Chapter 47

Jim tasted the water from the shower and felt the ashen burn of stray droplets. The pain startled him and he drew away, suddenly realizing that for long minutes there had been no pain at all. Blair's eyes blinked open, a little red from sea water, soap, exhaustion and tears, and he squinted up at Jim with a smile. His hands closed gently over both of Jim's, and he drew them down to hold them clasped together under his own chin. "Thank you," he breathed, and turned his head to press his cheek to Jim's knuckles. He took a deep breath. "So, what do you think?" he asked then, his voice a little louder. "Are we ready to get out of here yet?"

Jim couldn't answer. He didn't know the answer, not even for himself, but he guessed that if Blair was asking the question, he must be ready. So Jim nodded, despite knowing he wouldn't like what would happen next. It didn't matter what he liked, and it never really had. Not even to Blair. Blair had always given him what he needed, not necessarily what he wanted, because he loved Jim enough to know the difference. The measure of Jim's love in return was that he had come to want only what he needed, so he tipped his head forward again and said, "Yes," and he meant it.

When Blair drew the rasp of his chin delicately away from their clasped hands and looked up at Jim again, he gave a soft moan of disappointment. "Aw man, you've still got just a little soap on you. That's my fault." He reached up and touched the lonely froths of shampoo on Jim's chest and shoulders. When the warmth of Blair's fingertips left him, Jim felt the skeleton of suds beginning to dry on his flesh, growing stiff and crackly. "Can you step back into the water here one last time?" Blair asked quietly. He put his free hand on Jim's shoulder, but didn't draw him forward yet. "Almost done, Jim."

Jim bowed his head, and when Blair finally urged him to move by bearing down gently on his shoulder, he took the step Blair wanted of him. He could feel the faint wind from the water tumbling overhead, and the sting of drops that splashed off Blair' shoulders and head. A step closer, and the stream broke over his own shoulder. The downpour prickled like needles, every droplet agonizingly distinct on his flesh. The pain was doubly cruel after his respite, but he was stronger and his two-handed grip on Blair's curled fingers didn't tighten to white-knuckled strength. He could stand this, because he knew there would be an ending at last. And Blair would be there with him, just like he was here now, his pulse beating so strong under the sides of Jim's hands where they lay together at the base of Blair's throat, held there with a careful tethering grip. Blair's other hand was cupped against his chest, gathering the water as it spilled down his breast and making sure the last of the soap was washed away. Blair's fingers spread widely, his palm hot and gentle, even though he couldn't avoid every burn as he swept his hand up and over Jim's shoulder. "There," he was saying. "I think that's got it. Does it feel all right to you?"

Jim would have smiled at that, if only his mouth hadn't been hurting so badly. Something of his amusement must have shown in his eyes anyway, because Blair shrugged and grinned enough for both of them. "I know. Nothing feels exactly all right now, but it's better than it was, isn't it?" He reached behind himself, groping one-handed for the faucets. At the same time, he let go of Jim's hands at last and put his arm around Jim's waist, drawing him closer, trying to shelter him with his body even from a change as small as turning off the shower.

He turned the central shower knob and the pipes groaned and clanked, a muffled booming from behind the wall that made Blair flinch, sensitive as he was to every sensation that might pain Jim. Water gushed out from the lower spout, and Jim felt the droplets splashing against his feet and ankles and calves. The pain around his ankles had settled into a steady, monotonous ache, as though iron shackles lay heavily on him, so the bite of water splashing through the imagined fetters surprised him. His head came up at the bracing pain, and he leaned harder against Blair, accepting Blair's support while he assimilated the feeling. It hurt -- almost everything hurt, except where Blair held him -- but it was only a flesh-deep pain. Water on broken flesh, and he could think about it without being lost to it.

"Shh," Blair murmured, his arm tightening around Jim's waist. "I've got you. Tell you what, I want you to step out before I turn the water off all the way. Are you OK with that?"

Jim nodded. Or intended to nod, at any rate, but he couldn't spare much attention to it, not when his entire being was focused on surviving the sensation of loss as Blair eased him to the side. The arm that had been around Jim's back slipped away and grasped his forearm. His other hand lay on Jim's shoulder, warm fingers spread across the point of his shoulder. "Ready, Jim? Slow and easy. I've got you."

"I know," Jim rasped. He brought his hand up and clasped Blair's forearm for support, and lifted his leg high enough to clear the rim of the bathtub. Bending his knee made him realize how long he'd been standing. He heard the sigh that escaped him as he set one foot down gingerly on the bathroom floor. The linoleum was an eighth of an inch deep in lukewarm water. "One thing," Jim groaned. He worked his hand up Blair's arm until he could clamp his hand on his shoulder, then dragged his other foot up and set it on the wet bathroom floor as well. Blair stepped out with him, staying close.

"What's that?" Blair asked quietly. His hands on Jim's upper arms, he coaxed him backward a step and to the side. "Why don't you sit down here?" he said before Jim could answer, helping him sit gingerly on the toilet seat cover. The towel over it was damp from the steam in the bathroom. Putting his hands on Jim's shoulders, Blair looked down at him, wet hair streaming down his face, water pattering down on the utterly overwhelmed little bathmat. "What did you wanna tell me, Jim?"

"This explains the state of the bathroom after you shower in the morning," Jim whispered.

"Very funny, man." Blair grabbed the last towels from the bent rack beside the door and sat down on the edge of the tub, his knees almost touching Jim's. "Just lemme do something about my hair so I'm not dripping all over everything --" he muttered, and leaned backward to turn off the water. The knobs squeaked, metal on metal, and with a hollow, flat 'chunk', the stream of water breaking apart on the porcelain slowed until there were only irregular splashes falling at longer and longer intervals.

"Here, hold this so it doesn't get all wet," he directed, laying one of the towels on Jim's knees. He sat up straighter and tilted his head back so he could wring his hair out with his hands. Water fell in a sheet, splatting noisily on the bottom of the tub. "Man, it feels good to finally get rid of all that sand," he announced, his voice muffled as he bent forward so his wet hair hung over his face in clumps. He toweled vigorously for a minute, droplets falling on Jim's thighs, and then sat up, his face flushed, hair tangled wildly. "There." He reached for the towel that still lay untouched on Jim's knees and said more quietly, "You're still with me here, all right?"

Jim nodded for him, and was rewarded by Blair's radiant smile, as though Jim were the loveliest sight he'd ever seen in his life. "What?" Blair demanded suspiciously, still grinning. He stood up and knotted the towel around his waist, then picked up Jim's towel and draped it over his hand. Jim didn't answer, except to shake his head a little.

"I hate it when you do that," Blair complained. He gathered the towel up so the ends wouldn't fall against Jim as he worked, and carefully began to blot at Jim's scalp, every gesture precise and gentle. "Tell me if this hurts, OK?"

Jim nodded again, barely moving his head. He was cold, he thought, for all the good the realization did him. The thin, lukewarm shower had done little to dispel the marrow-deep chill of the ocean. Blair was patting at the back of his head, trying to avoid the bruise at the base of his scalp, and sitting here in quiet exhaustion under those tender ministrations, the bite of cold seemed to grow fiercer. He shivered hard, and though Blair never stopped, he laid his other hand on Jim's shoulder and said quietly, "Just bear with me here, just a little while longer."

There was a draft from the open bathroom door, and it seemed to find every drop of water on his body, turning each one to ice. Blair was dabbing carefully at his back, trying to blot the water from the shower off his skin a few square inches at a time. Jim could feel every loop in the fraying towel, all of them becoming wetter and heavier as Blair worked, but he could feel the warmth of Blair's hand through the towel as well. He tipped his head forward until his forehead came to rest against Blair. The hair on his chest was still matted flat against his flesh, wet against Jim's forehead, but warmed by the strong heartbeat underneath. His skin smelled faintly of soap, but mostly of damp, clean Blair. At the ease their closeness brought him, Jim was able to lift his aching arms and wrap them carefully around Blair's back, holding him without drawing him closer.

Blair stopped for a moment, the towel resting heavily Jim's back. Jim heard him swallow, and then Blair raised one hand and cradled the back of Jim's head, palm curved to fit the base of his skull. Blair tried to say something, but nothing emerged but a voiceless cry like a swallowed sob. So he went back to patting Jim's back dry in single, careful touches, one after another, shifting closer to Jim to reach further down his back, and after another moment he managed to say in a whisper, "Here's the plan. Let me know what you think."

Jim nodded against Blair's chest. His forearms were resting across the small of Blair's back, and he could tell Blair was cold too. Goosebumps were prickling up his back, and he was shivering. He'd probably been shivering all along, and Jim had been too imprisoned in his own pain to notice. Despite that, Blair's touch remained unshakably tender and slow. He moved as though there were nothing in the world he would rather be doing than blotting water from Jim's back one drop at a time.

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