Chapter 31

Jim's eyes widened for a moment, then closed again, and he nodded as well. "Oh man," Blair said softly, letting out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Let's -- um -- let's just finish up here and get you in the shower, all right?" He sat back a little farther and carefully lifted Jim's foot, looking again at the rope burns above the ankle, the spreading bruises, the cuts on his sole, crusty and dark with sand and blood. From what he could tell, the cuts weren't terribly deep, they looked like damage from broken shells and the sharp rocks above the beach. Not crippling, but likely to develop into trouble if he didn't get them cleaned and treated soon. The other foot was the same. He sat back on his haunches, looking up at Jim. "I think a doctor would tell you to take a couple of aspirin and call him in the morning," he said, trying to smile.

Jim gave a little grunt of something like amusement.

Blair's shoulders slumped in relief and he told Jim more seriously, "I'm not a doctor. I don't know. I'm trusting you to tell me if there's something I'm not seeing here."

Jim nodded again as Blair got slowly to his feet. "I wish I could just take it all away," Blair heard himself saying sadly and pointlessly. Just shut the hell up, he told himself irritably, but that didn't work. Of course, it never had, even when his own best interests had been at stake. "But I can't. And I know the shower's probably going to really make all these cuts sting like anything." Jim watched him, trusting, silent. Blair wondered if Jim registered the understatement at all, or was merely accepting everything offered to him without judgement. "Just let me know if it gets bad. We'll figure out another way. I promise." He pulled Jim's head to his chest for a moment in reassurance, then let him go so he could reach over and turn on the water. It gushed out from the lower faucet, bouncing hollowly in the tub, and even the sound of it made Jim flinch violently.

Oh god, Blair thought, turning the taps back until a gentle, lukewarm stream was running over his hands. He was gonna kill Jim like this. Maybe a bath would work better than a shower? Fill the tub first and then help Jim get in. He looked at the sand already collecting on the bottom of the tub from his own hands. And then what, Sandburg? Just sort of splash the rest of the sand off Jim? That wasn't going to work, and he sure as hell couldn't scrub the sand off with the washcloth. It would be like flaying Jim with steel wool.

No way around a shower. They would just have to go slow and figure things out as they went. And try not to hurt Jim too badly in the process. He closed his eyes for a moment, then turned the knob between the hot and cold water taps. A gurgling sound seemed to run up the wall behind the tile, and then water began to trickle from the shower head. As he looked up at the nozzle, Blair noticed mold in the grout and around the fixtures, and wondered why he hadn't seen it before. He straightened up again, consciously aware he was getting slower each time, wondering if Jim noticed. And he was thirsty. The splash of water suddenly made him realize just how much, and in retrospect it was surprisingly obvious that if he were thirsty, Jim must be too. All this time, he thought miserably, and he hadn't so much as offered Jim a drink of water.

"Jim," he said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Hold on just a minute, OK?"

That same look of calm trust in Jim's eyes answered him. Blair touched Jim's face for a moment, fingers trailing across the unbruised side of his jaw, and then dashed into the next room to grab a plastic cup from the little tray by the sink. He wrestled with the maddening plastic wrap, the lightweight cup bending and crinkling under pressure that failed to tear the wrapping. Finally he tore it with his teeth and ripped it away, filled the cup half way full from the faucet and carried it back to Jim. Jim was sitting rigid, trembling with tension, his eyes fixed on Blair. "It's OK," Blair whispered. "Sorry. You needed this before, I know." He lifted Jim's hand and wrapped his fingers around the cup. "Just a sip."

Jim's hand was shaking so badly water splashed over the edges of the cup. He made no move to lift it toward his lips. "Jim, come on," Blair pleaded. "You need it."

Jim looked up, and Blair saw the grief and anger and fear in his shadowed eyes. Blair had been out of the room for thirty seconds. Less than that, maybe, certainly no more, and everything had begun to crumble again. "Oh, Jim," he whispered. He took the cup of water back and set it precariously on the side of the tub, then wrapped himself around Jim the best way he could manage in that awkward position, laying Jim's head against his sandy chest, wrapping his arms around Jim's shaking back. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. But it's going to get better." The endless litany of reassurance was sometimes hard to believe, but he forced himself to feel the faith he was trying to impart. Blair had no idea if it did any good, but he had to tell Jim anyway. "It is going to get better. Didn't I promise you that? Didn't I promise? However long it takes. It doesn't matter. I'll be right here. You know that. Jim, you know that. I promise."

Finally Blair released his hold enough to look into Jim's face. Jim's eyes had been shut tight, but he opened them a bit when Blair eased back. "The water?" he asked Blair, his voice less than a whisper.

"Right," Blair said, suppressing the tender urge to bend forward and kiss Jim's brow. He reached for the cup and once again helped Jim wrap his hands around it, but this time he left his fingers curled over Jim's as well while Jim lifted the drink to his mouth. Jim's eyes rolled up to meet Blair's and then he drank.

One swallow. A second. It must have tasted terrible. A tense little shiver ran down his back, and he pushed the cup away, shaking his head. "Is that all?" Blair asked. "You sure?"

There was a sour expression on Jim's face, like a child sulking after swallowing bitter medicine. It made Blair want to laugh, but his heart was breaking at the same time. "OK. Just little sips for now. And I'll get you some bottled water after the shower." He drained the rest of the cup himself and then tossed it back into the next room. "Yeah, it's pretty bad. Tastes like chlorine and the plastic cup and god knows what else, doesn't it? We'll get you something better."

The side of Jim's mouth that wasn't swollen and discolored lifted in a brief smile. His eyes flickered over Blair's shoulder and behind him, tracking something. Blair glanced back at the plastic cup lying on the floor in the next room next to the discarded piles of grit-drizzling clothes, and then smiled at him. "Comment on my housekeeping? C'mon, Jim. I'm paying for the room. I can throw what I want on the floor." He reached over and put the back of his hand under the sputtering stream coming down from the showerhead, trying to judge the temperature, trying to imagine how the water pressure would feel to Jim. "OK, OK, so I put the room on your card too. Don't worry. I'll pay you back." Even turned down this much, the water stung a little as it splashed on Blair's hand, and he saw and felt the way Jim flinched suddenly. Tiny water droplets splattering off Blair's hand were bouncing across the miniscule room to strike him. Even those hurt Jim. Oh god. What were they going to do?

"Just one step at a time," he told Jim, answering the question he hadn't asked out loud. "I don't know any other way."

Jim's eyes were bloodshot, streaming, hardly open against the light in little bathroom, but they watched Blair all the same, and that was trust in them, Blair knew it, not just resignation. Acceptance and belief -- belief in him -- and as long as Jim looked at him that way, Blair could figure out anything, accomplish anything.

Even this damned shower.

"I've got an idea," Blair said. "Don't laugh." He grabbed one of the hand towels from the rack. Coarse and thin, just like the bath towels were. He thought about Jim trying to dry himself off with one of them and shook his head. But they were a long way away from that. He leaned in and turned the knob back around, so water was coming from the lower faucet once again. "Just an idea," he said again. "But it might make things a little easier."

Taking opposite corners of the thin towel, he reached up and knotted them over the showerhead, pulling tight. Then he did the same with the other two ends, completely swaddling the showerhead. When he turned the knob again, water came trickling through the cloth in a gentle stream. "There," he said, irrationally pleased with himself. "This is better, right?"

Jim nodded without even looking up. He reached for Blair, grasping his forearms and holding on tight. "Help me up," he said quietly.

"Wait a minute," Blair said. "Jim, hold on a sec." It was occurring to Blair that he hadn't really thought this through. What was he going to do -- push Jim in the shower and leave him there? For heaven's sake, the man couldn't stand up by himself. Even with the towel around the showerhead, the water was sure to be a terrible shock, and that was the last thing Jim could deal with in his condition. He needed shelter, support, safety. All the things only Blair could give him now.

Jim was still clutching Blair's forearms, though he had stopped trying to stand, waiting for Blair's guidance. Blair dropped his head until he touched Jim's forehead, and then he laughed softly. "Just don't tell Simon about this. I think he's suspicious enough as it is."

When he straightened up Jim rolled his eyes to look up at him. His eyes were smiling, a helpless response to Blair's laughter, even if he didn't understand it yet. "Just hold on to me," Blair said. "I don't want to end up on the floor either." He took Jim's hands and moved first one and then the other to his sides. "Hold on, OK?" he said again, feeling Jim's hands warm beneath his ribs. "And I am NOT ticklish," he added sternly. "So don't get any ideas."

God knew how he managed it, but somehow Jim contrived to look like an aggrieved innocent, though the expression on his face didn't change. Must be in his eyes. Blair bent his head and unfastened the top button on his own jeans, struggling with the half-dried, sand-encrusted denim. Then the zipper stuck, of course, but while he yanked angrily at the small, sharp-edged metal tab, Jim's hold remained firm and steady, even though the sand had to be hurting. Finally the zipper shifted and let go, sliding reluctantly. It got half way down, the teeth crunching on sand, before getting stuck again. Blair groaned. He tugged the zipper up part way, then down again, trying to ease it farther without using actual force. All he needed this morning. Break the goddamn zipper. Then he'd never get out of these jeans.

Jim puffed air out in an exhalation Blair felt against his stomach. "Problem there, Sandburg?"

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