Chapter 62

"Jim, whatever you're trying to do... " Blair raised his hand from Jim's shoulder to his face, palm over the lined brow, trying to draw Jim's attention back from the chaos of the outside world. "Just stop it. I mean it, please." Jim's whole body quivered with tension, and then Blair heard it too, the footsteps approaching and pausing right outside their room. Infected by Jim's fear, he felt a pang of terror and rage as stark as the feelings reflected in Jim's wild eyes. No. No, not after so much. Not after everything they had survived together.

From outside, a muttered voice declared sullenly, "Here, asshole, all yours." There was a ruffling slide of heavy, flexible weight, and the dull thump as something shapeless and giving landed against the door. The impact made the hollow-cored door vibrate like a struck gong, the lock mechanism rattling with a buzzing, metallic whine that made the cores of Jim's back teeth ache. It raised the hairs on the back of his neck, and he squinted with the effort not to cringe downward in a futile effort to get away from the noise.

I'll kill that kid, Blair thought in a rage, when he realized the noise had to be the requested towels and blankets. I'll hunt him down and feed him to the seagulls. "Jim," he said, and tried to be sure none of his anger was in his voice. "It's all right." He laid his hand on the side of Jim's face, hopelessly trying to shield him from the sound that had already hurt him. "It's just that kid from the front desk. You're safe. We both are."

The sound of Blair's voice overlaid the other noises, seeming to match the tones with opposite ones until it negated the painful sound and all that was left were the words, suspended in silence. Jim blinked, his brow creasing as he reconsidered the words as having meaning as well as power. Safe? Not yet, not quite, not until they were home again. So far to go before they reached that haven. He dredged up a shadow of a smile and held out his left arm so Blair could reach the wrist easily, but he kept his eyes fixed on Blair's face, not the marks on his own skin.

Blair's throat felt tight, and the last of his anger drained away, replaced by the aching tenderness that made every gesture feel too clumsy and abrupt, every word sound too loud and harsh as it left his mouth. He looked down at the tube of Neosporin in his hand, and thought carefully about what he was going to do next, because he didn't want to make even the smallest mistake. The goo that peeked out the end of the little plastic nozzle was thick, translucent, and he knew that exerting enough pressure to smear the gelid stuff over Jim's raw spots would hurt.

Watching his face, Jim saw the determination of a serious thought process, and almost managed a real smile. "It's just goop, Sandburg, you smear it on the owies," he said instead, and the way Blair smiled back at him made the room seem brighter.

"That what they teach medics these days?" Blair said softly, still smiling, one eyebrow quirked upward. "How hard can it be, right?" But instead of starting the process, he turned away and reached for the second cup of coffee sitting in the cardboard tray still on the bed behind him. "Hah, this stuff has a use after all," he announced, prying the lid off the untouched cup. Carefully he immersed the tube in the coffee, letting it spill over the edges of the cup and soak into the carrier, but being very sure not to get the top quarter of the tube below the surface of the liquid.

"I'm afraid to ask what you plan to do with the leftover sausage." Jim let his arm drop, the trembling in it as he held it out too noticeable for them both to ignore.

"Well, you can't eat the stuff, might as well get some use out of it," Blair growled in mock defensiveness, still holding the tube steady in its heat bath. "Could have been worse, they might have been serving that corned beef hash out of a can that always smells like dog food."

Jim's stomach turned at the thought, and now that his thoughts had turned consciously toward it, he was too aware the room was taking on the unpleasantly ripe odor of cooling, grease-soaked sausage patties. "Could you do me a favor?" he asked as calmly as he could, hoping his voice didn't sound too strangled by the rising queasiness.

It didn't matter, Blair still turned around so fast the coffee in the cup under his hand sloshed to the side, spilling enough to stain the bedspread under the cup carrier. "What is it?" he asked anxiously. The already forgotten tube of Neosporin hung from his fingers, dripping more stale coffee into the rug, where it released surprisingly foul odors. Somebody had brought a dog into the room not too long ago, and no amount of vacuuming was ever going to take that smell out. It didn't even seem like anyone had tried very hard.

Jim stared at Blair's face, trying to concentrate on the color of his eyes, the warmth and scent of him, the images of all the sweet kindnesses given; anything at all to keep from thinking about the smells curling up from the carpet like miasma from a swamp, and the horrifying temptation to identify the breed of dog. Drawing a careful, slow breath through his mouth, he fought to make his request calm and casual. "Please take the food outside," he asked, and despite the effort, he knew he hadn't been able to keep the distress from his voice. It filled the air around them like the smells from the rug, seeping into their combined soul and darkening Blair's eyes.

Like he had done already, a hundred times or more, Blair took that despair into himself, and then burned it away with the pure force of his spirit. Jim watched, saw it happen in the expressive planes of Blair's face, and was as awed as he had been every time before. He couldn't help loving that indomitable strength, and closed his eyes, tilting his face up as he would have looked into the yellow spring sun, feeling the heat over his closed eyelids, pouring down on him, burning away all his own despair as well.

Pure clean heat touched his forehead, and drew the last bit of unhappiness from him. He opened his eyes to see Blair's hand drawing away slowly, before he turned back to the other bed, carefully set the Neosporin down in a dry spot, and began to gather up the remains of breakfast. "Sure, no problem," Blair said, his voice quietly happy, filled with the important things he had seen in Jim's face instead of regret or shame. "I'm sorry I hadn't noticed it, but right now I don't think I'd notice a wet sheepdog if it was standing on my foot."

With his uncombed hair trailing in his face as he bent down, Blair looked a bit like a wet sheepdog, and when he straightened back up, blinking through the uncontrollable tangled halo, the resemblance was more pronounced. His hands full of the rejected breakfast, he couldn't push the mess out of his eyes, so he tried tossing his head, but the hair flopped back in front of his eyes again. Even though he could not have had more than a glimpse of Jim's face, he seemed to know what look was aimed at him all the same. "What?" he demanded indignantly, as if he weren't perfectly aware what a ridiculous picture he presented, or how the gentleness of his voice belied the posture.

"Be careful," was all Jim said out loud, but he knew his eyes were smiling again by the way Blair grinned at him. Despite how bad the breakfast had begun to smell, and the trouble he'd had facing most of the offerings, what little he had eaten seemed to have done him a great deal of good after all. The other times Blair had left him to reach the door on his necessary errands, Jim had felt the separation as a keenly sharp and steadily increasing pain. Even when Blair was with him, the world broke through too harshly at times, and he expected it would again. Especially when he was left to sit hunched over on the edge of the bed, waiting for Blair to dump the remains of the food.

Somehow it wasn't so difficult this time. Jim watched Blair stride purposefully to the door, pull it open, and deposit the two grease-stained paper bags on the concrete walk outside. He expected to be able to hear the contents shifting, slopping around loosely, and the prospect of the sound made him feel queasy again. But it wasn't as bad as he thought it would be, because instead of listening to the oily glop he'd tried to eat, he heard Blair's voice instead. Just a soft whisper, as low and careful as if he'd still been curled around Jim, speaking as much with the movement of his lips as with the air he breathed.

"Hey, good news. These are the soft, fuzzy blankets, not more of those awful bedspreads." With both arms, Blair gathered up the bundle from their doorstep, then carefully pushed the door shut with his foot. A breath of outside air reached Jim, cool and wet and smelling of exhaust and warming asphalt from the street, the ocean, the diner and its patrons, and the bitter cherry slurpee the kid who brought them the blankets had been drinking. The door swung shut, closing all those things outside, leaving the fresher smell of recently washed blankets warming against Blair's bare chest. When the door had closed and the latch engaged, Blair leaned against it with the armload of linens, and the pressure of the soft mass of them damped out the last vibrations in the hollow steel door. Only a moment passed before he turned back toward Jim, eyes anxiously checking for signs of distress even as he moved forward.

It might have been easier to dump the pile on the empty bed and stage things from there, but the imprint of their sand-covered bodies from their first collapse inside still lingered, and there was no way he was going to get sand in the clean bedding. He carried the stuff over and set it down next to Jim, pulling the first blanket from the pile, shaking it out and gently wrapping it around Jim's shoulders. "This should help a little," he said in that same quiet whisper, pulling the cover all the way around Jim without dragging the fabric on his skin, patting it close to his sides and tucking in the edges. "Do you want another?"

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