Acknowledgements: A special thanks goes to debraC and Lisa for looking this puppy over for me.
Notes: An anniversary story inspired by the song "Hazard" by Richard Marx. This story is something of an experiment. Please let me know if you think it worked. I guess I should point out that this is an AU. It's set in the present. I've also made Jim only two years older than Blair... cause I felt like it.
For wolfpup, who knows why.
Blair Sandburg rolled over onto his back and scratched his bare chest, even as he arched his back and stretched, smiling as the bones in his spine popped. The heel of his foot slowly dipped into the river and a delicious chill ran up his body.
He was in paradise.
Red-neck paradise, but paradise to be sure.
He snorted with humor even as he sat up and opened the bottle of sunscreen and reapplied more of the lotion to his legs.
Maybe red-neck was too strong a word, especially since they were in the Pacific Northwest. But there was no getting around the fact that Hazard, Washington was as small town as small towns could get, at least in their perceptions.
The folks in Hazard weren't quite sure what to do with a twenty year old college graduate with wild, long hair and even wilder ideas. He briefly considered cutting his hair to fit in, but had decided against it. He was only going to be visiting his mother for a few more weeks before he started his walkabout.
Naomi had always been a free spirit and completely supported the idea of his finding himself by traveling the country. Blair just needed to get his head out of academia for a little bit. Professor Stoddard had already invited him to join him on his expedition to Borneo later in the year, and he had every intention of going with him. When he came back, he would seriously look into obtaining his masters and maybe even his doctorate. But that would come after he had had a chance to explore America. Four years in one place definitely had his heart crying out for freedom and movement.
He was rubbing lotion on his shoulders when he felt the wave of disgust wash over him. As casually as he could, he looked up and around his woodland grotto, but could find no evidence of an intruder. Blair closed his eyes for a moment and concentrated on the emotion washing over him. It wasn't directed at him as a person, but as an invader.
So he wasn't the first one to stumble across this peaceful spot.
Well, tough, he thought as he continued to apply the sun block. I got here first.
"It is beautiful here," he said in a normal tone of voice, trying not to be too startled by the surprise he felt from the intruder.
Blair grinned. If one were to listen to the science fiction channels, he suppose he would be considered an empath. Amazingly, while the concept was popular in fiction, no one took it seriously in real life. And yet, he knew, as did Naomi, that he possessed a gift that could not be defined by conventional logic.
What surprised him was that his guest had heard him.
"I found it earlier in the week," he continued casually, rubbing more lotion to his face and neck. "It's very soothing. I hope you don't mind sharing it with me."
He could almost feel the mental grumbling reverberate on his skin, but also felt the reluctant acceptance, sort of a 'you stay on your side of the bushes and I'll stay on mine.'
"Thank you," he said solemnly, then closed the lid on the bottle, picked up his book and started reading again.
Every day after he finished his morning chores for David, Naomi's current boyfriend, Blair would grab a book and head down to the river. He knew exactly when his silent companion would join him and knew exactly when he left. He felt the growing acceptance of his presence and even a silent camaraderie as his friend would settle down with his own book.
It was a him, no doubt about it. Blair even figured out where his companion laid on the other side of the hedge. And while his curiosity about the man grew, he had absolutely no desire to force a face-to-face meeting. In fact, he rather liked the mystery to it all.
Blair teased the surface of the slow moving river with the toes of his left foot as he pretended to read, waiting for his friend's arrival... and his reaction to the gift he had left.
He smiled as he felt the silent acknowledgment sent his way. He refused to look up as he felt the shock ripple through the air.
Come on, man, Blair silently urged. You didn't think I hadn't figured out where you were sitting, did you?
Blair grinned, hiding behind his hair, as he felt the chortle of amusement and the silent thanks being sent his way. He lifted his left foot out of the water and eased his right one in as he smelled the fresh citrus tang of the orange permeate the air.
"You're welcome," he acknowledged, then went back to reading his book for real.
Blair looked up, popping his neck as he did so, when he felt a wave of lazy curiosity wash over him.
"Shakespeare," he said, as he tilted to his right side and briefly held the book up toward the hedges.
"Cause I'm a geek." He grinned as he answered the silent question. "Where else are you going to get romance, tragedy, war, madness, poetry and comedy all in one book? Now granted I'm reading the collective works as opposed to one particular play, but you get the idea."
Blair could tell his companion wanted him to talk more, so he did. "Most of your literature, hell most of your science fiction, at least touches on the works in this volume. I know it's forced on us in school, and I will admit that at thirteen I thought Romeo and Juliet were the biggest morons on the planet, but when you hear General Chang in Star Trek yell, 'Cry 'Havoc' and let slip the dogs of war' it's really cool to be able to say, 'Hey, that came from Julius Caesar'."
Blair sat up and crossed his legs, looking at the hedges, but not trying to see past them. "I bet you'd like the historical aspect of "Henry IV", or the madness of "Hamlet" or even the farce of 'Much Ado About Nothing," but you have to get out of the school mentality to do it. Shakespeare wrote these plays for profit like modern movies. If you can get past the archaic language, I'm willing to bet you'll be totally captivated."
He could practically feel the shrug in response.
"I'm just saying..." He chuckled, then laid back down and picked up his book.
Blair slowly meandered up and down the aisles of the library, trying to see if any book caught his interest. He stopped abruptly in his tracks when he noticed that the other volume of Shakespeare's collected works was missing from the shelves.
A thought occurred to him and it was everything he could do to keep from running to the front.
"Evening, Blair," the plump librarian greeted as he approached the front desk.
"Good evening, Mrs. Olsen."
"Did you find another book?"
Blair shook his head. "Actually, I thought I would check this one out again. I still want to reread 'Much Ado About Nothing'."
Mrs. Olsen nodded happily. "It does my heart good to see young people take an interest in the classics."
Blair cleared his throat. "Well, I noticed that the other anthology was checked out, so it looks like I'm not the only one in town interested."
"Ah, yes. Jimmy Ellison came in last night saying something about wanting to check out a line from Star Trek." The librarian chuckled.
"Julius Caesar," Blair whispered, unable to keep the goofy grin from his face.
Mrs. Olsen smiled approvingly. "Very good."
"So who exactly is this Jimmy Ellison?" Blair asked as casually as he could.
"He's the eldest son of William Ellison, who practically owns the town. Although I must say Jimmy is nothing like his father."
Mrs. Olsen looked around the empty library, then dropped her voice dramatically. "The Ellison family made their fortune in lumber. The only thing William cares about is the bottom line, but Jimmy really cares about the workers and the environment. He could really make a difference around here if William would only listen to the boy."
"But he doesn't?"
"No. Which makes no sense at all. Why pay for all that fancy education if you're not going to listen to what the boy learned."
"Oh, William put Jimmy and Stevie in the finest boarding schools money could buy. Hell, Jimmy just graduated from Harvard this year. William's talking about sending him to some graduate school in England for a degree in International Financing. Not that there's any point if he isn't going to listen to the boy when it comes to business."
Blair nodded, then held up his anthology. "So it's okay to check this out again?"
"Of course, dear. I'll take care of it. You run along now."
Blair smiled as the night air enveloped him.
Ellison. Jim Ellison. Because he knew, knew deep in his heart, that his companion would never be a Jimmy to him.
His companion had a name.
Blair turned his head and grinned toward the hedge as he felt the chortling happiness radiate toward him. Jim had apparently found the chocolate chip cookies in the baggie.
"You're welcome," he said in response to the gratitude being sent his way. "Don't worry though. Naomi didn't make them. Those are Grade A Mrs. Olsen cookies."
Blair felt the surprise.
"What can I say? I remind her of her youngest son when he was a kid."
The amusement grew.
"I wouldn't be dissing the man who's feeding you chocolate, boyo," Blair teased back.
He could practically feel Jim roll his eyes.
It has been four days since he learned Jim's name and never once during that time had he acknowledged it. He liked knowing, but wasn't sure how his companion would feel about his having found out his secret, for Jim had made no attempt to verbally communicate with him.
Blair shook his head. Though they seemed to have lengthy conversations, or at least, he had been discussing the various plays that they had been reading and reacting to the way Jim emoted. While Blair knew he couldn't read minds, he knew practically everything Jim was feeling. While Blair could get a feel for anyone he so chose, with Jim it was more intense, more special.
"Sort of like a guide."
He felt Jim's surprise.
"I'm sorry. Just talking to myself."
Blair could feel Jim's mental prod to talk, almost like a playful shove to his shoulder.
"You know I got my degree in anthropology, right?"
He felt Jim's acquiescence.
"Well, while I was studying closed societies, I ran across a concept which has totally fascinated me. In fact, I'm thinking about writing my master's thesis on it."
Blair smiled as Jim urged him to continue.
"I want to study sentinels, which is one of the reasons I'm going with Eli to Borneo this fall." Blair could feel Jim's impatience. Blair laughed. "I'm getting to it. I'm getting to it. Sentinels are warriors, scouts really, with heightened senses. They can see farther, hear more... well, you get the idea. You see this explorer, although I guess in a way he could be considered one of the first anthropologists, discovered that these tribal warriors could keep an ear out for the enemy, track game, keep an eye on the weather. But a lot of times they would focus too much on one sense and would zone out. They would have a companion, a guide of sorts, to help keep them in the here and now. Burton was fascinated by the bond between sentinel and guide."
Blair felt Jim's curiosity about his earlier comment grow and blushed.
Jim pushed him more with his impatience.
"It's embarrassing." Blair closed his book and dropped his forehead on top of it, trying to ignore Jim's mental pushing. Finally, he shouted, "All right, already. Geez. It's just that we sort of have a sentinel/guide thing going on. I mean, here I am talking in a normal tone of voice and you can hear me with no problem. And the other day, you spotted that fawn across the river and pointed her out. And let's face it, you don't talk to me and yet I understand what you're thinking. Of course, it could be that you're just a figment of my imagination brought on by too much of Mrs. Olsen's chocolate. Although I think I'm a little too old to be playing with an imaginary friend."
Blair actually heard the bark of laughter and chuckled to himself. "It's just a thought I've been amusing myself with lately."
Jim grew quiet, contemplative. After several moments a tentative, almost shy, questioning thought was sent Blair's way.
"Look, I didn't mean to imply..."
But he was cut off by a more insistent pushing.
"Yeah, I mean it's possible that you have heightened senses. I definitely think your hearing is better than normal. Your eyesight also seems pretty good. And let's face it, while I like Mrs. Olsen's cookies, I don't appreciate them anywhere near as much as you do." Blair grinned as he felt the amusement wash over him. "I'm assuming that you smell a little better than most?"
He felt Jim reluctantly agree.
An excitement began to build in the pit of Blair's stomach. "And touch? Are you extra touchy-feely?"
The anger which washed over him, surprised him. "Whoa, man. I didn't mean anything by that. It's just that if you have a heightened sense of touch, I could see where it could cause problems but also be of a benefit. I mean, certain laundry detergents probably drive you crazy, but petting, say a cat, would probably be very soothing. Am I right or am I right?"
Blair remained quiet as the mental grumbling battered at him for a while, but after several minutes Jim calmed back down even though a wave of disgust washed over Blair.
"You are NOT a freak," Blair shouted as he sat up. "How can you even think that? Don't you realize what you have is a gift? Man, what I wouldn't give to have what you have."
A startled curiosity flowed past him.
"Yes, really. Do you realize how special you are?"
Jim scoffed at him.
"I've traveled the world, man, and I'm telling you that almost every culture on the planet would be thrilled to have a sentinel in their midst."
Jim's emotions were a jumble.
"If you start with the freak thing again, I'm going to jump over the hedge and strangle you."
Blair was afraid that Jim would use his threat as an excuse to leave, but Jim remained, seemingly surprised by Blair's defense of him.
"Just think of the possibilities," Blair said, pushing his advantage. "Think how easy it would be for you to be a ranger and track a lost kid in the woods, or maybe prevent a forest fire because you smelled it and located it before it got out of control. You could use your senses to be a doctor and help diagnosis illnesses and breaks. Maybe even be a cop, sort of your own human surveillance machine."
Blair could feel Jim shrug his shoulders, could practically feel the weight of family responsibility settle over his friend.
"I'm just saying that if you are a sentinel, the world is a myriad of possibilities. I'm saying that you're special, very special indeed."
Blair felt a wave of tender gratitude wash over him.
"You're welcome, my friend. You are most welcome."
For the first time since his friendship with Jim Ellison began, Blair heard, not only felt, Jim's approach. Heck, even if he'd been a deaf man with no abilities he would have felt his friend's approach. The very air sung with anger and pain. Blair swallowed in relief when he realized that the intense emotions weren't directed at him.
He put his book down and tried to project a sense of calm. He jumped as Jim screamed his agony to the heavens. Blair started to stand but stopped, unsure of how to comfort his friend, unsure of how Jim would react to his crossing their unspoken line.
"What happened?" he whispered.
Jim's attention was suddenly turned toward him and he had a sense of Jim being covered in great wounds.
"Are you bleeding?"
A quiet negative reply rolled over him.
"It's your father, isn't it?" Blair asked, knowing he was pushing their unspoken rules of friendship.
Surprise colored Jim's emotions.
"I know who you are. I didn't do it to invade your privacy, but an opportunity arose to learn who you were and I choose not to ignore it." He felt a resigned shrug and a mild question. "Yes, I found out at the library when you checked out Shakespeare. Are you okay with me knowing?"
Blair was relieved to feel Jim's acceptance.
"You talked to your dad about what we talked about the other day, didn't you?"
A small sadness swept over Blair, hurting him more than the anger had, hurting him because he longed to comfort his friend and knowing while he might be able to ease the pain, he could never ease the pain of Jim's father's reaction.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Jim shrugged, then Blair felt the anger burning within his friend again.
"Come with me on my walkabout." Blair blinked, surprised by his own forwardness.
"What?" a whispered hiss sliced through the air.
Blair swallowed hard. "You know I'm leaving for my walkabout this weekend. Why don't you come with me? I know you have to go to school this fall, but you need some time to reflect, some time away."
"I can't leave..." Blair could barely hear the whispered reply over the soft babbling of the river. He could feel the weight of family obligations push down on Jim, drowning him just as surely as if he had fallen into the river beside them.
Blair crawled to his side of the hedge which separated them. "Jim, we both know you'll die if you stay here. I'm not suggesting that you leave forever... okay, I am suggesting that... but I know you, I know you'd never do that. But you have to get your head around this sentinel stuff. It doesn't matter what your father believes. You're not crazy and you're not a freak. You're a warrior, someone blessed with a wonderful gift."
Blair could hear the muffled sob of frustration from the other side. "Why?"
"I don't know why he can't accept it, Jim. Maybe it's genetic. Maybe he has the same gifts. Maybe they frighten him and he doesn't want you to go through what he has."
"No," the voice whispered. "Why you?"
Blair sat back on his heels. "Why not me? Maybe fate put us here. Maybe all the time/space continuum lines merged in this time and in this place so we could meet. I mean, how ironic is it that I'm looking for a sentinel and blam here you are?" Blair could feel his friend's feelings waiver, he was definitely reaching a part of his friend. "Come with me, Jim. See the country. Let me help you figure out your senses. Let me guide you in this."
A wave of such longing washed over Blair that he almost fell over under the pressure.
"I'm sorry. I wish... I wish I could... but I can't. I'm so sorry," the voice gasped.
Blair pushed to his feet, knowing that Jim was going to run.
But by the time he made his way around the hedge, the sentinel was gone.
"Baby, wake up! Blair, sweetie, you need to wake up."
"Mom?" Blair groaned as his eyes sought the digital clock beside his bed. "What time is it?"
"It's five a.m."
"Five? Wha-what's going on?"
"The sheriff is in the living room, Blair. He wants to talk to you," his mother's voice was soft, but frantic.
"Am I in trouble?" Blair asked as he struggled to sit up in bed.
"I don't know. Are you?" she asked seriously, tenderly pushing his hair back out of his face.
Blair couldn't help but smile at her. "No, ma, I haven't done anything wrong. I promise."
"You know you could tell me if you were... in trouble that is."
He fumbled for the glasses on the night stand and pushed them onto his face. "I know, and I would, I swear."
Naomi studied his face for a moment longer then nodded. "Okay, then we need to get moving."
Blair kicked his feet out from beneath the covers and plodded heavily after his mother as she led the way to their guests. He was aware of the scrutiny of the two strangers as he entered the front of the house.
"Blair Sandburg?" the shorter, plumper man asked.
"Where were you last night?"
Blair blinked. "Here, with my mom and David from about five o'clock on. Why?"
The sheriff ignored the question and turned to David. "You can vouch for his presence in this house the entire evening?"
David blinked. "Of course, I can vouch for him. We had dinner around five. He helped clean up, we played some Trivia Pursuit until about eight. We had a mare foal last night and Blair was with me until a little after midnight. We both took a shower and crashed until you woke us so rudely this morning. What in the hell is going on, Sam?"
The sheriff looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Jimmy Ellison ran away from home last night."
David barked out in laughter. "Jimmy's twenty-two years old, Sam. He's a little old to be running away from home."
"This is no laughing matter, Mr. Steele," the taller, older gentleman beside the sheriff said coldly.
"I agree, Bill, it isn't. But what in the hell does that have to do with Naomi's boy?"
"Jimmy was perfectly content here until Naomi's 'boy' came to town." William Ellison made the word 'boy' sound like the most vile word in the English language. "All I've been hearing for the last couple of weeks is Blair thinks this and Blair said that. And now, he has just upped and left and I want to know what 'Blair' knows about it," William said as he stepped menacingly toward Blair.
"Maybe your 'boy' wasn't as content as he let on, Bill," David said, stepping between Ellison and Blair.
"Just because you're an attorney--"
"And just because you're the richest man in town doesn't give you the right to oust innocent citizens out of their bed at o'dark thirty because your adult son decided he had had enough of daddy dearest," David growled back. "Tell me, Bill. Did you hit your son tonight?"
"What? How dare you?"
David laughed, but it was a cold, harsh sound, not the rich laughter Blair was used to hearing. "How dare I? How dare you, Bill. I told you five years ago that the harder you squeezed Jimmy, the more he was going to slip thorough your fingers, but you refused to listen to me. That's your prerogative, but I suggest you loosen your grip on Stevie before history repeats itself." David turned toward Blair. "Blair, go to your room."
Blair blinked in surprise, outraged by the demand, then realized he really didn't want to deal with William Ellison. He nodded to the sheriff, then went to his room, trying to tune out the anger that followed after him like a flue of lava.
Jim had done it, had found the courage to leave. While a part of him applauded Jim's courage, he found himself saddened, wishing Jim had waited for him.
Naomi handed Blair a light jacket. "Any idea which direction you're going to head?"
"No, but isn't that part of the fun?" Blair leaned forward and kissed her cheek as he accepted the jacket.
"Can't you wait until morning?" she asked, wrapping her arms around him and holding him tight.
"Ma? What's wrong?" he asked in concern as he pulled back and looked into her face. "We've always left at night. Hasn't your philosophy always been to be on the road before the sun rises on the rest of your life?"
Blair noticed the reluctance with which his mother released him. "Yes."
Understanding flooded him in an instant. "David makes you happy, doesn't he?"
A gentle smile blossomed over her face. "Yes, he does. It doesn't make any sense."
"Love isn't supposed to make sense." He pulled her close again for a hug. "Congratulations."
When they separated, Naomi held on to his arm for a moment longer, her eyes intense.
"What?" he asked with a frown.
"You were very happy with Jim."
Blair laughed. "I never even saw the man."
"Never the less, he completed you on some level, like... like David does me."
He shrugged. "It's a moot point now anyway. He left three days ago. If he's smart, he's in New York." Blair picked up his duffel bag and slung it over his shoulder. "Stay in the house, okay?" he asked in a whisper, knowing Naomi would understand.
She nodded, then placed both hands on either side of his face and kissed him on the forehead. "Be safe, and drop me a line when you land."
"I will," he promised, then headed for the door.
"Blair," David called out as his hand touched the knob.
He turned and smiled at the man who in all likelihood was going to be his step-father in a very short time. "Yes, sir."
"You call if you need anything, anything at all, you hear?" The taller man engulfed Blair in a bear hug, then slipped a wad of cash into Blair's palm as he ran his hand down his arms and shook his hand.
"David..." he started to protest.
"Hush, son." The older man smiled as he opened the door and gently pushed him through. "Let us know where you are from time-to-time so that your mother doesn't worry."
Blair moved quickly toward his car and tossed the duffel bag in the back seat of the Corvair. He had just shut the back door when a hesitant voice intruded into his thoughts.
Blair turned and came face-to-face with a small Chinese woman. "Yes, ma'am."
"Be sure to give this to Jimmy," she said quietly as she placed a duffel bag almost as large as she was in front of him.
"Ma'am, I'm leaving town; right now, as a matter of fact."
"But I don't even know where Jim is."
She smiled at him, patting his cheek gently. "Don't worry. He'll find you."
"There's some clothes in there, but he'll need to buy some more fairly quickly. I mostly packed the things that mattered the most to him. His father will never notice they're gone. I also put his trust account information, his transcripts, his passport and other important papers in a manila envelope. There's nothing William can do to him now. His mother's money is his free and clear."
"Who are you?" Blair asked, trying hard to keep the incredulousness from his voice.
"I'm Sally. Tell Jimmy if he ever needs anything to give me a call. He knows all my numbers and my email addresses."
Blair blinked in confusion. "How do you know I won't just take off and keep all this stuff for myself."
She laughed a bright happy laugh, like one would do when laughing at a child's joke. "Like I said, because he will find you; rather quickly I imagine. Now go on, put it in the car."
Blair obediently did as he was told and carefully put the bag in the back seat.
Sally patted his cheek one more time, then turned and disappeared into the darkness. Blair shook his head in confusion, then got into the car. The quicker he put Hazard behind him the better.
Blair slowed the car as he came upon the path that would lead him to his river hideaway. He suddenly had an overwhelming desire to see it one last time and pulled the car to the side of the road and turned off his headlights.
"You're going to end up breaking your fool neck," he whispered to himself in disgust, even as he got out of the car.
The moonlight provided adequate light as he moved back toward the forest, but he slowed his step as the canopy overhead cut off the remaining light. However, he moved with confidence, having walked the path enough times to know it by heart.
Moonlight shone down in tiny patches as he neared the river. He took a deep breath as he listened to the peaceful burbling. In all his travels, this little patch of paradise had somehow managed to worm its way into his heart.
"I'll miss you, Jim," he whispered, turning and facing the familiar hedge. "I hope you find the acceptance you deserve."
He felt the warm happiness surround him a moment before arms wrapped around his waist from behind.
Blair gulped down his surprise. "I...I thought you were gone."
"I was," the tenor voice whispered beside his ear.
"What happened? It's not good for you to be here. What if your father--"
"I couldn't leave without you."
"Is the offer to go on walkabout still open?" the voice asked softly, shyly.
Blair turned to face his friend, even if he couldn't see his face, projecting all the warmth he could into his voice. "Yes."
"Will I like Borneo?" Jim asked softly.
Blair threw back his head and laughed with joy, understanding everything the question implied. "Yes, Jim, you'll love Borneo."
"So where are we going first?"
"Wherever the wind takes us. By the way, a woman named Sally gave me a duffel bag of your stuff."
Blair could feel Jim's affection for the woman burst forth from the taller man. Without thought, he slowly reached upward and traced the lines of Jim's face, feeling the smooth steel jaw. "I've never even seen your face," he murmured, more to himself than to Jim.
"I'm hideous." Jim chuckled. "Ugly as sin. Will that matter?"
Even though it was asked in humor, Blair felt the insecurity in the question, not about Jim's appearance but Jim wanting to know if their differences would keep them apart.
"No, Jim. It doesn't matter at all."
"How can you be so sure?" his sentinel asked harshly, although Blair could feel Jim's longing to be accepted for who he was.
Blair took one of Jim's hands and held it in his own. "Because I've seen your heart, Jim. I've heard your soul talk to mine."
Jim squeezed Blair's hand. "I'm never letting you go, Blair Sandburg."
Blair chuckled. "Just try to get rid of me."
Jim engulfed him in a hug, which Blair returned with equal vigor. After several minutes, Blair gently pulled back. "Come on, let's go. The wind is calling."
"Over my dead body."
"Blair," Jim whined.
Blair laughed as he headed toward the car. "I don't let faceless men drive my classic."
"What?" Jim laughed in outrage as he scrambled to keep up.
Blair slung his arm around Jim's waist as they broke from the woods. He couldn't wait until morning to see how the sun rose on the rest of his life.
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