Chapter 42

In the stillness, Jim also rested, and felt the difference Blair's ministrations had already made. Where his hands had passed, gentle but thorough, the sting of salt and the bite of sharp-edged sand were gone. Their absence was like the lifting of a weight he had carried for such a long time he had grown accustomed to it and no longer realized how desperately heavy it was. The burrs were gone from the soft tangled press of Blair's furred chest, his skin infinitesimally cooler where water had caught in the curled hair and begun to chill with evaporation. Against Jim's pain-spattered breast, Blair's breathing was a delicate brush of heat. It hurt even while it comforted Jim, and he curled himself around Blair, hugging him closer, trying to store up a measure of the contact he needed for the next inevitable separation. Keeping his eyes closed, he let the warmth and pulse of life in his arms define the world he lived in.

He felt the deeper breath Blair took, ribcage rising with the nascent question, and knew what it would be before the words were spoken. "You want to do the rest now, get it over with?"

No, he thought sadly. He wanted to stay like he was for a while longer, to keep the illusion of safety and protection wrapped around himself with Blair's embrace. But it was as foolish a wish as the one for his own lost innocence to return and Jim was fundamentally not a foolish man. "OK, Chief," he grated, letting go his hold. "You're the boss."

As he let go of Jim, Blair shook his head. The trailing ends of his wet hair moved across Jim's chest with the motion, identifying the gesture even as he said, "No way, man. You are totally in charge here." In complete contradiction of his words, he pushed gently, and Jim moved back a careful half step, then another, until he was at the back of the tub. "You tell me when something hurts, and we stop. You tell me what you need, and I'll do it." Easing himself back from Jim, muscles tensed preparatory to kneeling, he said intently, "I mean it, Jim, just tell me and it's yours."

It hurts to let go. Jim opened his eyes and looked down into Blair's face, seeing the earnest pleading in it that he had heard in the voice. Don't let go. But he kept his silence, because he knew there was no choice. He had learned that tonight, a lesson he had not thought he needed but one he had never really understood before.

With his uncanny accuracy, Blair went on quietly, "I know it hurts to let go. I can feel it in you when I move." His right hand was spread flat over Jim's side, palm cupping the curve of his body below the ribs, and his left held the diminished bar of soap, curled fingers resting against Jim's skin with a matching gentle pressure. "But I'm not leaving, Jim. Never, OK? I'll be right here." He tipped his head and touched his lips lightly to a spot over Jim's heart, and then met his eyes again, trying to smile, very nearly succeeding. "It's just everything else that has to go away."

Looking into those eyes, Jim believed it could be that easy. There would be help, as much as he needed to do what was asked of him. "Make it go away," he whispered, feeling the heat of tears behind his eyes, knowing Blair could see them rising, and would still somehow keep believing in Jim's strength anyway. He swallowed hard, feeling the twist of his mouth pull at the bruise, his lip aching with it.

"I will." Blair's hands moved, his whole body shaking with the fervor of his determination. "I promise, Jim, I promise." For a moment he leaned forward again to press himself to the full length of Jim's body, then he dropped away, leaving goosebumps rising in his absence.

Jim let him go, blinking hard to clear his eyes so his sight could make up for the loss of touch. It wasn't enough, but he shivered once and then relaxed, accepting that it wasn't enough and enduring anyway. He was cold; the tepid shower water drying off his skin chilled him front and back, and the faint hint of heat coming from Blair's presence wasn't enough to keep it at bay. If he let himself try to feel that warmth any more strongly, he feared what else would come with it, his skin too rawly sensitive to discriminate between things which were not painful and those that were. Hands clenched in fists at his sides, he watched Blair with careful concentration as Sandburg eased himself down to one knee, using the tub rim for balance on one side but keeping his other hand, still wrapped around the soap, against Jim's hip.

"Just make it all the same in your mind," Blair said, bringing his right hand across once he was stable, and working up lather between his palms. The backs of his hands rolled awkwardly on the flat plane just below Jim's hip and there was a hint of strain in the way Blair's back was twisted to maintain the position, but he kept on anyway, clearly unwilling to give up even such a small amount of the contact he knew Jim needed so badly.

"The things they did and the sand and the way you felt and the smell of seawater, it all washes off you the same." There were tender reddened bruises on Jim's legs, deeply set marks on the long, corded muscles where he had been kicked repeatedly. With infinite care, Blair smoothed a handful of lather around the curve of Jim's thigh, rubbing in gentle circles to dislodge the sand caught in the fine dusting of hair. "It all goes away," he murmured, brushing the suds downward. Jim could feel the grit loosening and shifting, the weight of each grain on each separate follicle, and the trembling of his own muscles, too weak to stand steady any more, too weak to even stop from shaking. He locked his knees straight and put one hand on the cold, slick tile wall for balance, and let everything else slide away from him with the gentle touch of Blair's hands.

Blair eased his hands around Jim's leg and felt the deep-seated trembling of muscles stressed to exhaustion. His own arms shook with it too, and he had to keep tightening his grip on the soap to prevent it escaping his grasp. It was ironic that with everything slipping away from them, control and strength and dignity, and even the damned soap, what he was doing was working at getting Jim to slough off something else in addition to all he had already lost. Maybe, he mused as his fingers coasted over the complexity of Jim's knee, it was like refinishing a valuable antique. Before you could put on the finish that brought out all the depth and beauty of the wood, you had to strip off all the old layers of shellac and ugly paint that had accumulated over the years. But when they were taken off, all the scars and nicks in them disappeared too, and what was left shone all the more wondrously new.

Then again, maybe you haven't slept for almost two days and are starting to totally lose track of reality. He sighed, closing his eyes for a second as he paused to lather more foam, bowed almost completely over his own upright knee, his forearms resting along Jim's shin. The floating, dizzy feeling surprised him a little, and he opened his eyes quickly, focusing on the need to be careful as he wrapped his hands around Jim's calf. The care he used as he stroked downward and around the hard muscle was for more than Jim's bruised and scraped body. Jim had been battered in ways Blair couldn't touch yet, but he believed the healing would begin with what he could do now. He'd promised Jim, and to keep that promise, he put aside his own desperate need for rest.

"None of it has any power over you," he intoned, voice thick with weariness though his hands were as gentle as ever. "It's in the past, it's gone now, it's so far away it can't touch you any more." The rough edges of the abrasions around Jim's ankle caught the lather in thickened clumps of bubbles, and the way Jim's leg tensed with agony under Blair's hands made his own calves ache in sympathetic tension. A fleeting feeling of deja vu tilted his viewpoint sideways for a moment and then was gone before he could pin down the association. Shaking his head once to banish the disorientation, he concentrated harder on what he was doing. "I know it hurts," he whispered. "But that's all it is. It's just a sore spot, it doesn't mean anything."

He tilted his head back and tried to smile up at Jim's face, but the corners of his mouth betrayed him and trembled even as he said lightly, "OK, it means you should be more careful next time, but that's all. Don't run into the furniture, don't chug hot coffee, don't let the bad guys get the drop on you...." The words were out and ringing in his ears before he knew where his mouth was going with the thought. He clamped his jaw shut with a deliberate effort, but he could still hear the terrible joke, even though he couldn't see Jim's face any more. Squeezing his eyes closed wasn't enough to keep in the tears, any more than he had managed to close his mouth before it was too late. Bowing his head, he fumbled blindly with the soap, conscious of the silence underneath the pattering fall of water on his back.

A gentle weight settled on top of his head, the spread of Jim's hand warm like a benediction. Those elegant fingers moved, a slight shift that was the tenderest caress, and his broken voice said very softly, "I'll be more careful next time."

Twin hot tracks ran down his cheeks, and he wanted to nod his acceptance, knowing his voice would betray him, but he was afraid to jeopardize Jim's balance by moving even as much as the weight resting so lightly on his head. He held still instead, taking slow, controlled breaths and clasping his hands around the soap to stop them from shaking.

Jim's hand moved again, a second blessing, and he said even more gently, "Let it go, Blair. If I can, you can."

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