Chapter 68

"You gave that kid a hundred bucks for breakfast and a roll of gauze?" Jim rasped out.

Blair looked up at him, smiling sheepishly. "And the bottled water, and the other stuff."

"Sandburg --"

"I thought he'd give me change," Blair said a little defensively, but then it melted away, and he shook his head, the ends of his hair brushing Jim's knee. "Cleaned me out anyway. Everything else will have to go on your card."

"We're done with room service," Jim grumbled, and Blair laughed.

"Yeah, I think you're right." After another moment he rolled onto his knees away from Jim, seeming as reluctant as Jim to lose that contact. "How does it feel? Not too tight?" He kept one hand very gently laid over the bandage to hold it in place.

"It's not too tight."

"Good." Blair reached up to the bedside table, craning awkwardly, and scooted the bare razor toward the end of the table.

Jim didn't see how he expected to get it one-handed without risk to his fingers, so he said, "Sandburg, wait." He wrapped his fingers around the back of Blair's hand and lifted it away. "You catch it," he said.

Blair beamed at him, an expression all out of proportion to the simplicity of the proposed task. "Thanks." He cupped his hand under the edge of the table, and Jim touched his fingertips to the top of the razor. It was cold, and it vibrated in a way that made his back teeth ache when he scooted it across the surface of the table. He could taste metal on his tongue. It was a relief when the blade dropped off the edge of the table into Blair's hand. "Got it," Blair said cheerfully and unnecessarily, though it lightened Jim's heart to hear his voice. Blair crouched low then, his head bowed so the ends of his hair fell across Jim's foot, and managed a hold on the gauze that didn't drag against Jim's wounds when he sawed through the strip. "Probably an easier way to do this," he grumbled so softly Jim half-wondered if he even knew he was talking out loud.

Jim laid his hand on top of his head. Blair's scalp was warm, a slightly glassy feel to his clean, mostly dry, tangled hair. "I could swing around," he told Blair softly. "Would it be easier if my feet were on the bed?"

Blair became very still for an instant, then let his breath out all at once. "Nah," he said, raising his head a little, and rubbing his temple against the side of Jim's knee in reassurance. Perhaps in apology. "This is fine. Besides, I'm almost done here. Can you hand me the tape? I think it's right there on the bed next to you, too."

Jim put out his hand and found it after a moment's blind searching. Seemed to work better if he didn't even try to look at that awful bedspread. He closed his fingers around the cool plastic casing, but didn't reach out to give it to Blair yet. "What did you do with the razor?"

Blair lifted his head. "I put it back on the table." Only then did he look. "Oh man, no I didn't, did I? I must have just dropped it. Stupid, geez." He spread his hand across the carpet.

"Sandburg," Jim croaked in protest. "Do you want to lose a finger?"

"I'm being careful," Blair said defensively, but he lifted his hand off the carpet. "There it is." He picked up the razor with elaborate care, no doubt for Jim's benefit, and deposited it on the table again. Then he smiled at Jim. "Thanks. Stepping on that tomorrow morning would've pretty much sucked. Can I have the tape now?"

Jim stretched out his hand, hoping his own smile showed at least in his eyes. Blair chuckled and wrapped his hand around Jim's before he took the case. He tore off two short strips, commenting, "At least we've got plenty of tape," then crouched down, readjusting the last round of gauze that had slipped down while he searched for the lost razor. "And there we go."

Jim felt the weight of Blair's fingers below his calf, a quick, soft pressure as he smoothed down the tape as gently as he could. Then he sat back on his heels again, and laid one hand on Jim's knee. "How you doing, Jim?" he asked, his voice soft and as gentle as his touch.

"Better," he answered truthfully, knowing at the same time he didn't dare make a deeper internal assessment. Don't ask, don't tell, was his present relationship with his mind and body, and all parties involved preferred to leave it that way for the time being. He pulled the blanket tighter across his shoulders, the squares in the weave stretching and distorting, and he concentrated carefully on the small band of relief around the ankle Blair had just finished tending, instead of the steadily burning manacle of pain clamped around the other. When he closed his eyes, he could see it, glowing dully red, the rest of his body drifting high above, bound by that one chain to the earth far below.

Blair's hand moved on his knee, and Jim snapped his eyes open, puzzled for a moment not to see the hot iron band where it should be. He couldn't even see his ankle, not without bending forward to look around the obstacles of his own knee and Blair's elbow, and wondered why he had believed he could. It was not, he reminded himself wearily, the worst fantasy he had found himself believing in recently.

"Jim?" Blair was shifting on his haunches, reaching for the Neosporin tube again.

"I'm here," he rasped, and kept his eyes focused on the top of Blair's head, watching the flares of golden red that shifted through the tangled strands standing out in all directions. The first cool touch of the gel broke the band of heat on his ankle, and Jim's breath caught with relief. Nearly cooled to the point of being too thickened to spread easily, the ointment covered his abraded flesh like the lingering touch of Blair's gentle soul on his, leaving peace in its wake. "I'm here," he said again, but this time it was a soft sigh of acceptance, and Blair looked up at him, eyes glimmering.

"I know," Blair said, and bowed his head again over his work before his throat closed up further. Jim looked so tired and beaten to him. Somehow the advancements of bandages and a blanket only made it worse. Naked and wounded, Jim had still manifested his innate courage and strength in every line of his body, a man injured but unbeaten. Swaying on the edge of the bed, blanket clutched around his shoulders and gauze taped over his joints, he looked like a refugee from some terrible disaster, lost without home or family to return to and too traumatized by the experience to understand what had happened to him.

Concentrating on small tasks was still Blair's only hope for retaining his dwindling control. With all the care of a conservator restoring a priceless masterpiece, Blair smoothed the ointment around the sharp curves and small, soft hollows of Jim's ankle. Painting the gel over the marks of the past, covering the raw torn places where the rough hemp rope had gouged deeply, he worked his way around Jim's ankle as if it were the most important project in the world. The bruises beginning to flush over Jim's shin were so exquisitely sensitive Blair knew there was no way he could complete the job without hurting Jim in the process, but he tried with all his heart. He held his hand as steady as he could, and let only the translucent gel touch Jim's flesh, keeping his finger suspended by the smallest fraction of an inch so it only pushed the gel over and around, but did not ever rest its weight.

The reward for his care was the even pace of Jim's breath, the stillness of his body unbroken by any wince or tensing of muscle for as long as it took to work all the way around the band of abrasion. When Blair finished and straightened his arm, he found it was trembling so badly with sudden weakness that he couldn't have put the cap back on the tube even if had known where it was.

"Here." Jim leaned forward a little and reached down, fingers curled in invitation, and Blair blinked at the proffered hand for a moment before realizing he was supposed to give him the tube for safekeeping. It had been way too many hours since he had any sleep, he knew by the way his eyes prickled and stung at the simple idea of Jim wanting to help. Not yet, some lingering vestige of control ordered, and so he simply reached up and dropped the half-empty tube into Jim's palm.

The roll of gauze was right where he had dropped it after finishing Jim's other ankle, though it took Blair a fuzzy-headed moment of confusion to remember and look for it on the carpet. Nearly gone, the roll was reduced to a small, squashable wad that was easy to pass around Jim's leg. Blair laid the loose end of the gauze gently across the front of Jim's bruised ankle, and winced himself at the sip of air he could hear hiss in Jim's throat. "Almost there," he whispered, unrolling the bandage without tugging on the end already laid down, then carefully beginning to wrap it around Jim's leg in generous overlaps. He let the inside of his forearm slide gently over the back of Jim's calf as he made each pass, a predictable, comforting caress no less loving for its simple necessity.

There was little of the roll left when he finished, barely a foot of additional fabric in a tiny rolled end, and he teased it out to full length with his fingers, then wrapped it one more time, and then halfway again, rather than tug on it in a pointless cut. Considering the way his vision blurred at the edges, Blair felt faintly relieved at not having to handle the bare razor blade again anyway. Been pushing my luck as it is. Let's not invite disaster at this stage, he reminded himself silently, only to be surprised by Jim's huffed snort of agreement. "Did I say that out loud?" he asked, looking up in surprise.

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