Chapter 60

The next sip of water hurt less. He could feel the liquid weight of it as he swallowed, rolling all the way down his throat, feeling like so much more than the small mouthful he knew he'd actually taken. He rested for a moment then, assimilating the unfamiliar sensation of slaking his thirst. It felt surprisingly good. A little too sharp, verging on the edge of being too intense, but he took in the sight of Blair's smile again, and decided it was good.

He allowed Blair to tip another swallow into his mouth. There was a fleeting, sharp sensation in his belly after he swallowed, and he squeezed his eyes shut, tensing, afraid it would grow worse.

"Jim?" Blair took the bottle away and put both hands on Jim's shoulders. His voice was anxious, his gentle, broad hands comforting and warm.

Jim opened his eyes. The momentary cramp faded as quickly as it had come. "So how about that breakfast?" he whispered, mostly for the pleasure of seeing the smile come back to Blair's face.

"Right," Blair agreed. He set the water bottle down on the bed side table. "Before it's all stone cold. What are you in the mood for? We've got Special K --" He held up the little box, rattling it for Jim's benefit. Jim grimaced, and Blair laughed out loud. "Sorry, I know. Who eats this stuff? Anyway, there's milk too."

Jim could smell the milk through the waxed carton, and knew it was watery and thin. "Skim, Sandburg?"

Blair grinned again, looking back at him through a curtain of hair. "It wouldn't hurt you to have skim every once in a while. Or even heaven forfend, the two percent." Jim rolled his eyes at that, a small enough effort to be rewarded with Blair's chuckle. "Never mind, man. They're your arteries, not mine." He pried open a styrofoam box squeakily, releasing moist smells of cooling eggs, sausage and toast. "Did they even give us anything to eat with?" He rattled around the bottom of the grease spotted paper bag and produced a sealed packet with a small, white plastic knife and fork, a sliver of a napkin, and a packet of salt and another of pepper. "No spoon," Blair announced. "Guess they knew we wouldn't be eating the Special K." He brought the food and the flimsy tableware back with him, and sat down on the bed beside Jim, his back against the headboard too, the styrofoam container on his lap. Jim leaned toward the depression Blair's solid weight made in the mattress, ending with his shoulder hard against Blair's. Blair turned his head and smiled broadly. "So bon appetite, right?"

He stabbed at the eggs with the fork and took the first bite himself. He chewed once, tasting thoughtfully, then swallowed. His Adam's apple bobbed under the bristly flesh of his throat. Then he shrugged and stabbed another mouthful of scrambled eggs with the fork. "Besides being kinda cold, they taste OK to me." He lifted the fork toward Jim's mouth. "Wanna try it?"

No. The eggs were fresh, but the grease on the griddle hadn't been. Last night's hamburgers, Jim supposed. And the onions that had gone on top of them. The butter flavored vegetable oil the buns had been toasted in. Sausage from this morning, and the morning before, and the morning before that. Bacon fat, chicken, pork chops, beef liver. The mingled scents curled in his gut and soured on the back of his tongue, and he shut his eyes, trying to swallow back his nausea.

"Jim." Blair's bare shoulder nudged against Jim's. "Hey, come on, you're concentrating way too hard on this. Open your eyes."

He did what Blair wanted, opening his eyes to the shuttered dimness of the little room that was their whole world now. Blair lifted his other hand and brushed the back of his fingers over Jim's cheek. "See?" Blair said. "Just relax here." He touched Jim's cheek again, stroking gently this time as he lifted the bite of eggs to Jim's mouth with the other hand. "A good ol' cholesterol packed American breakfast -- always been your favorite, right? Gotta tell you, I never understood how you could eat this stuff day in and day out under the best of circumstances."

Jim ate the first bite of eggs, trying to concentrate on Blair's fingers resting against his cheek instead of the taste and smell and texture of the scrambled eggs. Blair's skin was very dry after the ocean and the shower and Jim could feel the flesh stretched tight, Blair's knuckles almost coarse against his cheekbone. The sensation only made Blair's tenderness more profound. He tipped his head against Blair's fingers, seeking more of that touch and Blair said, "Open up, OK? Just another bite." Jim obediently ate another bite of eggs. Blair's shoulder was warm against his own, and Blair's smile as Jim swallowed for a second time was more important than the lingering taste of old grease and the way his stomach tightened uncomfortably as he ate. "So what do you think?" Blair asked. He forked eggs into his own mouth and wolfed them down before grinning at Jim. "Not too bad, are they? How about some toast?"

Jim nodded because it was easier than trying to argue his way out of it. Blair picked up a triangle of dubiously buttered toast and tore a bite-sized corner off it. It looked distinctly rubbery. Probably toasted hours ago and microwaved to heat it up. Jim wondered with determined idleness why restaurants did that. Wouldn't it be quicker to just toast it once, when it was ordered? Blair's fingers touched his lips. Jim opened his mouth without Blair having to ask, and Blair laid the bite of toast on his tongue as carefully as a priest bestowing the host. He patted the side of Jim's face and then caressed the line of his jaw for a moment, as if he knew Jim needed the distraction of his touch.

Jim did need it. The grease on the toast was colder than the bread and seemed to lie thick on his tongue when he chewed. Jim shuddered as he swallowed, and Blair's hand slipped down, found Jim's hand, and held tight. "Breakfast of champions," Blair said, and smiled despite the sympathetic pain Jim could see reflected in his wide eyes.

Blair looked down after a long moment at the rest of their breakfast. There were two sausage patties as well, appetizing as a pair of caraway-flavored hockey pucks. Blair poked at one of them with the fork. "Want some of the sausage?" he asked.


Another of those sweet, quick grins from Blair. Jim would never get tired of that smile. "OK, then I'll eat 'em," Blair announced. He stabbed at one with the plastic fork. The sausage was overcooked, so tough that at his first attempt the flimsy plastic tines didn't pierce it. Blair chuckled and stabbed again, more determinedly, and hoisted the sausage aloft like it was a trout he'd landed with his fishing spear. He bit off half, chewed a couple of times, then made a face and swallowed with an effort, wrinkling his nose at Jim. "Good call, leaving the sausage alone. How about some more water?"

Jim nodded, feeling the tug of aching muscles in his back and shoulders, and the scratch of the pillow case against the raw flesh at his shoulder blades. What he really wanted to do was curl up here beside Blair, shove that plate of barely edible food off Blair's lap and lay his own head there instead so he could feel Blair's hand stroking his head as Blair's soft voice gentled him into sleep. He felt too tired to even do that much. "Yes," Jim whispered. "Please."

"You're just doing great," Blair said. He reached for the water on the bedside table and handed it to Jim, holding it until Jim could take the bottle himself, and then keeping his hand right there anyway, palm under the base so Jim wouldn't have to support the weight of it alone. Jim spared enough strength for a slight, half-skeptical smile at Blair before putting his mouth on the cruel plastic lip of the bottle and taking another sip. It felt cold and heavy going down, the water in the bottle only room temperature, but even that was chill enough to leach away warmth. Blair was insisting with a soft laugh, though his eyes were deadly serious, "Don't give me that look, man, you are doing great -- " when Jim's stomach cramped hard against the weight of food and water. He doubled over, shuddering in weakness and pain as his gut cramped again. He was afraid he was about to be sick, and god, it would hurt, he knew how much it would hurt. So much he didn't know how he'd survive it. He swallowed violently, fire burning his throat. He felt a splash of water against his chest, then over his hand as the water bottle dropped, heard Blair curse in despair and fear, catching it before it spilled all over the bed (thanks, Chief) and lay it aside somehow as he tried to curl around Jim.

"Easy," Blair was saying, the harsh edge of panic still roughening his voice. "Easy, Jim, careful. You're all right. I've got you. I'm right here. I've got you."

Jim lay helpless in Blair's arms, his forehead pressed hard against Blair's throat and shoulder, his eyes squeezed shut, trying to hold on, and it was so difficult in a world where nothing was stable any longer, nothing held still. He shivered in a thicket of sensation, countless paths radiating out from him. To set foot upon any one of them, to allow himself to touch or hear or taste any sensation at all might whirl him out into a place where even Blair could never find him again.

The bathtub faucet was still dripping, one drop at a time. He tried not to listen as one more droplet hit the gridwork of the drain, but its weight on the skin of water broke the surface tension that spanned the interstices, and he followed it down as an even smaller droplet slipped through the grill to splash in the standing water in the trap. Waves spread out to the walls of the pipe, making the pipe itself vibrate and ring, and the ringing of the pipe made the tile floor in the bathroom shimmer with vibrations as well. They spread to the poured cement floor under the green shag carpet in the dark little motel room, and then even the bed where Blair lay holding him shook with the vibrations from that single drop of water.

A second fell.

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