Chapter 59

"OK, Chief," Jim rasped after a pause that went on long enough for Blair's heart to start thudding in concern.

Blair let out the breath he'd been holding and stood back up, surprised to feel the dull strain in his lower back. Leaning over Jim was awkward anyway, so he settled his butt on the narrow edge of the bed by Jim's hip. "Let's see if it's even still hot, huh?" He patted Jim's knee through the comforter, then reached for one of the coffee cups, finding the styrofoam side warm to the touch. The contents weren't hot, but it was better than nothing. He pried off the lid and slurped a healthy mouthful. So maybe it didn't taste all that great either, but it felt absolutely fantastic going down. He tipped the cup up and gulped another swallow of coffee, and oh man, it felt good, liquid warmth spreading from the inside out. He could practically feel the caffeine flowing into his bloodstream. "We've been waiting all night for this," he said, reaching for Jim's hands, then helping to wrap Jim's fingers around the cup. "But just take a sip. Don't drink too much at once."

Blair's cheeks were flushed, his heartbeat up after just a sip of coffee, the smile on his face gentle and full of hope. Jim drank in the sight of him, then slowly raised the cup to his mouth.

The woman who had poured the coffee had been wearing Charlie perfume, and the coffee itself had been brewed through stale grounds, but Jim noticed those subtler textures only for a moment before the heated air above the coffee brought the acid reek of the drink to his nostrils. It burned like saltwater. Even though the last thing in the world Jim wanted to do was disappoint the hope on Blair's face, he just wasn't strong enough have a sip of that coffee, not even for Blair. He flinched violently, coffee sloshing in the cup, and turned his face from it since he couldn't retreat any other way.

"I'm sorry," Blair choked. "God, I'm sorry. So stupid of me." He took the cup away fast, setting it on the bedside table and smashing down the plastic lid over the top of it with a squeaking that made Jim wince. "I'm sorry," he said again. "So forget the coffee. It's lousy anyway." His face was bleak with disappointment, but when he reached out and put his hand on Jim's shoulder, he managed a smile of sorts. His palm was still warm from the cup, and his breath smelled of coffee. "You OK?"

Jim nodded, then tilted his head toward Blair's hand on his shoulder. "I'll have some later," he promised in a whisper. It was worth the effort of speech to see how Blair's whole being seemed to draw nearer, eyes shining with concentration as though every word from Jim's lips was strength and hope and light to him. His hair was drying into a wild, dark halo around his head, and as Jim spoke, Blair's fingers trembled on his shoulder, and Blair's lips parted into a smile that was as lovely and gentle to Jim's soul as a kiss. "Later, when you can make some of that light roast mocha java for us," Jim said, and swallowed against the dryness in his throat. "When we get home."

Blair nodded, and before he spoke, he lifted the hand on Jim's shoulder and tenderly cupped Jim's jaw. "Sounds great," he said, his eyes saying more. "When we get home." He grinned at Jim again, sad and hopeful. "There ought to be some milk in the other bag, how would that be? Or just the bottled water maybe?"

"The water," Jim said.

"OK. Hang tight just a second for me, all right?"

Jim nodded against the hand still under his jaw, and Blair smiled again at him and got up slowly, the brutally firm mattress springing back as though he'd never been there at all, though Jim could feel the residual heat. Blair didn't drop his hand until he was standing beside Jim. "Be right back," he said again.

Jim nodded again, and only then did Blair relinquish his touch. He took two steps backward, turned and took another two more to reach the dresser. He scooped up the second bag from the diner, and Jim thought resignedly that Blair would probably want him to try to eat the things in that bag. The smell of grease-soaked paper and artificial butter flavor made his stomach knot in queasy anticipation.

Blair grabbed the handles of the plastic pharmacy bag as well, the contents redistributing themselves as he lifted it. Water sloshed in a plastic bottle, and Jim realized how thirsty he was, his throat scoured by sea water and his own screams. He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Blair was spreading the contents of the two bags on the crumpled, sandy covers of the second bed. Jim saw the blue and white packaging of sterile gauze and tape, and he could smell, faint over the odors of their cooling breakfast, a chemical, antiseptic tang.

"Here's the water," Blair said, still subdued, but sounding happier. "Even got the right brand for you. Small favors, right?" Blair twisted the lid off, and Jim could smell the water. It was a familiar smell, just like home.

Blair came back to his side, kneeling this time on the bed, one hand on Jim's shoulder as he held the bottle in the other hand. Jim curled his fingers around the plastic bottle, fingers brushing Blair's, and Blair smiled for him again. "Easy does it," he said, supporting and balancing the bottle, but allowing Jim to raise it to his mouth himself.

Moisture touched his lips, crossed his tongue, and filled his mouth. Blair tipped the bottle away when he realized Jim hadn't swallowed yet. It took Jim another moment to convince his traitor senses this wouldn't hurt, and it was less the fact the water tasted exactly like it was supposed to than Blair's hand on his shoulder and Blair's encouraging, half-worried smile that allowed him to take the chance. He swallowed the mouthful of water. It did hurt his sore throat, and worse, he realized with regret, it diluted the lingering taste of Blair in his mouth and on his lips. The next mouthful of water would wash it away completely, leaving him with nothing but the briny harshness that still made his nose and throat ache.

Blair held the bottle, watching him carefully. "A little more?" he asked. As if he knew what Jim was thinking, he reached his other hand up and laid his fingers over Jim's mouth. "It probably hurts some," he told Jim, fingers resting gently against Jim's parted lips, "but I think it'll make you feel better if you can drink a little more. What do you say?"

Blair's fingers smelled of shampoo and glycerin soap, of the kid at the front desk, of Jim himself and the stale, cooling coffee, and still, faintly, faintly, of salt and the sea. And Blair. Blair who was with him now, right here, apparently willing to stand there with that water bottle all day if that's how long it took Jim to decide to take a second sip of water from it. He could smell the slight, sour taint of worried or angry sweat, perhaps from the ordeal of getting Jim from the shower to bed, or his frustration over dealing with the day clerk. Jim could smell blood as well. Not fresh. Just the raw, tender scent of an unhealed wound.

Jim's lips opened further, and he tasted Blair's cut finger, coaxing the memories to return as he kissed Blair's fingertips with a brush of his lower lip, and then, needing more, with the tip of his tongue. He found the rough edges of the cut, and knew Blair's knife had not been sharp, and that his hand had been unsteady in the darkness.

Blair began to tremble. Jim raised his eyes to look into Blair's face, then he wrapped his hand around Blair's wrist and pulled his hand down, turning his own hand over to look at the twin cut on his finger. It was the neater of the two wounds, shallower and cleaner. For him, Blair had been as careful as he could.

"You're right," Blair said, lowering his eyes. "We need to get some Neosporin on these cuts too. But for right now, if you can just --"

Jim looked up into Blair's face, still holding Blair's hand in his own. "How did you know?" he demanded softly.

Blair's eyes darted away, down to their hands, then back to Jim's face. "Don't know what you mean," he whispered. Not precisely a lie, Jim knew, but not the truth either. Jim pressed him because he wanted to know, and not only for himself. He wanted Blair to know too. He wanted it before he took the next sip of water, before he tried to eat any of that congealing breakfast. He needed this, like he needed so much else from Blair. "Blair," he said. "Please. How can it have made such a difference?"

Blair gave up easily. A twist of grief was all, and then it was gone, a sweet, half-rueful smile lifting the corners of his mouth and brightening his face. "Sorry, man. Takes me a while to get things straight sometimes," he said.

"No it doesn't," Jim said. He released Blair's hand and wrapped his fingers around the bottle Blair was still holding faithfully.

Blair shrugged, smiling harder at the touch of their fingers. "OK, so maybe it doesn't. Maybe it's just a little bit more than I want to think about right now." He moved his fingers over the back of Jim's hand. "It hurt you, and I'm sorry for that. It only showed us what we already knew anyway. What I should have known all along."

"It was the right thing to do," Jim said. "You saved my life."

"Jim --"

"You were so beautiful." His voice was soft, wondering, almost distant as he recalled what he had been shown. The vision seemed clearer than ever after his rest, instead of fading as Jim had thought it must. "You always will be to me."

"Jim." Blair's head tilted to one side, lips pressed together tight, as though he were trying to hold back sobs or laughter. When he spoke again his voice was only a whisper. "What'm I gonna do with you?"

Jim shrugged, hardly feeling the pull of sore muscles or the contusions across his shoulders. "Little late in the day to start worrying about that, isn't it, Sandburg?"

A groan of laughter escaped Blair. "Drink the water," he said happily, smiling for real at Jim, and Jim found, as he allowed Blair to tilt the bottle once more to his lips, that Blair's smile was almost enough, after all. It couldn't wholly substitute for the touch of him, the taste of him, but it strengthened Jim anyway. Gave back another piece of what had been taken from him. Fed his very soul.

Return to the Inner Sanctum