trusting, nothing but little moans he couldn't quite keep locked in his throat escaping every time he set a foot down.

Blair had to maneuver them sideways through the narrow door. He went first, gently pulling Jim after him. Jim's arm was over his shoulders, and he was holding on tight. Blair reached to lower the seat lid on the toilet, but he was turned a little awkwardly, supporting Jim, and his fingers slipped. The lid smashed down with a sharp crack that jerked Jim's head up and back like a blow. "Aw, Jim," he whispered, reaching up to touch the clenched jaw. "I'm so sorry. I'm such an idiot. God, I'm sorry."

Jim shook his head once, stunned by the violence of the unexpected noise, but he managed to get out in a hoarse whisper, "It's OK. Just don't -- do that any more."

"I won't. I promise. I won't." He maneuvered around beside Jim, supporting his arm and trying not to touch the wounds on his wrist and above the elbow. "Hold on for me just a second more, OK?"

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