Chapter 61

"Jim." This time a gentle hand touched his face and covered his ear for a moment, making the endless vibrations recede and grow dim. He felt a scratchy, warm cheek rub across the top of his head. "Hey, come on." It seemed he could feel Blair's quiet voice moving in waves through the bones in his face. Every other sound in the universe -- and Jim thought maybe he had heard them all tonight -- was cold and distant and dull measured against the intimacy of Blair's voice. It pulsed in time with his heartbeat and surged with the salty tide of his blood, as much a part of him as his own pulse.

"I'm here, Jim. I'm here. I've got you." His hand touched Jim's cheek again, stroked his shoulder, then both arms wrapped close around Jim's shoulders, holding him, rocking slightly. Blair's head was pressed warmly against his, voice caressing Jim as gently as his hands. "Easy, man. Easy. It's all right. It's all right."

The thread of attention snapped and Jim gasped at the return to himself, stomach muscles aching and a burn in the back of his throat. The world was still terrifying, chaotic, utterly overwhelming, but Blair was stronger than all of it. Strong and certain and sure, and he had promised he wouldn't let go. In gratitude, Jim brought his hand up, feeling it tremble in weakness, and spread his fingers across Blair's chest. His face was still pressed hard to the safety of Blair's throat and shoulder. "I think -- " Jim began, and his voice was so croaking and hoarse he broke off, wondering if anything he could say would be worth the effort of speech.

Blair turned his head, lips nuzzling Jim's hair as he answered for him. "You think you've had enough breakfast?" His voice caught as though he were about to laugh. "All right." It wasn't laughter, at all; it was only a razor's edge from tears. "All right." Then a whispered, "I'm sorry."

At that, Jim found the strength to speak anyway. He raised his head, pushing hard against Blair's chest to manage it, and found Blair's sorrowing eyes, heavy lidded with exhaustion and regret. "You finish up for me," Jim rasped, and had to swallow to gain enough voice to finish. "We'll go out later. Must be some place in this town that can make me a decent burger, right?"

Blair stared at him, hands resting light on Jim's shoulders. His mouth twisted. He bit his lower lip, breathing hard for a moment through flared nostrils. "All right," he whispered, when he could speak. His hands came up and cupped Jim's face. "We'll go out later, when you're ready." Jim shifted away from Blair, slowly, painfully, and worth every iota of effort if it showed Blair that he was doing the right thing, that he was helping Jim. As if Blair could believe anyone or anything else could have brought Jim back so far. When his back was once more against the headboard, his shoulder against Blair's, he dropped his hand and took Blair's, holding him, palm against palm. He meant to say something, but his eyes drifted shut, and then it was easier just to let his head tilt sideways against Blair's and rest.

The drift was fast and easy, like riding the swell of an incoming wave, feeling it lift him up smoothly and set him down again in its rolling passage. Jim caught his breath with a gasp, eyes snapping open, his grip on Blair's hand tightening. There was some reason he couldn't let go and fall asleep right at the moment, but he couldn't remember what it was.

"Shh, it's OK," Blair murmured, the reassurance as automatic as the way he leaned against Jim a little harder, just enough to bring himself to the forefront of Jim's attention. His hand moved against Jim's, returning the pressure, then letting go, and Jim felt the confusion retreat, Blair's sense of purpose giving him a memory of the goal. "Why don't I get you bandaged up now," Blair suggested, trying for a brightly optimistic tone that his exhaustion turned a bit flat and desperate. "Then we can get some sleep, and I bet even that breakfast will look good after we've rested."

Jim nodded, reality disconnecting again as Blair shifted away from his side and scooted off the edge of the bed. His eyes drifted half shut, quiet darkness beckoning to the heavy, settling feeling of sleep stealing the last bits of energy from his whole body. The soft touch on his hand startled him, and he could see his reaction had startled Blair in turn, though only enough to make his heart jump a little, pulse pounding briefly faster in the shadowed hollow of his throat.

"This won't take long." Blair's promise was as soft as his caress, sliding around Jim's palm and lifting his hand from the surface of the comforter, his skin so much warmer and more soothing than the rough fabric. There was another promise in his touch, the knowledge there would be pain for Jim, but it would be as little as possible, and only what was unavoidable in the furtherance of his own good. Beyond that, there would be all the strength and patience and compassion one heart's love could give. It was already there in Blair's eyes and in his hands as he carefully knelt by the side of the bed and, still holding Jim's hand like it was fragile porcelain, unscrewed the cap off the plastic tube of Neosporin with his teeth.

With the cap gripped in his teeth and the tube in his hand, Blair looked down at Jim's wrist and said, "I wee awomrr wha." Blair's expression was a combination of frustration and bewilderment and helplessness that would have made Jim laugh, if he hadn't been so grateful instead for something he could fix.

He lifted his right hand out of Blair's careful support, and set it back down on the unforgiving bedcovers. Feeling like he was moving for the first time in years, he pushed down with his left hand as well, trying to straighten his arms and lever himself up away from the pillows he was leaning back against. When the dull, hot weakness shot through his left forearm, he nearly cried aloud as much with surprise as with pain. His elbow buckled and he tipped sideways, curling forward and then catching himself with a gasped curse. It was a small victory indeed to remind himself that at least he was not falling asleep any more.

"Jim, please." Blair had stood up fast, reaching to help him. His voice was low and soft, but it had the unmistakable strained quality it always took on when he was frightened. The clear speech meant that little whistling sound followed by the cough of impact had to have been the cap to the Neosporin dropping from his mouth, and it was now lost in the ugly green shag rug. Jim was pretty sure that wasn't what scared Blair.

"I'm OK," he enunciated carefully, and though it was technically a lie, he knew Blair heard what had really been meant.

The sound of Blair's breathing eased, losing the sibilant indicators of stress, and his touch was nothing more than a brief caress, his fingertips trailing lightly over Jim's forearm to give punctuation to his words. "Take your time, Jim, I'm right here."

Almost close enough to hold. Jim let that concept settle where it had formed without thought, and pushed himself back upright, dragging his legs knee-first out from under the covers. In a moment Blair understood his intent and reached to pull the sheets out of Jim's way, disentangling them from where they were pulled taut enough to impede his movement. As he struggled to get his feet over the edge of the mattress, Jim kept his eyes fixed on Blair's hands. Coaxing him forward with unconscious gestures, promising gentleness and surcease of pain, carrying the memories of all the kindnesses it had taken to bring him back from his own self-destruction. He needed their kindness again, and for their soft, healing touch he could muddle through something as impossibly difficult as sitting up on his own.

"Jim," Blair breathed, and then didn't say the rest. You're so strong, he was thinking. I've never known anyone in my life as strong as you. He didn't say it because he knew how Jim would have flinched away from the words. He had seen it over and over again in the despair and grief in Jim's eyes, in Jim's heartbreaking belief that somehow he was the one who had failed tonight. But though he would not hear the words, he allowed Blair to hold him; he accepted Blair's touch. He sought it, clung to that contact, and trembled, bereft, when it was gone. So Blair would tell Jim the truth over and over again in the way he touched his friend.

He laid one hand carefully on Jim's shoulder and looked down at him. He was swaying a little, but sitting up on the side of the bed by himself, and Blair found that he was awed all over again by Jim's courage and will. Where had he found the strength? How had Blair dared to ask it of him?

Jim was watching him closely, all his attention, everything he was focused on Blair. Blair smiled at him and touched the back of his hand, the one still holding the tube of Neosporin, to Jim's cheek. "Thanks for sitting up," he told Jim quietly, meaning so much more. "I think it'll be easier this way."

The soft sound of Blair's voice almost covered the other noises from outside, but as he finished speaking, the approaching footsteps took all Jim's attention. Heading toward them purposefully, and then slowing as they reached the door. He could map the movements as if he was watching from outside, and knew beyond a doubt that person's goal was the room they were in. For a moment anguished panic swept through him. There was no place he could hide Blair, no way to get him out of the line of fire. Before that fear had even crystallized, the memory of having his gun taken away from him and the reality of his current state followed, a tsunami of helplessness leaving him swamped with no course of action.

"Jim," Blair said urgently. "What's wrong? Take it easy. There's nothing there."

Blair was wrong, there was something outside. It was inside himself that there was nothing. With a feral need to do whatever he could, Jim leaned forward, his feet resting on the floor, the wiry spikes of the carpet ignored in the drive to do what he had to do, what his instincts demanded he attempt.

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