Chapter 70

There was little Jim could do but reach for the aspirin and water and swallow the pills one at a time, gulping water to force the hard, round pellets down his throat. Even with as much water as he could stomach to wash them down, he still felt as though they had lodged irretrievably halfway down his esophagus, dissolving just enough to burn and send their bile-tainted flavor back up to his mouth. He grimaced, took another swallow of water, and briefly contemplated asking Blair to bring the breakfast back in so he could dislodge the pills with another few bites of the cold, greasy eggs. Just imagining their texture made his stomach twist and Jim clenched his teeth, swallowing until his mouth was dry and the feeling of nausea passed.

Blair watched him anxiously, his adam's apple bobbing as if he were swallowing along with Jim, trying to help by somehow sharing the work. It made Jim smile a little, and though the aspirin couldn't possibly have already begun to do him any good, all the same the corner of his mouth didn't seem as sore as it had earlier. He handed the water bottle back and said, "You should take some too." The look of confusion on Blair's face was comically predictable. "Aspirin," Jim clarified patiently.

"Oh, yeah, you're probably right." Holding the water bottle in one hand, Blair turned and picked the aspirin bottle up off the second bed, then stood looking at it as if he had no idea how to get the cap off with both hands already occupied. Abruptly he laughed, a short bark of exasperated amusement, and set the water bottle on the bedside table. "It is so totally time to get some sleep," he confided to Jim as he twisted and popped the top off the aspirin container. "You'd think with all the all-nighters I've pulled, I'd be doing better at this point." He tossed the re-capped aspirin container back to the bed, lifted the water bottle again, and chased the pills down with a couple of hearty gulps.

"I hear that happens when you get old," Jim told him, still feeling the pull at the corner of his mouth as he smiled.

"Well, you would know better than me," Blair agreed complacently, setting the water back down on the table between the beds. He turned to Jim and touched his hand to the side of Jim's head, allowing his fingers to cradle the back of Jim's scalp for a moment. "Let's get this old gray head of yours on a pillow and try to get some sleep." His voice grew softer, and he tilted his head toward Jim's, his hair falling forward to partially cover his face. "You game? It's only what I've been promising you since we got here, I think. A good night's sleep." Jim could hear the smile in his voice. "Well, a good day's sleep. You know what I mean."

He released Jim and reached over to push the sheet and the stiff comforter to the foot of the bed. "Here we go. Slow and easy, man." He put one hand on Jim's shoulder, more to guide him than support him. Jim wasn't quite sure what to do, and he felt a dull rage at his helplessness, but he was too exhausted to hold on to the feeling. He couldn't have anyway, not with Blair so close to him.

"Shh, it's OK, just lie down," Blair said gently.

He was certain Blair couldn't have seen the flash of confusion and anger that had come and gone through his eyes almost before he'd even had time to register the emotions himself, but he also knew it was no longer necessary for Blair to see anything to know what was in Jim's heart. Perhaps it had always been that way. It was easy to believe, at least, that there would never be any barriers between them again. He looked up at Blair, eyes wide, not even deliberately broadcasting his helplessness, simply speaking his heart without words that only got in the way.

The overbright sparkle in Blair's eyes answered clearly, as did the way his hands drifted gently over Jim's skin, and the small inarticulate sound from his throat. No more words were tried; Blair guided Jim down to rest with only the careful touch of his hands. Never pushing or pulling at him, only that soft feathering touch that led, encouraged, and comforted. There was no difficult challenge to the task after all, nothing but an easy, slow settling into Blair's arms, until finally Jim blinked in surprise at finding himself lying down, his head on the flat, lumpy pillow instead of the smooth muscled curve of Blair's breast. The blanket that had been around his shoulders was draped over him, and the room's damp air felt cold as the cover was lifted carefully away. He closed his eyes, drifting again, feeling quite young as the cool, coarse sheet was drawn up and over him. It caught slightly on his bandages as Blair dragged it upward. As careful as he was trying to be, Blair couldn't keep the weave from moving unevenly over the serrated edges of the tape, and Jim shifted, not liking the minute, rapid stuttering motion as each thread in the fabric bounced over the obstacle. It drew him too close counting the threads in the warp of the passing sheet, and he had to look at Blair again to push away the encroaching slide toward infinity. He thought instead about the shadowed line of Blair's jaw, half-turned away as he concentrated on bringing the covers over Jim and then lofting the spare blanket over the bed as well.

As if he felt the weight of Jim's gaze, Blair smiled very gently as he leaned over and smoothed the creases out of the top blanket, pulling their heavy, ropy weight out flat and even. The expression made his eyes warmer while shadows in the lines around his mouth deepened in contrast, darker grey against the charcoaled stubble over his cheek. "Rest, Jim. You deserve it," he whispered. He finished settling the covers in place and turned, laying his palm over the side of Jim's face, the callused edge of his thumb skimming over the rise of Jim's cheekbone so faintly it tickled at the short, invisible hairs in the delicate skin. The ball of his thumb passed over Jim's closed eyelid like the ethereal brush of a butterfly wing, and Jim sighed, his whole body sinking into a loose-limbed relaxation. "That's right," Blair breathed, his voice so low Jim heard it inside his head without any sensation of it having passed through his ears.

He took a deep breath and thought he spoke in return, but although he didn't feel his lips move, Blair replied even more quietly, "I know. Me too." The warmth of Blair's hand lifted away, then the diffuse heat signature of his body moved too, its ever-present sun fading behind a cloud of distance. When he turned off the light over the bedside table, the bulb made a little popping sound and crackled to itself as the glass cooled and shrank.

Blair's eyes took a few seconds to adjust to the renewed dimness, and he stood still until he could clearly make out the shapes of the furniture around himself. He was exhausted physically, mentally, and emotionally, and wanted nothing more than to sleep for at least a day. The problem was, once he was standing still, getting started moving again seemed impossible. As his sight adapted, he looked down at the bed, his gaze tracing the long flattened lines of Jim's body under the layers of bedcovers. Lying on his side with only his head showing, the short fuzz of his hair dark against the pillowcase, he could have been resting after any long day at work, and the sight would have made Blair quietly happy, even a little proud of his position as the trusted friend of such a sentinel. It was a conceit he sometimes allowed himself, when he was feeling particularly comfortable, even smug, with the way his life had turned out.

He didn't feel that way now. There was no self-conscious pride swelling under his breastbone, only a great hollow sense of grief, as if he had lost something so old and precious it could never be replaced. "I'm sorry," he said without breath, almost as if he didn't want Jim to hear. A vain wish, with Jim's normally exceptional senses pushed to extraordinary limits by what he'd been through. Blair's mind shied away frantically from that line of thought as instinctively as jerking back from a flame. What had been done to Jim was too much for him to think about, too horrible to dwell on when they were still so close to it.

The train of thought was inescapable all the same, and the best he could do was try to find a safely intellectual distance from which to view their situation and its consequences. Considering it in a desperately analytical way, he wasn't sure, but he thought what really scared him was the possibility Jim never would be able to recover, not all the way, not to become the way he wanted to be or the way he remembered himself. The weight of that fear pressed on his shoulders until they slumped, leaned on him until he bowed his head in defeat. His hastily constructed objectivity was crushed in a contracting vise of sorrow and regret that it seemed he had lost the strength to escape when Jim had closed his eyes. Blair clenched his hands, the fists weak and shaking, willing himself to move, and stood still, feeling as if his soul was being flattened.

That seemingly impenetrable lassitude shattered and fell away from him when Jim's breathing caught and broke unevenly. Blair was moving before he was aware of what he was doing, not needing thought to get around the bottom of the bed and reach the other side. He crawled under covers which were cold and stiff as he pulled them over his legs and chest, the thin sheets slipping awkwardly around his body as he tried to get closer to Jim without jarring or bumping into him. He couldn't bear the prospect of undoing all their work together, losing all that ground through some inadvertent blow landed in clumsy impatience. So for the first time that night, he kept a little space between them, lying on his side facing Jim's back, apart from him.

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