It's been a long time since I've posted anything. I've been dabbling in several different stories and have even finished a few since the last one I posted, but I just can't get any to turn out the way I want. When I did To Give Is Greater, I was just playing around, but I said I would actually make a story out of it where Blair took Jim up on his Christmas present. So a year later I figured the only way I'd ever get the story finished and posted was if I offered it to the genfic auction -- that way I'd be committed to getting it up, which is probably the only reason you're seeing this now. *g*
I want to send a special thanks to Paula who bid on this story. I was honored that she thought it was worthy of some letters in support of the show. I can't thank her enough for giving me the support and confidence to post something after so long on the sidelines. On top of her encouragement, she also beta'ed this puppy for me which is saying a lot. So Paula, this one's for you. *hugz*
I also want to thank Cindy for pointing out lots of little plot inconsistencies and plowing over it with a fine tooth comb. Boy, sometimes those days can just go on for forever! *chuckle* There's one more person I want to thank, StarPlaza. She's provided lots of encouragement for me as I stumble along from partial story to partial story.
Okay, enough of that! Onto the story. There is a warning on this one: NO PLOT!! NO OWIES! That's right, there is absolutely no plot to this story. I told Paula she bid on the longest TS story ever that was totally pointless. I also want to mention that there might be a scene that some would consider a little on the gross side. I don't want to say any more, but don't eat while reading. *wink*
Sunlight glanced off the metal wing and shimmered back against the glass window that was blocking the majority of its warmth from those inside. The plane jerked and the wheels rolled to a stop, prompting the two passengers to bolt for the nearest opening with two entirely different purposes in mind--one wanting to breathe in the fresh air, the other needing to breathe in the fresh air.
As the door swung open on the small propeller airplane, Jim emerged from the round opening, ducking his head against the too low clearance. He squinted against the glaring sunlight, before dialing his vision back and scanning his surroundings. The green valley stretched out like a newly placed carpet before eventually taking on a gentle roll that escalated up into the mountains standing on the distant horizon. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and relished the smooth intake of the crisp, clean air as it infiltrated his lungs. A sigh of relief escaped his lips. He was on solid ground again. The short flight from Helena to the Gallatin Field Airport had been anything but pleasant. The plane had been bucked and tossed in the turbulence, making the sentinel feel each and every air pocket. For the life of him he couldn't figure out why they had to get off the nice, comfortable 737 in Helena to get on what had to be the smallest, noisiest plane on the planet. He was sure they could have gotten a direct flight. But Blair had mumbled something about expenses and cheapest rates and Jim had bowed out early, not wanting to debate with the 'Sandburg logic'. Busily drinking in the fresh air, he jumped slightly at the light touch that settled on his shoulder.
"You all right, man?"
His previously bouncing partner was staring up at him, concern etching small worry lines into the young man's forehead. Jim chuckled softly. "Yeah, just need to get my balance back." The reassurance did the trick and the detective watched with amusement as the tension eased from the face looking up at him.
Blair grinned and stretched his arms above his head to pull the kinks from his back. It had been a long flight, but worth it. He was finally cashing in his IOU. Jim had offered not only a 'no complaining' sentinel test for Christmas, but also a free vacation to anywhere his roommate wanted. And he was there--Montana! Okay, yeah, so some people wouldn't consider Big Sky country the most exciting place on the planet, but that was the point. Instead of opting for bright lights and the big city, Blair had decided to just sit back and relax in the middle of mother nature. No pollution, no city noise, no rampant crime. He was craving large, plentiful trees, lush grass, clear waters, and bright blue sky. He might even agree to go fishing. Okay, he was looking forward to fishing with Jim, but it was so much fun to tease his friend about it that he wasn't about to admit it just yet. However, his main goal was to have Jim teach him how to ride a horse. The young man bounced a little in anticipation. He had always wanted to learn.
Actually Blair had almost given up on ever getting the chance to ride, but after Jim's performance at the racetrack, he had realized that he had the perfect opportunity and had been determined to have his friend finally show him how. That determination had paid off and explained why they were--in most people's minds--in the middle of nowhere. After a little coaxing and a whole lot of 'you promised', Jim had finally caved and asked for a week off. Simon had taken the whole thing rather well actually, brandishing a wide smile and trying to stifle his laughter at the picture of Jim teaching Blair to ride.
Blair chuckled as he remembered the comment Simon had made right before the door to his office had closed behind the two partners. It was something about Jim having the patience of a 4th grade teacher with spit balls in her hair and he hoped the horses didn't get the worse end of the stick.
"So where to, Wild Bill?" Jim asked as he wondered what was so amusing to illicit a laugh from out of the blue.
"Huh?" Blair's eyes darted up to Jim's face.
Jim rolled his eyes and fixed the younger man with a sarcastic smirk. "This is your trip, Chief. I'm yours for the week."
Waggling his eyebrows, Blair couldn't help the wide grin that plastered itself across his face. "Really!?" he teased. "Does this mean you have to do anything I ask?"
"Don't push it." Jim batted at the mop of curly hair, missing as Blair ducked at the last second.
"Now, would I push you?" Blair questioned mischievously as he reached out as if to slap his friend's shoulder. But the expected playful slap changed mid air into a push not a hard push, but just enough to set the other man off balance. As Jim stumbled a few steps away, Blair shrugged his shoulders. "Oops, guess so." Then he took off at a run in the other direction.
"Sandburg!!" Jim growled as he regained his balance. Relishing his partner's good mood, he waited a minute to give the younger man a head start then took up the chase after the fleeing figure.
Blair was fast, but with Jim's much longer stride it didn't take long for the detective to gain on the anthropologist. A quick glance over his shoulder made Blair pump his legs even harder. He knew it was inevitable, but that didn't mean he wasn't enjoying the race. As he felt the distance closing between them, he started trying evasive tactics, swiftly darting left then right then left again. Suddenly, he felt fingers snag the back of his coat and he twisted frantically to shake them loose. However, it was no use; the grip was relentless and he soon found himself wrapped against a hard chest.
Laughing and gasping for air, Blair lightly struggled against the hold. "O.K. man, you got me. You can let go now."
Jim cocked his head and feigned a look of hard concentration. After a few seconds, he shook his head and squeezed a little harder, temporarily lifting the younger man off his feet. "I don't think so there, Chief."
"Jim!" Blair calmed himself and forced sternness in his voice. "This is my trip remember? You were going to do whatever I wanted."
"I don't think I said I'd do anything you wanted," Jim contradicted, shifting the smaller man a little to one side while maintaining his hold. "But I'll tell you what, you surrender and I'll let you go--unharmed."
"Surrender?!" Blair squawked.
"That's right. Surrender. You know, something along the lines of 'You win almighty Jim' or just a plain ole 'uncle' will do."
Blair tried one final futile twist against the steel bands around him before sighing in defeat. "Uncle."
Shaking his head, Jim leaned down so that his right ear was next to Sandburg's left one. "What was that? I don't think I heard that."
"Uncle," Blair called out. "Uncle, uncle, uncle."
Releasing the humbled bundle in his grasp, Jim's face took on a contrite expression. "I thought you'd see things--"
The words were cut off as Blair held up his crossed fingers. Smirking at the dubious expression that was cast upon him, the observer took off again. Truth be told, he didn't know why he was goading Jim, he just knew that it felt good, really good. As soon as his feet had hit the tarmac, the realization that they had the whole week to themselves, hundreds of miles away from the drug dealers and the bombers and the terrorists and the kidnappers and the murders and every other type of psychopath had hit him. Freedom. Relaxation. Time.
"Why you little..." Jim once again took off after his partner, determined to seek justice for all those who had been tricked by bouncing, obfuscating roommates. As his prey ran out of road and started into the thick grass, the detective lunged at him in a full-fledged tackle, taking the smaller man down in a spill of tangled arms and legs.
Recovering first, Jim quickly straddled the anthropologist, effectively pinning him to the ground while entrapping his hands with his own. "Should we try this again?" Jim inquired with a glint in his eyes.
Shifting his weight, Blair attempted to offset the man that was leering down at him with a mixture of amusement and what could only be called the triumph of a predator. But it was to no avail. Okay, if he couldn't win with brawn he would just resort to something else, the easiest way out. Taking a deep breath to pull air into his over-taxed lungs, Blair stared up, locking dark blue eyes with light blue ones. "'Uncle,' Jim. You win."
"Uh uh, Chief. That's not good enough this time," Jim tsked as he shook his head slowly.
Blair blanched slightly, realizing that Jim wasn't going to relent as easily a second time and that he had just signed himself up for some major retaliation.
Eyeing the suddenly still anthropologist pinned beneath him, a gleam crossed Jim's face. "The question is: What am I going to do with you now?"
Although he tried to keep a straight face, the anthropologist couldn't help the grin that tickled the corners of his mouth. "Praise my ingenious mind and...."
"Not quite," the voice above him interrupted. "I think we'll start with a little more respect for the older generation..."
"Oh yes, my elders," Blair cut him off and immediately started to rattle, "You know in some cultures, the elders are sacrificed so that...."
Jim dropped his head to hide the grin that found itself there. The kid had a tribal account for everything. Regaining control over his features, he raised his head to stare at the babbling young man. "Sandburg!"
Blair stopped and beamed up at him innocently. "Huh?"
"Did I ask for a lecture?"
Blair pursed his lips and furrowed his brow in an imitation of deep concentration. "Nope, I don't believe you did."
"I think now would be a good time for you to agree to do the dishes for a week."
"And the laundry."
"No way, man!"
"Really?" Mimicking the younger man's previous furrowed brow and pursed lips, Ellison sat in silence for several seconds. "Sandburg, I'm a little curious about something."
Blair's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Yeah?"
Flexing the fingers on his right hand, Jim smiled. "Are you ticklish?"
Unconsciously, Blair wiggled at the implied threat. He was deadly ticklish. A fact that he tried to hide from everyone. Forcing much more bravado than he felt into his voice, he swallowed tightly. "No." Please, please, please.
"Not too convincing there, buddy. I guess I'll have to see for myself."
Blair shook his head in earnest. "No, really man," he tried with even more conviction. But one rough callused hand darted from where it had been trapping one of his limbs against the grass to glance briefly against his ribcage. Jerking at the contact, Blair schooled his face and tried to hold the ensuing outburst at bay.
Jim chuckled at Blair's obviously determined attempt to prove that he was NOT ticklish. The free hand swept in for a prolonged attack, followed quickly by the other one. He watched as the young man's jaw spasmed with the effort to control himself until the mask finally slipped and the laughter peeled out.
"Uncle," Blair cried
"What was that?" Jim taunted, his fingers still reeking havoc on his prisoner.
"You ....are...the greatest...most wonderful...person in the...world. You're...the best of the best...and better than the ....rest," Blair choked out, pushing at the relentless hands.
"Glad to hear that, Chief." Jim stopped the assault and stood up. "I'm surprised to hear you say so though."
"That's funny, Jim. Laugh it up." Reaching up, he took the hand Jim extended to him. Once on his feet, he dusted himself off and glared at the too cocky sentinel. "I'll remember that, man. Retribution is nigh."
The warmth of the sun beat down pleasantly against the sentinel's back and the breeze brushed lightly against his skin, pushing away the last vestiges of his work and responsibility. It was time to relax. Wrapping his arm around his partner's shoulders and giving them a slight shake, Jim angled them back towards the hanger. "I'll be waiting."
Blair stared out the window of the rented blue Jeep 4x4, the scenery whipping by as Jim drove toward the Shining Star ranch. He'd been more than happy to relinquish the driving to Jim. Well, relinquish might not be the best word. However, he much preferred the opportunity to watch the racing scenery so unlike the landscape in Cascade.
"What's up, Chief?" Jim asked as the silence extended into an unusual length. Turning to face his friend, Blair's eyes sparkled with excitement. "I can't believe we are actually doing this....I can't believe Simon let you get away for a week."
"Why not? I said we would and Simon knew I had the time coming. It's just you me and the fishes." On the last word, Jim glanced over to see if there would be any objections. He knew Blair wasn't against going fishing, but he was curious as to how long the younger man planned to keep up the charade. However, it didn't appear the word had finagled its way into the inner wheel workings of his partner's mind.
Grasping onto the first part of Jim's response, Blair plowed on, "I know, I know. But for some reason I just never thought we'd actually DO it. You know, one thing or another usually comes up."
Jim just nodded, understanding precisely what his partner meant. Hardly a day went by that something didn't happen to delay or change any plans that were made. Between the sentinel research, Jim's job, and Blair's studies and teaching, they hardly had the chance to plan a meal together, never mind eating it. It was definitely a surprise that the trip had gone off without a hitch--a pleasant surprise.
Blair sat up a little straighter and turned slightly in his seat, the gears in his head shifting onto an altogether different track. There were a few things he was curious about. Things that for one reason or another had never been answered before when brought up. Now was the perfect opportunity. Jim was trapped and he had him at his complete mercy. "So how long have you been riding?"
There was no need for elaboration. Jim knew what was on the younger man's mind. For the life of him he didn't understand exactly why Blair was so excited about horseback riding, but it evidently meant a lot to his friend, so he was determined to see it through. Before the week was out, Blair would be as good on a horse as he was--well almost as good. Jim chuckled to himself. After having taken the anthropologist fly fishing for the first time and being out bested, Jim had no doubts the same could very well occur with horseback riding. Blair had a knack for learning new things--and for getting into sticky situations.
"Jim?" Blair shook the shoulder nearest him. "Jim."
"Since I was a little kid," Jim answered, shaking himself from a vague memory that was flitting around the outer recesses of his mind.
"Seven? Eight?" Blair probed, trying to picture a younger version of the sentinel on a horse.
"Around ten I'd say. It was a long time ago, Sandburg," he said, snapping out the last name. Grimacing at his own harsh tone and wondering where it had come from, Jim waited for either a reprimand or a concerned look from his partner.
Luckily for him, he received neither as Blair continued, intent on finding out more about his friend's horseback riding experiences. "Cool. So how'd you learn? Who taught you?"
Thankful that Blair had missed his --what? Annoyance? Anger? Irritation?-- he immediately stomped it down and jumped back into the conversation. "Sally had a brother, John, who worked at a stable not far from our house. John would spend a couple hours each week after school showing us the basics. It came pretty easy for both Stephen and I."
"How about your dad, did he ride?"
Question after question. "He didn't even know we were taking the lessons at first. He didn't exactly approve of John."
"Didn't approve? Why not?"
For some reason the line of questions was starting to barb just a little too close for comfort, but for the life of him he didn't know why he felt like he was in the middle of an interrogation and he was the one being subjected to the rubber hose. Jim bit down on the response that sprung to his lips and took a deep breath before answering. "He didn't think John was the right type person to be around us."
Blair sat stunned for a second, trying to understand the logic. "But Sally practically raised you."
Jim sighed. "Yeah, but to dad John was different. Unworthy somehow." Jim shook his head, refuting the idea. "He wasn't. No one worked harder than John did. He slaved in those stables for hours and hours everyday, just like Sally does in that house."
"Yet he still took the time to teach you and Stephen how to ride. That's pretty impressive, man." Blair watched his partner's face, trying to determine what was causing the conflicting emotions that were playing themselves out across its surface and which one would win in the end.
"Yeah," Jim nodded, his jaw clinching and releasing. "I had a lot of respect for him. Probably more than I had for my own father."
Wondering whether or not to press, Blair decided to take a chance. Jim was at least still responding. Maybe whatever had the sentinel chomping at the bit was something that his partner needed to talk about. With that in mind, he decided to keep rolling with the tide. "So have you kept in touch?"
"No." The single curt word was flung out with a growl and Blair could almost see the barriers go up around his friend.
Blair's eyebrows shot up in response and he squirmed back around until he was facing the passenger's window again. The thick tree trunks scattered along their route started to take on more shape as the Jeep slowed slightly to compensate for the more pronounced winding of the road. He knew after a few minutes of silence things would return to normal. Jim would pretend as if nothing had happened. Which was fine for the time being. He knew Jim would talk when he was ready. And until that time, they were going to have a good time. He was going to make sure of it.
The musky scent of straw hung low in the air, mingling with the light hint of oats and old, polished leather. The combination took Jim back to his childhood and he stretched his sense of smell further until he caught an odor that seemed out of place. Frowning at the conflicting messages he was receiving, he let his eyes roam over the interior of the stable until they rested on an assortment of bottles sitting on top of a shelf. Staring at the bottle of Sauve shampoo, he put two and two together. Evidently the horse groomer used the popular human shampoo on the manes and tails of the horses in his care. Probably not as uncommon as it might seem.
Reigning his senses back in, Jim leaned against the stable gate, watching as his roommate eyed the black and white pinto coincidentally named Tonto. It was weird how a small thing like a name could hold such meaning. He wasn't even sure if Blair recognized the irony -- a horse named for a brave, trust-worthy sidekick... no, make that partner. The Lone Ranger could trust Tonto not to pull off his mask and Jim knew he could rely on Blair not to reveal his abilities. Heck, the anthropologist was more cautious about protecting the sentinel than the sentinel himself. Looking again at the younger man ogling the spotted horse, he let his gaze shift to the object that held his friend's attention. Tonto seemed like a good match for the anthropologist. Wise and gentle, those were the words the owner had used to describe the animal after Jim's inquiries into temperament. Studying the big black eyes that were taking in both of the men with interest, he had to agree with the description. In fact, he got the feeling nothing escaped the gelding's attention. And from the look on Blair's face, the grad student was happy with the match too.
Placing his hand on the smaller man's back, Ellison propelled him forward away from the stall. "We'll be back, Chief. Let's go check out what's behind door number two."
Blair chuckled. "Yeah, it should be interesting to see what type of horse the owner thought would be a good match for you. But, hey, man, don't worry. If the old nag falls over along the trail, I'll let you walk behind me and......" Knowing it was coming, he ducked to avoid the suspected hand aimed for the back of his head; however, he still caught the gentle tap as he stopped in mid-motion to stare at the humongous stallion in front of him. "Whoa!"
"I think you're supposed to say that after you get on the horse," Jim quipped, removing his hand from the curls he had just rustled after his well-aimed (in his mind anyway) swat.
Rolling his eyes at the continuing depth of his friend's humor, Blair continued to study the sleek black coat and the underlying muscles that bulged against the tight skin. His eyes dropped to the nameplate his hands had found on their own accord--Dream Chaser. Interesting name for a horse. One that showed the bearer was always pursuing what his dreams bestowed upon him, his hopes and aspirations. And yet at the same time Blair felt a small pang of sympathy for the animal, because in a different light it implied the dreamer constantly chased but never caught what he was seeking. Shaking his head at the wayward thoughts and his personification of the horse, he pulled his eyes up from the finely etched lettering to continue his admiration for the stallion. He truly was a magnificent animal. He was big, quite a bit bigger than Tonto. The keen eyes constantly shifted from the two of them to the area behind them as if he was watching for something, yet wanting to keep his eyes on the strangers in his domain. The action reminded him of the man standing beside him, always ready and anticipating anything and everything. His appraisal shifted along the animal's long arched neck then rested on the long, full mane. One thing that isn't like Jim, Blair snickered to himself.
Movement to his left caught Blair's attention and he watched anxiously as Jim leaned slowly over the upper railing. Dream Chaser shifted over to avoid the touch, eyeing the intruder with interest. Sliding over the gate until he was once again within reaching distance of the horse, Jim carefully extended one arm, the palm of his hand turned up, and held it there for a minute before gently cupping the horse's nose and mouth. Another minute passed before the hand slid from around the nose and glided over the neck until it was lightly stroking the front withers. Not long after, the horse seemed to nod his approval of the stranger, and before Blair knew it, Jim had the horse in the nearby grooming area.
Picking up a curry brush, Jim worked the shiny coat until it had an impossibly glossier sheen. As he hung the brush back on the wooden shelf it had come from, he motioned Blair over. "Come here, Chief."
Blair hesitated slightly, wondering if Dream Chaser would be as accepting of him. It had been impressive the way the sentinel had jumped right in and gained the animal's trust. Jim's arm motioned again and the younger man soon found himself sliding up to his roommate. He placed himself a fraction to Jim's right just behind his shoulder as the stallion started to prance nervously from foot to foot.
While reassuring the unsettled stallion with the tone of his voice, Jim reached back and took one of Blair's hands, then glided it softly along the pelt. The muscles bunched underneath their collective touch and Blair jerked his hand away as one of the horse's back legs stomped against the dirt flooring.
Jim sighed and reclaimed the hand, continuing to move it across the animal's side. "You two might as well get acquainted now. It's just going to be the four of us for the next 24 hours." Finally, removing his hand from the top of Blair's, he handed the younger man a brush.
Under Blair's careful ministration, Dream Chaser eventually relaxed and the anthropologist breathed a sigh of relief. "Okay, Jim, I think we have some type of trust thing going on here." He grinned as the brush continued to work its magic beneath his fingers.
"Okay, Chief," Jim interrupted, pleased that the slight nervousness he had detected earlier in the grad student had disappeared, leaving only excitement in its wake. "Let's get a move on. We've only got the horses for the next 24 hours. And we've still got to give Tonto the same attention."
"Right." Blair nodded as he stepped back to stand next to Jim. "One down, one to go."
Damnit! The horse shied slightly to the right as Blair tried for the third time to mount. It was starting to verge on the ridiculous. How hard could it possibly be to get on the back of a four-legged animal that wasn't moving....at least not moving more than a foot or two? It's revenge, that's what it is. Someone is trying to tell me that one Blair Sandburg never was and never is supposed to ride on a stupid, no good for nothing horse. Sighing, Blair leaned his forehead against the soft mane and patted his hand against the coat of the neck. "Sorry, Tonto. No offense."
Jim dropped his head and chuckled. After the second unsuccessful try, he'd pointed out the mounting block in the hopes that they would be able to get started before the next millennium. But the stubbornness on the younger man's face had kept him from pushing. Blair had correctly pointed out that there would be no mounting blocks once they left the stables. Jim had started to volunteer to help if it was needed later, but Blair had cut him off saying he would not be accepting boosts, so it was either now or never. "Swing your leg up," Jim yelled as he watched with amusement from atop his already mounted steed.
He was answered by a low grumbling sound, completely unintelligible to most people, except sentinels. His head still pressed against Tonto's neck, Blair slowly started rolling it from side to side. Swing your leg up. Yeah, right, Jim, why didn't I think of that.
"What was that?" Jim inquired, although he'd deciphered the jumbled words easily.
Frustrated at what he thought would have been such an easy task, Blair fought the urge to yell back. Instead, he calmly picked his head up and sighed. "I said, you made this look so easy."
"Well, it is easy. Just don't stop when you're pulling yourself up." Blue eyes pinned him from across the yard and Jim shrugged, motioning for him to try again. "You're hesitating. You need to go in one fluid motion."
"Now he tells me," Blair grumped. With a deep breath, he turned pleading eyes to Tonto. "I really need to do this now. Mr. 'I'm-on-mine-why-aren't-you' over there is laughing himself silly. What do you say we show them a thing or two about being smaller, but just as good." As the last word left his mouth, Blair placed his foot in the stirrup and swung his right leg over the well-worn saddle. The saddle creaked as his weight pulled against it and before he realized it, he was firmly ensconced in the leather seat. Wiggling to his right, the leather groaned some more before accepting the adjustment. The sound made the reality of his accomplishment seem all the more real and he looked down and slid his foot into the right stirrup. A huge grin was turned to Jim as he settled himself even more. Maybe I'm not jinxed with horses after all. Jim's mouth quirked upward on one side. For some reason nothing could make him smile faster than that look on his partner's face. That look that said 'Look, Jim, I did it!'. Guiding the black stallion next to Tonto, Jim placed a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Ready?" He had spent the last thirty minutes verbally going over the commands and other necessary information before even considering letting his eager partner try to mount. At Blair's nod, he nudged Dream Chaser forward into a slow walk as he waited for his partner to fall into step beside him.
An hour later found Blair rubbing at a way too sore thigh whenever Jim's back was turned. As the anthropologist cast a quick glance at Dream Chaser's rider and shifted backwards in the saddle for the hundredth time to paw at the tender spot, Jim nearly bit his tongue trying to still his laughter. Several comments were running through his mind. Comments that would no doubt make the younger man blush or growl at what he considered Jim's not-so-funny view of the situation. However, it still amazed him that the young man actually thought he could hide his discomfort. Jim didn't need to see the periodic hand movement to know that his friend was getting saddle sore. The tightening of his frame, the short brief winces, and the subtle shifting were all obvious indicators that he was more than ready to take a break.
What the hell. Put the poor guy out of his misery. Knowing his partner would never ask for a reprieve himself, Jim pulled Dream Chaser to a stop and waited as Tonto ground to a halt beside him. The deep, wide valley before them was the perfect spot to stretch their legs. The hottest part of the sun was blocked by the mountains and a gentle breeze rolled through the grass, creating the perfect balance of warmth and coolness. "Hey, Chief. Why don't we stop here for a few minutes?" Taking advantage of the lull in motion, Blair wiggled around, desperately trying to find the best way to sit without bouncing on his throbbing backside when his mind registered that he had been asked something. "Huh?" Jim thumped his right thigh. "I said, let's take a break for a few minutes. Stretch our legs."
"Oh...O.K." Blair breathed a sigh of relief. Truth be told, he was dying to take a breather. His thighs, not to mention his bottom, had been aching for the better part of the last thirty minutes. Distributing his weight for what he hoped would be a nice neat dismount, he stopped and eyed the ground...the very distant ground, at least to his suddenly stiff muscles. He sighed. Getting down would eventually mean having to get back up. I can do this! As a deep breath was pulled in through his nose, he tightened protesting muscles and swung his right leg out behind him until he felt it plop against the ground. Terra Firma! Removing his left foot from the stirrup, he staggered briefly from the effort before finally regaining his legs. And I thought sea legs were hard to acquire.
Already on the ground and watching with quite a bit of amusement, Jim chuckled and reached over to tousle Blair's curls. "A little stiff there?"
"A little," Blair admitted, grimacing as he tried to pull the taunt muscles in his back. "Just as soon as the earth quits moving I should be okay though." Reaching out to recapture the reins he had released during his descent, he stopped as something caught in his peripheral vision. His eyes turned to roam the great expanse to his left, searching for the flicker of movement until they finally settled on the culprit. "Wow!!"
Following the absorbed gaze, Jim found himself staring at the small pack that was in turn watching them with what appeared to be idle curiosity. However, the sentinel could see their muscles bunched and primed to flee at the slightest hint of a threat. "Wolves."
Grabbing Blair's arm, Jim pulled the enthralled young man down to crouch beside him in the tall grass. "Get down."
"What are you doing, man?" Blair asked in slight irritation as he turned to look at the grip on his sleeve. "They won't hurt us. As a matter of fact, I'm sure they're more afraid of us than we are of them."
"I know that, Chief. I just didn't want to spook them off. They're ready to bolt."
"Ohhh. So we're pulling the 'two strange looking beings just disappeared out of nowhere so don't worry' routine." Blair smiled at Jim's reproachful glare. It was nice to see this side of the tough detective, crouching low and studying the pack as its members finally deemed the distraction insignificant and went back to romping in the field. Jim was far from being the cold hard man that people made him out to be. Sure, he could turn a look on you that could chill your bone marrow. But that wasn't who he was. That was a defense or sometimes just a part of the job. Blair had heard the stories about how closed off and hard-hearted Ellison had once been, but he didn't believe it. Well, okay, maybe the closed off part, but not the hard-hearted thing. If anything the man was too soft-hearted. It was simply that no one had ever bothered to look before, to push past the outer shell. Feeling the hand on his arm move to rest in the grass, Blair leaned closer to his partner and returned to watching as two wolves split from the pack and chased each other back and forth in what appeared to be a game of tag.
Several minutes later, after having spent way more energy than any creatures should have available, the pack bounded off, disappearing in the undergrowth that surrounded the meadow.
"That was incredible, man." Blair jumped up and bounced excitedly on his toes, the soreness in his protesting muscles relenting in the face of his enthusiasm. He'd forgotten about the social structure of certain animals, especially wolves. While they had been watching, some of his early undergrad classes had started pushing to the forefront. "Jim, did you know that wolves mate for life? And that they take care of their old until they die? I mean, they're like their own little family unit. The only way one is thrown out of the pack is if they dishonor the alphas." Noting Jim's puzzled expression, he rambled on. "Alphas. They're kinda like the head of the family. The two that watch out for all the others. Make sure they all get fed and are healthy. Course, they're also the only two that get to mate, which has to suck for the rest of the pack. It's truly fascinating now that I think about it. I mean, there are some definite correlations between a wolfpack society and those of some of the earlier tribes." Blair took a deep breath and started pacing. "It sucks!! They get such a bum rap. All those children's stories about the 'big bad wolf'. No wonder people are afraid of them."
"You mean, like the three little pigs?" Jim interrupted, amused and interested, but still trying to forgo what seemed to be the beginning of another lecture. "Personally, I always liked the wolf's version better."
Blair stopped his dizzying back and forth pattern and turned to stare at the detective. "Huh?"
"The wolf's version. I always thought it was more accurate." Jim went on with a serious face. "I really think the poor guy was prosecuted against by the local police, which is kinda sad seeing as how all the poor Big Bad Wolf wanted was a cup of sugar." The detective sighed. "It always hurts worse when a fellow officer gets duped, especially by someone like the Third Little Piggie. Those little pigs must have had the whole department wrapped around their little curly tails."
First shaking his head to make sure he wasn't hallucinating, Blair reached up and placed his right hand on Jim's forehead. "Are you feeling okay, Jim? I mean, I hate to say it, but I think you've been out in the sun a little too long, cause you're making no sense."
When the undergrad finished checking for a temperature and continued to feel around his head, presumably looking for bumps or other signs of head injury, Jim swatted the hand away and sighed in feigned exasperation. "I'm fine Sandburg. Just stating a difference in police protocol. If you want to side with the three little pigs that's fine with me." Shrugging his shoulders, Jim patted Blair's cheek and started toward Dream Chaser.
"Yeah, sure, whatever." While he watched the retreating back, the confused young man searched back, trying to find where he had lost track of the conversation. Coming up empty, he chalked it up as one point for the sentinel. The man was trying to kill him, that's what it was. Now he was going to be replaying the conversation over and over again in his mind until he figured it out. As he turned toward Tonto, he grimaced at the thought of having to mount again. "Great, not only is my partner trying to destroy my mind with nonsense stories about wolves and sugar, I've got to suffer through this not so subtle humiliation again."
"I heard that."
"Nahhh...really?" Blair chuckled.
Rolling his eyes, Jim gestured toward the horse quietly chewing on some grass beside Blair. "Okay smartass. See if I wait half an hour while you wrestle with your buddy there." Jim grabbed his reigns and swung gracefully up onto his horse, watching as Blair stood staring miserably at the simple height of the first leg up.
A mantra started off in the anthropologist's head. 'Don't hesitate...go in one movement...don't hesitate...go in one movement...' Groaning, the young man pulled himself up clumsily until he was sitting in his own saddle. It certainly hadn't been the most graceful moment in his life but he had managed it in one try, stilling any further comments from Jim about having to wait all day on him. Heck, it had been worth it! He grinned, glancing over at Jim.
Raising his arms in triumph, Jim pumped one fist. "He pulls, he tugs, he hefts, he finally sits."
The grin fell into a frown, but it was short-lived as they both broke into laugher.
Jim leaned back on his bedroll and listened to the sounds of the night -- the silent twirping of birds, an occasional hoot from an owl, and the persistent howls of a wolf pack. He assumed the howls were from the earlier pack they had seen and he felt at peace with the soothing rhythm. He could distinguish at least four different, distinct wolves, the timbre of each slightly different from four different locations around him. He found himself wondering what they were communicating back and forth. Were they happy, sad, playing? For some reason he felt that they were just letting each other know they were there, giving vocal cues to reassure each other that they were okay although they were separated. He automatically tuned his hearing into the immediate area around him. Yep, still there. He looked over to the young man on the other side of the campfire, a notebook perched on his propped up knees.
Ensconced in his writings, a slight prickle on the back of his neck finally caused Blair to glance over towards Jim. "Hey, man. What's up?" he asked, when he saw the detective staring at him through the warm glow of the firelight.
Jim shook his head. "Nothing. Just thinking."
"About?" Blair prompted, smoothing the persistent pages back down as the wind rippled them against the breeze for the hundredth time.
Gesturing around him with his head, Jim sighed and propped himself up on one elbow. It was amazing how his partner always seemed to know when he needed to talk. Well, he didn't really need to talk. But it seemed like Blair knew when there was something troubling him and it was almost impossible to derail the line of questioning when it started....But, then, it was always worth a try. "Our friends out there."
"The wolves. I was just listening." Not a lie. The sporadic howling had been going on for over an hour and he really had found it relaxing and intriguing.
Blair set the notebook aside and turned to face the warming fire, his back to the wind as it ruffled his hair forward into his face. Pushing the errant curls back behind his ears, he paused before deciding to play along and wait for the right opening. "I have to admit, I was kind of surprised today when you stopped to watch the pack. I wasn't expecting you to....I mean, I never realized that you liked wolves." Blair chuckled slightly, realizing how stupid the comment had sounded.
"What's not to like, Chief? They're loyal, smart, strong...." One of the wolves howled in the distance breaking into his monologue. "...and vocal like someone else I know," he added, throwing the young man a smile before reaching his arm out to search the ground around him for the stick he had used earlier to stoke the fire.
Blair nodded, warming inside at the off-handed praise. A distant howl caught his attention and the recently acquired warm smile started to slowly droop. "Did you know that wolves were persecuted against for no reason at all? Some stories got started...ranchers considered them a threat and the next thing you know the government is putting bounties out on their heads. And people were down right cruel, man. I mean, setting up pits with poisoned spikes, setting out meat coated in strychnine...Man, I remember this one picture I saw during my undergrad days." Blair scrunched his face up at the memory. "There were all these wolf skins hanging on this small shack in the middle of nowhere and this burly old guy standing beside them, a shotgun in his hand and a big grin on his face. Reminded me of this tribe in Africa that displayed human skulls outside their huts...sort of like trophies. The looks on their faces...." Blair shuddered. "They just looked like they enjoyed it way too much. You know what I mean?"
As he finally spotted the stick slightly out of reach from where he was laying, Jim sat up and grasped the end of it with his fingertips. "Yeah, I do."
Although Jim had responded to his question, Blair had the distinct impression that his friend's mind was far from the conversation. An uncomfortable silence hung heavy over the two men, the howling of the wolves soon forgotten as the anthropologist tried to figure out the best way to ease whatever was on his partner's mind. Worrying his bottom lip between his teeth, he gazed thoughtfully at the furrowed brow creasing Jim's face.
An exasperated sigh accompanied a returned glare. "Would you stop that?!"
"What?" Blair blinked in confusion, unaware he had been staring, his mind too busy trying to come up with something that could have caused his friend's sullen mood.
The stick in Jim's hands thumped in irritation against the dirt outside the encircled campfire. "Looking at me like that. Geesh!" He had known the diversion onto the wolves wouldn't last, but, damn it, he had a right to have his own thoughts and feelings without having to ask his partner's permission.
"Sorry," Blair muttered as he leaned back and pretended to study the constellations. With Jim there were times to push and times to not push. He would definitely put this one in the latter category. However, he had to admit it still hurt when the older man locked him out so completely.
"Look." Jim rubbed at his forehead, the crestfallen expression on Blair's face dispersing most of his irritation. Now if he could just decide if that irritation was really directed at the young man... or at himself. "I've just got a lot on my mind right now. I started thinking about John and it's brought all this stuff back up on me."
His breath catching slightly, Blair felt a small surge of hope that Jim might be willing to finally let him in. "That's okay, man. I understand if you don't want to talk about it. But if you do...."
"Yeah, I know," Jim cut him off, "you're here."
Blair nodded, his eyes still staring vacantly at the murky darkness of the night sky.
There was a brief silence before Jim gave in and resigned himself to the inevitable. "John meant a lot to me and Stephen. He was sorta like the father we didn't have but did have, if you know what I mean. We would spend hours riding and helping around the stables. I was so at ease when I was with him...like with Bud. John seemed to understand that I was different somehow." Jim paused, collecting the thoughts that had been running rampant in his mind for the past several hours. "I never really thought about it before, but I think he knew I was a sentinel. Well, maybe not a sentinel," he hurried on. "But he saw something in me, something that no one else ever did."
A faraway look cast itself across Jim's face and the sadness in the expression almost took Blair's breath. "I remember this one time when we were out riding and Stephen's horse got spooked. I swear I've never seen a horse run so fast... or heard someone scream so loudly. We started after him but before long he was just gone. He disappeared completely. We searched for about 30 minutes before John decided to go back and get help. But as we turned and started back, I heard something. I told John I knew where Stevie was, that I could hear him crying. He didn't believe me at first. He kept telling me that he didn't hear anything and that he had wonderful hearing. But I asked him to trust me, and he did. I led us straight to him." Jim's mouth twitched into a brief smile. "I remember John looking at me in shock and disbelief. But he never doubted me again....not when I told him I heard a lost horse or saw a missing curry brush under a pile of blankets."
The sentinel's eyes took on a cold, hard edge. "Needless to say my dad didn't care too much for John. I don't think I ever realized why until now. He was afraid John would help me realize I was a 'freak'."
The vehemence in Jim's voice made Blair cringe. There was that word again--Freak! He would never understand how a father could call a kid that. Just Jim's use of the word in reference to himself made Blair's hackles rise. Pushing his emotions down, he held his tongue. Jim was on a roll and needed to get it out and he would not interrupt.
"It didn't take long for dear ole dad to put an end to that. He basically ran John out of town about a month later. They didn't know I was there...that I could hear them. Dad had gotten John fired, friends of friends or something like that. It wasn't a secret. Dad and John had squared off several times over me for one reason or another that year. So John came to the house to confront him about his abrupt dismissal." Jim rubbed at the tension lines residing at his temples and sighed sadly. "My dad...he never once lost his cool. He calmly told John to stay away from me and Stephen or he'd have a restraining order placed on him and he would have no choice but to let Sally go." Jim glanced over at Blair who was now watching him, a confounded frown on his face. For some reason Jim felt the sudden need to jump to his dad's defense or at least reduce the disapproval radiating from his friend. "I don't think he would have fired Sally. But John didn't know that and there was no way he would have risked it. He knew how much Stephen and I meant to her, not to mention the stability she had acquired. So he left. I never saw him again. He didn't even say good-bye."
Jim shifted uncomfortably on the hard ground, using the stick in his hands to relentlessly stoke the fire. "It was about a week later when Stephen asked why we weren't going to the stables. I was so mad that he had brought it up." Jim sighed and poked the fire harder. "I remember jerking away from him and telling him that 'riding was for sissys' and that we were never going back. He wouldn't speak to me for a month after that and even then he seemed a little more distant, like we had lost some vital bonding experience. Before long I didn't even remember the argument between Dad and John. Heck, I honestly thought that riding was for sissies. How could I have forgotten that?" Jim shook his head in frustration. "Until earlier today, I honestly thought John had just taken off without a word. That maybe I had done something wrong." Tapping the stick against a rock at the edge of the campfire, Jim stole a brief glance up at the sky Blair had found so interesting before. "And that is how, once again, my dad stepped in and destroyed something...and someone...that could have had a positive impact on me. Someone who might have been able to help me discover and deal with these senses earlier."
Anger welled up in Blair at the way Jim's father had tried to destroy all the positive influences on his son and how once again it had led the sentinel to not only blame himself, but repress the hurtful memories. The urge to voice his thoughts on the matter rose to the forefront and Blair started to say something, but suddenly slammed his mouth shut. How was he supposed to respond? He hadn't really thought about what would have happened if Jim had gained control of his senses early on. And he didn't want to. His mind raced, searching for something to say in the awkward moment, and he asked the first thing that popped into his head. "So when did you start riding again?" Blair dropped his head slightly as he heard the words that had spilled out of his own mouth. Lame, Sandburg, he berated himself.
Not seeming to realize the stupidity of the question, Jim grinned. "The army. I did quite a bit of riding while I was training in North Carolina. Several of the men there rode and I certainly couldn't tell the guys I bunked with that riding was for sissies."
Blair raised his eyebrows at the possible consequences if Jim had done just that. "No. Guess not. Not the best way to make new friends....and stay in one piece."
The fire cracked as silence once again wove around them, each lost in their own thoughts. The minutes ticked by slowly, drawing out longer and longer until finally a small yawn escaped from behind a concealing hand.
The gesture really had been pointless. Even if Blair had successfully covered the yawn from view, the sentinel would have still heard the deep inhalation. "Go to sleep, Chief."
"But Jim...." Blair's brain felt like mush pudding and he couldn't piece together anything to say that would ease some of what Jim was feeling. However, at the same time he wasn't comfortable with going to sleep after what he had heard, at least not while his partner sat awake...alone.
"Go. To. Sleep. No arguments. I'm fine. And you look exhausted."
Blair certainly couldn't argue that fact. Maybe he would be more useful in the morning when he was firing on all cylinders. For now he'd let Jim win...but only for now. "That's because I feel like my backside went twenty rounds with a Zituain dancing girl."
Jim raised a questioning eyebrow as the anthropologist made a show out of rubbing his left butt cheek.
"Uhm...trust me man, you don't wanta know," he chuckled as he brushed the reference off. Rearranging the blankets around his legs, he settled down and turned his back toward Jim, willing his friend to get some of his own well needed rest. However, minute after minute passed and, hearing no movement, he flopped over to stare at the man engrossed with the flames dancing sporadically in the slight breeze. "Jim? You going to sleep?"
Continuing to stare at the flaming circle in front of him, he slowly shook his head. "Nah, I'm not sleepy, besides I don't think I could if I wanted to. Too much on my mind. But you...." he said, pulling the stick in his hands from the campfire and pointing it at the man in question, "....sleep. We have a big day tomorrow. We have to have the horses back early."
Knowing Jim didn't want an audience, Blair turned back over. But the sleep that had tried so hard to claim him seconds earlier was now far out of reach. He needed to get Jim's mind off of his father..... He needed to get him to relax so he could sleep... so they both could sleep.
"Hey, Jim?" he called softly over his shoulder, a plan niggling at his edges of his mind.
Jim poked his stick absently into the glowing fire and sighed. "Yeah?"
"I think I want to use my other IOU."
Glancing up from his routine of jab, twirl, jab, Jim wondered what the younger man was planning. Hopefully not anything too strenuous or taxing, he simply didn't feel up to extending his senses tonight. He just wanted the constant bombarding memories of John to stop so he could have some peace.
The blankets across the fire wiggled and rolled, and he watched as Blair turned over and grinned at him from beneath the mop of curls cascading down his face. However, the grin did nothing to reassure him, in fact, it made him that much more weary of what was coming. But a promise was a promise. If the kid wanted to cash in his other Christmas present, the least he could do was hold true to his word and try to make it as painless as possible for them both. "Okay, shoot." He removed the glowing tip of the stick from the fire and twirled it in the sooty ash by his feet.
Blair chuckled to himself at the hesitant look on his partner's face. "Don't worry, Jim. It won't hurt," he teased.
"That's what they all say, Chief, right before they lay it to you."
As he climbed from beneath his hovel, Blair rolled his eyes, then moved around to sit next to the sentinel. "You are such a pessimist. Have I ever led you wrong?...okay, don't answer that." Waving one hand to detract the question, he reached behind them and spread Jim's blanket out, motioning for him to lean back.
"Sandburg," Jim groaned, suddenly regretting not whacking the anthropologist over the head with his stick while he had had it. Speaking of which, he looked around for the missing branch he had been holding moments earlier to find it being reduced to kindling and tossed into the flames. How the..?
Blair dusted his hands off on his jeans and lightly grasped the older man's shoulders. "Jim...humor me. OK?"
Staring at the smoking embers of his 'worry' stick, Jim laid back with a 'hmffph' and crossed his arms over his chest. "What now, Dr. Jeckyll?"
"Man," Blair moaned, "you can be the most....never mind." Taking a deep breath, Blair looked up at the cloudless sky and smiled. Mother Nature was definitely on his side. It was breathtaking. "Okay, Jim, just try to relax." He waited as Jim took a cleansing breath. "Now...I want you to count the stars."
"What?" Jim tried to shoot up from his reclining position but found himself back on the ground as Blair held him down. "Sandburg, there are millions of them!"
Having expected the outburst, Blair replied in a calm voice. "I realize that Jim. But I want to see how many you see. Just find a good spot and start counting."
Jim glared at the young man leaning over him. He'd never figure out how his partner's mind worked. "This is silly, Sandburg. What is it supposed to prove anyway?"
Not rising to the bait, Blair simply slumped his shoulders in dejection, hoping the detective wouldn't see past his facade. "No complaining, Jim. Remember?"
The kid is definitely good. "Fine. Hope you're ready for a long night." Stretching out on his back, Jim placed his folded arms under his head and started counting in a bored monotone. "One... two.... three.... four.... five.... six....."
In what had to be an eternity later, Jim was still counting and Blair was finding it harder and harder to keep his eyes open. The night air whipped against his flannel shirt and he longed for nothing but a warm bed and some sleep. Well, that and one other thing actually. Groaning, he glanced over at the sentinel before dropping his head in his lap. Still awake.
The voice continued in the same pattern, number after number after number. ".....1057.... 1058 .......... 1059.................... 1060..................... 1061.................... 1063."
1062! There was no 1062! A small spark of hope jumped in Blair's chest. Maybe... maybe... maybe. Studying Jim's eyelids as if they would determine the fate of the world, he finally saw them start to drop closer and closer together. Almost....almost! Gotcha! he cheered to himself as the blue orbs suddenly disappeared from view. That sure took long enough. Taking a moment to study the sentinel's face, the younger man noted the absence of the tension lines that had developed earlier, the arms that were now resting loosely on the slowly rising and sinking stomach. Reaching across, he carefully pulled the other half of the blanket over top of his partner and softly tucked it underneath. Successful in his endeavor, he was only halfway surprised that the movement hadn't awakened the detective, but he was definitely 100 percent glad it hadn't.
Sleep tugged at him harder and using the last of his energy, he stumbled back to his own makeshift bed and snuggled underneath the cold blankets. A persistent shiver rivaled against the chill that had crept into his bones. But it didn't matter because he was fast asleep before he had a chance to notice.
Jim awoke with a start, immediately registering the warm body nestled against his back. Turning his head slightly, he peeked over his shoulder to try and figure out how the anthropologist had managed to move the four or five feet that had been between them when the night had started. He sighed at the mass of tangled curls pressed against the small of his back and the curled up shape huddled as close to him as humanly possible. He couldn't recall going to sleep, but he did remember counting...counting all the freakin stars in the sky! Jim chuckled to himself. Blair had done it again. He didn't know how long it had taken, but he was definitely grateful for the few hours of sleep he had gotten, hours he knew he would have spent tossing and turning without Blair's ploy.
Resigned to the fact that his partner was probably going to stay practically glued to his backside, trying to evade the coolness of the night, he repositioned his head back on the makeshift pillow of his folded arms. The warm cushion pressed across his upper back seemed to grow with each passing second. Concentrating on the tendrils of heat that seemed to be radiating from the contact, he started to drift off. But once again he was pulled to attention. Focusing in on the night noises, he tried to determine the source of the disturbance. Then he heard it, a soft whining sound. Propping himself up on one elbow, he tuned his hearing in the direction the pained sound was coming from.
From behind him, underneath the jumbled up blanket, a protest was mumbled in displeasure at being jarred from a restful sleep. Shimming down further in the bedroll to replace the sudden loss of heat, Blair groaned as he realized the sentinel was focusing on something, something that had him on the alert. Sighing, his shoulders slumped, he pulled his head from the covers and tossed his hair out of his face as best as he could without pulling his hands out from underneath the small pocket of residing warmth. "Jim?" he called in a voice heavy with sleep, eyes squinting through the darkness, aided only slightly by the soon to rise sun.
"Shhh." Jim held up a hand to signal quiet.
Blair shuffled groggily to a sitting position, hugging the covers to him, and drew one hand out to place on Jim's shoulder.
Recognizing the familiar contact, the detective snapped his attention back to his immediate surroundings. His eyes, however, remained scanning the murky darkness. "Do you hear that? It sounds like a horse."
With a disbelieving glance at Jim, Blair shook his head in an attempt to free his mind from the hold sleep still claimed --a wasted gesture since Jim couldn't see the movement behind him. "A horse? I don't think we're in any immediate danger from a horse."
Jim shot Blair a scathing look, then rose to his feet. "Not us -- IT!" Not waiting for a response, he took off, leaving Blair to try to figure the riddle out on his own.
Having raised one hand to rub at his bleary eyes, the anthropologist hadn't noticed the abrupt departure. "Jim what are you talking about?" Not receiving an answer, he took one final swipe at his clouded vision and looked up -- to find empty space. "Oh man." Blair groaned as he reluctantly threw the warmth of the bedroll aside and trotted after the fast disappearing sentinel.
"Damn it!" Blair muttered as he stumbled over another rock. The sun was starting to rise, but darkness still hung over the valley floor. And in his haste to keep up with the driven detective, he was sorely losing in his efforts to avoid the obstacles crossing his path. However, his mad dash ended abruptly when he unexpectedly careened into Jim's back.
"Do you ever watch where you're going?" Jim growled after nearly losing his footing from the impact.
Having grabbed onto a muscular arm to avoid landing on his backside, the winded observer gave the limb a sharp tug. "Not all of us have sentinel vision, man. Besides, do you always have to stop on a dime with no warning? What's up with you anyway?"
Jim pointed to a dark mound about fifteen feet in front of them, silhouetted against the first rays of the morning sun as it finally peeked out from the east. "There. She's in trouble."
"Who?" Blair asked, his heart suddenly pounding as he tried to see the woman Jim was referring to.
"Not a who, a what.....the horse," Jim answered briskly. "Haven't you been paying attention?"
"Uh, I hate to break it to you, but cryptic comments about horses and danger, followed by a jaunt through the middle of the night...which reminds me...." Sandburg punched Jim's arm lightly, "....next time wait up. I must have killed at least three fairly decent-sized rocks chasing after you." Blair rubbed at his left shin as he remembered the rock that had side-swiped him. "So just to clear things up, on very little sleep I might add, how was I supposed to know it was a horse that was in...." Blair stopped his defense, finally registering what Jim had said. "What do you mean she's in trouble?"
"Come on," Jim whispered, ignoring the question as he continued toward the heavily panting mare. He widened his field of vision as he approached, searching for the rest of the herd of wild mustangs. However, all he found were numerous sets of hoof prints leading to and from the desperate mother-to-be. Reaching the animal's prone form, he knelt down and gently placed his hands against the heaving side, immediately noting the problem. "The foal is turned wrong."
"What!?! How can you...." Blair leaned over the sentinel's shoulder. "Oh, man!" he groaned at the one back leg protruding awkwardly from the birth canal.
Jim cringed at the task ahead of them, but they really had no choice, not if they wanted mare and foal to live. "We're going to have to turn it." Jim started rolling up his long sleeves.
"Jim!" Blair watched nervously as more and more of the older man's arms were exposed underneath the rolled up flannel. "Have you done this before? I mean, do you even know what you're doing?"
"That's real encouraging, Jim." Blair ran a slightly shaking hand through his hair. I can't believe we're going to do this!
"Yeah," Jim agreed, distractedly, his jaw squared. "Look, all you've got to do is roll your sleeves up, stick your hands--along with the leg-- in, turn the baby around and let nature take it from there. Easy enough."
Blair looked disgustedly at the man kneeling beside him as if he had sprouted another head. "Sure, right, that's all I've got to...WAIT!! Me!? Why me? You're the one with the sensitive fingers, man!"
"Nuh huh." Blair shook his head and raised both hands in protest. "No way, no how."
"Listen, Chief," Jim tried in a calm, rational, and what he hoped was a convincing tone. "Someone has to soothe the mare. And I think she's comfortable with me already." To emphasize, he ran one hand along the sweat-covered side. "Besides, your hands are smaller." Okay, it was a silly argument, but there was no way he wanted to put his hands where human hands should never dare to go.
Good try, bucko. But no score. Points for trying, though. Blair grinned and laughed lightly. "Well, my hands aren't that much smaller and she can just get used to me. Soothing is my department. You take care of....that." Blair gestured roughly to the hind end of the horse as he gave Jim a nudge in that direction.
Great. "You owe me one, Sandburg," Jim growled as he shifted around to study his new assignment.
"Yeah, well....Gladly." Positioning himself by the mare's neck, the anthropologist turned his attention to his own task. As he ran one hand in a caress down the sweat-slicked neck, he cooed softly, "It's okay. Everything is going to be just fine. Uncle Jim will take care of everything."
Shooting the younger man a deadly glare, Jim gently bent the foal's back leg forward until it was folded and, with a deep breath and a muttered curse, he slid the hand holding the appendage inside the birthing cavity. Both men grimaced at the sickening, wet sound; however, Jim's attention remained firmly centered on the task at hand, the dial on his sense of touch turned almost as high as it would go.
The mare pawed restlessly at the air as Blair stroked the dirt-ridden mane. Leaning closer, he pressed the weight of his body across the muscular withers. Relief flooded through him that he didn't have to wrestle with the thousand pound animal as the exhausted mare slumped back to the ground. He glanced back at his partner, his lithe hands continuing their constant motion against the trembling flesh.
At the other end of things, Jim was not having the best of luck. He wondered for the umpteenth time why he had thought he could do something about the unfortunate birth. It had definitely sounded easier when he had said it. Sure the stray leg was back inside, but turning the foal around was another story entirely. The warm, wetness of the task kept distracting him in his attempts to find the best part of the foal to actually turn.
"Almost," he grunted as he shifted to a crouch. Having found a good handhold, he slowly rotated the foal to what he thought was 180 degrees. As he started to withdraw his hand, the top of the foal's head appeared along with it, causing Jim to promptly land on his butt in the grass.
"You did it!" Blair's eyes were wide in wonder as he looked back to see the membrane coated foal on the ground next to the stunned detective.
Finally shaking himself from his stupor, Jim reached forward and gently removed the bloody tissue clinging around the weakly flailing newborn. Task completed, he sat back to watch while brushing his hands and arms in the tall grass in a futile attempt to clean them.
Blair, having risen from his previous position, reached down to give the mare one final pat before cautiously skirting around the pair and sitting down a few feet to Jim's right. Throwing his partner a huge grin, he, too, turned to watch the newest member of the Montana wilderness.
The newborn vainly attempted to rise several times before it was finally up on wobbly knees. Then it was standing on shaky legs. After looking around at its audience, the foal stumbled to its momma before once again tumbling to its knees. The mare, after sniffing satisfactory at the trembling bundle beside her, laid her head back down with an appreciative nicker.
Fifteen minutes later, the mare standing and the new colt sucking greedily, Jim drew himself to his feet. He had found himself lost in the scene before him for several minutes, willing the foal to stand on its own and the mare to recover. Now that he was sure they would be okay, he and his partner had to get back on the trail. "We should be heading out. We've still got a long way to go."
"Yeah," Blair agreed as he moved to gather his legs under him. As a stained hand was held before him in a silent gesture of help, Sandburg climbed to his feet on his own, wrinkling his nose at the out-stretched hand. "No offense, man. But please don't touch me."
Pulling the arm back suddenly as if slapped, Ellison blankly inspected the dark, dried crusting still clinging tenaciously to his skin and arm hair. Without a backwards glance, he dropped his arm to his side then turned and headed off in the direction of their camp. "Oh, yeah, you owe me big time," he muttered, quelling his evil thoughts of grabbing the younger man's loose shirt and ridding himself of some of the thick coating.
"Ow! That's hot, Sandburg!"
Blair rolled his eyes at the uncooperative ex-covert ops ranger. For someone that was supposed to be trained and able to withstand various techniques of extreme torture, the man sure could shout and squirm with the best of them. "I know it's hot. Do you want that stuff off your arms or what?" Dipping the rag in the steaming water again, Blair twisted the remaining liquid out as best he could before surrendering it to the hand that grabbed for it.
"I want it off, Chief, but I'd like to keep the skin," he grumbled as he swathed the cloth over his left forearm, instantly jerking it back with two fingers. "Did you have to boil it so long? I'm starting to feel like a lobster here."
"Grumble, grumble. That's it! I give up. It's not that hot! I cooled it off some." Blair plopped the pot on the ground in front of Jim and threw his hands in the air. Sometimes it was just easier to acquiesce. "I'm going to go get my stuff together. You're on your own, man."
"Yeah, well." Jim grimaced as the water brushed his arm again. He had to admit it wasn't really all that hot and it was actually working now that he could make contact with his skin for longer than half a second. "Why don't you go ahead and get mounted. By the time you get on Tonto, I'll probably be waiting on you anyways."
Already halfway to their scattered bedrolls, Blair turned and studied his partner with an evil glare as the detective stood up and removed the rag from the bucket once again. When Jim finally made eye contact, Blair noticed the amused expression and shook a finger at him. "You're such a riot, Jim."
"You know we could have just taken the horses out again, Chief," Jim snickered, watching as Blair squirmed uncomfortably in the passenger's seat of the jeep. He could only imagine the black and blue bruises the inexperienced rider had received after the many hours of constant riding.
Blair glared at the smug man, who seemed to be enjoying the drive up the pot-hole laden road a little too much. "Yeah, right, man. I'm sure that would have been much more comfortable." He gestured towards their supplies in the back of the jeep. "Besides, where would we have put the fishing gear?"
"Good point." Jim smiled to himself, enjoying the wind caressing his skin as it whipped through the open jeep. He had wheedled and begged until his young partner, sore backside and all, had finally relented to go fishing, and he had to admit he was more than a little eager to try out the new fishing rod Blair had given him for Christmas. "It's a good thing that guy at the Shining Star knew of a good place." A mischievous glint sparkled in Jim's eyes. "We might have been driving around for hours looking for the perfect spot otherwise."
Blair hissed as the front wheel on his side bounced roughly over a particularly large hole. "Ow, man! You're doing that on purpose!" Blair glowered as he braced his arms against the frame of the vehicle and shifted onto his other butt-cheek. "You keep it up, and all deals are off. No fishing, no relaxing....just tests, Jim. Lots and lots of tests."
Chuckling under his breath, Jim tossed Blair an innocent look. "What? I didn't hit it intentionally, Sandburg."
"Uh huh. What? You didn't see it, Jim? Tell that to someone who doesn't know better." Turning to watch the scenery in front of them, he caught sight of a large washboard area in the road, an area that the jeep seemed to subtly be veering towards. "You better not hit that, man. Or..."
The steering wheel turned sharply to the left, avoiding the rough patch at the last minute. A smile tickled its way onto the detective's face and he decided to just go with it and shrugged. "Sorry. I don't know what came over me."
"You don't know what came over you?!" Blair reached over and swatted the closest arm. "You know what, Jim. I have three words for you - - Payback. Is. Hell."
"Wooee!!" Jim's cheer echoed through the lazy late afternoon air as he pulled yet another trout from the thigh-deep water. "I think that's five for me and...let's see...none for you," he gloated, dangling the large fish in front of the shocked anthropologist.
"You're enjoying this entirely too much," Blair grumbled as he treaded his way out of the lapping water and flopped down on the riverbank. "Can't eat 'em anyway. I just don't get this catch and release thing, Jim. What's the point of catching them if you don't eat 'em?" Blair squinted through the sun's setting rays toward the back presented to him, watching as Jim gently released the trout and vigorously tossed his line in again.
"Fun, Chief. It's relaxing." He shrugged as he reeled the slack in on his line and smirked at the leer he was receiving. There was no way he could resist saying it. "Well, it's relaxing to those of us who actually catch something anyways."
Jim's attention back on reeling in the next 'big one', Blair stuck his tongue out and started unbuttoning his fishing vest, intending to spread out on his back and enjoy the warmth of the cloudless day while the 'great fisherman' continued his fish fest.
"I saw that," Jim announced, never having turned around.
Blair rolled his eyes. The man knew him entirely too well. Releasing the last button, he hunkered out of the material sprinkled with various sizes and colors of lures and set it down beside him. His eyes closed, he leaned back on the shoreline and shifted his favorite fishing hat down to cover his eyes.
Before long, the quiet of the evening and the peacefulness of the setting, had the anthropologist's mind wandering back to a moment of his childhood that he had always hoped to forget. But it didn't seem near as important any more. "Thanks, Jim."
The soft words almost slipped by, blending with the soothing whirl of the waters around the sentinel. "For what?" Jim turned to look questioningly at the observer who was peering out from beneath his hat and struggling to a sitting position.
"For this." Blair gestured around them. "For taking the time to come out here and teach me how to ride." Pausing, Blair lowered his eyes to study a white rock he had absently started fingering. "I know you think it's silly, but it really means a lot to me."
Befuddled by the sudden change in his partner's demeanor, Jim pulled his line in and watched the varying expressions chase themselves across Blair's face. "I don't think it's silly, Chief. Although I have to admit I'm curious as to why it was so important to you."
Letting the rock slip back to the ground, the young anthropologist rested his eyes on the curious blue orbs of his roommate. "It's no big deal, really. I just always wanted to ride when I was younger. When I was growing up I was actually around several people that had horses. We even lived on a horse farm for a couple of weeks. But Naomi would never let me. I was either too young or too small. She always told me to wait until I was older and she would find the most perfect horses ever and we would ride against our boundaries, free like the wind." His hat now in his hands, he turned his attention to the floppy brim. "When I started high school in Texas, there was this girl, Amanda. She was incredible. Only problem was her old boyfriend hadn't taken the hint that it was over yet."
Jim grimaced at the thoughts that were already racing through his mind. He had a feeling he knew where the story was heading. Blair and women were almost always a painful combination.
A loose thread on his hat caught the observer's attention and he started to pick at it slowly. "So one day while Amanda and I were talking, he comes up and starts pushing me around. Saying things like I was trying to take his girl and that I was sneaking around behind his back. Then he challenges me. I don't know what possessed me at the time...except that she was really good looking, man." Blair glanced up and smiled lightly. "But I accepted. Come to find out, his dad owned a horse ranch and the 'challenge' thing in that area was horse-racing." The anthropologist swallowed hard, his fingers finally freeing the errant thread. "I remember looking up at the horse and then scanning the narrow trail they had designated as the layout for the race. It ran along this high bluff. A straight drop." Blair demonstrated with his hands. "I chickened out, man. Simple as that. I turned around and walked off with Amanda watching. Luckily for me, Naomi decided she wanted to go back to Cascade so we moved the next week. I don't think I could have faced those kids any longer. Not with the whispering and pointing that was going on behind my back."
The thought of a young, inexperienced Blair getting up on a horse for the first time to race against some hot-headed teenager, not to even mention the bluff, was enough to send chills down the detective's spine. "Chief, I...."
"No, it's okay, Jim. I'm fine with it now...really. I got my do-over, thanks to you." He grinned as he perched the worn hat back on his head. "I've always felt like I let that moment of doubt beat me. I realize that I was young and inexperienced and that it would have been incredibly stupid of me to have gotten on that horse. I would have probably broken my neck. But, I don't know, I feel better now somehow. I know it makes no sense but it's like by finally getting on a horse, by getting this second opportunity, I'm not that chicken anymore. Funny, huh?"
"Not at all." Jim reassured the blue eyes waiting for an answer. "You know, Chief, sometimes you can find peace of mind in the most bizarre places. And if a do-over does it for you, then so be it. You did the right thing, you know." At Blair's nod, Jim whipped his pole back and let the string glide against the air before it plunked into the clear water. "We're a pair, aren't we?"
"Yeah, we are." Blair chuckled, realizing Jim was referring to the childhood memories they had both shared the last 24 hours. "But a pair of what?"
"Fishermen at the moment." Jim paused. "Well, one of us anyway."
"Ha ha, man." Deciding that fishing was definitely not on his agenda for a while, Blair started working his way out of the restrictive hip waders. Task accomplished, he pulled his knees up, resting his forearms on top of them. It was time to finish their earlier conversation. "Jim, about last night. I just wanted to..."
Jim waved his hand dismissively and shot his friend an 'it's not important' look. "It's alright." And surprisingly, it wasn't a flippant statement made to cover his feelings, he really meant it. He'd held onto his anger at himself and his dad over what had happened with John for far too long. If Blair could conquer his childhood 'misgivings' by getting into a saddle, then he could too. He wasn't sure what his saddle was yet, but he knew he'd find it, especially if he had a little help...and he knew he'd have that whenever he needed it.
"Really, man. If you want to talk more..."
"Nah," Jim smiled. "Everything is fine...just fine. Besides, my saddle isn't all that bad right now. It actually feels pretty good."
Blair eyed his beaming friend quizzically, not understanding the odd reference. But the smile on the older man's face cleared all the doubts that had been lingering in his mind. The young observer had experienced his share of Ellison brush-offs, but they had never been accompanied with that type of smile. Whatever had happened over the past 24 hours to put his friend's mind at ease was unclear, but it didn't matter, because it had worked. And Blair was grateful for that. Settling back, he let the warm sun caress his face as he thought back to the day before. "You know, Jim. I've been thinking. We should probably name the horse. Don't ya think? I mean, we did help bring it into the world. The least we could do is name it." Not waiting for an answer, he started rattling off possibilities. "I was thinking Inca or maybe Ik, the Mayan God of the Wind...."
Studying the chattering grad student, Jim felt a small tug at his heart. The kid's mind never
stops. He gazed down at the fishing rod, held rigidly in his hand, and turned it over. The sun
reflected off the small golden plaque and although he already knew them by heart, his eyes
caressed each word along the slim band.
The best friend, roommate, and partner a guy could ask for.
Jim shuddered as an unexpected thought struck him from out of no where -- the idea that things could have very easily turned out wrong. Reality was scary, destiny even scarier. If just one thing in his life had been different -- his senses, his father's acceptance, John's continued influence -- then his life would have probably turned out totally different. Looking over at Blair, who was still rambling on and on about Mayan gods and, for some reason, mating rituals, he realized the opportunity... the friendship... before him now might not have ever existed.
"So what do you think? Jim? Earth to Jim?" Recognizing that Jim was simply lost in thought and not zoning, Blair stood up, slipped on his hip waders and made his way back through the cool water to his partner's side. "You okay, man?"
"Yeah, yeah." Jim smiled down at Blair, flicking a few drops of water from the fingers of one hand into the young man's face before tugging the brim of the floppy hat down over Blair' eyes. "I was just thinking about what you were saying earlier about 'opportunity'."
Using one hand to wipe at the annoying wetness and the other to reposition his hat, Blair glared up at his smug friend. Not saying a word, he carefully removed the fishing rod from the confused sentinel's hands then patted him on the shoulder. "That's good, man. I'm glad you've been thinking about it." Excitement and mischief danced in the deep blue eyes. "Because I see a perfect opportunity right now."
"Yeah?" Jim cocked his head, listening to the rapid beating of his partner's heart.
Blair nodded. "Hmm..hm."
"And what's that?"
"Revenge Jim, sweet revenge." With a gentle, but effective, shove, Blair sent Jim backpeddling in the water to land with a loud splash that rained down upon the startled detective's head.
"Sandburggggg!!!" Jim sputtered in indignation, water soaking him from head to toe. As his waders started to take on water, he worked to get his feet under himself.
Sandburg shrugged innocently, backing away slowly, as Jim floundered in the water. "Sorry Jim. I don't know what came over me. Try not to scare away all the fish, will ya?"
"I know what's gonna come over you," Jim threatened. Finally regaining his footing, he stared down at the water-logged material that weighed heavily against his attempts at forward movement. Tugging against the pull of gravity, he slogged through the stream, intent on his target.
"Oops!!" Blair laughed and turned to charge out of the water. Unfortunately, his haste cost him, his foot skidding across a slippery rock and sending him to his knees. Glancing back, he almost doubled over in laughter at the picture of Jim waddling toward him. However, he quickly realized his mistake. Although the detective was muddling at a snail's pace, he had closed the distance between them to almost nothing. Surging upward, he fumbled a few steps before plowing his way to shore. Not looking back, he paused briefly to place the fishing rod on the ground, unaware that he had emerged only two steps in front of Jim.
Already flexing his fingers in anticipation, Jim reached out and felt the rough flannel of Blair's shirt beneath the palm of his hand. Grinning in triumph, he wondered why some people never learned.
The atmosphere around the river changed drastically -- the twittering of birds was silenced, the scurrying animals stopped to listen, the wind seemed to halt all movement. Silence reigned, except for a deep chuckle and resounding 'Uncle' that played throughout the trees. Several minutes passed, until the strange noises finally lost the interest of their audience. Returning to their previous activities, the residents of the valley let the frolicsome sounds blend in with the gurgling stream and the whispering trees as natural as any other.
NOTES: Hopefully I portrayed the breach birthing semi-correctly. I know I probably simplified it a lot, but I'm not a horse expert and I tried to explain it enough without getting too involved. So just take it with a grain of salt.
I know nothing of Montana. Never been there, though I've been trying to get there for some time.
And last, but not least, there really is another story about those 'three little pigs'. The story Jim was referring to is called The 'True' Story of the Three Little Pigs' by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. Just don't ask me how Jim knows about this much newer version of the fable. That would be an entirely different story. *g*
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