Chapter 39

Bowing his head, Blair concentrated on the task, giving as much of himself to it as Jim offered. He let his heart guide his touch, fingers barely skimming over the bruised spots, pressing with surety and skill where the muscles were unmarked and tense. The soap foam spread out, briefly holding the dark, soft hair on Jim's lower arm in random whorls before the spattering water reaching over Blair's shoulder grew streaks in the pattern and pulled the straggling clumps of bubbles downward to drip off his hand.

As Blair reached the narrow, injured wrist, Jim's hand twisted upward and caught at his, fingers searching for contact. With the ease of instinct Blair's hand slid into his, their fingers interlacing, holding on with gentle strength. Borne by the shifting soap foam, a last few sand grains dribbled over their clasped palms. They only tickled his skin with an inconsequential itch as they went by, yet Jim's grip on his fingers tightened briefly, then eased again.

The hot, salty burn of tears rose behind Blair's eyes, as fresh and painful as if it were the first time that night. He turned his head up and back, letting the spray fall directly on his face to catch the ones he could not stop. Later, when they had time, he could hold Jim, and let Jim hold him, and the tears could come then, if they still needed to. Blindly he ran the bar of soap up his own arm, keeping his grip on Jim's hand, rubbing at the sand that clung stubbornly to the creases of skin at his elbow and wrist. He'd never realized how tenacious the grit could be, nor how good it would really feel to finally get rid of it.

Jim held on quietly, not reacting again when more sand trickled down Blair's arm and onto their clasped hands, eyes closed, breathing in shallow but regular breaths. Eyes stinging from the water, Blair could still see how calm Jim's face was, how evenly his chest rose and fell. It would have felt so good to rest his cheek against that broad chest for just a moment, just to let him know how his courage affected Blair, but he hated to lay the stinging weight of his sand-encrusted hair across those raw marks. He feared even the cracked skin of his chapped lips would be too rough, so he only whispered, "It's OK, Jim, I'm here." Drawing air past the lump in his throat, he forced himself to keep moving, to push the soap across his own chest where it laid the hair over flat in its wake.

While he worked over his chest he kept talking, a soft steady counterpoint to the hiss of the shower. "You know that seminar I was telling you about? The one Professor Goss changed to Wednesday mornings? Anyway, I don't need that credit so bad this year, really. I can drop it and just audit." Turning slightly, he managed to face into the spray enough to get most of the soap rinsed off his own chest, though it collected back into streaks as it ran over his thighs, and made the sand there itch more. Bending as far as he could without pulling at Jim's hand, he swabbed at his own legs, and kept talking. His exertions made his words slightly uneven, but Jim didn't seem to notice.

"I'll borrow the syllabus and do the reading on my own, and I bet he'd even take the time to look at an outline for a paper if I asked him to. And it'll be back at the usual time next year, since he gives it every fall. I can take it then and be totally ahead of the curve. So we can still do the grocery shopping during the week, and maybe get some camping in over the weekends this time, like you wanted to last year." When he looked up again, Jim's head had that characteristic tilt as he listened, and the pinched look around his eyes had faded away, some of the lines losing their tightness. Somehow that made it even harder to ask in the same calm, inconsequential tone of voice, "Jim, can you let me do the rest now?"

For a moment he wasn't sure if Jim had been listening to his words or just the tone of his voice, but then the grip on Blair's hand tightened for a moment, and slid away, accepting what was necessary with quiet grace. "I was thinking..." Soft as it was, Blair's voice broke, and he bowed his head, concentrating on getting both hands filled with lather again. As he started at the top of Jim's other shoulder, working gently down the arm, he cleared his throat. "I was thinking, we could go back to that spot way up on the Suiattle you liked so much. Remember? The fishing was good and there aren't any big campgrounds close, so it would be really quiet."

A soft sip of air sounded as his touch circled Jim's wrist, and Blair closed his eyes for a moment, holding very still until the wash of emotion had gone through him and he could go on. "We can hike in until you can't hear or smell anyone else around," he whispered to the darkness behind his lids. "Not come back out for days." Maybe never. If this is what being in the world gets you, who the hell needs it? Opening his eyes, he watched with a sensation of great distance as his hands enfolded and moved over Jim's, sliding carefully down over the long fingers that trembled but held still for him. Wrapping his own around them, he held on briefly, faintly surprised he could actually hear the change in Jim's breathing for those few moments.

Feeling like a traitor, he used that grip to urge Jim gently forward, into the spray. The soap film had to be taken off before the itch and tickle of it became as uncomfortable as the sand, but that made what he had to do no easier on his heart. Even the fact Jim did as he was directed without so much as an involuntary flinch or moan wasn't enough to keep Blair from knowing how much it would hurt. Jim's silent courage was as affecting as his complete breakdown had been, and Blair wondered if he would feel the same hollow ache every time he looked at his friend's face from now on. Those features were still calm as the water struck his arm, only a slight tightness around his nostrils betraying his agony. The view blurred for a moment and Blair blinked hard, feeling the warm drops trickle downward, quickly lost in the rest of the dampness on his face.

It had to be done. Holding Jim's arm up, supporting it with both hands so he put no pressure on the sprained wrist, he made sure the trickling water cleared all the foam from the skin, especially the rope burned areas that would be so sensitive to any contact. Neosporin, he thought faintly. I have to get some Neosporin. I promised him some.

When that was done, he drew Jim farther forward, all the way against his own chest, so the spray arched over them both, and water ran down Jim's back. He had to let go of Jim's hand to reach around and skim his own over the planes of Jim's shoulder blades, chasing the last bubbles away from the roughened edges of the scratches there. It was so easy, once he had finished that small job, to leave his arms around Jim, to turn the embrace of necessity into one of support and love instead. So easy to press himself into Jim's solidity, and escape the terrible anguish by closing his eyes to the evidence of it. So very difficult to quit clinging to the comfort of the warm body that leaned against him in utter trust and sheltered him with its own last strength.

The warmth of Blair's chest against his was gone too soon, and Jim drifted again, tied to the present only by the strand of Blair's will he had made his own. It seemed he had been standing there for so very long, and he was tired. Beyond that was pain, washing around and past his consciousness like the surf, tugging at his anchor. But he trusted the bedrock grip that held him steady no matter what pushed at him, and rode the waves with his mind at peace.

Blair's voice returned with his hands, the touch skating carefully across Jim's collarbones as he asked, "So, whatta ya say? Let's tell Simon to take your caseload and stick it in a file where the sun doesn't shine, and go get lost in the woods, OK? No bad guys, no Feds, no showers, just fresh air and quiet." Soap lather trickled from Blair's hands, inching down Jim's chest with slippery inevitability. The bubbles moved and popped, and he could feel the explosive dissolution of each one. But Blair's touch was gentle as a blessing on his skin, even as it moved over the blistered patches where thought had been taken from him.

Fresh air and quiet, and the peace of being alone in a safe place, with Blair's company to keep him from feeling abandoned. The image was so good Jim found himself nodding once, his ruined voice rasping a slow, "Yes" that surprised himself with its hoarse intensity.

The whisper soft touch paused, Blair's hands no more than two palm-shaped heat signatures high on Jim's ribs. Then the warm spots moved, continuing their ministrations, driving the fire from his wounds with a greater warmth. "It's a deal. When we get back home, we head for the hills. So far away from all this, man, they won't find us until we want to be found."

Jim nodded and felt the ache of muscles knotting at the back of his neck and spreading across his shoulders. Tension pulled at the bruise at the base of his skull, still hurting with a dull, hollow pain from the soft brush of Blair's fingertips minutes ago, aching as though Blair's hands were still there, pressing hard. He opened his eyes to see Blair's concerned eyes gazing up at him, blinking water out of his eyes. More tears, Jim knew, and wasn't sure how he was so certain. Perhaps he could smell the salt, even over the reek of sea water, or perhaps tears really were different from bath water, a difference in surface tension, heat, salinity, something, to distinguish the slow droplets rolling down Blair's wet cheek.

He brought his hand up slowly, feeling the pain in those muscles too, a tug across his shoulder and a deeper, more difficult ache reaching up the inside of his arm, reminding him of standing for hours with his arms outspread, lashed to splintering boards he hadn't been able to break until it was far too late. He brushed the back of his fingers across Blair's cheek, managing to be gentle despite the trembling weakness in his arm, and felt the faintest sting of salt tears.

A tremulous smile touched Blair's lips. He tilted his head, pressing against Jim's touch for as long as Jim had the strength to hold his hand there, and when his arm finally dropped, Blair's face crumpled with sorrow he couldn't hide, though Jim could see how Blair tried. But then Blair took a gasping breath of air, and didn't look away, and the grief on his face became his grim determination, that limitless, immeasurable strength that had brought them both so far tonight. The same strength that would take them both home, Jim knew. He hoped Blair knew it as well.

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