Chapter 44

For him. What was one more impossible favor? Jim knew the request was beyond his power to grant, just as all the others had been, and still somehow he had found the strength to accomplish them despite knowing he didn't have it within himself. He had found it within Blair, the only source left to him. With his left arm held as firm around Blair's shoulders as the bone-deep weakness in it would allow, he lifted his right hand enough to slide it across Blair's back, over the peaked curve of his shoulder, up the curve of his neck to rest where the pulse fit so perfectly in his palm. Jim held that heartbeat for a moment, letting it regulate the rise and fall of his own chest, the very beat of his heart. "I'll try," he sighed, and even his words moved in time with the command of Blair's pulse. Behind his closed eyes, a memory of pure white power flickered past, and his touch on Blair's throat gentled further, thumb rising to trace the bristle-shadowed underside of his jaw. "For you, I'll try."

The tensing of muscles as Blair swallowed was like a stronger echo of the pulse beating under his palm, and Jim curled forward slightly, cradling Blair against himself almost as if trying to draw that strong white force within to warm his soul. The vow was no new promise, no great stretch of trust. When had Blair ever asked anything but the impossible of him? Concentrate and smell the roses, listen for the voices a dozen yards away, piggyback his hearing on his sight - it didn't matter how impossible or ridiculous the demand had ever been. Jim had always done it. This time would be no different. If he stumbled, if he failed... he had given up his failures too, at Blair's request. It wouldn't matter. Blair would love him anyway; that pure strong heat between them would never fade, and it would always be there for his heart to draw on when it needed help.

Another swallow rippled under his touch, then the shower water pulsed hot over his left arm at the hollow roar of the toilet in the next unit being flushed, and the bands around his wrist and arm flared with answering heat. He lost sight of his beacon for a moment, floundering in the changing temperatures and the interrupted steadiness of Blair's breathing as he also flinched at the sudden splash of hot water against his back. Plastered down with water, the mat of hair over Blair's chest was a soft, springy pressure against Jim's skin that suddenly resolved into its hundreds of single points of curling silk. The memory under his hand wasn't strong enough any more, and he moved it, up over the angled point of Blair's jaw until his hand covered Blair's cheek, fingertips resting on his temple lightly as the caress of the humid mist rising around them. His thumb laid over the curve of Blair's cheekbone, moving back and forth, sketching the delicate hollow below his eye with that same ethereal touch. The thousand tiny silken springs retreated and blended into a single mink pelt resting gently on his battered skin, soothing the hurt with accommodating softness. "For you," Jim breathed, barely aware and completely uncaring of the way his voice offered all that he was with those words.

The heat of a tear scalded his thumb, making his touch slip and glide over the fragile skin, and he stilled the slight motion, not trusting his own trembling hand. Blair's head turned slowly outward, Jim's thumb rising and riding over the bridge of his nose as his hand stayed stationary. "For you," Blair whispered, the words of his returned pledge ghosting warm against Jim's palm, barely noticeable between the caress of his moving lips.

Jim shivered, his hand shaking over Blair's face, and he drew his touch away, trailing his fingers over those warm, gentle lips, pausing there for the briefest moment in silent thanks before retracing the path his hand had taken and returning to lodge around Blair's shoulders.

Faint, his voice light with attempted humor that could not mask the affection warming its every tone, Blair asked, "So, are we done here?" He turned his head forward again, easing the slight strain Jim could feel pulling taut in the muscles that shifted and rolled under his hands. There was another shift, an inclination away from him, as Blair added, "Let me get the water turned off...."

The hesitation in his movement was nearly imperceptible, the reluctance in his voice so subliminal it was more imagination than perception, but in Jim's state the imperceptible was painfully obvious. "What?" he asked, his voice arresting Blair's withdrawal before it had become more than a lightening of the soft-furred press against his chest.

His forearms rose and fell with Blair's shrug. "Nothing, Jim, really." The aborted intention of movement gathered again, a shifting of emphasis in his balance. Part of him prepared for the action he had announced, and some part of him held back, and Jim could feel the fight between the two, tearing a gap in the seamless purpose Blair had followed for so long.

The conflicting tension in Blair's body was an almost painful reminder of other times the words and the body had not agreed, but the lie was not great enough to hurt Jim, only enough to make him impatient at its futility. "It's not nothing, Sandburg. What do you want?"

Drawing back, Blair looked into his eyes, and Jim could see the conflict there too, buried in the depths under his utterly sincere concern and affection. "OK, so it's not nothing, but it isn't important either. Come on, we need to get you out of here now, dry off so you can get warm and rest."

Jim locked his knees and refused to move. "Tell me." It was more a symbolic refusal than a useful one; he knew he couldn't have resisted the push from a determined six week-old kitten.

Blair sighed in exasperation and tugged at Jim, less insistently than the kitten would have, not hard enough to do anything more than rock against him for a moment before giving in. "It doesn't matter, honest. It's just my hair feels really grungy, and it's not worth messing with."

"That's it?" Jim heard himself making a sound barely recognizable as laughter, and stopped because he could see that it hurt Blair to hear it almost as much as it hurt himself to make it.

The sympathetic pain in Blair's expression resolved into a calmer sureness. "Told you it was nothing." He leaned to the side again, trying to urge Jim to move with him so he could reach the faucets and turn the water off. The movement dragged the mink softness of his skin against Jim's stomach, and the unexpected pressure was too much for the clustered heat of the welts to bear.

Jim's arms tightened around Blair before he could control the reflex, and a harsh grunt of pain caught behind his teeth. A second later he loosened his hold again, deliberately letting go, but Blair had frozen in place instantly, awkwardly half-twisted at the waist, breathing in short, shallow breaths. Eyes closed miserably, he whispered haltingly, "Oh, Jim, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to do that. Whatever you want, man, we'll do it your way. OK? Just tell me what you want. "

With his own pulse loud in his ears, Jim shifted his arms, sliding them apart until his hands rested on Blair's shoulders. Exerting no more force than Blair had pushed against him with, he guided Blair back upright, not sparing himself the contact at breast and belly. He kept Blair close, needing the soul-deep stability of that touch no matter what small cost it claimed. Then he gathered his breath and said slowly, taking great care with each word so the torn roughness of his voice wouldn't bring that terrible look of surprise into Blair's eyes, "Sandburg, wash your damned hair. I'm not going anywhere with you as long as it smells like it does now."

Blair's smile was a bit too cheerful, a bit too forced, and he didn't turn his head fast enough to keep Jim from seeing the overbright sparkle in his eyes. "OK, that's what you want, that's what you get," he said, the pretense his hoarseness was due to having swallowed too much seawater utterly transparent to them both. Moving slowly, keeping one hand laid carefully over Jim's waist, he bent one knee and leaned sideways, reaching for one of the two miniature bottles perched behind the soap. As his hand closed around it, Blair closed his eyes, ambushed by nothing more deadly than the simple memory of where the sample-sized set had come from. An innocent event, from a time when he had still believed in innocence.

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