Chapter 43


He hadn't realized what he had been asking of Jim, not until Jim quietly asked the same thing of him. Jim's calm acceptance from the very beginning, his trusting willingness to do what was asked of him no matter how difficult, humbled Blair so much he could only rock slightly and moan, "I didn't know."

Jim had known, all along. His touch said as much, and carried forgiveness as well. More than mere absolution, there was gratitude in the weight of his palm. That anchoring contact brought a steadying calm to Blair, and at last he understood what Jim had instinctively seen so much earlier. Everything Blair had been tasked with had been impossible, and all night long his ability to expect the impossible from himself and from Jim had been the only thing that had saved them both. He had known they couldn't possibly succeed, in those deeply terrifying moments when everything spun out of control and he lost his way, but the knowledge hadn't stopped him. He had found his center each time, in the bright, pure blue of Jim's eyes, and gone onward again, making the impossible happen for them both.

Blair looked up into those beloved eyes and found his strength once more. "I will," he said and, faint and cracked as his voice was, it carried the same unbreakable vow given before. His hands weren't shaking any more as he raised them and began on Jim's other leg.

With one last gentle caress, Jim withdrew his hand and slowly straightened the short distance to stand upright again. Blair spoke for both of them as he spread the slippery lather over Jim's thigh and around the curve of it. "This is what I'm sure of, Jim." He took a breath and tried to say everything. Or at least what was most important. "They couldn't hurt who you really are because they couldn't touch your heart. Keep hold of that, and let all the rest drop away from you, because none of it matters any more."

In one long, smooth motion, he swept his hands down and around Jim's thigh, over his knee, sweeping the straight length of his shin. More than Jim's body had been brutalized, he knew that, had seen it in the way Jim tried so hard not to cling to him even though he needed Blair's touch to ease the pain, even though Blair offered the contact so willingly. Perhaps they hadn't been able to break Jim's heart the way they had broken his control and his strength, but they had tried, and they had left open wounds behind. Blair thought he knew the shape of them, and his touch became infinitely gentle, his hands as soft as his voice as he brushed the soap over the fine arch of Jim's foot. "I'll always be there, with you, and I'll always love you. Nothing they did can touch that, nothing at all can change it."

Above him, he heard the ghost of Jim's voice agree as if completing a covenant, "I know." It almost didn't register through the roaring sound of blood in his ears, the feeling of heat rising in his soul. His eyes were fixed on the bruised, torn band around Jim's ankle, twin to the other he had carefully skirted moments ago. The memory that teased at him before had made another pass across his mind, moving slowly enough to be caught and identified this time. Blair had seen scars like that before, and they had made him just as helplessly angry and violently sad that long time ago.

He'd been twelve, old enough to know what cruelty and injustice were but not yet mature enough to accept he couldn't do anything about it. Some people never reached that level, and Naomi and her rancher friend were two of them. The wiry older woman had brought the rescued horse home to her ranch on a sunny day in May, when the sage brush was blooming and the hills were still dusky with the flush of spring. Blair remembered the grim look on her face, the tight anger he hadn't understood until she'd unlatched the back of the trailer and begun to back the mare down the ramp.

The sun had been bright with the peculiar clarity of high altitudes in the dry west, and as unforgiving as the cold winds that keen over the open range in winter. Starved until her ribs were a ridged washboard that threw barred shadows on her sides even in the high morning light, she moved slowly down the ramp. Bands of white scarring marred her pasterns, the hide damaged above and below the fetlocks, and Blair had struggled to understand why anyone would have wanted to hobble something that cooperated with the docile patience he saw in her eyes. None of it made sense to him, not the way she had been treated, and not the way she still trusted to the kindness of the hands of humans.

The strong sunlight of that morning found its echo in the glaring white reflection from the gold-speckled tile wall of the tub, and he reached out, fingers hovering over the flayed skin on Jim's ankle, remembering that thin, battered animal, its long legs, and the cruel signature of its captivity. Like Jim, it had been a creature of unconscious grace and natural strength, and someone had done their best to break it for no better reason than their own envy at not being born that strong and beautiful. And they had failed too, leaving only the passing marks of their presence on an existence that survived and transcended them, ennobled instead of destroyed.

Blair hadn't been able to do anything for that injured mare except feel her helplessness with his own heart, but he had the knowledge and skill to make a difference this time, and the strength to use them. Hunched over, shivering, he touched the unbroken skin above the rope burn with the tips of his fingers, and said with quiet conviction, "It will heal. All of it." He looked up, sand still prickling in his hair and itching against the nape of his neck as he craned backward to meet Jim's intent gaze. "Trust me."

His reward was another of those evanescent smiles created by the slightest shifting of emphasis in Jim's face. Lifting the soap, he laid it in the shallow tile dish and then held his hand up in the spray, turning it until the slick feeling between his fingers changed to the simple slip of clean, wet skin. The touch on his hand startled him as Jim reached out and caught at his fingers, trying without force to re-establish the lifeline. Meshing his fingers with Jim's, he felt the need and trust vibrating through the connection, begging without words for the smallest favor, for the one thing only Blair could give. But instead of rising, Blair scooted back a few inches at a time and tugged Jim forward with him as he went, drawing him by the hand, his grip gently insistent. The spray crested over his own head, and felt so good as it dug into the matted tangle of his hair, but he didn't stop to let it soak through. He kept moving until the water passed over him and he couldn't back up any farther, and the drizzling shower was reaching Jim's thighs.

Jim's hold on his hand had tightened slowly as he moved into the falling water, and kept a trembling intensity as Blair raised his free hand and carefully chased the last of the soap lather off Jim's legs. With slow thoroughness he worked down both at the same time, keeping his touch light, skimming over the reddened, tender areas and only guiding a flow of water over the flayed bands without touching them. His own grasp on Jim's hand was a sensitive pressure only as strong as he could exert without feeling the fingers entwined with his begin to shake. In his voice was all the conviction and affection he felt, speaking what he knew was the truth and making it Jim's truth as well. "Whether it's sand that comes off with soap and water or marks that heal, when it's all gone, it won't ever touch you again. You're still the same man you were, Jim, inside, and to me. Tonight hasn't changed who you are because the outside doesn't matter, and I know who you are. I've seen it. You saw it, too. You know I'm right."

The last white froth slid over the arches of Jim's feet and away, into the gritty expanse of the tub, heading for the drain with as much of the hurt as Blair could force to go with it. His legs shaking with tired strain, Blair braced his hand on the side of the tub and levered himself back up to stand in front of Jim, shielding him again. A small sound, a sigh with a hitch in it, escaped Jim as he leaned forward tentatively until his chest barely touched Blair's, asking permission without even pulling on his hand to bring him closer. Blair's breathing stumbled for a moment at the helpless need held in such close control. You don't have to ask, Jim, not from me, not ever.

It didn't matter that Jim knew that, he would always ask anyway. Blair moved forward the few inches it took to bring them into full contact, and even he could feel the difference the removal of the sand made. For the first time all night, Jim was able to touch him without flinching from the combined pain and relief, and Blair didn't feel the conflicting guilt at what hurt he caused mixing in his contentment at being able to bring Jim a measure of peace. There was only a fulgent joy at having done the right thing, having done it as well as he could and finding he had been right to try.

Letting go of Jim's hand, he wrapped his arms around Jim's waist, careful to hold him below the scratches crossing his back. "All done, man." He grinned brightly, as if he had known all along they'd get so far. There had been a few times he hadn't, but he knew Jim had seen those times and forgave him every one of them. As Jim's arms rose and encircled him, pulling him willingly closer, hands spreading on his back to slide unencumbered on his skin, he turned his head to press his face to Jim's neck and said in a low, pleading tone, "It can't change you or hurt you again unless you want it to, and I'm asking you not to let it. For me, Jim."



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