Chapter 69

Jim's eyes slitted in amusement, then went a little wider with puzzlement. "I'm not sure," he answered slowly, but the expression on his face was wondering rather than worried. He looked directly down at Blair, his eyes seeming to catch every bit of the faint light in the room and reflect it back in clear, pale blue. "Is it important?"

"Nah," Blair said, the only syllable he could manage. He cleared his throat roughly, then finally looked away from Jim's eyes. "The tape," he mumbled, "that's important. Where'd it go?" It, too, was still lying where he had set it aside a few minutes ago, and he picked it up before Jim had a chance to answer. There was more of it left than there had been of the gauze, so he only tore off two pieces and dropped the roll. Before he could position the tape on the bandage, Jim's hand was in his line of vision again, silently requesting something.

He stared at it, seeing the scrapes on the backs of Jim's fingers, and he knew there would be bruises starting to show at the knuckles as well. There was a thin scratch across Jim's palm, and that cut on the end of his forefinger, swollen red around the edges. He didn't have any gauze left to cover it, Blair realized, looking down in dismay at the two pieces of tape stuck to his own fingers. He'd used everything up and not finished the job. Slowly, and ever more carefully because his eyes seemed to be getting weaker all the time, he touched the pieces of tape one at a time to the end of the gauze at Jim's ankle, and pressed them down with the flat of his fingers. Done.

Except he wasn't done. Jim's hand still waited above; he could feel the wild ends of his hair brush past and over it, and he realized Jim must be waiting to put the tape away for him. Blair fumbled it up off the carpet and into Jim's palm, hardly aware of what he was doing. There was so much left he hadn't finished that he felt a creeping, numbing despair at the magnitude of his failure. Those long scratches on Jim's back, the bruises on the back of his neck and at the corner of his mouth that nothing could be done for, the larger, deeper ones on his thighs that hadn't even developed their full accusatory color yet - all of them remained unchanged. Those terrible burn marks over his chest and belly, each one born with a scream, but Blair had done nothing at all to ease all that pain, and now look, damn, there were warm saltwater drops falling to land on Jim's skin and the bandage around his ankle. It would burn its way through all those layers and make him hurt again, and that wasn't right. Not a towel in sight, no more gauze left, even the breakfast napkins thrown outside, and so he bent and pressed a loose handful of his hair to the top of Jim's foot. He could not allow Jim to hurt any more.

The soft, tangled warmth of hair picked up most of the teardrops, but not completely, leaving smeared streaks of wetness Jim could feel cooling on his skin. "Blair, no," he protested, though he didn't dare trust his failing control to pull his foot away from Blair's tender grasp. "Please," he said again helplessly as the hot gust of Blair's breath and the silken slide of hair caressed the top of his foot.

Blair didn't look up. "It's all right," he whispered in a broken, choked voice, still trying to blot his tears. "It's all right, I've got it," he insisted in the same low, hurt voice. He was crouched on the cruel green shag carpeting, bent double at Jim's feet. Jim stretched out his hand, trying to touch his bowed head. Curling down to reach him, he felt the familiar ache of muscles pressed beyond their endurance at his back and across his shoulders, and the sharp, crueler pain of the burns on his chest, flaring to life again at even this slight change in position.

"Blair," he said again, calling to him, and the pain broke his voice, made it ragged and hoarse, a stranger's rasp. He did not mean that roughness, did not mean to speak to Blair that way. Especially not now, when Blair was trying to protect the wounds he had bandaged with such care. He was so focussed on trying to make everything right one little thing at a time he wouldn't even allow his tears to lie upon Jim's flesh. Jim's voice betrayed him, though, and he wasn't able to speak Blair's name with the tenderness in his heart. He could barely manage to speak at all.

Blair's head came up at once, though he still held Jim's foot cradled in his hands. His eyes were dark, almost hidden behind the hair that hung in his face. "I'm sorry," he whispered, his voice trembling. "It's not all right at all. I haven't got it. I'm not finished." His head dropped further, hair swinging forward. "I'll call that kid at the front desk -- I'll have him go back."

Jim reached out for him, trying to stop the words before they could escape. Blair's usual eloquence had become stuttering and uncertain, broken by exhaustion and grief. "Blair," he said again, all he seemed to be able to manage, his voice rumbling with the effort of speech. He touched the side of Blair's face, rough with whiskers, slid his hand down to cup his chin and lift Blair's face to meet his. "Blair," he said once more, the sound of it too rough still, but the best he could give. The sight of Blair huddled on his knees, head bowed in defeat, was stirring a memory he did not think he had the strength look at. Blair's grief seemed an echo of another despair. He remembered Blair on his knees in the ocean, the burn of salt water scouring them, and the realization Blair had given up, wasn't even trying to live any longer.

It didn't make sense. Blair had found him in the water, and Blair had brought him to safety. Blair would bring him home. He had never given up. "Chief," Jim whispered, his hand on Blair's face. "No."

"Jim?" he asked, gazing up into Jim's face, not trying to hide anymore. He was swallowing hard, his mouth trembling, and he looked in this moment as lost as Jim felt.

"It's time to rest," Jim said, finding suddenly that he did, after all, have the strength to say the necessary words.

Blair took a deep breath, chest rising, head coming up further, and he met Jim's eyes steadily. "You know, man," he said, whispering in a voice as ragged as Jim's. "I think you're right." He drew his knee up, planted one hand on the bed not far from Jim, and laboriously forced himself to his feet. The mattress bent deeply under the weight of his hand, and Jim leaned helplessly toward the depression. He didn't mind.

As Blair reached his feet, he was closely curled over Jim, as though protecting him still. His flesh smelled of the shower, and of soap, and even faintly now of caraway seeds from the sausage. He reached his hand down to Jim's and gently took the surgical tape from Jim's palm. Jim had forgotten he was holding it. Blair set the roll down on the table and then let his hand rest upon Jim's shoulder as he looked down into Jim's face. His eyes were still luminous with tears it seemed he would not allow to fall. "One more thing," he said, and even smiled. "And you're not gonna like it, but if you can stand it, I think it'd be a good idea. I got some aspirin. If you could take a couple, I think it might help with the pain, at least a little." He had to break off for a moment, breathing as though he had been running. "So if I get them, do you think you could take them?"

Jim honestly didn't know. Just imagining the bitter, flat taste that would coat the back of his throat and tongue and the dry powdery harshness of it made him a little sick. Now that Blair had mentioned the aspirin, he could smell it in the room, though it was still inviolate in its little plastic bottle. But at the same time, he longed for the peace of not hurting all the time, and knew the aspirin would help. Aspirin and sleep were the only things left that could help him more than time and Blair's presence already had. Much as he only wanted more of the latter, he nodded in assent to Blair's offer, because he knew it would make them both feel better.

The smile on Blair's face was a good reward, gentle and kind, and Jim almost reached up to touch that soft sun shining down on him, but Blair was moving away before Jim could get his arm untangled from the blanket. He quit trying to free himself and sat quietly, letting the patter of Blair's words sink in without trying to separate them into coherent thoughts.

"I told him to get Bayer because it's got that coating that will make them easier for you to swallow, and that's what we got, so really it wasn't a bad deal sending him out to get us the stuff, except for breakfast and geez, not much he could have done about that, you know. I mean, yeah, he still owes me some change big time, even considering his ridiculously extortionate pricing plan for running errands, but we got the right kind of water, too, and enough of the other supplies, pretty much, so the only reason I still really want to kill him is all that banging on the door when I told him to be quiet." The shower of words trailed into silence like the passing of a light summer drizzle, and Jim looked up to find Blair standing in front of him again, hopefully holding out two white pills in the palm of one hand, the bottle of water offered in the other.

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