Chapter 64

Jim closed his eyes and raised his head slowly, not opening them again until he was looking into Blair's face. His friend's eyes were dark in the dim room, pupils so wide only a narrow strip of blue was left, his throat and chin shadowed with stubble. He was biting his lower lip as he watched Jim, waiting for whatever sign Jim could give him. Jim shook his head infinitesimally. He had no words for how right Blair's touch felt, how astonishingly good it felt for some of the pain to lessen.

"Jim?" Blair asked, confused. It was too easy to be sure what he was doing must be hurting, as almost everything he had done for Jim had hurt during the endless night. For all the progress they had made together, he still remembered every flinch and broken breath he had caused in his efforts to help. "Are you with me, man?"

Jim lifted his hand to Blair, palm up like an offering or a gift. "It's good," Jim said in a low voice. He wanted to smile, but his responses were disconnected and slow, and he wasn't sure if he managed one or not before he had to quit trying. "It feels good," he said. "Don't stop now."

Blair looked at him, then down at Jim's proffered hand. The soft flesh on the inside of his wrist was stippled by shallow abrasions. Feathery wisps of flayed skin were pale above bruises which were ruddy and dark, just beginning to shade to blue. Blair swallowed hard, feeling tears rise at nothing more than the unconscious grace in the angle of Jim's wrist.

They had tried to take that from Jim, hurting him until the strong and poised man Blair had always known was clumsy with anguish. They had battered their way through that noble, unconscious beauty, seeking to expose whatever weakness might lie underneath, but in the end, the marks they had left on Jim's body were signs of nothing but their own cowardly rage. Jim had endured everything, and would be strong once more. The men who had hurt him were gone beyond any ability Blair had to catch them and exact vengeance, but still, somehow, that wasn't good enough. Not when he was looking at the marks left on Jim's flesh and feeling the subliminal tremor in his over-stressed muscles.

Blair wrapped his free hand gently around Jim's fingers to steady Jim 's hand and wrist, and carefully squeezed a gelid ribbon of antiseptic across the inside of Jim's wrist. He released Jim's fingers and used his own forefinger and middle finger to once again spread the antiseptic across the band of scoured flesh. Oil gleamed at the point of Jim's wrist, and Jim's long fingers were curled slightly toward his palm, patiently holding still for Blair.

Blair took a deep breath and looked into Jim's heavy lidded eyes. They were patient and dark, and he was still leaning heavily against Blair, his side warm through the blanket. One side of his mouth twitched up into a near-smile as Blair watched. "Easy, Sandburg," he whispered. "It can't be that bad."

"What can't be?" Blair asked, wondering what kind of expression he had allowed to cross his face during an unguarded moment. He laid the plastic tube down carefully on the bed beside him, and picked up the roll of gauze.

"You looked ready to take someone apart," Jim told him in a soft voice. He knew, in a distant way, what Blair had to have been thinking, and Jim supposed he must have felt the same way at some time or another. At the moment he wasn't sure if he had felt it in the past and gone too far beyond it to remember, or if he still had to reach that milestone in the future. Either way, it didn't seem to matter much compared to the more immediate concerns they were facing.

Blair shook his head. "Sorry," he said, matching his own tone to Jim's. "I was just thinking about some stuff for a minute." He held up the gauze. "This is the plan. I'm going to wrap this real loose around your wrist here. I think it'll help protect it, keep the Neosporin on longer too, but if you think it would hurt you, we won't do it. What do you think?"

Jim closed his eyes for a moment, then looked at Blair again. "Need an extra hand with the gauze?" he asked quietly.

Blair felt the smile that stretched across his own face. "Yeah, I'm sure I will, actually." He picked up the roll and spun out a short length. "You tell me if anything hurts, all right?"

Jim closed his eyes for a moment again, a simpler gesture than a nod, his expression pared down to the bare essentials of communication. "All right."

"Here we go," Blair said. He turned Jim's hand palm down, and gently laid a strip of gauze over the back of Jim's wrist. Unrolling more as he went, he carefully wound it around Jim's arm, catching the loose end of the bandage so it would lie flat above the bruised and flayed skin. "OK?" he asked again, a little nervously as he made a second pass, being exquisitely careful not to pull or put any pressure on the bandage. The speckled, torn flesh disappeared one band at a time under the carefully placed layers of cool white gauze. Blair wouldn't allow himself to pretend hiding the hurt could take it away, but he was heartened all the same by the sense he was doing something that helped Jim, please god, that he was doing something right.

When the first mark of Jim's bondage had been completely enwrapped, Jim raised his other hand before Blair had to ask, and took the roll of gauze. "Don't cut yourself," he whispered to Blair. He didn't waste the energy for a smile, but Blair could see a glimmer of interest and light in those hooded eyes.

"No way," Blair agreed. "I'm being careful." He laid his palm over the back of Jim's hand, feeling the faint tremors, and then reached over for the razorblade. One finger on top of the blade, he scooted it to the end of the bedside table, and let it fall into his other hand. "All set now?" he asked, mostly rhetorically. He took a careful grip on the gauze near Jim's own hold, and cautiously pulled the bandage taut between their hands. "Now the best case scenario here is that we do this without anyone losing a finger," he told Jim, punctuating the comment with a grin. Jim only cocked his head a little, but one eyebrow rose a fraction.

"Kidding," Blair said. "Kidding. I've got everything under control." It was the wrong thing to say, of course, because it reminded Blair suddenly and forcibly of just how little control he had over anything, least of all his own emotions. He waited until he had blinked away the tears and his hand had stopped shaking, and then brought the blade down across the bandage. He could feel the fibers parting, and he kept sawing with a slow back and forth movement until he'd cut through the width of the bandage. "That was a good idea," he told Jim, once more laying the blade aside on the table. "Beats gnawing through it with my teeth anyway."

Jim's eyes lit again, as though picturing the scene, and Blair grinned back as he picked up the roll of surgical tape. "It doesn't feel too tight, does it?" he asked, as he tore off a short strip. Jim shook his head carefully. "Great. Then we're still in business here." Blair taped down the loose end of the gauze, placing the tape as cautiously and gently as he had the gauze. He tore off a second strip and placed it on the loose end as well, securing both corners. "There. That should hold it. I'd like to get a bandage on this place here above your elbow too, if you don't think it would be too uncomfortable for you. Want to try it?"

Jim looked down at his bandaged wrist for a moment before looking back at Blair, and Blair wondered if they were thinking the same thing. For a wild moment he wished it weren't so, as if they could do anything else, as in tune with each other as they had become. Blair had had the sudden, impossible idea that the neat white gauze wrapped around Jim's graceful wrist made him look like a romantic suicide attempt from the afternoon soaps. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Jim so, before he remembered, sick with horror, that Jim had, after all, tried to drown himself in the surf.

He blinked, feeling the perennial burn of tears just below the surface. God, he was so tired he was on the verge of completely losing it, that had to be the explanation. And if he were tired, it was a thousand times worse for Jim. Maybe it would be better to leave all the rest of the first aid for later, and try first to get some sleep before he did or said something unforgivable. "We could take a break now if you want," he said abruptly. "I know you must be pretty beat. I sure am. We could finish after we sleep for a little while."

Jim raised his eyes and looked at Blair. He was silent for a moment more, weighing the relief from pain against the drag of exhaustion. Evaluating Blair's desire to stop was more difficult because he had to gauge how much of it was motivated by concern for Jim rather than personal need. The effort to puzzle it out logically was too much, and he yielded the decision to his confidence in Blair, unleavened by any other factor. "No," he said at last in his hoarse voice. "Finish now."

Blair reached for Jim's hand, wrapped his fingers around Jim's for an instant and held on, gently but firmly, then let go so he could grasp Jim's forearm above the bandages. "Want you to put your hand on my shoulder here, OK?" he directed, half-turning toward Jim, and lifting Jim's arm. Jim nodded in understanding, and laid his hand on Blair's shoulder, so Blair could reach all the way around the band of scoured flesh below Jim's biceps. The blanket slipped off Jim's shoulders, and Jim began to tremble once more.

"We'll do this as fast as we can," Blair promised. He tugged the blanket around one-handed to drape it over Jim's lap before he reached once more for the tube of ointment. Jim's hand was warm on his shoulder, warmer still when he squeezed gently, as though in reassurance, as Blair drew a line of ointment thickly around the worst of the banded contusions above Jim's elbow. He laid the tube aside, feeling like he was engaged in a clumsy sort of one-handed juggling act, and carefully began to spread the gel across the rope burns. He laid his other hand gently on the outside of Jim's upper arm, just to share the comfort of touch.

The wounds were deeper than they had been on his wrist, ragged where the skin had been cruelly stripped as Jim struggled against his captivity. Blair felt Jim's fingers tightening on his shoulder as he tried to smooth the antiseptic over the welted, broken places on the tender underside of Jim's arm. "I know," Blair whispered, tilting his head until his temple touched Jim's forearm. "Just hang in here with me for a little bit longer."

"Always," Jim murmured, softer than a breath. His eyes were closed, and after tightening for a moment, his hand on Blair's shoulder relaxed once more. His palm was warm and soft over the point of Blair's shoulder, his fingers lying gently curled against his back. It seemed to Blair, then, that Jim's great gentleness moved through him, steadying his own heart and hand.

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