Chapter 67

"Jim." Blair's voice was soft as his breath, his hands once more moving across Jim's back, touching him gently and carefully as though his warm hands truly could find Jim's pain and take it from him with nothing more than a touch. "Jim, what is it? Are the bandages hurting you? We'll take 'em off if they are."

"No," Jim said quickly, almost smiling to think of all the trouble and time it had taken to bandage his arms and wrists in the first place. Blair must have heard the amusement in his voice, because he put his hands on Jim's shoulders and eased himself away enough to look earnestly into his face. "No," Jim said again, whispering, but insistent. "It helps. I can't feel the air anymore -- it -- it was burning me." He trailed off at the expression on Blair's face. An impossible task, telling Blair about the surcease of pain without reminding him of the pain that had been there before.

Blair swallowed hard, but he didn't give into his grief. He even smiled at Jim, a light in his eyes, the corner of his mouth crooking up. "But it's better now?"

"It's better."

Blair sighed and nodded, more to himself than to Jim. "I thought it would be. I didn't know for sure. I hoped it would." He lifted one of the hands still resting on Jim's shoulders and touched the back of his fingers to Jim's face. "I'd like to wrap those places on your legs, too. I know they must be hurting you."

They did hurt, a bone deep ache as though his ankles were still lashed. With the other pains muted, he felt them burn with a new intensity. Jim shook his head dully, only half-conscious of the movement. He was so weary he didn't have the strength to keep his memories of the night pushed back to a manageable distance any longer.

Without wanting to, he remembered the way they had bound him. He couldn't have been putting up much of a fight by then, dazed as he was from the beating in the house, then the second one outside, there in the sand when he had believed they were about to shoot him. Around him had been the hot, fetid press of bodies, forcing him against the latticework under the deck, holding his limp form upright by sheer force of their numbers as the ropes were tied around his arms. He wasn't sure if he had still been resisting at all, but perhaps he had kicked out then, or tried to, because he remembered the absurdity so profound it verged on obscene, when someone knelt in front of him and pulled his shoes from his feet before the ropes were wound around his ankles.

Perhaps it had been the man with the flat brown eyes himself. Of that whole gang of thugs and brutes, he, at least, would have understood how naked that one, miniscule indignity made Jim feel.

Even before the memories cleared from his eyes, he reached for Blair, but Blair was already slipping away. After stroking Jim's face in reassurance, taking Jim's frozen silence for assent, he had slid off the bed and was kneeling before him. When he bowed his head, his hair fell across Jim's knees. With the same slow care he had used in moving, he reached down and eased his hand under the arch of Jim's left foot, then cradled Jim's bare heel in the palm of his hand. Jim flinched a little, despite Blair's gentleness, or perhaps, he thought sadly, because of it. As tender as Blair's touch was, it still drew the past to him, if only out of the contrast between what had been and the present. The motel room, Blair's dark head bowed at his knee, the blanket wrapped around his shoulders, it all went away once more in sharp, cold little flashes of sensation. He felt his bare feet digging into the sand as his body flexed and strained helplessly in his bonds. Against the back of his bare heels he could feel the cold rain, and the scrape of the rough latticework boards. He saw the face of his torturer smiling at him, and he was so alone, and so afraid.

Blair's hand moved up to the back of his calf, and the present returned. The room seemed darker, as if tainted by the flashback. "I'm sorry," Blair said, raising his head and looking up at Jim ruefully. "You ticklish?"

Jim reached out, laying his hand on the side of Blair's head. Soft hair tickled his palm and nothing more than that sensation dispelled the hint of darkness around the corners of the room. Blair's expression softened into a smile as he looked up at Jim, and he tilted his head into Jim's touch. "Is that a yes or a no?"

"No," Jim whispered. "It's all right."

"OK." Blair lifted his own hand and covered Jim's for a moment. "This should just take a minute." He looked toward the bedside table. "Damn. Did you see where I dropped the Neosporin?"

It had fallen on the bed. Jim was pretty sure he remembered that much. He looked down and to his side at the crumpled bedspread, then ran his hand over it. The white bandage around his wrist seemed painfully bright, its white making the light areas on the comforter look even dingier. When he concentrated, trying to pick out the little white and yellow tube against the garish floral print, he suddenly lost the perception of depth. The peaks and valleys in the coarsely quilted spread and the play of light and dark all became part of the same flat, pattered surface. He could feel the folds and ridges under the palm of his hand, as strongly as he could feel the prickle of the nylon quilting thread, but he couldn't see them anymore, and the incongruity made him feel dizzy and slightly sick. He closed his eyes.

"Hey, it's all right," Blair said, his voice quick and low. He leaned up over Jim, his side brushing Jim's knees. "It's here on the table after all. Just didn't see it beside the lamp." Blair settled back, and when Jim cautiously opened his eyes, he saw Blair brandishing the little white tube proudly. He laid his hand on Jim's knee for a moment. "I'm right here. We're gonna get through this together."

"Haven't forgotten," Jim said, and Blair smiled at him so tenderly Jim had to reach out and run his fingers across Blair's stubbled cheek, taking in the love in his expression with touch as well as sight.

Again, Blair tipped his head into that touch, then reached up to capture Jim's hand in his own. "Soon, now," he promised, then released his hand and scooted back so he could reach Jim's legs. He squeezed a thick, fat dollop of the ointment across his fingers, and gently touched his hand to the inside of Jim's ankle. The ointment had cooled some, and felt thick and unyielding pressed to the broken fresh, heavy against the bruised bone and muscle.

Blair seemed to feel him quiver, because he breathed out a harsh sigh himself. When he spoke, though, his voice betrayed nothing but gentle patience. "I'll go slow, Jim. Tell me if it hurts, and I'll stop, I promise."

Jim nodded, but Blair's head was down, and he couldn't see him. He looked up at Jim from his awkward position, crouched at Jim's feet, and Jim nodded again.

"All right. Just so you know. Rules haven't changed." His hand swept slowly around the back of Jim's ankle, where the rope burns gave way to scratches from the wood. The ointment oozed between the careful pressure of his fingers, slipped across the springy tendon and ravaged flesh.

"Smart move, just so you know, not having any of that sausage," Blair said, determinedly talking on, his voice the only distraction he could give Jim for the moment. "I don't think there's any way that's gonna get digested. I can feel it just sitting in my gut. What was I thinking?" He squeezed more ointment onto his fingers and pressed them to the outside of Jim's ankle, spreading the gel carefully over the sharply rounded bone, tracing the marks of Jim's captivity, talking on all the same. "Hey, you know what we should do, though?" He glanced up, meeting Jim's eyes, waiting for his response.

"What's that?" Jim managed to answer. It was enough. Blair bowed his head to his work once more and talked on.

"We should swing by that meat market at the Farmer's Exchange on our way out of town. You know, for our camping trip." The rope burns and the bruises were most painful over the shin. Even Blair's feather-soft touch pulled a groan from him. "You remember, Jim?" His voice shook with emotion, rising a little, but he didn't stop his ministrations. "Remember the sausages we had the first night of that fishing trip -- god, has it been two years now?" Blair swallowed, his shoulders trembling. "The apple sage ones were so good on the grill -- that would be great the first night, wouldn't it?"

"All I remember," Jim forced himself to say, "Is you complaining there was so much fat running off into the grill we were probably going to start a grease fire that would burn the whole forest down."

Blair snorted, more a sob than laughter, and lifted over-bright eyes to Jim's. "Didn't mean they weren't good sausages." He wiped his face hastily with the back of his hand. "Can you reach the gauze? It's right there beside you on the bed."

Jim put out his hand without looking, as though, he thought, Blair's voice would be enough to guide him, and miraculously enough, felt the fibrous roll under his palm. He curled his hand around it, somehow cheered by even such a minor, fragile victory. "Got it," he whispered, and handed it down to Blair.

"Thanks," Blair said with a radiant smile. He didn't seem to notice the tear that slipped from the corner of his eye. "Running a little low. I think I've got enough to finish, though. If not--" He shrugged. "I guess I could pay our friend at the front desk another hundred to go out and buy another roll. Tell me if this feels too tight, OK?"

The sticky, slick sensation of gauze laid over ointment was becoming a familiar one and, oddly, even a comforting one. Perhaps because it was accompanied by the fluttering, quick touch of Blair's gentle fingertips above and below the wounds as he wrapped the bandages, or the sense of comfort and completion when he was done. Blair reached around behind his ankle once, then again, and again, his forearm brushing Jim's calf on every pass. It was the only touch he could afford Jim while he worked, and Jim realized how intently he was waiting for it. Perhaps Blair knew too, because after the fourth pass, he shifted, drawing a little closer to Jim so he could lean his chest and shoulder lightly against Jim's other leg.

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