Chapter 66

The smile in Jim's eyes brightened as he huffed his shorthand sound for a disbelieving laugh. His finger moved to pin the loose end of the bandage before it got away, while Blair set the razor blade aside and picked up the roll of white tape. The tape tore obediently into two pieces of the right length, and Blair laid them one at a time over the seam, making absolutely certain the adhesive sides touched only the gauze, not Jim's skin.

"No, I'm not kidding, it's true," Blair said. "I think I wore out something last night. I told you about everything from that seminar Goss is giving to the grocery shopping. Speaking of which, you didn't really answer me. You want to trade off Saturdays or go in the evenings after work instead, or what? Or did I say I was going to drop the course?" He set the tape back on the table, giving Jim time to smooth down the edges and press the tape on to the bandage as firmly as he wanted. Blair was even more afraid of pressing too hard on that sprained, swollen spot than he had been on the other wrist.

For a moment, Blair had to scrabble around on the confusing pattern of the comforter to find the small Neosporin tube. Its colors didn't look anything like the ones in the bedspread pattern, but it still managed to get lost in the print anyway. Leaning in closer than before, he coaxed Jim's arm upward with a light touch on the bottom of his elbow, bringing the band of abrasions out of the shadowed fold of the blanket and into the light. With the growing ease of practice, he squeezed a heavy line of gel over the center of the marks and then began to gently spread it across the whole stripe, the corners of his mouth twitching only a little. "Yeah, right, I did, I'm going to audit instead. That makes more sense anyway, it's supposed to start next week and there's no way I'm up to starting something that intensive so soon. Especially not since we agreed to go camping when we got back to Cascade."

His fingers traced the ragged signature of Jim's pain, and blurred it, softened its edges, took away the sharp clarity. Jim lifted his hand behind his head, baring the underside of his arm so Blair could get to it. He remembered Blair coming up with the idea of going far away, and how necessary it had felt at the time. The urge to leave everything behind and not stop running until all of humanity had been left far behind was still strong enough to tug at him, tempting him with memories of clear blue skies over clean grey rock and the pure scent of the forest. But there were so many other things that were important too, things for which Blair had left no time or place in his schedule for their future.

The tiny crease between Jim's brows was more transparent to Blair than the goop he was spreading on Jim's arm. It almost made Blair laugh, knowing so exactly what was going through that familiar mind. "And if you won't tell Simon where to stick it when he says you have to stay for the debriefings, I swear I will. So don't get all duty-bound or whatever when you tell him about it, because I'm not giving you an option here. We're going away like we agreed, period. You got that?" As fiercely adamant as his determination and voice were, his touch was that much more gentle and forgiving, each delicate stroke of his fingertip trying to draw the pain out and away.

"Got it," Jim murmured obediently, because if there was something that was important, it was what Blair wanted. The rest, the reports Simon would want and the briefings the FBI would insist on, the detailed timelines of his mission and everything that had happened, even the mandatory counseling sessions with the department shrink - all those things Blair didn't think were worth their time - were all the things Jim himself would refuse if Blair needed his time and attention more. In Jim's semi-floating state, the boundaries between them worn down to faint markings that didn't bar passage back and forth, he could imagine being in Blair's position. He could feel the same driving desire to make things right, even while he felt the helpless need to let Blair make everything around him go away. Giving himself into Blair's care had been easy enough because in the truest sense he had always been there, and he was only a little afraid he would never want to leave. What he found, watching without seeing as Blair began to wind the white gauze around the mark on his upper arm, was that Blair did not want him to leave either, and he understood that protective possessiveness just as completely.

"You'd better," Blair whispered, somehow sounding no less fierce. He lifted one hand from the wrapping and stretched his arm to catch Jim's fingers, gently pulling his arm down into a slightly angled bend. It made the layer he'd already done lie differently on the lower curve of Jim's biceps, so he slowly lifted the last few inches of gauze up, then laid them back down with even more care. When he had the bandage lying flat without any wrinkles, he went on with unrolling fresh gauze over it. More than half the roll was gone, but he didn't tighten up on the wrapping to save it.

The soothing, slick feel of the ointment underneath the bandage was almost jarring in comparison to the tight, dry pain that had been with him for hours. The gel quieted the burning in his nerves until they fell nearly silent, helping him regain that much more control of his world. As the thin, coarsely woven material was laid over and around his arm, Jim could feel the weight of it, the tension of the threads as they stretched and loosened, fibers slipping reluctantly into the new shape, and the warmth of Blair's hands lingering in its layers. The sensations were making a new imprint in his memory, the recollection of harsh ropes replaced by an impression of the tender grip of Blair's hands, the weight on his skin no longer imprisoning but supporting him instead. Maybe, in time, everything would be replaced. Watching the single-minded concentration with which Blair finished wrapping his arm, Jim thought it might be possible after all.

The fingers of Blair's other hand touched the back of Jim's right hand, curled gently around his palm, and lifted Jim's hand across his body, then pressed the diminished roll of gauze into his palm. "Almost done here."

While Jim bowed his head slightly, and tried not to think about how many times Blair had told him that during the night, Blair sliced through the gauze in careful strokes. Jim could feel the tug of every thread before it parted, individual strands of cotton resisting the blade with futile stubbornness. Realizing he was spiraling down into a useless morass of sensation, he opened his eyes very wide, seeking Blair's face. Blair had turned partially away, leaning away from Jim to drop the razor on the bedside table and scoop up the tape. When he sat up and found Jim's eyes upon him, he smiled, sweet and sad. His lips were chapped, the dusky shadow of incoming beard darkened his face, and his eyelids were drooping in weariness, but he lifted his free hand and brushed the back of his knuckles across Jim's face in a gentle caress. "Hey there," he said cheerfully, his voice hoarse and quiet.

He dropped his hand to tear a piece of tape, then a second, then nudged Jim's hand away from the place where he was still holding the free end of the gauze, and smoothed the tape down over the edges. "Lower your arm for me," Blair said. "Let's make sure I didn't get it too tight." Jim did as he was told, Blair's hands still gently holding and supporting his arm. "That feels all right?" Blair asked. He raised Jim's forearm in slow degrees, his other hand cradling Jim's elbow. "Not too tight?"

"It's all right," Jim said, pushing the words out. "Feels better." It was slowly dawning on him that every time Blair promised they were almost done, he was trying to convince himself more than Jim. Jim knew how long the road would be. The knowledge was written on his body, and even Blair's careful bandaging could only ease the truth, not change it.

Blair's head dropped as he let Jim go. His hands fell to his lap, holding the tape and roll of gauze in his loosely clenched fists. He was taking slow, deep breaths, as though he were saying a mantra to himself, or as if he were on the verge of falling asleep. The pause stretched out and Jim tried to stay silent and still, wanting Blair to have this moment of quiet if he needed it so badly. His body betrayed him, though, as it had so often tonight, and a sudden shiver wracked him.

Small as the movement was, Blair's head came up fast in reaction. "Jim," he said, his voice thick with incipient sleep touched by dull surprise. The supplies in his hands were gone, dropped on the bed, Jim supposed, and Blair half-turned to him, putting his hands on Jim's shoulders. His palms were warm through the blanket, shaking a little with suppressed exhaustion. "I'm sorry, Jim, I must have been drifting there for a minute. I don't know what's the matter with me." Jim was still trembling, unable to stop his shivers once they had begun, and Blair edged closer, wrapping his arms carefully around Jim's back. Twisting from the waist, he was able to embrace Jim closely, his chest pressed warmly to Jim's, his head laid carefully upon Jim's shoulder.

"I know," he was whispering, "I know, you're so cold, so tired. I keep asking you to do stuff when all you want to do is sleep." He spread his hands across Jim's back over the blanket, petting and stroking him the way he might a beloved cat. Jim smiled a little at the thought, relaxing into Blair's embrace, so grateful for the warmth and the closeness that a moan escaped as Blair held him.

Blair answered the sound, a soft, wordless cry from his heart. He held Jim close, and his hands slowly grew still on Jim's back, his forearms locked warmly across the blanket. Blair's breaths were open-mouthed and a little ragged, huffing warmly against Jim's throat. His heart beat against Jim's chest, warm as his breath.

Jim felt the heat of his wounds flaring once more from the warmth of Blair's body, but the pain was measured and dull, as though reaching him from a great distance. Or as though Blair had taken the pain first, absorbing the sharpest, most terrible intensity into himself, so Jim felt only what Blair couldn't contain alone. Jim didn't know where that idea had come from, but once he had thought it, he seemed unable to banish the notion. It reminded him of things Blair had said during the night. It reminded him of cruel truths in the things his captor had said to him, after Jim had broken and cried aloud for Blair.

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