This is the first in a 5 part series. Believe it or not, this part was written back in October of 1997. I just never got the time or motivation to start on the other parts so I didn't post it. The muses are finally back for this one. Part 2 is basically done, just needs some fine tuning and I hope to get part 3 done over my vacation for Christmas and New Years. Course, at the pace I write that may be a bit optimistic. *g*
Anyway this is an AU for what *might* have happened had Ellison and Sandburg met under different circumstances. So if you don't like those type stories, I wouldn't recommend this one. The first part pretty much stands on its own and can be read separately of the other four.
I want to send a special thanks to my betas on this one. Cindy, Paula, Nickerbits- - you guys are the greatest. If I forgot someone that offered suggestions or comments from a couple of years ago, I apologize. My brain just isn't that good anymore.
Feedback is always appreciated, especially since I can never seem to find the time to actually get to write anything. Rivanna Michaels
"Tempted fate will leave the loftiest star." ...Lord Byron
The exhausted undergraduate stretched his back against the deep ache due to spending hours in the same cramped position. As his arms reached over his head, the sweat rolled from between his shoulder blades and pooled at the waistband of his faded shorts. The sun was merciless, beating down with a vengeance on the young man that had been given the opportunity to explore the secluded anthropological site in Peru. The location of the jagged ruins was just one of Dr. Stoddard's many contributions in the realm of archeology. Although the site had been discovered almost a year previous, it had taken the university time to grant the money needed for the expedition team. He still couldn't believe he had been asked to participate. The first invitation, according to Stoddard.
Blair grinned as he rose unsteadily to his feet. He was in Peru. Ever since he could remember he had been traveling from one exotic location to another. But not once had he found the opportunity to actually visit Peru. Sure he had studied the cultures and beliefs of the country, but it wasn't the same as standing on the soil those people had stood on, looking at the sites they had seen. Peru held a special fascination for him. Ever since he had stumbled across Burton's sentinel theory, he had been uncontrollably drawn to the region. The more he had delved into Burton's studies, the more they seemed to infect him, until finally he had had enough information to actually write his own piece about sentinels. Out of all the papers he had written, it was the one he was the most proud of. For some reason, the silent watchmen of long ago called to him -- awakened an insatiable desire to know more.
Pulling again at his stiffening frame, he started to regret his decision to stay behind. The rest of his team had broken for lunch about thirty minutes ago, drained from the morning's vigorous exercise. It hadn't been easy, but after much persuading and pleading, he had finally convinced Dr. Stoddard that he would be fine on his own while the rest of the group ate lunch and spent some time going over the satellite ruins a mile east of their current location. Dr. Stoddard had not been happy about leaving his prized student behind, but he had understood the passion that had flared in the bright blue eyes. Five days with steady progress and no problems had allowed the professor to rationalize that the next four hours would be no different. After checking Blair's canteen and finding it over half full, he had pounded a proud hand against the youthful back before leaving with a promise to bring back something for the young man to eat.
Shaking off the memories, Blair licked at his dried lips and reached down for his water bottle. It was amazingly light and he groaned as he unscrewed the partially closed top to find it empty. His eyes fell to the ground, noticing the wet circle of indented grass. Damn it! his mind screamed at him. Praying his colleagues had decided to return early, he scanned the area for the other three members of the study. Finding no one, he resolutely placed the strap of the bottle over his shoulder, checked to make sure he had the water purification tablets in his pocket, and turned toward the oppressive treeline. There was a river about a quarter mile away, but he knew he shouldn't go searching for it on his own. The dig site was far from any form of civilization and getting lost in the middle of nowhere was not at the top on his list of priorities.
Looking at his watch, he determined it still liked three hours before the others were scheduled to return. He had four choices: stay and die of thirst, start toward the camp about two miles away, make his way to the satellite ruins and hope the team was there, or head for the nearby river. "Great." The feel of his parched throat as he swallowed against the word made the decision for him. Taking a nervous glimpse over his shoulder, he slowly walked toward the intimidating trees that encircled the site. With an involuntary shudder, he drew a deep breath and charged through the undergrowth.
Once inside the blanket of trees, the temperature seemed to drop slightly and Blair heaved a sigh of relief. Thankful that he was out of the pounding sun, he plopped down against one of the larger tree trunks. Just a couple minutes to enjoy the cooler temperature and then he would make his way to the river. Leaning his head back, he took the opportunity to try and picture the area in his mind. The river ran next to the camp. The camp was south of the dig site and west of the river. So he needed to go east!
Standing, he frowned as he concentrated on his bearings. Everything looked the same. Taking a deep breath, he calmed himself with a short, soothing mantra, then timidly headed off to his right.
East...right. Made as much sense as anything else.
After stumbling over roots and logs for what seemed like a lifetime, Blair started to get worried. There was no reason why he shouldn't at least hear the river. Looking up toward the sky, he realized the sun would be of no use to him, as it was completely shielded by the enclosed treetops. The first real pang of fear gnawed at his stomach. O.K. Go back or keep going? Swallowing against his increasingly dry throat, he adamantly continued walking. Five more minutes, then he'd turn back if he hadn't reached his goal.
Five minutes came and went, then another five, yet still no river. He silently cursed his terrible sense of direction. Time to head back. He had cut a straight path. Logically all he had to do was make a 180 degree turn and start walking. Shifting on his toes, he tried to turn and stopped as his legs refused to cooperate. Determined to make them obey, Blair pushed forward as he started to realize that he must have gotten hotter than he had thought. His legs were wobbling like jello and his head was swimming in confusion. If only the sun would go down. The trees had even turned against him as they no longer seemed to block the sapping power of the unrelenting heat.
After blindly stumbling for twenty minutes through the thick underbrush, Blair careened to a stop and studied his surroundings through pinched eyes. He was lost. His throat was painfully constricted from lack of moisture, his body was covered in a thick sheen of perspiration, his head was pounding incessantly, and he barely possessed the strength to stand. He was worse than lost.
Mind reeling, he tried to determine the best course of action. Contrary to everything he had been taught, he didn't really like the idea of sitting still until someone found him. It just didn't seem like a viable alternative given the circumstances. Then again, he was totally clueless on which way he should go. Hoping against hope that he had only veered slightly off track, he turned a little to his left and stumbled off again.
As he trudged through the trees that whipped at his face and tugged against his clothes, the sounds of the jungle seemed to grow louder, the heat more oppressive. Raising a hand to wipe across his brow, he suddenly found his lips kissing the rough ground. The unexpected impact temporarily jarred the breath from his body and he struggled to pull the humid air of the region into his chest. Finally managing to fill his lungs to capacity, he felt the coolness of the ground beneath him seep into his flesh. He knew he should keep moving, but his body refused to relinquish its contact with the small measure of comfort it had found. Deciding to close his eyes for only the barest of seconds, Blair didn't have a chance to register his body's betrayal as he succumbed to the soothing pleasure and slowly drifted off.
The jungle around him was unusually quiet, almost hypnotic, as he stealthily maneuvered along the craggy trail before him. The stillness of the area had him on his toes, prepared for whatever danger was lurking before him. After fourteen months, he was used to the jungle -- the sounds, the sights, the smells, the taste, even the feel. And, right now, all his senses were telling him that something was wrong... very wrong. Shifting the crossbow across his back, he hunkered down and scanned his surroundings. He blended perfectly within the folds of the foliage. Hidden from the eyes of any who might mean him harem, but no enemy appeared. Slowly rising back to a standing position, he cautiously eased further along his path, his attention divided on keeping watch for danger and spotting possible game.
He had been scouting for three days now, checking the boundaries of the Chopec land for any sign of hostiles to his people. His people. When had he started thinking that way? Incacha was always telling him he was special, that he had a duty to fulfill, that one day he would come to understand the good that he could do for his people. The scout shook his head at the constant encouragement of the shaman. He didn't pretend to understand the unconditional faith and lavish attention the tribe placed on him, all he knew was that he had a job to do, a pass to protect. Afterward, he could go home. As the thought filtered through his mind, he realized he had no family or friends back in the United States. He had plenty of buddies in the army, but no firm ties that held him there. Sighing to himself, he wondered just who his true people were. He certainly felt more at ease among the Chopec, like he had a purpose, people who counted on him, a home. But he was tired, both physically and mentally exhausted. What time he wasn't on guard scouting the area, he was struggling to decipher the riddles spoken around him in the Chopec village. He wanted some time for himself. He needed some time to relax and watch a football game, some time to spend with a lady. Some time to unwind.
A sudden unexplained feeling stopped him dead in his tracks. Something was different, out of place. Sliding the bow off his shoulder, he loaded one of the deadly darts in the smooth grove. With the weapon aimed before him, he started forward again, placing one foot in front of the other as he slowly edged his way toward whatever seemed to be beckoning him. As he moved closer, his nerves started to tingle and his palms slickened with sweated. The reactions were unexpected and the sensations flooding his body seemed to overwhelm him with their intensity. He thought about turning back, avoiding whatever had precipitated such a hold on him, but his legs refused to obey his silent commands as they kept inching their way forward.
As he broke through a small clearing, he quicky surveyed the area in his line of vision, but he detected no threat or movement... No movement. That was what stood out. No birds. No monkeys. Nothing alive. Nothing scurrying to get out of the way of his presence. Confused as to what could have drawn him to the shaded area, he let his eyes sweep downward in contemplation. As they did, they caught on a small patch of yellow, the shade unusual and one not seen in the jungle.
It was an elaborate trap, yet simple in its theory -- use curiosity draw an observer into a seemingly benign situation. But who?
Quickly discarding the idea, he realized that it was highly unlikely that anyone would set such a thing up out in the middle of nowhere. There would be no purpose. His mind tried for other possibilities.
A shipment dropped in by parachute?
There was only one way to find out for sure. Keeping his crossbow at the ready, he stalked closer. As he neared the strange blotch of color, he was able to discern the shape of a body, the yellow color -- a billowing shirt partially tucked into khaki colored shorts. It was a man, face first in the dirt. Looking closer, he wondered how someone had managed to find his way into the depths of the jungle -- alone. As his eyes swept the still body, they latched onto the brown hiking boots, one of which was hooked beneath a long slender root. His eyes traveled back up, taking in the slight movement of the curly, brown hair as it was ruffled by a gentle breeze.
Trying to comprehend the scene before him, he stood in silent observation. He would have to notify someone eventually of the death. But, until then, he couldn't just leave the body in the middle of the jungle. Wild animals would soon devour the vulnerable flesh and bones. He would have to bury the body and mark the site for future reference. His stomach clenched at the task before him. He had buried way too many bodies over the past several months... way too many. If he was lucky, he would never have to do it again. Reaching out, he rolled the still form over and gasped at the pale white face that turned toward him.
It was a kid. An American if he was guessing correctly. The smooth features of the face were mottled with small clumps of dirt from the jungle floor, and in awe at his discovery, he gently brushed the clinging particles aside. The gesture was met by a soft moan and a flicker of eyelids that didn't quite open. Startled by the unexpected movement, the scout jerked away and then immediately felt for a pulse. Finding the slow, but steady, beat, his deft fingers registered the hot and dry skin. Heat exhaustion, no doubt.
Noticing the small canteen by the young man's side, he picked it up and gave it a firm shake. Empty. No wonder. But it still didn't explain how the kid had gotten there. Easing the young man's shoulders up onto his camouflaged legs, he reached for his ever-present water skin. After pouring a small dab in his broad hand, he quickly soothed the liquid over the pale face beneath him. The eyelids flickered again, the head turning slightly to the right, seeking out the hand that had delivered the small measure of relief. Once again, he splayed a small amount of water across the flushed skin until, finally, two bright blue eyes appeared from under a pair of heavy eyelids. As the confused gaze finally found his own, the still body suddenly came alive, twisting and fighting to free itself from the clutch upon it.
Realizing he probably looked somewhat frightening in his army fatigues, with his face and arms painted in black streaks, he tightened his grip on the writhing form and tried to calm the younger man down. "It's okay. I'm not going to hurt you." The young man stopped his squirming but his eyes were still opened wide in terror. "Are you thirsty?" The head bobbed slowly as a questing tongue darted out briefly in an attempt to wet dry, cracked lips. Smiling reassuringly at the frightened man, he placed the lip of the bag to the abused mouth and tilted it back at an angle that would produce a slow flow. When the young man started to drink greedily, he pulled the bag back and frowned at the wild eyes that met his. "Slowly. You don't want to overdo it." The head slowly nodded once, indicating that the young man understood as he took a more cautious sip.
Moving his head to the side, Blair indicated he was finished as he shifted away from the man leaning over him. He swallowed against the lump of fear that had replaced the burning need for water in his throat. "Who are you?"
"I think a better question would be, who are you? And what are you doing out here?"
The young man took a shaky breath. "Blair. Blair Sandburg. I'm an anthropology student from Cascade, Washington. I'm here with a dig team." Blair stopped and waited as he stared up at the man still looming above him. However, the introduction wasn't reciprocated. Swallowing once more, Blair started in again, his words rambling out. "I was thirsty and my canteen was empty. I thought I could find the river. But I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way." He laughed nervously. "I could get lost in a paper bag."
"Don't you have a compass?"
The terse words made Blair blush. It was embarrassing enough to be found by a complete stranger while you were passed out face first in the middle of nowhere. Now, he had to admit to his own stupidity as well. "Well, yeah, I have one." Blair paused, feeling the heat of the other man's gaze upon him. "I just didn't bring it with me today." As an incredulous look passed over the previously stoic face, Blair hurried on to explain. "We were already on our way this morning by the time I remembered it, and I just didn't think I needed to go back and get it. I hadn't planned on going anywhere. I didn't think I'd need it. The others were coming back to meet me." The other man shook his head in disbelief and Blair sighed. "I know. Pretty stupid, huh?"
"Yeah, pretty stupid, kid." He stood and started to pace across the small clearing.
Blair watched in fascination as the mysterious stranger walked back and forth, a certain grace making him appear at home in the jungle. The more he studied the man, the more intrigued he became. He was American, that was pretty obvious. Yet, he seemed tribal in a sense. His movements were fluid, his body well adjusted to the terrain around him. It was obvious the man had been in the jungle for awhile. A moment of panic settled in as he wondered if he was a drug runner or a criminal of some type. Blair's heartrate jumped up several notches. What if he was trying to figure out the best way to deal with his new problem? Almost as quickly as the thought came, it left. The man had helped him. If he was a bad guy then why even bother with him? Besides, there was something special about this guy. What? He didn't know. But it was there. Gathering up his courage, Blair decided he was going to find out. "So what do I call you?"
The pacing stopped and the man turned to face him, suspicion etched on his face. Deciding the student meant no harm and posed no real threat, he allowed himself to divulge a partial answer. "Ellison."
"That's it? Just Ellison?"
He nodded. He had learned long ago that personalization in his line of work had way too many consequences. "Just Ellison."
"O.K., man. Ellison it is." Blair wobbled as he slowly pushed himself up. Fighting the weakness in his legs, he took refuge by leaning back against the closest tree. His throat was still parched and he longed for more water. His eyes darted to the water pouch Ellison had over his shoulder and he hesitated, not sure whether or not he should ask for more.
Catching the silent gesture, Ellison made the decision for him and handed him the pouch. "Not too much."
Nodding, Blair took a tiny sip. The water felt wonderful as it glided down his throat. He greedily considered draining the refreshing liquid, but he didn't want to leave his rescuer without water for himself. Swiping his arm across his mouth, he hesitantly reached the pouch back out.
Ellison shook his head. "A little more won't kill you." The kid was unique -- generous and, for some reason, calming. He hadn't realized it at first, but he felt unusually relaxed around the stranger. It was almost as if they had known each other for years. Now, if he could just calm the kid down. One minute it was as if the guy trusted him to do anything and the next minute he was watching his every move like a mouse trapped in a corner.
"I'm okay." Blair bounced the pouch a little in his outstretched hand. "Here."
"Drink some more, Chief." The words had come out a little sharper than he had intended and he immediately regretted it as the younger man jumped. The hand instantly retracted and Blair took another sip, a little bigger than before. His eyes weary, the student once again held the pouch out. This time Ellison took it and slung it back over his shoulder. "Come on." He turned to walk away.
"Come on where?"
Turning, Ellison eyed the young man. "The sooner I get you back, the sooner I get myself back. There's only one ruins close by, so I'm assuming that's where you came from. I'm going to put you back. Unless you want to stay here?" He raised his eyebrows as he waited for an answer.
"No." Blair shook his head. "Here isn't my first choice."
"That's what I thought. So lets go." He turned again.
"I don't want to put you out or anything, man. You can just point me in the right direction and I'll be out of your hair."
Ellison's jaw clenched in frustration. Taking a second to rein in his temper, he whipped back around. "Look, kid. You obviously don't know your left from your right. What makes you think you won't just end up lost again? On top of that, this isn't exactly a stroll through the park. It's dangerous. I'm surprised you made it as far as you did." The jaw was clenched again, sparks radiating from deep within the piercing blue eyes.
Although he knew Ellison spoke the truth, Blair bristled at the words being thrown at him. He wasn't some incompetent child that needed someone to show him the error of his ways. He was a grown man, a grown man with a lot of responsibility. It had always been that way for him, growing up without a father and traveling from town to town. If he wasn't doing five hundred things at once, he was bored. Actually, that trait had managed to get him in a lot of trouble on several occasions, but he always figured a way out of whatever he got in to. He was fast on his feet and quick with his tongue. Handy tools if you knew how to use them. However, right now, everything was telling him to follow the man in front of him. Stubborn pride would only get you so far. Sometimes it was better to acquiesce. It was another lesson he'd learned early in life. Swallowing back the comment that had found itself on the tip of his tongue, Blair trailed behind the tall figure that had calmly turned and started off. So much for friendly conversation.
Fifteen minutes later, Blair found himself colliding with Ellison's backside. Righting himself quickly, he prepared to be totally reamed by the much bigger man for not watching where he was going. But after a couple of seconds passed with no movement from him, Blair ventured around the frozen form. Facing Ellison, he laid one hand on the man's arm and waved the other in front of the unfocused eyes. Nothing happened. Growing more and more concerned, he shook the muscled arm beneath his palm. "Ellison? Hey, man, this isn't funny." Still nothing. Blair stepped back and ran a hand through his thick mass of curls. He let his mind wade through a list of possible problems. This was something he was good at. He thrived on trying to figure out puzzles in life and right now that puzzle was one zoned-out Ellison. Maybe he's just in some kind of trance or something. Or maybe he's doped up. No, the man is definitely not a druggie. O.K. Just stay calm, you can do this.
Stepping closer again, Blair placed both of his hands on Ellison's forearms and pulled them toward him. The muscles bunched and twitched at the movement and Blair wondered if he was doing the right thing. If his new friend didn't appreciate his efforts, he might find himself in worse shape than being lost in the middle of a Peruvian jungle. Calmly, he lowered his voice into a soft cadence. "Ellison, can you hear me? I know you can. Just follow my voice. Concentrate on nothing but the sound of my voice and let it pull you back to reality. I'm here..." Blair looked around him. "The jungle's here. And you're supposed to be getting me out of here. Right? Or is that left?" He joked lightly. "Come on, man." He squeezed the arms a little harder.
Without warning, Blair found himself lying flat on his backside, an angry face close enough to his that he could feel the warm breath against his cheek. Looking into the cold eyes, he shivered slightly as they shifted from rage to recognition.
"What the hell?" Ellison released his hold on the undergrad and jumped up, staring with confusion at the shaken man still lying on the ground. "What happened?"
Blair's mind raced, trying to determine what had just happened. Ellison obviously didn't have a clue and, for some reason, he was looking at him as if he expected an answer. His unease at the sudden attack faded rapidly as he thought back. Remembering nothing unusual before the little 'zone-out', he threw up his hands in frustration. "How would I know? One minute you're walking along and the next thing I know you are totally unresponsive man. Then...well, then I find myself on the ground." Blair gestured around him. "Did something happen? Did you see something? Hear something?"
Ellison started to shake his head, then stopped. "Yeah...I heard something. It was faint, and I was trying to figure out what it was. That's the last thing I remember."
Standing up, Blair dusted off the seat of his pants and tucked a stray lock of hair behind his ear. "Has that ever happened before?"
"No. At least, I don't think it has." Ellison eyed the younger man then shrugged. "Come on, let's get moving. The ruins are right over there." He pointed directly in front of them.
"Get moving?" Blair looked at the man in amazement. "Don't you want to know what just happened? You were out of it, man. What if it happens again?"
"Don't worry about it." Ellison glared. "It's my problem, not yours. I'll deal with it." He didn't know why the kid's questions bothered him. Oddly enough, he felt the kid would be a great listener. But right now, he had more important things on his mind -- protecting the pass, finding food, getting back to the tribe, and guiding a lost student back to safety. He would worry about himself later, he had other responsibilities to attend to at the moment. After motioning with his head, he started off in the direction he had pointed in earlier.
"Whatever, man." Blair tossed up his hands and fell into step behind the other man. "It's your life."
Approximately 50 yards later, Blair almost plowed into Ellison a second time when the larger man suddenly crouched down. "What is it?" He squatted beside the older man as he peeked around the underbrush.
Ellison placed a finger to his lips. "Listen."
Straining his ears, Blair concentrated on his hearing until he picked up a faint voice calling his name. "Hey, that's Jennifer! One of the girls in my group." Blair smiled.
Ellison nodded. "She's that way, Chief." He pointed to their left. "Try not to get lost."
Rising to his feet, Blair took a couple of steps forward and yelled out, "Jen! Jen, I'm over here." The voice called back and Blair let out a sigh of relief. He owed Ellison his life. He was sure of that. The least he could do was invite the man back to camp for dinner. Turning to extend the invitation, he found himself staring at an empty spot. Ellison was gone. Vanished. Blair ran a trembling hand through his hair. He would at least have liked to thank the mysterious man. For some reason, the abrupt departure left him feeling alone. He shrugged the feeling off, the man had saved his life. There was bound to be some type of connection formed. He regretted not having the chance to say thank you, but maybe one day, fate would give him the chance and possibly even let him make it up to the guy. As Jen came into sight, he cast another futile glance over his shoulder and jogged over to meet his friends.
Ellison settled down beside the small fire he had started, his stomach full after his recently acquired meal. The soft crackling of the flames was hypnotic, forcing his mind to wander aimlessly over the day as he stared intently at the burning embers. He couldn't explain it. Hell, he wasn't sure he wanted to know. But he had felt a connection to the young man he had found passed out on the jungle floor. It was a strange protectiveness for someone he didn't even know. After leaving the young man's side, he had found himself watching from nearby until the student had been safely reunited with his companions. He didn't know why, but if there was one thing he had learned, it was that life was full of mysteries and if you didn't solve them the first time, you'd more than likely get a second chance.
The End (...to be continued in 'The Likelihood of Fate')
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