To the Mountaintop
Author's webpage: http://www.skeeter63.org/jayci/
Author's disclaimer: The characters from the TV series "The Sentinel" are not my property, and I am not making money off of them. That's it.
To the Mountaintop by J.C.
Jim Ellison sat ever vigilant in a tower situated high in the Cascade Mountains, looking out over his territory. His personal territory. That's how he viewed the area to which he had been assigned. He had completed four months of his six-month assignment, and he knew he would sign up again. No one else would willingly volunteer for that type of isolation, that much solitude.
For Jim, it was perfect.
After 18 months in Peru, stranded in the wilds, all alone, the serenity of the mountaintop felt familiar. Not that he had really been alone. There had been the Chopec tribe, and, of course, the ghosts. The souls of the men he had lost that he could hear at night, even over the nocturnal jungle sounds that surrounded him.
When he had been rescued, Jim had been, first and foremost, relieved. It hadn't occurred to him that he would have any problems adjusting to life back in the civilized world. He had been on a mission, after all, and every mission came to an end. Although none had ever ended so badly.
Once back, the word of the day had been 'debrief'. Jim was reacquainted with that word over and over, wearily but resolutely answering the questions he felt were only natural when everyone under your command ended up dead. Military discipline automatically carried him through the numerous times that he recounted his story. Self-preservation alerted him when the questions started taking a determined turn away from the failed mission, focusing more and more on his techniques for survival. Subtly, he downplayed how he had 'kicked in' when left to his own devices with nature. Finally, when they grew tired of it, or felt satisfied enough, Jim Ellison was once again left on his own.
During his time with the Chopec, Jim had noticed the changes that came over him day by day. They had slipped in so naturally that he had overlooked how strange they were and concentrated instead on how everything fit. He needed to hear what was making its way through the tangled vegetation, and he did. He needed to see things from impossible distances, and he did. His smell, taste and touch worked to his advantage, so he used them, and just accepted them.
Soldier. Protector. Watchman.
But in the land of modern man, the ex-Ranger found himself overwhelmed, out of control, living in a world turned on high. After all of the poking, prodding, and prying, he was left in a state of maximum input, minimum output. He craved the seclusion of the jungles, even while he hoped never to have to relive the experience.
Life must go on. Hell, truth be told, Jim knew it was going on whether he wanted it to or not, whether he felt like he was living it or not. He became drawn to the mountains. Literally. His eye just zoned in and he lost himself in the beauty, the calm, and the solitude as he focused on a point too far in the distance to really grasp.
Jim's first thought had been to just pack up and head out -- hide out. Just become a hermit living in the mountain wilds. However, years of instilled behavior had won out, compelling him to put his inclination to good use. He felt he should contribute something so that his dropping out didn't feel like dropping out.
It had seemed natural to put on a uniform, even though it was a different one. He had taken on the training and the testing, and the ex-Army Ranger overcame those obstacles, easily stepping into the shoes of a Forest Ranger.
His first assignments had been at various parks, but they hadn't felt far enough away from everything for him. Too much motion, too much noise, too much sensory distraction. It hadn't been as much an assault as being in the city, but still it was too much. So, for the past four months, he had had his spot in the mountains, with nothing but wildlife for company, and it had been perfect. A year after his rescue, he finally felt like his life was on track.
Watching over his territory, Ranger Ellison functioned mostly in a natural state. He didn't think twice about why he didn't need to use the service-issued binoculars to take in the far-reaching boundaries of the area in his charge. He didn't worry about how he could always find the occasional wounded animal, or lost hiker. He didn't question why he usually stayed out of the cabin at the base of the tower, opting instead to commune more with nature, sleep under the stars, wearing as little clothes as possible once the summer weather hit.
His enjoyment of the great outdoors was at once a curse and a blessing. The touch of the wind brought his senses alive, brushing against him almost like a lover's caress as he made his way through his day. Eighteen months in Peru and too much time before that in covert training meant that his body had had little pleasurable contact. And since then, he hadn't wanted any contact with anyone. The cool mountain breezes were an incredibly different sensation than the heavy tropical air of the jungle. He finally had to quit bathing in the stream when he realized he had been losing time, coming to with just the distant memory of air fingering lightly across his chest, or a draft teasing him between his legs.
Jim had learned to equate subtle shifts in the air currents with the changing of the weather. As he sat in his tower, he could tell that a change was coming. The frenzied animal activity that he could detect only served as confirmation. In fact, from the feel of it, he surmised that they were in for a cold snap, and it wouldn't be just a freak occurrence. Winter would be coming early to the mountains, and he still had two months to go before his mandatory break and, hopefully, short stint at regular duty. The powers in charge didn't like for someone to be left in isolation longer than their predetermined time limit. Jim headed down to the cabin to check supplies and get out warm clothes. Before the evening was over, he would need them.
The temperature dropped quickly overnight. By the time Jim woke the next morning, it had been snowing for a couple of hours, heavily and steadily. Back up in the tower, he breathed the cold crisp air, marveling at how quickly things could change in such a short span of time. It was a lesson he had learned many times before -- the hard way.
As he surveyed the land around him, he noticed something peculiar, something that didn't fit -- spots of bright red in the distance marring the pristine white landscape.
Using his innate resources, Jim quickly tracked through the trees, racing to the scene. When he got there, he was relieved to find that the red was just a cap mostly hidden by snow, but alarmed to also find a person -- snow-encrusted and frighteningly still.
It was a man, a young man, with long, brown hair that curled softly around his face, and his skin was definitely showing the effects of the cold. Jim could hear the faint, slow beat of the young man's heart. As he picked up the youth to carry him back to the cabin, a low groan escaped through the blue-tinged lips and Jim wasted no time getting them back to the safety of shelter.
In the cabin, Jim rebuilt the fire, and then turned his attention to the person he had found. As the heat built up in the small space, Jim stripped the young man of his wet clothes, and collected all the blankets that he had available. He prepared a place as close to the fire as possible, settling his guest under the mountain of coverings. Lying down next to him, he massaged the chilled body vigorously trying to restore circulation. Briefly, he considered getting under the blankets to use his own body heat as well, but he didn't want to answer questions when the kid finally came around, or hear the questions his own mind would raise about his body's inevitable reaction.
Soon, the sound of the young man's heartbeat was stronger in Jim's ear, stronger under his fingers as he rubbed warmth into the slightly furry chest. Harsh breaths filled the air and groans accompanied them as the stranger started to awaken. His voice was soft, but clear.
Jim moved to rub the cold hands, flexing the fingers until they warmed, then softy stroked the youthful face, bringing color back to the cheeks. He kept up his efforts until his sensitive sense of touch detected warmth building from inside the body next to him.
Relief flooded him at the signs of recovery, and Jim had started to relax, when the young man opened his eyes. There was a brief moment where he registered that at least they were clear, not cloudy with confusion or disorientation, and then Jim was lost within their blue depths.
It took a great deal of effort for him to tear his eyes away from the captivating gaze, accomplishing it by returning his attention to the practical matter of the kid's body temperature. Shifting the blankets, he spoke.
"I'm going to try to get the blood moving in your feet." He was concentrating totally on that when the young man spoke again.
"I'm Blair." The voice was stronger. "Blair Sandburg. I sort of got lost, then I slipped and fell. I wasn't expecting this snow, man. Damn, I hate the cold."
"What are you doing up here? It's kind of off limits."
Blair sat up, hugging himself, rubbing at his arms, while Jim continued the brisk foot massage.
"I was looking for you, man. I mean, you're James Ellison, right?"
Jim tried not to tense up. Getting out of the spotlight was another reason he had retreated to the mountains.
"Yeah, I'm Ellison."
The ranger stopped his massage and sat back on his heels, giving Blair the once-over. He took note of the compact, well-built frame; the dusting of hair that traveled from the chest down towards...
Clearing his throat, Jim got up to search for something, anything for Blair to put on. Something warm and dry was called for, and big and baggy. He pulled out a couple of articles of clothing and returned to hand them over.
"Here, put these on. Your other clothes are drying out, and you'll probably want to lay out anything that's in that bag."
Blair looked over to where his backpack lay by the fire. "Oh, shit." He grabbed it, rummaging through it -- throwing out clothes, pens, keys, and papers until he broke out with a sigh of relief. Pulling out a book that looked very old, he lovingly caressed the cover. "It's not damaged, just cold."
The entire episode had amused, annoyed and disturbed Jim. The kid seemed to have recovered nicely from his exposure to the elements. Recovered enough to make a good little mess of the cabin. Recovered enough so that the rear view of his naked body made a picture that Jim had a hard time trying to ignore.
"Get dressed, kid, before you catch your death of cold. We'll lay out the rest of your things, so they can thaw out." Jim picked up the tossed clothes, laying them on the bed temporarily. He gathered the other miscellaneous items that Blair had produced and gave them back. "I have to report this little 'incident'. Is there any one you need to call? We'll probably be snowed in for about a week if this weather keeps up. And I'm pretty sure it will."
"No, I don't need to call anybody. But you better tell them that my car is parked down there. I can't afford to have it towed." Blair continued to check out his book, while the rest of Ellison's statement finally registered. "A week? Wow, that actually might work out. I've got a lot of questions for you, man. You see, this book--"
"Sandburg!" Jim raised his voice to get a word in. "Get dressed. It'll have to wait. I need to see to a few things. Rescuing you threw me off of my schedule. I'll be back in time to fix lunch."
"Sure, man, go do your ranger thing. That'll give me time to get some notes together."
"Fine." Jim really felt that it wasn't fine at all. His stomach tightened in knots for reasons he couldn't quite grasp. Besides the fact, he acknowledged, that he had been lusting after a guy that was definitely way too young for him. He threw on his coat, snatched up his gloves and headed to the door, anxious to get out of the closeness of the cabin into the open air.
Just as he was leaving, Blair called out to him.
Jim didn't turn around. He could hear the sounds of Blair dressing, but didn't want to risk another glance. "Yeah?"
"Thanks for saving my life, man."
Jim nodded, "Just doing my job," and closed the door behind him.
The cold air had a bracing effect on Jim as he climbed up to the tower. He didn't have a schedule to keep to, at least not at the time. Most of his regular duties would be seriously curtailed until the snow stopped falling. But, the thought of being back inside that cabin with one Blair Sandburg didn't seem like a good idea. And he was sure he wasn't going to want to hear whatever the kid had to say. He didn't want people looking for him, and he definitely didn't want them finding him. A nagging feeling told him that Blair Sandburg meant trouble. Jim sighed; he had had enough trouble in his life.
Even so, Jim knew that if they had left right away, he could have gotten his uninvited guest safely down the mountain, or at least to a less isolated Ranger station. With a little effort, Jim could have been, once again, enjoying his privacy. He shook his head, clearing it of thoughts, but he couldn't shake the feeling that somehow he was losing his sense of control.
Later, warm tendrils of delicious smelling air reached through the cold, triggering Jim's hunger, drawing him back to the cabin. He went inside, wondering how on earth Blair had made something that smelled so good from the cabin's supply of things powdered, canned and dried.
Sandburg was standing over the small stove stirring something, practically swimming in the sweatclothes and turtleneck that Jim had given him to wear. The only table had been set with two plates, but the majority of the space on it had been taken up by a haphazard pile of papers and books. Blair's own clothes were laid out by the fire, and the heap of blankets lay in the same place on the floor. Jim shook his head, thinking wryly that it looked like the kid had taken up permanent residence.
Blair looked up at Jim's entrance. "Oh, hey! Just in time. I hope you don't mind that I whipped up a little something. I did sort of just drop in on you, don't want to wear out my welcome."
Jim made a non-committal noise, trying not to react to Blair's playful grin as he hung up his coat and set his boots by the fire. He automatically picked up the array of blankets, folding them, and laying them out in a neat stack. Satisfied with that small sense of restored order, he went to pour himself a cup of the fragrant just-brewed coffee he could smell coming from Blair's direction.
After a couple of sips, he narrowed his gaze at the young man busily preparing a meal. "So, kid, what's the story? Who are you and what do you want with me? What could be so important that you would come all the way up here?"
"Whoa, man. Why don't we eat first? I'm starved."
Jim started to protest, but Blair gestured towards one of the chairs, so Jim sat. He raised an eyebrow, but refrained from commenting when Blair dished up the food without removing any of his stuff from the table.
'Eat first' didn't really mean that when it came to Blair. He started talking the minute he sat down.
"I'm an anthropology student. I got my undergrad degree at Rainier, just finished up my Masters at USC, and I'm thinking of going back to Rainier for my doctorate. I decided I would take a year off, but I've always wanted to do something based on the theories in this book...." Blair stopped, glancing over at Jim as he reached over for the intended reference book. "What?"
Jim collected himself, realizing that he had stopped eating, fork in mid-air. "Masters? Come on, kid, you look... How old are you?"
Blair didn't succeed in keeping the indignant tone out of his voice. "I'll be twenty-two in the spring." He shrugged. "I started college early. Look, Ranger Ellison, I'm young, but I know my stuff, and I'm very serious about it. I need you to understand that and take me seriously, because when you hear what I have to say, I don't want you to just dismiss it as some crazy kid's fantasy."
Jim's mind tripped over the word 'fantasy' as he focused on the kid's lips moving in an endless stream of talking. Okay, not really a kid, but still... Jim forced himself to even out the playing field, at least a little.
"All right, kid...uh, Chief, spill it. And, why don't you call me Jim."
That grin was back. "Cool...Jim."
Blair pulled the book closer, and launched into a lecture on the explorer Richard Burton and certain of his findings. He ate and talked, while Jim ate and listened. Blair pointed out selected passages, flipping through pages of his own notes, laying everything out carefully, and then sat back expectantly when he was finally done.
"That's all very interesting, but what does it have to do with me?"
"Well, that's what I want to find out. I think this could be you. Or rather, you could be..." Blair took a deep breath and tried again. "Okay, listen. I read about you. The magazine and newspaper articles. I have a good bit of knowledge about the Chopec culture and once I knew about your experiences with them, it got me to thinking." He turned slightly away, willing the color not to rise to his face. "I used a few other, uh, sources and got some medical details of what you were like after you were rescued and some things sort of clicked."
"My medical records?! No way, you couldn't possibly..."
"Jim, this is the electronic age. There's always a way. I know it was an invasion and may seem a little extreme, but you gotta understand. If this is what I think it is -- it's major, I mean with a capital 'M'."
"I don't understand..." Jim started, but he was beginning to think he understood all too well. His experiences in the jungle were still fuzzy, although more parts were coming back over time.
"You, man. I think you could be one of these Sentinels." At the look on Jim's face, Blair added, "Hey, keep an open mind. Answer a couple of questions for me."
The grad student took out pad and pen, grumbling softly to himself about how he had to do some more tutoring so that he could save up enough money to afford a laptop, and flipped to a written questionnaire.
He asked Jim about the usage of his senses in the jungle, and how they had been since his return, subtly digging into why he felt so comfortable in the mountains away from the multitude of stimuli of the city, nodding animatedly, and scribbling excitedly with each answer.
"See, this is what I thought! Five senses, Jim, five enhanced senses! That is definitely major, man. I've seen one or two. In fact, I've done some preliminary research and I've come across lots with one or two, but this...this is..."
"Major, yeah, I get it." Jim rubbed at his temples, trying to massage away the headache that was beginning to form.
"You okay, man?"
"Oh yeah, just peachy. This is just a little overwhelming."
"I bet. Hey, one more question. Have you ever 'zoned out' on any particular sense? You know, like, been so focused on seeing something, or listening to something that you sort of black out for a while?"
Jim felt a little rush of heat, but knew he was not going to tell Blair about the bathing incidents. "Not really, maybe a little at first in Peru, but there was... someone with me. It never became a problem."
"Yeah, yeah!" Blair started to go off on another tangent about Sentinels and the people they usually paired off with who watched their backs.
Jim cut him off. "Hold up, Chief. So what if I am a 'Sentinel'? What does it have to do with you?"
Blair looked at Jim as if he were speaking one of the few languages he didn't know.
"Don't you get it? You could be my thesis. I could be your Guide. You let me write about you, and I help you get control of your senses so that you don't have to hide out up here anymore."
Pushing back his chair and abruptly getting up, Jim grabbed up the dirty dishes. "I'm not hiding out. I'm doing my job."
"Yeah, but why this job? You said that you felt like you were on overload in Cascade. Would you have taken this job if everything had been normal?"
"I am normal, Chief."
"That's not what I meant. Look, I'm here for a few days anyway, right? Let's just do a couple of tests. Let me show you how you can use this gift you have, rather than letting it use you."
Jim went and sat on the floor, staring silently into the fire.
"Jim? It'll be painless, I promise. I'll work around your schedule, I'll cook the meals, you'll barely know I'm here."
Jim looked around the cabin, taking it all in, eyes finally settling on Blair. 'Never know you're here? Fat chance of that,' he thought. "Whatever. My schedule will be fairly open as long as this weather keeps up, so I'm all yours. I mean, I'll give it a shot. But if I say stop, we stop."
"Great! You know..."
Jim stared, amazed, as Blair started a whole new line of discourse. 'He's too smart,' Jim thought, 'and too good-looking, not to mention too young. You have too much baggage, Ellison, to have anything with anybody, and you shouldn't even be thinking about it. Rein it in.' He nodded in all the right places and wallowed in the voice, the gestures, the presence of Blair Sandburg.
Later that afternoon, Blair braved the cold and snow to teach Jim about sight and sound. He used things he found in the cabin to test smell, taste and touch. He explained control, giving Jim an idea of how to call on his senses, one at a time, using them only at levels needed.
It was going to take time and practice, but Jim caught on right away. He had to hand it to the kid, he was impressed. Impressed with Blair's knowledge and the success of Blair's admittedly improvisational methods, and he was damned impressed with himself and the things he had learned to do.
By the end of Sandburg's first day with him, Jim felt like he had been through the wringer, but in a good way. Although, it did feel as if his life had been taken over... Blair-stuff filling his cabin, his time, and his mind.
After dinner, they sat by the fire, Blair telling one of his seemingly endless tales of travel while Jim watched him. In the firelight, Blair looked so young, so alive, and more desirable than anyone Jim had ever known. He refrained from reaching out and touching him, but he used his newly acquired skills to bring Blair's scent to the forefront, taking his fill as Blair talked on.
"Uh, yeah, Chief?"
"This has really been great. It definitely would have been harder to work on everything if your senses had been running rampant on you. This way, when... if you ever move back to the city, you can have a handle on things."
Jim just nodded, lulled by the comfortable atmosphere inside the cabin. When he found himself wondering about the unique scent that would be clinging to his turtleneck that Blair was wearing, that mixture of Blair and himself, he decided it was time to call it a night.
"You must be tired, Sandburg. Why don't we try to get a good night's sleep? That way we'll both be fresh for when you practice your torturous techniques on me tomorrow."
Blair rolled his eyes. "You are so not funny, man."
They got ready for bed, Jim insisting that he would take the floor, only backing down when Blair said that he preferred to be closer to the fire. Once down for the night, the two men still kept up a lazy dialogue, thanks to Blair, who fought heavy eyelids to continue the conversation.
"Jim?" Blair spoke softly in the dark.
Of course, to a Sentinel, it was loud and clear. "Sandburg, it's late. Don't you ever quit?"
"I'm just talking 'til one of us falls asleep."
"I would have done that a long time ago if a certain pesky anthropologist would shut up."
"Fine, I can see that forest rangers need sufficient rest to keep them from getting mean and grumpy."
"You got it. Goodnight."
"But, don't you ever miss...stuff?"
"Seriously, Jim. I mean other people or...something?"
Jim sighed. "I'm at peace here, it suits me. Now go to sleep. I'm sure there'll be numerous opportunities to bug me tomorrow."
Jim grunted in response and rolled over, getting comfortable as he listened to the sounds of Blair's breathing, instantly recognizing the moment Blair was truly asleep.
That night, another lesson was learned. The sound of Blair's heartbeat as he slept was just the right cadence to send Jim peacefully into slumber.
For the next few days, the two men spent most of their time testing, practicing, and going over anything Blair could think of concerning Jim's senses. They also spent a great deal of time talking, which meant that Blair did a lot of talking, and Jim did a great deal of listening. For such a young person, Blair's life had been extraordinarily full. Jim, for his part, revealed very few details about his own background, not realizing that sometimes what a man doesn't say can mean as much as what a man does say. Through it all, they had a sense that they really were getting to know each other.
Jim found himself actually dreading the day that Blair would leave. The snow had finally stopped falling and he knew the Forestry teams would be working to clear the passages. As he climbed the tower to do cursory checks of the land surrounding him, he began to automatically reach out to hear Blair's heartbeat, amazed that he could do so, guilty that it was such a source of stability for him.
The day finally came when Jim reported in and was told that the men would be reaching him soon, probably within twenty-four hours. Jim tried to disregard the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
That night they sat by the fire, talking, as had become their habit.
"Rangers should reach us sometime tomorrow morning. You'll be able to get back."
Jim was surprised by the quiet sadness in the student's voice. "What? I'd think you would be ready to get back to civilization."
"Hey, I've been in more isolated places than this. Of course, I've always chosen to be there..."
"Don't start, Chief."
"Jim, I'm not trying to be a pain, but you're being too closed off about this. I mean, what is it? I can help you with the senses thing, you know that. What else has gotten to you?"
Blair thought he had an insight about what else might be haunting the ranger, and he took a chance. "I know that your time in Peru had to be pretty traumatic, with the crash and everything. But, you were a hero, man."
Jim stood and paced a little in the small, enclosed space. "Hero, yeah right." His bitter tone crackled like falling icicles. "Seven men died out there, Chief. Seven men under my command. That doesn't make me a hero. That makes me a failure."
Blair got up to follow the Sentinel's path. "Bullshit, man. It's not your fault that they died. You did everything you could. You took care of them until the end; you buried them, man, with your own hands. You put them at peace."
The memories of ghostly whispers were all too real to Jim. They had filled his head on countless nights, drawing him to prowl the wreckage in the jungle darkness.
"Maybe it wasn't my fault, but it was my responsibility. I failed them. Believe me, they're not at peace."
"Jim, you've got to let it go."
"You wouldn't understand."
"I may not have lived through your hell, Ellison, but I lived through some of my own. You can hide up here, in these mountains, feeling that you're at peace, but it's a lie." He stepped closer. "You've got to find it here, Jim." He tapped Jim's chest. "You have to find the mountaintop within you. True peace of mind that you carry with you always."
That simple touch ignited a spark that Jim felt jolt his heart and branch out to his fingers and toes. At first he thought he was having a heart attack, but his body knew better and moved closer to Blair of its own accord, until their lips were touching. His mind caught up -- he needed to stop Blair from spouting those awful truths. His body answered -- all he really needed was to feel that connection again.
There had been longer kisses, and deeper kisses, for both men, but never one that had such an impact.
It was just a brushing of the lips, really, but it was enough for Blair to feel as if his heart was pounding out of his chest. And when Jim's tongue flicked out briefly, licking gently just inside his parted lips, Blair felt weak as the blood rushed from his head to gather somewhere between his legs.
As for Jim, he was drowning. Pulled down by the taste of Blair's mouth, the heavy scent of Blair's arousal, the rapid tempo of Blair's heartbeat, and the fleeting thought that at that moment they were equal. Just two people in need of something, who actually found it in the few seconds it took to place a kiss.
It was that last thought that threatened to take Jim under for good, that made him fight his way back to the surface, that made him break contact.
They were both out of breath, as if they had been grappling on the floor in a frenzy of lust, rather than just sharing a fleeting physical connection. Their eyes met for a split second before Jim brushed past Blair to go stand before the fire, his back to the room.
"Damn... I'm sorry."
The voice was husky with emotions Blair could only guess at. He walked over, standing behind Jim as close as he dared. 'I will not act like a clingy teenager. I can handle this.'
"Jim..." He reached out to touch Jim's arm. Before he could make contact, Jim turned and snatched open the door, heading out into the cold.
"Jim!" Blair followed Jim outside. "Come back! Just because you can dial it down doesn't mean you can't freeze to death!" Unmindful of the fact that he too was without coat, hat, and gloves, Blair threw himself at Jim, nearly tackling him to the snow-covered ground. "Come back inside, man, before we both freeze."
"Sandburg, get back in the cabin. I'm fine. Can't I even have a few minutes of privacy?"
"I'm not l-l-leaving you out here, m-m-man. If you st-st-stay, I st-stay." His teeth were already chattering, body shaking in the frigid mountain air.
Jim took in the sight and almost called Blair's bluff, but the memory of finding Blair in the snow suddenly flashed through his head. He moved back inside the cabin without saying another word.
Inside, Jim retreated to the cabin's small bed, plopping down heavily, hiding in the dimly lit corner. Blair headed straight for the fire, grabbing up one of the blankets stacked nearby to wrap himself in. He stole a look at Jim who was laying back, one arm thrown over his face covering his eyes. When he finally felt like his blood wasn't frozen in his veins, he took up another blanket and walked over to Jim.
Jim had all of his senses dialed down. He didn't want to feel the cold, didn't want to face the fact that the tremors he felt inside himself had nothing to do with the freezing temperature outside. He still had the presence of mind to note the irony that as he reined in his senses, one at a time, the last to be muted was his hearing, the sound of Blair's heartbeat, beating just a little faster than normal, still echoing faintly in his ears. So, he was actually startled when he felt the light pressure of a blanket being tossed over him. He opened his eyes to see a swathed figure turning away.
"Blair..." His senses automatically readjusting as he reached out to stop Blair's departure.
Blair looked down at Jim's face. It was a striking face, strength and experience showing in the way it was lined, and in the knowing expression in the eyes. To Blair, it was beautiful. He wanted Jim in his life in a way he hadn't considered when he first set out to prove or disprove a theory. It saddened him to see that he wouldn't have Jim in his life in any way. Jim wasn't interested in being studied long-term, he wasn't interested in having friends...
'He's not interested in me', Blair thought.
Jim grabbed a handful of quilt-covered arm, his fingertips seeking the natural warmth of Blair's body heat through the fabric. "Blair... We can't..."
"Jim, look, it's okay, man. I'll be outta here tomorrow. Everything'll be back to normal." Blair tried desperately to sound nonchalant.
The grip on his arm tightened and Blair felt himself being pulled down. He saw Jim's face getting closer, Jim's body getting closer until he was lying full out on top of him. And even through all of the layers that separated them, the feel of their bodies touching was more erotic than anything Blair could remember.
Jim took possession of Blair. That was the only way to describe it. His mouth was firm and demanding, and Blair was helpless not to respond. Blair tried desperately to touch something, any part of Jim that wasn't covered, but one of his hands was trapped somewhere in all the blankets and the other couldn't reach anything because of how tightly Jim held him. Blair resigned himself to putting everything into that kiss that he could. He whimpered in frustration and lust, clinging tenuously to his control, willing himself not to come in his pants like a kid getting his first taste.
As abruptly as Jim started it, he ended it. He brought his hands up to Blair's face, tangling them in the long curls in the process, looking into the blueness of his eyes, then gently pushed Blair's head down to lay on his chest. For once Blair was speechless, so for a long time they just lay together quietly. Unanswered questions, unexplored emotions, in effect, holding them frozen in place.
Much later, Jim shifted, easing himself from underneath a sleeping Blair. He went over and fixed up Blair's usual arrangement by the fire, then carried him over, settling him in. Blair didn't awaken, just grumbled sleepily before dropping off again.
As Jim lay in his bed, trying not to think, Blair's voice filled his head. He got up, padded over to where Blair was sleeping, looking down at the young man. He didn't question why he slipped under the covers and spooned up behind the smaller body, only recognized that the student had been right. The next day, in a few short hours, Blair would be gone. Everything would be back to 'normal', and all Jim would have were his memories.
Sometime in the pre-dawn hours, Blair awoke just long enough to feel the solid warmth of Jim sleeping behind him. A slight smile crossed his face, and then he was asleep again.
Cold beams of sunlight filled the cabin as Blair woke up, the sense of loss strong as he realized that he was alone. He stretched and couldn't keep from grinning as he remembered the events of the night before. The rich smell of coffee hung heavily in the air, drawing him from underneath the pile of blankets to start his day. He washed up, got dressed and settled down with a cup of coffee and some notes, waiting for Jim to come back from his morning check.
Blair became engrossed in his reading, not noticing the passage of time until his stomach growled noisily. As he prepared a light meal, he wondered what was keeping Jim. The sounds of motors rumbling made him go look out the window of the cabin. When he saw two Forest Rangers heading towards the door, he opened it before they could knock.
"Hey! All clear out there?"
"We're here to escort you back down, sir."
"Oh, hey, thanks but I'll trek down later on."
"I'm sorry, but we can't let you do that. It's really not that safe."
"Okay, well, I'll get Ranger Ellison to help me down before the day is out, I promise."
"Um, Ellison said that you were ready to go now, sir. We really need to get going."
Shocked, Blair swallowed his next protest, resigning himself to the fact that he was indeed leaving. "Fine. Give me a minute to get my stuff together."
"No problem, we'll just wait right out here."
Blair closed the door, leaning against it, clamping down on the hurt. Message received loud and clear: Jim Ellison was on the run. So be it.
He quickly gathered up his belongings, leaving a brief note on the table for Jim, weighting it down with his coffee cup. He took one last look around the place where he had spent the past week. The place where he had made the most incredible discovery of his life. The place where he obviously wasn't welcome.
Hidden in a distant stand of trees, Jim watched Blair leave with the two Rangers. He called himself all kinds of coward as he saw Blair look up at the tower, knowing that Blair was looking for him. Still, he watched him go, not making one move forward to even say goodbye, locking on to the now-familiar heartbeat until even his Sentinel hearing could no longer detect it.
Two days left before he would be leaving his mountain post, heading for a week's vacation and then his new assignment. In Jim's mind, the time automatically translated into six weeks since Blair had gone home. Six weeks that he had been living with memories. Six weeks of re-reading the note, six weeks of clinging to Blair-scented blankets, six weeks of fighting the urge to masturbate into a certain turtleneck.
Jim headed towards the cabin after making the last field check of the season. Tomorrow would be spent getting things together to close the place up. As he got closer, Jim easily ignored the sound of the steady beat. He had played back that particular rhythm enough times that it seemed he almost always heard it, but the smell -- the aroma of something delicious simmering, that got through loud and clear. He raced the last bit of distance, bursting through the door.
Blair was sitting at the table; glasses perched on the end of his nose, typing into a laptop.
"Jesus, Sandburg! How the hell did you get in here?"
The anthropologist barely glanced up from the screen to say, "Swiss Army knife, man. A field researcher's best friend. This is not exactly Fort Knox, you know."
"What are you doing here? I thought you understood that this area is off limits."
Shutting down his computer, Blair eyed the imposing figure of Jim Ellison. "Well," he stated dryly, "I sorta had to leave in a hurry before. No chance for a last meal, or even a goodbye. Thought I might try again, so I brought up some stuff to throw together a little lunch." Taking off his glasses, he got up and went over to take the pot off of the stove, picking up a spoon for a taste-test. "Sorry, about the breaking and entering, but it's a little cold to be hanging out there. Been there, done that."
Jim let the sarcasm pass without commenting, and sat down at the table, fingering the surface of the computer. "Been on a massive tutoring binge?"
"Huh?" Blair looked over to where Jim sat. "Oh that, a early Hanukkah present from my mom." He shrugged and smiled sheepishly. "I beg nicely."
Jim felt the pressure inside him build as he tried to pushed aside all thoughts of Blair begging, nicely or otherwise. "Look, Sandburg, you shouldn't be here. I have a lot to do to get this place closed up."
"Well, look, you gotta eat, right? I got a few ideas that I wanted to run by you, maybe test them out."
"I've told you that I don't want to be a project. I appreciate everything you've shown me, but I'm not interested..."
"Okay, Jim let me just be straight with you." Jim crossed his arms, and Blair screwed up his courage and faced him. "I think we should talk about what happened... before."
The grim expression on Jim's face matched his tone as he spoke. "Look, kid, there's nothing to talk about."
Blair stifled a groan. "Don't call me kid."
"That's what you are. You're 21 years old, for god's sake, and we don't have anything to say."
"Maybe you don't, but I do have something to say."
"Hey, I may only be 21, but who's really being childish here? Yeah, I'm young, and I may not be the most mature, most sophisticated guy in the world, but I'm not the one running away. I'm not running away from myself, I'm not running away from life, I'm not running away from... love."
The last word was just a breath, but Jim caught it clearly, even though Blair was turning away. He closed the distance between them, grabbing Blair by the arm and spinning him around.
"Love?! Is that what you think it was about? You're wrong. It was about the fact that I haven't had sex in so long that my dick literally gets hard when the wind blows. It was about the fact that we may have a connection because I am what I am, and you know what you know. But that's it!"
"Fine... forget it." Blair wrenched his arm from Jim's grasp, shoving himself into his coat, and zipping it up. He packed up his laptop, then grabbed his hat and gloves. His eyes on Jim, who was standing like an unfeeling statue of stone, he spoke softly, forcing his voice to be even.
"You said your piece, so here's mine. I may have dragged my ass up here the first time to follow an academic pursuit, but that's not why I came up here today. And as far as sex goes, I didn't need to come all the way up here to jump your sorry bones." Blair took a deep breath, trying to maintain a sense of calm, and placed his hand over his heart. "I feel something for you, in here." Turning towards the door, he jammed his red wool cap down onto his head. "I just wanted to say that. Enjoy your lunch." Then he walked out.
Jim stood there, unmoving, and watched him go.
A little voice whispered in Jim's ear: 'Move, Ellison. Do something!' An opposing voice answered: 'Leave it alone. It's better this way.' Jim listened to the warring inside him, and his decision was made when he found himself grabbing his coat, heading out the door, and calling after Blair's fleeing form.
There was no answer and the figure didn't slow down. If anything, Blair picked up the pace.
Still no answer.
"What do you want from me, dammit?"
Blair tossed a quick glance over his shoulder. "Nothing!"
Jim didn't miss the murderous expression; but that didn't stop him from chasing Blair down, and throwing himself forward until he had Blair pressed against the trunk of a large tree. Blair's face was flushed both from anger and the cold, and his eyes flashed blue fire aimed directly at Jim. Jim didn't flinch from the intensity of the gaze, but held the young man firmly in place. His own emotions, though mixed up, were just as strong. He spoke quietly, his words coming in visible gasps of cold air.
"What the hell do you want me to do?"
"I want you to let me go."
Jim closed his eyes against the pain. "I can't."
Rage boiled up inside Blair, taking him totally by surprise, and short circuiting his other emotions. He shoved Jim, hard, sending him back-pedaling on the slippery ground.
"Don't play with me, man! You can't throw what I feel back in my face, and then come out here with this macho possessive crap! That's bullshit! I don't know what's up with you. Maybe you do have a hang-up about my age, maybe you have some sexual identity issues, whatever. You want to be the grownup, then you figure it out. But be honest, and at least a little consistent."
Both men were out of breath. Jim was still recovering from the whole exchange, while Blair was gearing up for more.
"You know, this is ridiculous. You and I both know that you feel something. It wasn't about sex, Ellison. If it was, you would have just fucked my brains out, instead of sneaking into my bed to hold me while I slept."
It was the end of the line for James Ellison. The only way he could feel better was if the ground opened up and swallowed him where he stood, burying him under layers of snow.
"Jim, if you apologize for that, I swear I will put a curse on you that will haunt you for the rest of your days. That was the most genuine response that I've gotten since I've known you."
"Blair...I can't do this. I don't know how, and it just scares me."
"Yeah, well, I'm scared, too, but I still came up here. I've never felt this strongly about anyone in my life, and I'm petrified. And I'm hurt because you let me go without saying goodbye, and I'm pissed because I'm standing on a mountain, freezing my ass off, talking till I'm blue in the face, and you still don't get it. Welcome to the real world."
"Fine! I'm screwed up, okay? Is that what you want to hear? You want to go sit down and talk about that over a bowl of stew? Fine, let's go!"
"No thanks. I want you to think about what you want, and when you come down from here, if you find you have something to say to me, look me up."
Jim watched Blair head back towards the trail, then he forced himself to move towards the cabin. He had only gone a few steps when he heard Blair's voice behind him.
"You know, you're really bad at this."
Jim turned back in Blair's direction.
"This is where you're supposed to say, 'I don't want you to go.' And then I'd say, 'I can't stay here and pretend like there's nothing to talk about.' Then you say, 'It's hard for me, but I'd like to tell you what's going on in my head.' Then I say, 'Okay, I'll give you one more chance.'"
This time Jim didn't give his inner voices time to start an argument.
"Well, will you?"
"Will I what, Jim?"
"Give me another chance. I really would like you to stay."
"Tell me something. Is there any way that I'll get some meaningful dialogue out of this?"
Jim let a small smile cross his face, instantly relaxing at Blair's friendlier tone. "Can we eat first?"
"You're stalling, Ellison."
"Okay, I'll do my best, I promise."
"Then let's eat. I'm starved."
It was the strangest meal that the two men had ever shared, because Blair was very quiet. Jim started talking while they were still eating, in the vain hope that at least Blair's focus would be split between conversation and lunch, not sure that he wanted to be the target of Blair's undivided attention. He kept his eyes on the food left in his bowl, unable to look directly at Blair, and tried to express what was in his head...and heart.
"I have a brother and a father that I haven't spoken to in years. That pretty much sums up my success with relationships. The thing that I felt I was the best at ended up as a nightmare. That pretty much sums up my life. There's not much more to say than that."
"Let me finish, Chief. I still would have called you, or I would have found out where you lived and popped in, or I would have hung out at the University until I ran into you. And part of it would have been because of the Sentinel stuff, and the physical attraction thing, but it also would have been because... I feel something too." He finally looked at Blair. "I don't know what it is, but I know that I've missed it, and I've missed you."
"You have a weird way of showing it, big guy. I know I said the 'L' word, and I'm not expecting you to say it too, but I would be ticked if you didn't at least try to find out what's going on."
"Let me start over. I have next week off. Will you go out with me?"
"You actually gonna risk being seen out in public with a twenty-one year old kid?"
"Yep, and hopefully he'll invite me back to his place and I'll get to see more." Jim reached out and grabbed the edge of Blair's chair, pulling it and the student closer to him. "And I don't take that lightly. That means that I do want to find out what's going on here."
"You sure you won't change your mind, once I'm out of your sight?"
"I'm sure. I'm sorry about before, Chief, really."
Jim's arms went around Blair, and he had to suppress a groan at what the feel of that body did to him. He pressed a kiss behind Blair's ear, soaking up the scent of Blair's hair and skin, adding more kisses when he heard Blair making little satisfied sounds.
"I... I better go, Jim." Reluctantly, Blair broke free from Jim's embrace.
"What? You're still leaving?"
"Yeah, those two Ranger goons you sent after me lectured me all the way back about how this section of the mountain is a no-no except during supervised outings. I don't want to get caught up here, and get you in trouble."
Blair got up to collect his things. 'He always seems to have so much stuff with him, like he's always ready to take off at a moment's notice,' Jim thought, as he stood to clear the table, naturally putting things back in order.
"You know, you really won't get in trouble. You're already here, after all. In my custody."
"Great as that sounds, I still think I better go."
Before Jim knew it, Blair was packed up, bundled up, and standing by the door. Jim stood close to him, looking down at the face that had been haunting most of his sleeping and waking moments. This time, it wasn't a surprise. They both saw it coming, and gave it all they had. The kiss was hard, and wet, and right. They pressed closer together, taking it deeper, and melting into each other. Jim broke that soulful contact, and nipped at Blair's kiss-swollen lips, moving to his neck, biting softly until Blair groaned.
He licked along the outline of one of Blair's ears, then spoke softly into the other. "Is this one of those times where I'm supposed to say, 'Stay'? Because I really don't want you to go. Stay with me?"
"Damn, Jim. How am I supposed to say no to that?"
They talked for most of the evening. This time Jim did most of the talking, or at least he answered all of Blair's questions, little by little revealing pieces of himself. And that night, in the dark, as they lay wrapped in each other's arms on the cabin's small bed, Blair still had more on his mind.
"You know, Jim, I've been thinking about some different techniques for you to use. For your senses, I mean."
"Yeah, well, I've been thinking, too. I want to help you with your thesis. I'm okay with you using me as your subject."
"I've dropped that. I couldn't make it work. It's sort of impossible to defend your findings once you've jumped into bed with the subject."
"What are you talking about? You can't give that up, that was your dream."
"I've still got it. You're still a Sentinel. If you think that going out on a date with me means that I won't be digging deeper into my Sentinel research, you better think again. Oh no, you don't get off the hook that easily."
"But what are you gonna do? About a dissertation, I mean."
"Well, I've always liked this little idea I had about the police force as a closed society. Damn, if only I had an inside track with someone on the Cascade PD. I could ride along..."
Jim saw where Blair was headed -- an all-night discussion about traditions, and roles, and interactions. He had a different kind of interaction in mind. He cut Blair off in the only way that he knew would work. He kissed him.
Later, as he watched Blair sleep, soaking up the younger man's calm until he could feel all of the cold places inside him melting away, Jim knew that he was looking love in the face and he wasn't afraid at all.