Chapter 38

Jim's weakness? Blair's breath caught again, this time in a half-gasped laugh that fought with a sob and won a partial victory. Better than anyone, he knew there was nothing weak about Jim. What others might mistake for weakness was only his open-eyed honesty and belief in fundamental goodness; a heartbreaking vulnerability, perhaps, but no flaw. The quality of innocence they imparted had made him stronger and more courageous than anyone else Blair had ever known. Whatever he might believe of himself sometimes, Jim possessed a well of strength that had never run dry, no matter the challenge.

Nor could Blair deny knowing some of that strength came from himself, drawn straight from the love they shared. Blair opened his eyes, denying the tears, looking deliberately at what he could see of Jim's chest from where he rested against it. The pattern of blistering marks stretched away from his cheek, swirling in a grotesque parody of art, clustered over the sensitive aureole, speaking mutely of those hours of agony. Speaking of the love Jim had been willing to suffer so much to finally see manifest, the love that had sustained him through the night and even now gave him the ability to stand and accept more pain when Blair asked it of him. It was a trust Blair couldn't betray because the twin half of it lived within himself, and always had, as Jim had known from the beginning. It was his strength, as it was Jim's.

His hold gentled on Jim's back, and he said again, "I'm sorry." His voice was calm, the wild grief and guilt banished by the same power that had let Jim throw away his fear and shame. "I just forgot something for a minute." The truth of it made him smile, and Jim's hold on him relaxed as Blair closed his eyes for a moment, swallowing back the last of his tears. "It's OK now, Jim. I won't forget it again, I promise."

"Good," Jim rasped, the bewilderment clear, but he stayed where he was, and slowly the trembling in his arms faded to a shiver, and then to stillness. The tenseness in the rest of his body began to fade too, the subliminal strum of muscles held taut noticeable only as it faded away under Blair's hands like the vibration of distant thunder.

In feeling the change where his body was pressed so closely to Jim's, Blair felt the sand again, and its itchy, gritty presence was intolerable. Shifting, he stroked his right hand in circles over Jim's shoulder blades, slow and smooth, keeping his touch light, aware of the sharp edges of the sand still stuck to Jim's skin. "We need to get this stuff off you, OK? I'm gonna reach for the soap here, nice and slow...." Drawing his hand across Jim's back as he spoke, he let his touch trail off Jim's side and the reflexive shiver under his other hand was brief, deliberately damped.

Letting go a little to give him the freedom to reach it, Jim chuckled weakly. "Just don't drop it."

Blair snorted in surprised laugher, nearly losing his grip on the square bar of soap. He turned his hand and caught it, still grinning. Jim's fear was real enough -- Blair could tell by the way Jim's palms stayed pressed so firmly against his back, holding him like a talisman too precious to give up -- but the humor was too, and it was another welcome sign of Jim's recovery. Holding the soap firmly, he straightened back up and hugged Jim tightly. "If I do, you're calling room service for a replacement, cause I'm not letting go to fish around for it."

His hands weren't wet enough to work up any lather on the soap, and Jim's back was still dry. Knowing what he was asking, Blair added very quietly, "I'm going to step backward so you can get wetted down a little here, OK?" He waited until Jim nodded against his shoulder, feeling the tension come and go as Jim fought not to tighten his embrace, and then Blair moved a half step closer to the showerhead. The cold metal of the faucets poked at his lower back and he could feel the rounded edge of the drain plug under one of his heels.

Jim slid forward with him, face turned away from the spray, cheek pressed to Blair's, sheltering in his shadow. The flare of water crested over Blair's shoulder on the other side, striking down almost directly between them. As if Blair weren't aware of the way he had begun to shake, Jim asked hoarsely, "This place has room service?"

Holding his right hand up, turning the soap under the stream of falling water to wet it, Blair replied seriously, "Yeah, but I never know how much to tip a cockroach." He shifted the soap to his left hand, held loosely against the center of Jim's back, and very carefully smoothed the slick froth cupped in his right palm up the back of Jim's neck and into his hair. The short, dense fuzz covered a soft bump, and Jim winced, curling tighter into Blair's arms as his touch ran across it.

"Sorry," Blair murmured, even as his fingers delicately explored the injured area. "They hit you here?" Jim nodded silently, a slow inclination of his head, barely able to raise it from resting on Blair's shoulder. Moving onward carefully, Blair kept working the lather into Jim's hair around and away from that spot, keeping his touch gentle but constant as he spread the mildly sweet-smelling soap suds. He couldn't feel much of the grittiness of trapped sand in Jim's hair, but he knew how much of it weighted his own, and how the stiff, salty coating of it on his scalp itched.

"Tilt your head back, so this doesn't run in your eyes," he directed, and as Jim complied, neck barely trembling with the strain, he brushed his hand above Jim's forehead, bringing the soap as far forward as he dared. "That's good," he said, his voice as calming and careful as his caress. "Now shift over to the other side and let's get this stuff off your head first, so it won't get in your face."

Like an animal that had been hurt so badly it no longer fought against being touched, Jim did as he was told. Treating Jim as tenderly as if he were that helpless animal come silently begging for aid, Blair shifted his body, supporting Jim's weight as he moved into the full stream, face upturned to meet it. "Shhh," he breathed, only for the comfort of speaking gently, and used his hand to riffle the lather back out of Jim's hair. The short bristle of it tickled Blair's palm, softly resisting the brushing against its grain. Trails of water dripped down the composed planes of Jim's face, over and past his closed eyes, carrying the last of the sand away. Carrying away the salt, the scent of the sea, the blood and the tears.

It took very little time for the water to run clear, the soap he had so carefully spread rinsed away with even more care. "That's good, you're doing so good here, shhhh, you can move out of the water again, Jim." Blair gave a slight push with the front of his shoulder, and Jim numbly moved his head out of the spray, and back to the other side, resting his chin on Blair's shoulder like an offering. For a few moments, Blair did no more than just hold him, and let Jim hold him in return, breathing in time with each other, their skin warm and slick with the cleansing water making its way between them.

Slowly Blair began to move again, this time easing the bar of soap over Jim's upper back in gentle circles. He switched hands, and did the other shoulder blade in the same careful way, running the slippery bar over Jim's skin with one hand. With the other he kept a gentle pressure on Jim's back, holding him close, fingers moving in a light massage that echoed the strokes of the bar. He could feel the uneven ridges of those long scratches he had seen earlier, but though they had swelled enough to be discernible, they didn't seem to be serious. The marks looked more like artifacts of his escape than anything deliberately inflicted.

"They didn't hurt your back?" he asked quietly, working the soap up over one side and along the sweep from the strong neck to the rounded shoulder point.

Solid, resilient, the muscular curve bowed forward as Blair ran his hand over it, and Jim ground out a breathless, "No."

"Shhh, I've got you now." Blair leaned against him briefly, speaking his reassurance with his whole body while his hands continued their gentle task, moving over the broad back with all the kindness he had in him. This time he felt the sand between them even more clearly, an increasingly gritty annoyance on skin sensitized by warmth and coursing water. Leaning back as far as he could within the circle of Jim's embrace, he looked up into that beloved face.

Jim's eyes were still closed, but peacefully, not tightly. There was a crease of pain between his brows that deepened the fine lines at the corners of his eyes, and the set of his lips was firm with concentration. The containment of his agony gave his features a thinned, drawn look that was a refined version of their usual inner strength. It was hard for Blair not to lose himself in thinking of that pain, in admiration for Jim's courage, and in the overwhelming desire to make the hurting stop.

He couldn't afford anything but the admiration, not for a while, and in order to honor the courage he had to cause Jim more pain before he could try to begin helping him to heal. "I'm sorry," he said very quietly. "Can you let go for a little while, so I can get to your arms?"

With a soft breath that was not quite a sigh, Jim released him. His touch trailed away as he dropped his hands and let go, and Jim's eyes stayed shut as he launched himself into free fall with nothing of his own but a total belief in Blair's ability and willingness to catch him. Blair's heart beat painfully and his throat tightened until he knew speech would be impossible for a minute or two. Instead of trying to say anything, he brought his hands forward, riding the smooth curve of Jim's back, around his shoulders, until he could pass the bar of soap lightly across Jim's chest, following the line of his collarbone where there were the fewest blistered marks.

As he scrubbed the bar between his hands to generate more lather, their sides resting on Jim's skin maintaining contact, and then wrapped them around Jim's upper arm with unrelenting tenderness, he couldn't help glancing away from what he was doing to look at Jim's face. Even the mild soap he was using had to burn on the abrasions over Jim's elbow, where the foam was already sliding on its own, slipping ahead of his hold on the solid bulk of that substantial biceps. But there was no reflection of it in the set of Jim's face. The barriers were all gone, his soul stripped as bare as his flesh, his welfare laid in Blair's hands with as much simple trust as his body had been given over for care. Jim had gone beyond fighting, because Blair asked it of him.

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