Unsleeping

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Chapter 21

 

 
 
 
 
 

Blair blinked, looking up into Jim's face. It was too dark for him to see the blue of Jim's eyes. "Are we home?"

"We're home." Jim drew Blair's arm around his neck. "Are you ready?"

"Ready, man," Blair said, and slowly stood as Jim straightened up. The change in position made his head spin and he closed his eyes, waiting for the dizziness to pass.

"Steady. Just go slow."

"I know." Blair was so tired simply talking was an effort. "It's still not a race. Is our building standing?"

"Looks like we still have a place to live," Jim said. "Easy there."

"Yeah," Blair agreed. He remembered Jim was hurt, and tried not to lean too much of his weight against him, but his ankle had gotten stiff during the ride home and his attempts to walk were excruciating. "Wait a minute," he begged after the first few steps. He let his head rest against Jim's shoulder, closed his eyes, and tried to find a place in his mind where the pain wouldn't matter. Jim's arm was warm around his ribs, and Blair could hear other voices in the distance. People were out on the street here like they were everywhere else, but the sirens and car alarms were far away, just another part of the shrill background noise of the broken city.

"It's OK," Blair said at last. If he couldn't banish the pain through sheer force of will, he would just have to live with it. He'd been through worse. "I'm ready."

"No rush," Jim said quietly.

"No rush?" Blair complained, forcing himself laugh. The asphalt was hurting his bare feet. "When there's a hot bath right upstairs with my name on it?" He raised his head and risked a look around, trying to distract himself from the dreadful ache in his ankle. The knot of people at the corner were laughing a little hysterically as they exchanged their war stories. Jim was a grim, quiet support at Blair's side, though Blair could hear soft, brief exhalations that were probably pain as much as weariness. "How you doing?" he asked, reaching up with his free hand to brush Jim's face. "Just a little bit further now, right?"

Jim's arm tightened around his shoulders for a moment, but he didn't spare breath for answering Blair. They had reached the curb of the sidewalk at last. To Blair the curb looked like the side of a cliff. He set his bad ankle up on the curb, but he couldn't put enough of his weight on it to step up. He leaned a little harder into Jim, trying to manage without asking any more from Jim, but he couldn't force his limbs to obey him. He dropped his head, hair hanging in his face, and gritted his teeth furiously. He could do this, dammit. How hard could it be? Then he thought of all the stairs up to the loft and practically despaired. "Jim--" he whispered miserably, and before he could say more, Jim had tightened his arm around Blair's ribs and forcibly lifted him up onto the curb. Blair heard him gasp, and he put his free hand in the center of Jim's chest, stopping him before they could take another step. "Wait a minute. Wait, this isn't going to work."

"I don't know about you, Sandburg," Jim managed in a tight voice, "but I'm not spending the night on the sidewalk. I'm all right. I've got you."

"Oh my god, Blair? Jim?" A man came jogging
down the sidewalk and skidded to a stop in front of them. "I was worried about you boys!" It was Joey, the day chef from the bakery. "Are you all right?"

"Hey," Blair whispered. "What are you doing here?"

"Peter had a hot date tonight so I covered his shift," Joey took Blair's wrist and pulled Blair's arm around his neck to support him from the other side. "Jim, how bad is it?"

"Busted my ankle," Blair answered to spare Jim the effort of speaking.

"Oh no. You at the school, weren't you? People are saying Rainier got flattened. Jim, I thought you were supposed to be taking care of our boy."

"He was," Blair said, relaxing into the two men's support, relieved that Jim didn't have to carry his weight alone any more. "Believe me, he was."

"That's the Jim Ellison I know." It occurred to Blair that of all their neighbors, Joey was the only one who would be more concerned about Blair's bad ankle than the fact he was coming home in a leather coat and nothing else.

Well, a leather coat and ankle cuffs. Memory flashed over Blair at the realization, hot and oppressive, making his face burn. He could feel Susan buckling the straps around his ankles while Seth's hand groped between his legs, hurting him, and Seth's bloody nose dripped onto his back with audible splats. He remembered the sound the kid's nose had made when he broke it, and the feel of yielding cartilage and bone against his fist. Blair shuddered and all but gagged.

"Whoa, Blair, take it easy," Joey said. Jim's arm tightened for a moment around his ribs, and he patted Blair's side with his open hand.

"I'm OK."

"Uh-huh," Joey said. They'd reached the stairwell door by now, and Joey pulled it open. Not locked, as usual. They really should talk to the building manager, Blair thought. No telling what could get in. It was a tight fit, three of them abreast up the staircase, but Blair didn't complain. He was pretty sure the only way Jim could have managed it on his own would have been by tossing Blair over his shoulder.

Jim murmured, "Careful," when they reached the turn of the landing. The staircase was in near total darkness, and Joey was talking on and on about the earthquake damage to the bakery. Not too bad, as far as he could tell, just some broken cups and saucers and all the bread that had been in the ovens when the power went off. Joey stumbled a bit at the landing despite Jim's warning, and the slight jerk reverberated through Blair's sore and aching body. A groan escaped him, and Jim and Joey both stopped, Joey saying, "God, I'm sorry. Are you all right?" Jim just patted his side again without speaking, waiting for Blair.

"I'm OK," Blair whispered again because there was no point in saying that he wasn't. His last reserves had been depleted a long time ago, and as they started the next flight, the two other men physically lifting Blair for each step, the gray haze returned. Blair didn't think he could really be falling asleep, not while he was being dragged up the stairs like the dead weight he was, his shoulders burning with the strain, but he was not precisely sure where he was anymore either. He knew Jim was close, and they were on their way to the loft, but it was hard to keep it all straight. After all, he had been waiting and hoping so long for Jim. Maybe something had finally snapped, and Jim wasn't really here at all. Maybe it was Seth and Eddie who had him, who were dragging him up the staircase and out to the garden. Professor Nagle had tried to stop them, but there had been a terrible sound, a whistle of air and a dull, flat smack, and then Nagle hadn't spoken again.

"Where's Dr. Nagle?" Blair demanded in angry despair. He tried to struggle, fruitless as it was, and suddenly Jim's voice was right there, and Jim's strong arm was wrapped tightly around his ribs. "I'm sorry, Blair. The professor didn't make it."

Blair's eyes snapped open. On his other side Joey was quietly saying, "Oh man, I'm sorry. I didn't know it was so bad on campus." They were at the front door, and Jim was fitting the key in the lock. The window at the end of the hall was dark, the street light that always shone in that window out for the first time in Blair's memory. Its absence made the whole world seem altered and wrong. That light had been shining in the darkness ever since Blair had moved in here.

He sighed and laid his head on Jim's shoulder. Jim was here, though. Jim had rescued him, just like Blair had known he would. What he hadn't known was how high the price for finding him would be. He could still hear Jim's loud, flat, hopeless voice, telling him that he couldn't see or hear. It had all been Blair's fault, the experience that had blasted Jim's senses in the garden. He was the one who had called down the darkness. He had known from the moment Monica began to paint those obscene words on his flesh that Jim should never come near such blasphemies, and still he had never stopped hoping and praying Jim would find him.

"I'm so sorry," Blair whispered, useless as his regrets were. He tried to reach for Jim's face, but both his arms were still held.

"Come on, brother, none of this was your fault. He got banged up pretty good, didn't he, Jim? Are you sure you don't want to get him to the ER?" Joey's voice was concerned and helpful. "I'd be happy to drive if you two aren't up to it."

"Hospitals are full up tonight," Jim said shortly.

Blair blinked hard, trying to clear his head. Poor Jim sounded so tired. "Jim," he said as they pulled him across the threshold.

"Careful," Jim said. "Let's just get to the sofa."

Blair felt the wood of the floor, then something wet under his feet, then the carpet. He realized it was still dark, and wondered why no one had turned on the lights. Oh, he thought a moment later, remembering. The power was out. He must have voiced his revelation out loud because Joey agreed, "Yeah, and it'll probably be out for a while if things are as bad as they look."

Blair felt the sofa cushions against the back of his legs. "Easy." Jim's voice was close to his ear, and he was lowered carefully onto the seat. He groaned as his arms were freed, but the pain in his ankle became duller and less intense now that he was sitting down. Jim's leather coat creaked against the back of the sofa. He missed Jim's touch, and realized he had closed his eyes once more. He opened them and saw the stars glittering through the skylight. "Jim?"

Light flared, soft and yellow, and Blair saw Jim on the other side of the coffee table, his face illuminated by a candle flickering within the glass of a hurricane lantern. The loft seemed to have lost its clean edges, and in his exhausted state, Blair couldn't figure out what had changed. It was too complicated for him so he simply asked, "Can I have a drink of water?"

"I'll get it for you," Jim said, at the same time Joey asked, "Can you use any more help?"

"We're all right. " Jim told him. "Thanks for everything."

Joey patted Blair's shoulder. "You hang in there. The worst is over. I'll be downstairs trying to clean up, so if you folks need anything tonight, just come and get me."

"We will," Blair mumbled, feeling for some ridiculous reason like he was being a bad host. He was heard Joey moving away, then a thump and a muttered curse.

"Careful," Jim said. "There's a lot of stuff on the floor.'

"We've all got a helluva mop-up." Joey agreed ruefully. "Maybe I'll just go home and get a good night's sleep first, tackle things in the daylight. Maybe that's what you ought to do too."

It sounded like a good plan, and Blair considered saying so, but Jim had returned by then and crouched by the sofa. He found Blair's hand and wrapped it around a drinking glass.

"Thanks," Blair whispered, and raised the glass to his mouth. He felt the lingering soreness from his cut lip, and he was so thirsty he had a Jim-like awareness of the water before he took his first sip, smelling the faint staleness of refrigeration and feeling the cold an instant before the water touched his lips. He swayed at the sensation, and Jim's hand was instantly on his shoulder, his other hand steadying the glass. Jim's hands were warm, and the weight on his shoulder made Blair want to collapse into Jim's embrace and sleep it all away. The hurting, the filth on his body, the memories which kept playing in his mind like jumbled reels from a Fellini movie. The coolness of the water going down his throat reminded him for some reason of Susan's first pass with the blood-soaked cloth, sticky and wet across his stomach. The memory alone made Blair moan under his breath. He slipped his hand inside his coat -- inside Jim's coat-- and touched his own stomach, finding it still gritty with dried blood. "I need a shower," he blurted out, trying to keep the panic from his voice. "I can't sleep with this stuff on me. I can't."

"I know," Jim agreed, quiet and steady as ever. "Take another drink of water first, and then we'll get you cleaned up."

His voice was soft and tired, and made Blair wish that he could send Jim to bed and take care of everything himself. "If you can get me as far as the tub, I'll be all right," he announced, trying to convince himself at the same time. "I can take it from there."

Jim didn't answer, except to offer the water again. Blair swallowed, then allowed Jim to set the glass aside for him. "OK," he said, reaching for Jim. "I'm ready." Jim helped him rise, his hands firm around Blair's wrists, then around Blair's shoulders once he was upright. The hurricane lantern on the coffee table cast a spreading yellow glow, and as Blair looked around the loft, he finally realized the fuzzy, confused boundaries he hadn't been able to figure out when they first came in were piles of debris. Jim's bookshelves had all come down in the quake, scattering books, artifacts, and mementos, stereo components and CDs everywhere.

Aw, Jim. Every weekend for the past year, practically, Jim had suggested they spend a day taking everything down so he could finally anchor those shelves to the wall, and somehow Blair had always had something more important to do than helping his friend. Looking at the shattered bits of glass, broken jewel cases and ragged edges of smashed ceramic glittering in the candlelight, Blair wanted to weep. "We never got your shelves fixed," he whispered in apology, and Jim made a quiet, amused sound.

"Little late now. C'mon, Chief, one step at a time."

Blair staggered, clutching Jim for support. Maybe this would go faster if he just crawled to the bathroom. "Is Joey still here?"

"He's gone." Jim helped him maneuver around the coffee table. Every step was a painful effort for both of them, and if it hadn't been for the gritty burn across his chest and belly, Blair thought he probably could have curled up right there on the floor and gone to sleep. Jim's soft breaths were loud in Blair's ears as they struggled across the floor. Blair's own breaths were shorter and harsher, and another sound accompanied their movement, a soft clank and rattle. The cuffs around Blair's ankles were jingling with every step they took. At the bathroom door, Blair reached out the hand that wasn't wrapped around Jim's waist and braced himself against the door frame.

"Can you get these things off me?" Blair kept his voice soft so it wouldn't shake so badly. "This is starting to get really old."

Before he helped Blair take another step, Jim touched his fingers to Blair's face. "Sorry," Jim whispered, his own voice none too steady. "I'll get them off."

 With the next step, Blair felt tile underfoot, cool and smooth against the scratched ball of his foot. "Careful." Jim caught Blair's outstretched hand and pulled it back "You try to support yourself on the towel rack, you'll just end up tearing it out of the wall."

"Yeah, you're right. Sorry."

The bathroom was far too dark for him to see anything, but that made no difference to Jim, of course. Bracing Blair against him with one arm, Jim reached out with the other and lowered the toilet seat lid, then helped Blair turn and sit down. Jim leaned down low over him, his forehead almost touching Blair's, and said in a soft, regretful voice, "You should be in a hospital. You need to have a doctor look at that ankle, those cuts on your arm." His hand rested warmly for a brief moment at the back of Blair's neck in mute apology.

"No." Blair shook his head emphatically. "I mean, yeah, I know I've gotta get a blood test." He swallowed hard, remembering Susan's wild eyes and cold, brutally sane words as the razor came down again and again. "But there's a lot of people hurt worse than me tonight, aren't there?"

Jim's hand slipped down and patted his shoulder. "That's what Joel was saying."

"Yeah. So I'd rather be here than waiting in an ER for twelve hours. Besides, just between you and me, I don't know if I could handle any more strangers, like -- touching -- me tonight, you know?" Blair's voice broke and he dropped his head, all at once mortifyingly close to tears.

"I know," Jim said. He eased his arms around Blair's shoulders and brought Blair's head to his chest, sheltering and protecting.

"I'm so sorry about this," Blair whispered, "I'm so sorry, Jim. It was all so crazy and stupid. I just couldn't believe this was really happening until it was too late."

Jim exhaled sharply before releasing Blair and kneeling in front of him. Blair heard the soft grunt of pain as Jim got to his knees, but when Blair reached for him in alarm, Jim shook his head stubbornly and said, "I'm all right, and you've got nothing to be sorry for. Other people being crazy is not your fault."

"But half of them were my own students. I saw them in class three times a week, so where was my head? How the hell could I not have noticed that kind of craziness?"

"David Lash sat right across the table from Simon and me," Jim said quietly. His hands found the clasp on the first ankle cuff and unbuckled it carefully, his voice heavy with the old guilt. "The bad guys usually aren't wearing signs on their foreheads."

"That was different," Blair said, laying his hand on Jim's bowed head and thinking it wasn't really very different at all. He had dreamed of Lash only this morning, and he'd walked right into the middle of this horror all the same. Jim got the cuff open a moment later, and it dropped from Blair's ankle. The damned thing had been a part of him for so long that his leg felt naked without it. His stomach roiled sickly, and Jim, as if divining his thoughts, wrapped both hands around Blair's ankle and gently massaged the flesh until Blair could no longer feel the naked, hot place where the gyve had been.

"Not so different," Jim said, and in Blair's exhausted state, he had trouble remembering what they were talking about. "I questioned Eddie myself, and I never suspected he was lying either. These Sentinel senses aren't much good when I really need them, are they?" He moved his hands to Blair's other leg to unhook the second clasp. His touch was even gentler, carefully cupping his palms around Blair's calf just above the cuff. "There's a lot of swelling," he said. "I'm afraid you're going to feel this one."

"I'm OK," Blair said, the old lie getting easier with each repetition. "And anyway, Jim, you didn't pick up that Eddie was lying because he wasn't lying, not really. He said Ross was crazy. He said it all had to do with me. That was all the truth. Oh dammit," he groaned as Jim tried to release the buckle.

"I know," Jim whispered. "Take a deep breath. I've almost got it."

"I'm all right." Blair knotted his fists in the shoulders of Jim's sweater. "Just get it off me."

"Nearly there." The pressure around Blair's ankle increased for an unendurable instant, and then it was gone. Jim held his heel as tenderly as he had done in the garden. "Feel any better?"

"No," Blair moaned, his fists still knotted in pain, his head deeply bowed. "It hurts like hell."

"I'm not surprised." Jim's fingers moved gently around the swollen flesh. "It's a real mess here."

Blair snorted, almost laughing despite himself. "Oh, thanks, that makes me feel a whole lot better. Is it broken?"

"Can't tell." Jim moved his hand carefully around the swollen ankle. "There's too much stuff in the way. The way the blood's pooling down around your ankle, I can tell you it's going to be a real pretty bruise."

He got slowly to his feet as Blair said, with a smile that hurt his cut lip, "So much for your new career as a human MRI."

"I want to have a look at your arm." Jim touched his elbow. "How does it feel?"

"I hadn't really noticed," Blair said truthfully, but he obediently unbuttoned Jim's coat and eased it off with Jim's help. Jim began to unwind the T-shirt that was till wrapped tightly around Blair's arm, on the second pass down finding it stuck to the wound with dried blood. At that, he loosely wrapped the makeshift bandage up again.

"I don't want to tear it off dry and start the bleeding again," Jim said. "Can you step over into the bathtub?"

His head pressed to Jim's chest, hands gripping Jim's arms just above the elbow, Blair straightened his legs and forced himself to stand. He'd been looking forward to this practically since Jim had found him, so he wasn't going to fall apart now, before he got his bath, but he honestly didn't know how in the world he was going to step over the side of the tub.

Jim was evidently considering the same problem. "What if you just sit on the edge of the tub and then swing your feet around?" he suggested.

Blair would have smiled if he hadn't known it would hurt. Undignified, but it ought to work. "OK." He lowered himself with Jim's help until he felt the cold enamel under his butt, then inched around until his feet were in the tub. Amazing. Home stretch now. The hot water was going to feel so good. He clutched Jim's shoulder and managed to stand up again, this time in the tub. "I wanna try to get most of this shit off under the shower first," he said. "Then I'm gonna soak in the tub for the rest of the night. I hope you didn't have any other plans."

"OK with me," Jim agreed quietly. "Got your balance?"

"I'm cool," Blair said, one hand flat against the tile wall. He was perched on one foot, the toes of his other foot barely resting against the enamel. Jim turned on the water for him and adjusted the temperature while it was still running out of the lower spout. Blair felt cold water splash against his legs, and new shivers wracked him. When the warmer water touched his toes, Jim turned the faucet so that an easy, warm stream poured down from the showerhead. Blair turned his face up eagerly and felt the water spill across his cheeks and brow, drip off his chin, and stream down his chest and back. Jim took his hand and held on tightly, and Blair realized he was making little sounds as the water poured across him, moaning as though he were hurt. He opened his mouth, intending to tell Jim he was actually all right, this just felt so good he couldn't help it. Before he could speak, he tasted blood and ash and the perfume of the conditioner they had used in his hair, and something gave way. He felt it breaking in his chest, a pain as sharp and final in its own way as the pop when he'd broken his ankle.

He curled forward until his forehead was pressed against the cold tile of the shower. The tears on his cheeks felt much cooler than the hot water running down his back. During the kidnapping he had somehow numbed his emotions and managed not to feel the humiliation of having his clothes stripped from him, but he was feeling it now. They'd hauled him under the shower, held him when he tried to fight, scrubbed his flesh raw with pumice soap, lathered shampoo through his hair, touched him everywhere, leaving no secrets, no hope.

He turned blindly into Jim's embrace, knowing that water was running all over the floor, that Jim's white sweater would never be wearable again, that he must look like a helpless, pathetic fool standing and weeping like this in the shower. Jim cradled his wet head against his shoulder and simply said, "The first night's the hardest. It gets easier."

"I know," Blair whispered, barely speaking out loud. Since Jim said so, he could believe it, difficult as it was right now. "I know, man." The warm water intensified all the smells, sweat and coppery blood, charcoal and incense. He had to get this stuff washed off himself. "But in the meantime it totally sucks."

Jim stroked the back of Blair's head with a gentle hand. "Pretty much," he agreed quietly, and Blair laughed through his tears. He put his arms around Jim and held on until he felt his muscles beginning to cramp from the awkward position. Then he straightened up slowly, Jim releasing him in gentle increments until he was once more standing under the shower. This time he balanced himself with one hand on Jim's shoulder. With the other hand he felt blindly for the bar of soap, thinking this would be easier if there were some light in bathroom, but he wasn't about to suggest that Jim leave him to go get a candle.

His fist closed around the soap at last, and he squeezed his eyes shut and smeared the bar back and forth across his face until he'd worked up a lather. The bar of soap felt very smooth and soft, bubbles popping and running down his chin. He rubbed the bar over his chest and belly, too exhausted even to be much shocked by the strange feel of his shaved skin. Then he inched forward once more into the spray of water, put down the soap, and let the water carry everything away. He ran his hand over his face, reassuring himself the last traces were gone, then tilted his face up into the water again. He could have stood there forever, except the muscles in his uninjured leg were trembling with weakness, and he remembered with a pang that Jim had wounds of his own to take care of. "That's better," he whispered to Jim. "I just had to get it off me."

He'd thought he would feel tremendous relief when the last remnants were washed away, but mostly he only felt more tired than ever. The T-shirt bandaged around his arm was sodden with water and starting to itch, and he wanted to take it off, but he couldn't figure out how to do it one-handed.

Jim turned the shower knob so the water gushed from the lower faucet, and began to pool around Blair's feet. Blair shivered once the warm water was no longer running over him. "I don't really need a bath," he said reluctantly. "You're tired, Jim. We both are."

"All I've been hearing about all night is this bath. Now you're telling me you've changed your mind?"

The mock exasperation in Jim's soft voice made Blair laugh. "OK, I guess not."

Sitting down was an ordeal, but with Jim's unflagging strength to support him, Blair settled down at last, stretching his legs out before him with a groan of relief. The water was already as high as the small of his back, and it felt like heaven. A surreal one, admittedly, sitting in the darkness, listening to the changing tenor of splashing water while the bathtub slowly filled. His lower belly prickled with razor burn, the bottoms of his feet were sore, and the hot water around his hurt ankle made it feel like a balloon getting ready to burst. He  felt utterly content all the same.

"Let me have a look at that arm," Jim said, and Blair obediently laid his arm on the side of the tub. The soaked T-shirt slipped away, and Blair felt the uncomfortable, vulnerable heat of wounds too recent to have begun to scab. He looked down, but it was too dark for him to make out anything. "It could have been worse," Jim pronounced. "Probably use some stitches all the same. I'll wash it, then we'll bandage it up  when you get out of the tub, all right?"

"Sounds good," Blair said, and rested his head against the back of the tub. His eyes drifted shut as the water continued to rise, surrounding him with wonderful warmth. He was aware of Jim's careful ministrations, soap and water, a clean washcloth, then the sting and pungent smell of antiseptic, and though it made his arm ache, it all seemed very far away. Jim folded a hand towel and laid it under his arm.

"Try not to get it in the water again," Jim told him, and Blair nodded his understanding. He heard Jim turn off the faucets, and then Jim's hand cupped his chin. "And don't fall asleep on me, all right?"

Blair blinked his eyes open, not that it did any good except to signal to Jim he really was awake, since he couldn't see a damned thing. "Jim, you need to let me look at that cut on your side," he insisted, his tongue feeling thick in his mouth. The water was so warm. Seemed like the first time he'd been warm enough in years. "Bring a candle or something in here so I can see."

Jim patted the top of his head. "Will you be all right for a minute by yourself? I'll be right outside."

"'Course I will," Blair said with a sinking heart. He'd forgotten Jim would have to leave in order to bring back light. "Go on. I'm fine."

"I'll be right back," Jim assured him again. Blair strained to follow the blurred white shape that was Jim as far as the bathroom door. When he couldn't see him anymore he closed his eyes rather than trying to make out forms in the darkness, and tried to relax.

He'd never noticed before what an eerie, hollow sound water made as it lapped in a bathtub. He swallowed hard and opened his eyes again. He had heard that sound once before during the night, that hollow splash of water in darkness. He clenched his hands into fists so hard that he felt the long cuts on his arm begin to bleed again, and he remembered the tunnel and the sound of running water echoing off tile and stone, and the thing huddling there in the dark.

Jim, he thought in desperation, but didn't dare call out loud. If he opened his mouth right now, nothing would emerge but a scream.

"Hey, Chief," Jim called then. "What happened to all the emergency candles? Last time I looked we had a whole drawer full."

Blair let his breath out in a whoosh, sanity and  safety returning to him all at once with just the sound of Jim's voice.

"Blair?" Jim called again, concerned, and this time Blair was able to answer him.

"Uh, those were emergency candles?"

Silence from Jim. Blair even smiled a little, imagining the long suffering look on Jim's face. "I was using them for meditation, man, so there should be a few stubs left in my bedroom. And I think Naomi borrowed some the last time she was here."

"Great," Jim said. "Ah, that's just great."

"Check on my dresser. There should be one or two there, I'm almost sure, unless Naomi borrowed them too." He sank down in the bath as he waited for Jim, trying to horde the warmth as the water began to cool. About time to drain it and fill it up with hotter water, but he waited, not wanting the quiet sounds of Jim moving around the loft to be drowned out by the noise of his bath water. He slid down an inch or two more, feeling the ends of his hair floating on the surface of the water. He'd wanted to wash his hair too, he remembered, wash away all the scents from the past twelve hours. He didn't know how he could do it without getting his arm wet, which would mean Jim would have to clean it again, and that was just too much work for either one of them tonight. He could live with Susan's conditioner in his hair for a little while longer. As long as he didn't let his memories or his imagination run away with him again, he could get through tonight, and Jim had promised him it would get better. He would hold onto that, and they would both survive this.

He scooted down another inch. His ankle still throbbed, but the suspension in warm water numbed the sharpest pain. The tight ache in his thighs and shoulders was finally beginning to unknot as well. His eyes drifted shut. He was certain he wasn't falling asleep, but suddenly he was breathing bath water, and he sat bolt upright, coughing and sputtering. He hung over the side of the tub, his nose and throat burning, all his sore muscles aching again. So much for long, peaceful baths.

With a groan, he bent forward and opened the drain. The bathroom was still dark, so he guessed Jim hadn't found any more candles after all. Jim still needed someone to clean that nasty cut on his side, though. "Hey, Jim," he called, vaguely surprised Jim hadn't appeared as soon as the water began to drain. "I think I'm ready to get out now."

Nothing. The loft was silent save for the sound of water draining from the tub. Muttering a curse, Blair forced himself to bend forward again and close the drain. It clanked loudly, the last of the water in the pipes gurgling away, and then there was silence save for the quiet lapping of water in the tub.

"Jim?"

No answer at all. Blair felt a panicky rush of heat burning across the top of his scalp and tried to argue his fear away. Jim had probably gone downstairs to borrow some candles, that was all. He was sure to be back any second, just any second now, so it was stupid to get all worked up about it.

"Jim?" he called again. "Jim?"

Oh god,  Jim's senses. They must have cut out on him again. He never should have let Jim out of his sight. Cursing himself and weeping at the pain, Blair braced his arms and hauled himself up. He managed to sit on the side of the bathtub and swing his legs around just as Jim abruptly called back in a flat voice, "Joey left the door open downstairs."

Blair froze, perched uncomfortably on the side of the tub, shivering after the warmth of the bath. "Someone's always leaving that door open," he called back. His voice broke. "Jim, man, what's going on?"

This time Jim didn't answer. The pulse in Blair's neck was beating so hard it felt like a hand tightening around his throat. He managed to stand, one hand braced against the wall, and took a faltering step. When he tried to put weight on his hurt ankle it buckled under him, and he caught himself by grabbing the sink. "Jim," he gasped. "Please."

"Don't come out here," Jim's voice was as flat and inflectionless as it had been in the garden.

"Damn you, Jim," Blair wept as he yanked Jim's robe off its hook on the bathroom door and knotted it hard around his waist. The weight of terrycloth did nothing to stop his convulsive shivers. "You're about to give me a heart attack here." He lurched to the bathroom door, hopping and stumbling, tried to steady himself by grabbing the towel bar and instead pulled it right out of the wall. He crashed to the floor along with it, feeling nothing except the hot, sick exhilaration of absolute terror. He crawled the rest of the way, not wasting enough breath even to call Jim's name again. When he reached the dining table he tried to pull himself up on one of the chairs, but it flipped over, hitting the floor with a crash and almost braining him in the process. He dragged himself to the next chair and tried again, panting for breath, all but out of his mind with fear for Jim. This time he was able to pull himself upright, grabbing the edge of the dining table and bracing himself hard. "Jim," he shouted at last, "What the fuck is going on with you?"

Jim was standing by the sofa. Just standing there, making no move to help. In the light of the hurricane lamp his face was pale and expressionless, but when Blair yelled at him, Jim finally turned his head. A flicker of emotion crossed his features for an instant as he spoke in a soft, lost voice. It was the same voice Blair had been hearing from Jim all evening, and dammit, he had known something was wrong, he'd KNOWN it, and he'd been too wrapped up in himself to stop and make Jim tell him what it was.

"He's here," Jim murmured. "He's coming up the stairs."

Blair was breathing hard through his mouth, and it was tough to hold his breath long enough to form words. "Jim," he gasped, having to take another breath before he could continue. "Jim, I don't understand. Who's coming up the stairs?"

"Ross Malitz." Jim was perfectly calm, utterly mad.

"No!" Blair shrieked back at him, his own attempt at calm smashed away forever. "Jim, goddammit, Ross is dead. You shot him yourself. Jim, he's dead."

"I know," Jim said tonelessly as his long legs folded up underneath him, and he sat down hard on the sofa. "But I've been listening to him all along." Jim's head dropped for long moments, and Blair stared at him, feeling as though his heart was about to pound right out of his chest. Then Blair heard a sound, a muffled thump like someone had tripped out on the stairs, and Jim's head jerked up again. He turned to look at Blair with eyes that were wide and black in the gloom of the single lantern.

"He's here, Chief," Jim said.
 
 

***

Continued
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