Chapter 65

His touch became ever gentler and more sure, and he could feel the response in Jim's body in return. He had flinched at the first touch of Blair's fingers, an exhausted, weak shiver, but he did not tremble any more. His breaths were calm and deep and slow, his eyes closed peacefully, as though he might drift off to sleep at any moment. Soon, Blair thought, his heart full, fingers moving with ever lighter and more gentle care. Soon, Jim, I promise.

Blair brought his other hand down and carefully laid it upon Jim's forearm. The fine dark hairs were soft and sleek under Blair's palm, and he waited a moment more before lifting his hand away and reaching again for the gauze. Jim's eyes blinked open, startlingly blue and bright. "Can you bend your arm for this part?" Blair asked. "I'm afraid otherwise it'll get wrapped too tight, you know?"

Patiently, indicating his understanding with a faint nod, Jim let his hand fall from Blair's shoulder, and he bent his elbow, fingers curled into a loose fist. To Blair's sorrow, the movement seemed to hurt Jim. He didn't speak or even wince, but the fine lines around his mouth and at the corners of his eyes were suddenly drawn tighter.

"I know," Blair said softly. "I'm sorry." He draped a strip of gauze across the curve of Jim's arm and began to wrap the raw wound. "Get this over with as fast as I can, I promise." All the same it was more difficult than bandaging Jim's wrist had been. The gauze didn't lie flat over the gently flexed muscles, and he had to go slowly, straightening the bandage as he worked. He talked to Jim the whole time, just nonsense, just to be saying something, anything.

"We've got some aspirin, remember. If you feel up to it, I'll get you a couple when we're finished here. Might help some, do you think? It's worth a shot, anyway, right?" On and on without waiting for Jim to answer as he wrapped Jim's arm, almost as far down as his elbow. Jim was not following his progress as closely anymore, and only sat, patient and still, when Blair stopped wrapping. He smiled at Jim, then gently took Jim's other hand and lifted it. "Can you hold this for a minute while I get the razor?"

Jim blinked, the expression on his face trusting but vacant, as though he didn't understand quite what Blair wanted him to do. He glanced down at his bandaged arm, and his eyes cleared. "Sorry, Chief," he whispered, taking the roll of gauze from Blair and holding the end of the bandage in place with his long fingers. "Think I was drifting there for a minute."

"It's all right." Blair cupped the back of Jim's fingers in his palm before letting go. "You're entitled."

"It doesn't hurt," Jim volunteered suddenly, just as Blair delicately edged the razor off the bed side table and once more into his hand. Blair looked at him, so startled and happy he nearly dropped the blade.

"Careful," Jim rasped, a flicker of amusement in his weary eyes.

"I am, Jim, I am," he promised, smiling back as he maneuvered the blade close to the gauze.

"It's so different," Jim went on, looking down at the bandages. His voice was a low, hoarse effort, but he sounded surprised and pleased all the same. "I didn't remember...." The way he had his left hand positioned to hold the bandage for Blair, the contrast of the other wrist's abrasions stood out, an angrier red than they had seemed before, suddenly glaring when placed so close to the bright white bandage.

"You will," Blair said softly, keeping his concentration fixed on sawing across the tail of the bandage until it parted cleanly. Jim's fingers smoothed the edge down automatically, and Blair turned back to the table to drop the blade and pick up the tape. He was trying very hard not to think of Jim being so used to pain he had forgotten what its absence could feel like, but his hands felt clumsy and cold as he fumbled for the roll and tried to pull a piece off it. "You will," he said again desperately, trying to convince himself as much as Jim, hardly aware he was pleading more than promising.

"I will," Jim said gently, his voice as sure as Blair needed it to be.

The tape unrolled reluctantly, and he carefully tore off the two short pieces he needed before setting the roll down and swiveling back toward Jim. Smoothing the tape over the end of the gauze, he pressed it down without force, conscious of the bruising the bandage covered. With the silent, easy cooperation that had always been so natural between them, Jim's hand shifted and finished sealing it down, his fingers moving as slowly and cautiously as Blair's had. When he was done, he twisted to face Blair more directly and held out his untreated wrist, palm up.

As Blair squeezed a heavy line of ointment along the center of the bruised line across Jim's wrist, Jim trembled, his breath catching in nearly a gasp before he closed his eyes and held his arm steady. The scoring was deeper on that side, the individual rope burns almost visible as separate gouges, as if telling their own stories of captivity and struggle. Blair's hand shook slightly as he feathered the gel over those marks, spreading it from side to side until it captured a few of the soft dark hairs that laid over the abraded area and plastered them down in swirling trails. The marks were so deep he had to add a little more Neosporin to cover all of the skinned area before withdrawing his touch so Jim could rotate his wrist to expose the upper side.

There was a slow clumsiness in the way he moved it, and his hand was held out stiffly, not angled in the same graceful curving drape Blair had noticed when he did the other side. The point of bone that should have shown at the outside of the joint was hidden by a spongy swelling that had drawn the skin tight across the area, like a drumhead under tension. Conscious of the weight of the ribbon of gel as he laid it over the reddened rope burns, Blair asked quietly, "Is it too late for ice to do any good on this?"

Jim nodded without opening his eyes. He didn't think he could stand the bite of ice anyway, no matter how it was wrapped before it was laid on his skin. Just the thought of it made him shiver.

Blair's soft touch paused and lifted carefully, straight up and away like a needle coming off a record. Then he let go just as carefully of his supporting hold on Jim's fingers. His movements were so deliberate and considered, slow and linear, that as Jim held still, eyes closed, and felt the movement of air and muscle and breath around himself, he was suddenly reminded of one of the sequences from a movie he had seen ages ago. Ponderous space ships moving with stately, deliberate grace to the fitting strains of a waltz. He felt like one of those ships himself, drifting free above the well of gravity, held from falling endlessly only by the thin tether of Blair's presence. For a moment the music was so clear and real he started to lean in the direction he imagined his ship self was drifting, the other ships rotating around him like the stars wheeling above the world at night.

The gentle drag of fabric over his skin woke him and he blinked his eyes open, almost surprised to see the prosaic, dim confines of the room around him instead of the deep infinity he had been surrounded by a heartbeat ago. Blair had pulled the blanket back up around his shoulders, tucking it close as though trying to trap more warmth in its folds. He looked into Jim's eyes with apology and reassurance mingled together.

"We'll be done with this part soon, and then you can sleep," he offered, resting his hands with careful lightness on Jim's upper arms, holding the blanket close as if trying deliberately to warm Jim through it. "You'll get warm all the way once you can lay down and rest, I promise."

"I know," Jim whispered, dredging up the strength to infuse his voice with the smile he could not quite manufacture with his mouth. He let his wrist drop a little, the reddened band around it shiny with wet-looking gel.

Blair immediately let go of Jim's arms and twisted at the waist, reaching for the gauze and tape again. "Sorry, Jim," he said softly, laying the tail of the bandage lightly over Jim's wrist and starting to unroll it around his arm. "The sooner we get this done, the sooner you get some real rest, I know." A yawn ambushed him as he delicately laid a second layer of gauze over the first, and he paused in his work to let it pass, turning his head to the side rather than take a hand away from his task. Then he went back to the wrapping, keeping the layers barely taut enough to hold their place, afraid to put too much pressure on the swelling area, even with such flimsy material.

When he had the second complete set of layers done, he held the roll up and Jim accepted it from his hand, the tangle of their overlapping arms a little awkward, as if they were in the midst of a complicated cats-cradle hand-off. But it didn't slow Blair's deliberate pace; he moved with a determined elegance that drew Jim's attention and grounded his tendency to drift away from the present. Watching the strands of gauze part one by one under the sawing bite of the razor blade, Jim felt himself letting go of the roll, his grip going lax and powerless as his concentration narrowed down into the white emptiness of a zone. He blinked hard and tightened his hold, the sudden pressure crushing the soft-cored roll.

Blair's movement stopped and he looking into Jim's face. "You OK?" he asked softly. "We can quit here if you want."

Jim shook his head, almost surprised at how much effort it took to make that movement. "Keep going," he rasped. It seemed very difficult to keep holding both arms up in the right ways and talk at the same time. The sense of relief that the lessening of pain in each area brought was making it harder and harder to avoid giving in to the drifting feeling that beckoned so irresistably. "Maybe talk to me?" he asked.

You wouldn't think that would be a problem, Blair thought ruefully, finishing his cut through the bandage with excessive concentration. He'd used his voice all night, cajoling and entertaining and distracting Jim with the flotsam that moved through his mind. How utterly typical that when Jim requested more of it, his mind would go completely blank. But if Jim needed the sound of his voice, then even total brain death couldn't stop him. "You're not going to believe this, man, but I haven't got anything to say."

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