Chapter 40

Blair did know, whether he could admit it to himself or not. While his expression was still set, a smile that was a little frightening in its intensity spread across his features. His face was so naked with his wet hair washed back from his brow. "You're gonna make me call Simon, aren't you, Jim? Thanks a lot."

He smiled for Blair, for the courage that made him strong, for the strength that made him beautiful. The pain of forcing his bruised mouth into a smile was forgotten when Blair beamed back at him in response, open mouthed, looking as though he could laugh out loud. "I knew it," he told Jim. "All right, I'll do it, but you owe me, you hear?"

"I hear you, Sandburg," Jim rasped. "I won't forget."

Blair lowered his head fast, as if that had touched too close. It probably had, but Jim couldn't take the words back. Wouldn't even if he could. "Nobody's gonna be calling anybody until we get this sand washed off," Blair mumbled in a gruff voice. He eased his arm around Jim's back, pulling him close. One hand still rested against Jim's side, below his breast, fist clenched around the soap. Jim felt the curve of Blair's fingers and the slick, flat side of the block of soap. That glycerin soap Blair liked. He could tell from the yielding, soft feel of it, as much as from the subdued perfume. Jim associated its faint botanical scent so intimately with Blair he could hardly recognize it as perfume at all.

He remembered a camping trip -- had it really been a year ago? -- when Blair had left his bar of soap sitting on a rock by the stream after washing up one morning, and the heat of the sun had melted it into a little puddle of goo by the end of the day. Blair had complained about having to use Jim's bottle of Camping Suds the rest of the trip. "Geez, man, it's the same thing we're using to wash the dishes! I don't want to use this on my skin."

Jim wanted to ask Blair if he'd packed the Camping Suds this trip, because he was sure that would make Blair laugh, and his laughter was such strength to both of them. He couldn't find enough strength of his own to say the words though. He could only relax into Blair's arms, accepting the heated pain of Blair's body against the burns on his chest and belly, letting the renewal of all the tiny flames start to burn away the memories embedded in each affected nerve.

"You're doing great," Blair was saying softly. "Not much longer now." He massaged Jim's back carefully with the flat of his hand, slippery smooth from the soap, his gentle touch dislodging stubborn grains of sand and sweeping them away along with the salty film. Blair pressed closer after a moment, reaching all the way around Jim so he could turn the bar of soap in both hands. With the fresh lather bubbling softly in his palm he began again, smoothing it slowly across Jim's lower back. Jim felt the suds froth down over his hips and buttocks, carrying sand with them in a tiny bouncing cascade, before tangling in the hairs at the back of his thighs.

Blair moved closer still, shifting a little, pulling Jim near. Jim's arms still hung loose at his sides, so Blair tucked himself under his arms, encircling his ribs, asking for no extra effort from Jim. He reached all the way around Jim's waist once to turn the soap between his hands, and Jim felt the muscles in the strong forearm across his back shifting with the slight task. When Blair's hand returned to its task, he washed sand and salt downward from Jim's waist, his chest and side pressed so close to Jim the pattering stream from the shower no longer ran between them. Blair worked slowly and steadily, trying to shield Jim even from the gentle brush of his flesh with a protective froth of suds. He smoothed his hand over Jim's buttocks with the same care, without hesitation, finding the streaked lines of sand at the top of Jim's thighs, under the squared curve of muscle. He stopped again to gather another palm full of lather, and then used it to wash the grit away.

"OK, Jim," he said, his voice calm and quiet. "You think you can -- uh, shift a little here?"

Jim understood. He moved his leg forward, parting his thighs. Blair's hand was warm and sure, his palm slick with the mild soap. Blair had wrapped his left arm around Jim's waist, supporting him more securely. He was still holding the soap in his fist, his knuckles pressed against Jim's back as he finished chasing the sand away with his other hand. "Just gonna get the soap off now," he said, his voice guiding as gently as his touch. Through the haze of pain and comfort wrapped around him like a scratchy blanket, Jim felt water droplets splattering against his back and realized Blair was holding his own hand up, washing away the suds under the stream of the shower. "Going to get under the water for a sec," he warned Jim. His voice was calm, just a little hoarse, as he pulled Jim forward.

The stream of water broke across Jim's back like a lash. He bowed his head with a sigh, and Blair supported him fiercely, left forearm locked across Jim's back. He caught what water he could in the palm of his right hand, and made sure all the suds were washed away, the last of the sand borne off with them. Jim concentrated on the gentle sureness of that intimate touch, and the pain was less important than Blair's deep breath, swelling his chest against Jim's, and the longer exhalation. "You'll -- you need to let me know, Jim," he said steadily. "Does it feel like I've gotten all the soap?"

Jim nodded and whispered, "Yes," and Blair eased him back out of the direct stream of the water, his thigh and chest bearing against Jim with gentle force, his arms around Jim's back. It was such a relief to be out of the punishing spray. A moan escaped Jim, and when Blair's arms tightened around him, he let himself fall into that welcome strength. He was more aware than ever of his vulnerability, with Blair's gentle touch such a lingering warmth, and it was all right. Blair was strong enough for both of them. Jim had only to endure.

Blair laid the side of his face on Jim's chest for a moment then, chin tucked low, his arms tightening briefly around Jim's back. His hair was still scratchy with sand and lank from the salt, despite lying so wetly on his shoulders. Poor kid needed to get that washed out, Jim thought regretfully. He kept his breaths long and slow, and brought his arms up slowly to embrace Blair for a moment. Water from the showerhead pattered across his forearms when they crossed Blair's back, but it was worth it for the way Blair straightened against Jim, his touch more sure, his voice steadier when he spoke.

"We're so close to being done here," he told Jim confidently. He lifted his head to look up at Jim, and as Jim looked back at him with streaming eyes, shaking with weakness, remaining upright and so close to the showerhead only because Blair was holding him there, Blair unwound one arm from around Jim's back, trusting Jim to remain there, and touched the backs of his fingers to Jim's unshaven cheek. "You're still with me, right?" Blair asked softly.

Jim nodded, feeling Blair's knuckles pressing gently against his cheekbone. Not going anywhere else, he thought, though he didn't speak out loud. He couldn't imagine being anywhere except here with Blair ever again.

Well, maybe it would be nice to get out of the shower.

He must have managed some sort of a smile, because a radiant one broke across Blair's face then. "I knew it," Blair whispered. "Your control's coming back, isn't it? You're getting stronger all the time, I can tell. Aw Jim, just a little bit more now -- then you can rest, and it's all going to come back to you. I know it is."

Jim couldn't disappoint the hope shining in Blair's eyes, so he only nodded again, less of a movement than a clear intent, and tried not to shake as Blair eased him back another step. Blair's body was no longer pressed to Jim's, but his arms were around Jim's waist again. He could feel the movement of Blair's wrists, fingers curved as he turned the bar of soap between his palms.

Then Blair locked his left arm at the small of Jim's back and moved a little to the side, so he could ease his other hand between them. Soap frothed across Jim's stomach. Blair's fingers were warm and gentle, and he used the palm of his hand to sweep the foam down and away. Jim's flesh was still puckered in a line from the wet elastic of his boxers, and stubborn grains of sand clung to the reddened, tender rumples of skin.

Blair stepped closer for a moment so he could reach around Jim and turn the soap in his hand, coating his palm and fingers with soft lather. Jim could feel the suds spilling through Blair's cupped fingers as he brought his hand around again and worked on massaging the grit away. He flinched when Blair reached the cluster of welts above his navel, and Blair froze. He gave a long, harsh rasp of breath and then said softly, "I'm sorry, Jim."

Jim shook his head, denying the need for the apology, though he couldn't speak. Blair understood anyway, and after a moment he began again, somehow managing to make his touch even gentler than before. It didn't matter how gentle Blair was, though. It was the very warmth of Blair's flesh against his own that made his wounds burn again.

The memories came to Jim, unbidden. The man with the flat brown eyes, watching his face so eagerly as he touched Jim, hot fingertips scuttling across his belly like the legs of a monstrous spider. Jim couldn't stop the instinctual flinch, his gut rippling under Blair's touch, trying to draw away.

Blair stopped again, moving his hand away to rest carefully on Jim's hip. He swallowed twice, trying to calm himself before he spoke. Soap bubbles frothed and broke under the palm of his hand and slid down Jim's leg. "This is hurting you," he said a low, soft voice. "What can I do? Is the water too hot?"

Jim only shook his head. Slowly, trying to be as gentle as Blair was with him, he put his hand over Blair's, curling his fingers around Blair's wrist. The hairs on the back of Sandburg's hand were swept together and spiraled flat across his skin, slick from the soap. With a tug, he brought Blair's hand back and pressed it to his stomach. The heat of Blair's palm brought the burns to life again, and with that life, the memory of every touch, every shock, and each loss of control. Every betrayal. Every plea for mercy from a man who knew none.

Blair's eyes met his, wide and startled. Jim's belly shrank from the heat of that touch, but he held Blair's hand there until the expression on Blair's face grew calm again. Then, taking a deep breath, he raised his arms so he could lay both hands on Blair's shoulders. The strain made his arms shake, but it was worth it to see Blair smile up at him, so reassured.

"Let me know if it gets to be too much," Blair told him quietly. "And we'll figure out some other way."

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