Chapter 63

Jim shook his head without speaking, a little dizzy for a moment in the swirl of sensations, enough so that he had to cut short the gesture because it enhanced the feeling of losing his way. He wasn't lost, not with Blair so close, the heat of his hands dancing through the cover in brief flashes as he settled it around Jim's shoulders, like the sparkling of sunlight on moving water. Mercifully the blanket was clean, smelling more of industrial detergent than anything else, and Jim deliberately refused to seek for anything else. It wasn't quite as soft and fuzzy as it could have been, being only a plain cotton waffle weave sort of thing, worn a little thin with use. The pattern of small repeating squares felt odd on his back, the clear-cut grid contrasting with scattered stripes of coolness caught in the fabric where the outsides of the folds had taken on the morning's chill while it rested at their doorstep. While he puzzled them out, mentally mapping the way the blanket had been folded, Blair sorted out the collection of towels, bundled them into a separate pile, and glanced over toward the rear end of the room.

Blair was tempted briefly to just toss the load in that general direction rather than leave Jim's side, but a glance at their tangled jeans, still sitting soggy and sand-encrusted on the floor, dissuaded him. No point in getting new towels if the first thing he did was let them get full of sand. It wasn't hard to imagine how that would feel, the terrycloth loops already coarse enough without adding the grainy sharp edges of beach sand. He carried the pile over to the little counter by the sink and made sure they were sitting safely on it.

Returning to the space between the beds, he picked up the tube of Neosporin and squeezed it just enough to see that the gelid goo had softened considerably from its bath in the coffee, and hadn't lost too much elasticity since it was removed. It wasn't quite warm enough to become liquid but it would spread easily over Jim's raw flesh, and should even slide easily through the dark hair that hadn't been entirely abraded off his wrists.

"This is better," Blair said to reassure both himself and his patient. "I think it's going to work." He turned his head and smiled at Jim, and the blue eyes that had been slightly distant and dreamy smiled back at him with contented trust. For what felt like the first time all night, Blair had the leisure to plan his next action in detail, so he set the tube back down and picked up the gauze, pulling the box apart to get the soft roll out. As tired as they both were, it would make a lot more sense if he treated each area completely before moving on to the next injury.

Experimentally he pulled a few inches from the roll, then tried to tear it. Flimsy as the threads looked, they refused to break, stretching down into a narrow, tough rope instead of giving way. Blair felt a brief flash of the sick helplessness that had plagued him so often, returned again to sit heavily in his stomach and make him regret that bite of sausage. He couldn't wrap this stuff around Jim's wounds and then yank on the bandage until it gave up. He had to cut it, and his pocket knife was as lost as Jim's pride.

I should have put scissors on the list, he thought bleakly, staring down at the needed but maddeningly useless bandage roll in his hand. Before the urge to fling it across the room became too strong, he dropped it and reached for the tape instead. Jim made an inquiring sound behind him, and he knew he had given himself away again. It didn't matter whether it was his heartbeat or his breathing or even his very thoughts, Jim was attuned to them all.

"Minor setback," he whispered, hoping the softer tone of his voice wouldn't carry his dismay. The cover came off the roll easily, and he pulled a little piece of the white, antiseptic-smelling tape out from it, then tried to tear it. The serrated edge allowed it to rip where he wanted, and the ridiculously small victory of ending up with a couple inches of tape in one hand and the roll in the other gave him the ability to smile at Jim again with renewed confidence. "I know, any day now, right?"

Jim blinked slowly, his eyelids surprisingly heavy, and tried to concentrate on what Blair was doing. The blanket around him was warming gradually, the pattern of cooler swatches fading away. It blocked the bulk of the random air movements in the room, the little drafts that had run up and down his skin before and made him feel so much more naked to the whole world. Insulating him, like Blair's voice and touch. He missed Blair's touch, and focused more closely on him, watching as he picked up the roll of gauze and turned it in his hands, frowning at it. "Any day now?" he prompted with hoarse hopefulness.

Blair's lips tightened in a brief frustrated grimace, and he held the roll up so Jim could see it. "I can't figure out how to cut this stuff," he said plaintively.

For a moment Jim stared at it in puzzled silence, then his chest heaved and he started to laugh. His throat was still raw and sore at the use, but it felt so good to really laugh at something that even as he did, he realized he hadn't known for sure if he would ever be able to again.

"It's not funny, man," Blair protested, shaking the rolled gauze primly at Jim, but he couldn't maintain the serious front. His bright grin surfaced first and then he laughed too, his free hand dropping to rest on Jim's shoulder, connecting them all the closer in their shared appreciation of the ridiculous. Under his touch, through the thin blanket, he could feel more of the tension leaving Jim's muscles. Blair didn't care whether the impetus was the slight warmth of the cover, or the little bit of dignity it gave Jim, or just the release of laughing at the idea that gangs of thugs and explosions and near-death experiences were just a prelude to being balked by some generic brand cotton gauze. Just as long as they kept making progress back toward being normal again. To his surprise, he felt a sudden pang of regret at the prospect getting back to nothing more than the way he and Jim had been before. He turned his head away for a moment, hoping Jim could not see the sick self-disgust in his eyes. What was the matter with him anyway?

The hand on his shoulder trembled subliminally, and the joke was over. Jim drew a careful breath, the air cold and dry over his throat, and forced a calm he didn't feel in his heart. "How about your knife?" he asked, focusing on the immediate problem.

Strange emotions moved through Blair's eyes, and Jim felt a shiver rippling down his spine without understanding why. A breath later, Blair said gently, "I lost it." There was something more in his voice than the loss of a sentimental memento, and Jim couldn't help following it. He traced the distant sound of pain and despair to the small glitter of light as hope was struck from his hand, hissing as it flew through the rain, bounced among the dark, cold rocks and came to rest in the sand. Where it still lay, so far behind them.

Jim closed his eyes, drawing the blanket down tighter against himself, not caring how the raised edges of the weave dragged at the scratches on his back, until the thin fabric felt as weighty as the heavy, solid press of stone behind him. But the touch on his head was far gentler than the rain had been, and Blair's voice was warm, pushing away the night and the rocks with the admonition, "Don't remember that." His hand moved, open palm stroking over Jim's head and then down the side of his face, shaking a little with tiredness but still so very careful to glide lightly over skin too sensitive to bear more than the weight of a tear. "Remember what I got in return."

Eyes still closed, Jim turned his head toward Blair's touch and nodded very slightly. Forcing the words through his throat, Jim asked hoarsely, "Did you bring your razor, or a disposable?" Blair's hand trembled more, pressing for a second longer against Jim's face in silent thanks before dropping away.

Puzzled and bemused, he answered, "I didn't have time to go shopping, I grabbed my regular one. Why?"

"Take it apart," Jim rasped. "Use the blade." He opened his eyes and looked hopefully into Blair's face, and was rewarded with the brilliant smile he needed so badly.

"You're a genius, man. I'm on it." Blair's eyes caressed Jim's face with such care he had the fleeting sense of the touch of sunlight again, before Blair raised his head, gauged the distance to his shaving kit on the sink, and then strode purposefully toward it. Rather than dig through it and extend the time he was away from Jim's side, he simply picked it up and carried it back, adding its dumped contents to the small pile of stuff on the other bed. His hands lost their tired tremor, moving with easy surety as he picked up the razor, deftly unscrewed the handle with a couple quick turns, and extracted the blade from inside the head.

"OK, the doctor is in," he announced, setting the gauze and razor blade on the nightstand by the phone, the tube of Neosporin in his hand as he sat down at Jim's right side. Obediently, Jim held his right arm up again, his wrist at a comfortable height for Blair to work on. With exquisite care, Blair squeezed a line of the goo across the top of Jim's wrist, along the centerline of the abrasion, keeping the tube far enough from the flesh that the sharp plastic edge of the opening wouldn't drag. Still warm, it spread easily under a feather-light touch of his forefinger. A slight crease formed between Blair's brows as he concentrated intently on the simple task.

Jim would have laughed at so much comical attention to the chore, but the spreading gel brought such relief he was faint with a breathless sense of something that was almost pleasure. The hot, dry ache of the air over his wounds had been such a constant background, and even that such a relief after the acid burning of salt and water had gone, that he had let them become a part of what he expected to feel. As Blair spread the ointment over the raw edges of his torn skin, then gently turned Jim's hand over and began on the inside of his wrist, Jim swayed, little blue and black spots encroaching from the corners of his vision.

"Jim." Blair's voice shook and he released Jim's hand to put his arm around Jim's back, steadying and supporting him. He gripped Jim's shoulder gently but very firmly. "Jim, is this hurting you? Do you need to lie down?" Jim relaxed against the warmth of Blair's side, not fighting his weariness, accepting the disorientation from the unexpected and desperately welcome surcease of pain. He bowed his head, eyes half closing as he waited for the moment of vertigo to pass, groping for Blair's other hand with his own and then holding on hard, so Blair would know he was all right.

"Is this hurting you? " Blair asked in a soft, worried voice. "Tell me if it is, and we'll just stop. I don't think I can stand to hurt you anymore."

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