Love Bytes - Akablonded

"The pessimist says: Be careful what you wish for - you just might get it. The optimist says: Be grateful what you wish for - you just might get it."

Blair Sandburg

"Oh, man, no. No, no, nonononononono! This cannot be happening!"

The ethers in the office/broom closet were disturbed by gut-wrenching lowing and anguished moaning from a soul in torment, that soul belonging to teaching assistant Blair Jacob Sandburg. The torment being supplied by the Torquemada of the new millennium: an old, old, OLD computer, which had seen fit to crash and burn at the worst possible moment. Two days and nights of the mind-numbing, spirit-breaking, bone-cracking slalom through freshman detritus of Anthropology 101 finals and preparing to enter grades to finish the semester -- all down the proverbial crapper. In the blink of an eye, Blair Sandburg watched his blood, sweat, and tears disappear into the cyber hell of a crashed computer system. With no backup in sight, all he could see was his misery-filled reflection in the dark, unflickering monitor screen.

Of course, it had just been a matter of time. Computers ear-marked for non-tenured personnel were, as STAR TREK's Spock once observed like working with equipment that was, "not much better than stone knives and bear skins."

Damned Vulcan knew of what he spoke. Sandburg reckoned the Methuselah of microprocessors commanding prime space on his desk was ancient enough to feel comfortable in the Paleontology labs around the corner.

Tough and unfair was his world. (The only thing worse, by Sandburg's own admission, was cold and wet.)

As a teaching assistant in the Anthropology Department of Rainier University, Blair Sandburg wasn't the lowest man/woman/human on the academic totem pole. There had to be somebody lower, but Blair had never met him/her personally.

Being at the bottom of the academic food chain relegated Sandburg and some of his other unfortunate colleagues to "alwegots", as in "It's all we got."

Such was the life of a poor student/teacher: Hobson's choices day after day after day. And the take-it-or-leave-it nature of his existence on a multitude of levels was beginning to work on the usually easy-going Blair Sandburg's nerves.

The only place he'd scored in the "win" column was being assigned a first-rate part-time secretary/gofer/shoulder to cry on. And "all" of them were screamed for, at once. "Maggie, come here! Please!" Blair needed the inestimable help of one Margaret MacNamara - a strawberry blonde tornado -- and her uncanny ability to get things actually moving through the academic maze.

"God, Mr. Sandburg! What's wrong?" The small wisp of a woman came running from an even-smaller office across the hall.

"Wrong? You want to know what's wrong? Just that this no-good P.O.S.'s crashed - AGAIN -- and I can't get it to reboot! Jesus! Look at this! It's damned dead in the water! Grades are due tomorrow! I am royally screwed! It's fubar, man! Fubar!"

"Is that Latin or Greek?"

"Neither. You don't want to know." Spouting a litany of curses and random scatological references as he struck key after key on the helpless keyboard, Sandburg painted the air a particularly vibrant shade of blue. Somewhere in the Monet palette, Maggie guesstimated.

Finally, her calmer head prevailed. "Take it easy, Mr. Sandburg! I'll just get somebody to come over from the Tech Center and -"

"Kick this no-name, hard drive machine in its -"

"Jeez, Mr. Sandburg. Chill, will you?" Maggie shot back, as she picked up the phone, dialing the number from memory. While she waited for someone to answer on the other end, the formidable Mrs. MacNamara continued a running dialogue with the hyper kinetic teacher. "God, you're really wired for sound, aren't you? How many espressos did you have today? You on some serious medication that I should know about?" The question brought Blair Sandburg's normal good nature back online despite the seriousness of the situation. As he collapsed back into the well-worn desk chair, his long, auburn curls snaked around like some avante garde dance troupe. Little by little, Sandburg's face reverted to its pre-meltdown state. To Maggie's way of thinking, it was handsome. Her sometimes-boss was, in fact, a handsome man. Lots of the students she knew who'd taken his classes over the years tagged the personable young teacher as just drop-dead gorgeous. (Even though he'd cornered the market on bad plaid flannel, anybody with half an eye knew that Blair Sandburg "cleaned up real nice.")

But there was more, much more to Blair Sandburg. Housed in a sturdy, 5'8", 160 lb. ergonomic package, he had what philosophers used to call an old soul, which made him a compassionate, caring human being. Blair's "animus" was forever spilling out of those amazing blue eyes of his and from a mouth constantly sharing profundity, nonsense, and pretty much everything in between. If Bill, her husband, hadn't been in the picture, Maggie might have briefly entertained the idea of giving Blair Sandburg a run for his money. As it was, she contented herself with mothering him when he needed it. Like now. It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.

"Hi. This is Maggie MacNamara from Hargrove Hall. Is Jack there?" Someone with a Jerry Lewis voice and personality to match put her on hold, so she was left to sigh at the unfairness of the universe. Why was such a terrific guy like Blair Sandburg alone, with no S.O. -- significant other - in evidence? The gossip around the water cooler was that Blair Sandburg had been in a relationship with a mysterious, foreign woman that ended badly. Or maybe it had been a mysterious foreign man.

Another rumor was that when 16-year-old Blair Sandburg first hit the Rainier campus, his abundant, ebullient charms had caught the eye of Eli Stoddard, Doctor Emeritus of Anthropology at Rainier. Whether or not there was any truth to it, who really knew? It was a fact that the world-renowned scientist had become mentor to the younger man. Even now, almost 10 years later, Stoddard continued to be involved in Blair's life. The last carrot Dr. Stoddard had dangled in front of Sandburg that Maggie had heard about was a one-year expedition to Borneo to study the indigenous people, which Sandburg had declined. Blair's explanation: "There's something more important that I have to do here in Cascade. I'm just not sure what it is yet."

And once you got to know Blair Sandburg both professionally and personally, you pretty much took his looks as just another element in the "big picture. " He was also incredibly intelligent, knowledgeable in his field of expertise and so transparently decent he'd give Mr. Rogers a run for his money.

"Motherfu - ... Uh. Sorry, Maggie." Blair apologized for his sputtering diatribe as he continued to slap the computer senseless, as if throttling it might make it power up. (Maggie didn't think that Fred R. had ever used that particular expression. The old neighborhood would never have been the same.)

As Sandburg waited impatiently, he carded nail-bitten hands in a characteristic gesture through his glorious disarray of hair. Finally, Maggie began to speak. "But this is really an emergency, Jack. Can't you ... oh, you're heading over to the Dean's office? Well, is there anybody else as good as you ... don't get funny with me, you pervert, or I'll tell your brother, my old man ... that's better ... so, who are you sending over? And he'll be able to help? You're sure? When can he get here? No, I have to leave before then to get Dylan and Maureen at daycare, but he can ask for Blair Sandburg. It's his computer that crashed. Right. In the basement. Across from my office. OK. I owe you big time, honey. Bye." Maggie finished the conversation and hung up the receiver.

"So, who's my savior going to be, Maggie?"

"A new guy." Looking at his horrified face, Maggie reassured him, "Don't worry, Mr. Sandburg, Jack says he really knows his stuff. He'll get you back up and running in no time. The name's Ellison and he'll be here around five."

"Five? No sooner than that?"

"I'm sorry, but that's the best they can do. Everybody seems to be having problems today."

"Tell me about it." Five o'clock. That's if the Ellison guy could find his way across campus and down into the bowels of the old building. The techno-geeks he'd met on previous occasions were phenomenal at some things, hopelessly inept at others. Like damned directions. And this was an observation from one of the most navigationally-challenged people on the face of the earth. Blair had close to two hours to cool his heels. Hell, if the jamoke didn't show up until 5, Sandburg's evening was going to be totally blown. And along with it, the possibility of a little one-on-one with Terri Lansky, the nurse from Cascade General he was tutoring -- and dating. When they talked earlier in the day, she'd been nice enough to offer to fix Blair a meal -- her specialty, spaghetti Bolognese and vegetarian meatballs. It was about the only thing that Terri could cook without having to alert the EPA about possible toxic emissions.

Barring this unscheduled disaster, Blair would probably have ended up being dessert.

Yeah, Blair reflected, as he thanked Maggie and waved her off to pick up her kids, what he had with Terri was pretty good. It was a comfortable, low-maintenance relationship. They were two healthy young adults sharing a few laughs now and then, and periodically exercising their libidos, with no pressures, no anxiety, no stress.

And no magic. Something seemed to be missing. And it hadn't mattered in the least whether the relationships involved a woman with "legs up to here," or a man with muscles "out to there."

Something always seemed to be missing. A spark. A connection. That special bond some people had, people who found each other's missing piece. Who "were" each other's missing piece. Damned lucky people. Damned unlucky Sandburg, who'd pretty much resigned himself to being unmagical.

As Sandburg sat and waited and mused about the state of his life, he heard, rather than saw, the pouring raining outside. Mr. Weather on K-CAS, or whatever the hell he called himself, had predicted 72 hours of uninterrupted Washington sunshine. Blair should have known that the forecast would practically guarantee enough rain to float an ark. And what were the odds that Sandburg's old Volvo would cooperate and run in weather this bad? So, the way it was laid out, even if he could make it to Terri's apartment, he'd be late and wet and on foot. A God-damned triple threat.

Actually, the odds were as good as some acne-faced sub-verbal geek being able to pull Blair's bacon out of the fire, so that he could do what he had to by 9:00 AM tomorrow.

Besides the grades' fiasco, there was his stalled-in-the-water, doctoral thesis, with the working title "THE SENTINEL: GENETICS, MYTHOLOGY, ONTOLOGY OF OUR TRIBAL PROTECTORS."

Dead-in-the-water was closer to the truth. And the draft and most of his notes were also being held hostage in the cyber-sinkhole of his crashed p.c. Except for maybe dozens of yellow pads, a deskful of jottings on everything from Howard Johnson napkins to a bus timetable from Sao Paulo, Brazil, every scrap of Blair's research and writing-to-date was on that accursed computer.

Blair wished he'd had the extra money to buy a laptop this past semester. Then he wouldn't be in this position. But, a streak of bad luck, including two cracked teeth that needed to be capped to the tune of $927, and $400 he had to loan his mother, Naomi, left the Sandburg coffers pretty bare. Even with the incredibly reasonable $850 rent per month for the 10,000 square foot warehouse Blair called home, there was no extra money in the foreseeable future for anything much bigger than a lottery ticket.

As Blair waited impatiently for salvation in the guise a Tech Center denizen, he drummed the desk with his fingers, shuffled papers helter-skelter, and ended up pacing around the shoebox of an office, glumly wondering why the Sandburg Zone couldn't be more like the movies. It this were a film, the Ellison guy making him cool his heels would not only save the day, but he'd also be a smart, sensitive, lonely and available Adonis. And he'd be interested in short, brunette, Jewish/pagan financially-embarrassed anthropologists who could offer him nothing more than the moon, the stars, and quantum amounts of damned good sex. And maybe a little love thrown into the mix.

And if this faceless character could do double duty as love and thesis subject, well, that would be good, too. Yes sir, Ellison would be Blair's holy grail: a living, breathing sentinel, which was to say, an individual born with five enhanced senses. When he was just a kid, Blair Sandburg had read the works of Sir Richard Burton, the Victorian explorer. In the pages of those musty, old books, Blair had truly discovered his bliss, the thing that would stoke his life-long passions and draw him to anthropology as a career.

The wall clock ticked slowly, as Sandburg began to make contingency plans A, B, and C. "A" was telling the truth, and probably not being believed by his department chairman. Kind of like the dog eating your homework excuse. "B" was telling the semi-truth, which meant semi-lying to the same powers that be, promising that the numbers were just a few hours of computer time away. "C" was doing all the work over again. Not the option he'd choose, since it was clearly impossible to accomplish in the 24-hour time frame.

4:03 PM. As his headache was threatening to escalate into a migraine, Blair's ongoing pity party was interrupted by a knock at the door.

"Come in."

A tall man with military-short hair entered after wiping his feet in the hallway. Dripping wet from the downpour, the layers of his clothing molded to his impressive body like a second skin, a fact that did not go unnoticed. Blair's mouth went suddenly fuzzy, and as dry as the Kalahari Desert where he'd studied nomadic lifestyles on his first field trip as an anthropologist.

And tall was the least attractive thing about the man standing in front of him, which was to say, that he might have been one of the best-looking men ever to have crossed Blair Sandburg's path.

"Uh, I'm looking for Sandburg." Well, this couldn't be the guy who was going to crawl up his dead computer's butt to retrieve the lost data. Not possible. Nobody who did that for a living looked like this. Who was he? Why was he here? Oh, Christ, suppose he was an insurance salesman. Nah. No briefcase.

Blair willed himself to stop acting liked an asshole. Pull yourself together, Blair. Back to business.

"You found him."

"I'm Jim."

"Jim?"

"Yeah."

"Pleasure to meet you. So, what can I do for you?"

The voice became edgy. "I'm from the Technical Center. You were expecting me?" The question/statement had an exasperated burnish to it.

"Well, I was expecting 'somebody.'" But not you. "I assumed ... the thing is ... who I expected ..." Blair tried to stop babbling. "... uh, Maggie's brother-in-law, Jack, said someone named Ellers." Lying through his straight, white teeth, he recovered badly.

The other man's eyes seemed to pin him to a spot on the warped floor under his feet. Sandburg had the strangest notion that he knew what captured specimens felt like.

"Well, it's Ellison." The surprisingly rich voice informed him. Blair could feel each syllable in his toes -- and his hip pocket. It made Sandburg consider possibilities that hadn't seem likely just a moment ago. "Jack's my boss." The wet Jim Ellison added, almost as an afterthought.

"Oh, OK, well, it's nice to meet you." Awkwardly, Blair shoved his hand forward, which Jim took. They held onto one another for a few seconds until Ellison cleared his throat.

"So, is this it?"

"Is what it?"

"The computer?" He nodded toward the sleeping menace on the desk.

"The computer? Oh, yeah, the computer." He pointed behind him to the miscreant desktop. "I'm really sorry man to bring you over here in such a terrible storm," Blair apologized, "but the stuff I lost is really important."

"It always is, pal."

"Blair. Blair Sandburg."

"I know, chief. We just met, remember?"

"Oh, yeah." Blair almost giggled. What the hell was wrong with him? Why was the man whose complicated social life gave multi-tasking a whole new meaning, suddenly flustered and sounding as though he were an ESL student -- English as a Second Language?

"Uh, if you want, you can hang your stuff over there." He nodded toward the coat rack near the window. Jim Ellison first peeled off the thin, soaked outer jacket. "God, you're really wet, man. Want to take that shirt off, too? I probably have something around here that you could wear -"

The barest of smiles crept over Ellison's face at the notion. "It's OK. I have a tee-shirt on underneath." With that, he stripped off the blue work shirt, revealing an upper body that only a good God could have created, and years of exercise could have maintained. Blair wondered how anybody could develop such a perfect physique. Exactly how many push-ups, chin-ups and crunches did you have to do a day to look like that?

As Ellison sat down and settled in to the task at hand, Blair began doing what he did best: observing. This guy's great looking and well disciplined. He's a techie -- can't be brain-dead. So why was subject Jim Ellison sitting in the basement of Hargrove Hall, doing, for lack of a better term, a crap job, something that a college kid with half-a-brain could probably do? The scientist in Sandburg was jump-started by the paradoxes. What was the story here?

Blair suddenly realized that the mystery man in question was staring at Blair staring at him. Self-consciously, the young teacher backed away from the poster boy for unadulterated maleness.

Sitting somewhat uncomfortably at the small desk, which had a negligible amount of space under it for his long legs, Ellison began by popping in floppy disks into both drivers, then powered up the unit. The sputtering, whirling sounds gave Blair hope that he hadn't had 30 minutes earlier. Watching the monitor intently, the man entered several commands on the keyboard at break-neck speed and with accustomed assuredness.

"How's it look?"

Without moving his head, Ellison mumbled, "Like your damned office was robbed. Does it always look like this?"

Blair surveyed the ordered disarray of his domain. "What do you mean? I know where everything is. It's just I have a unique system." For emphasis, Blair pointed his index finger to his left temple. "It's all up here. Trust me."

"Why do I think that, coming from you, those are the two scariest words in the English language, chief?"

Both men smiled at one another unguardedly. The shared moment suddenly made them realize how much they'd enjoyed the last few minutes. It was easy and comfortable between them - and it had taken no time at all, really. Sometimes, the best things happened just like that. You meet someone special, and, suddenly, everything you knew, or thought you knew, was turned upside down.

Almost unwillingly, Blair shook himself away from the pleasant thought. Stop it, Sandburg! You're just blowing smoke up your own ass. This guy's going to do his job, leave, and probably go home to the wife and kids. End of story. Tomorrow, everything goes back to same-old, same-old. You, here. Students, teaching, dissertation, laundry. Day-to-day stuff. Back to business before Ellison thinks I'm crazy. Correction. Crazier.

"Anything I can do to help? I mean besides staying out of the way? Oh, I guess I shouldn't bother you if we ever want to get this solved. Or fixed. Whatever we recover, it will be better than nothing. Listen to me with the "we" business. Truth is, other than turning one of those damned things on, I don't really have a background in computers. I'm more of a software maven, myself. Know that word 'maven'? 'Expert.' It means 'expert.' Anyway, maybe I should just play around with one of them -- get my hands in its guts -- until it cries 'uncle!' So, what do you think?"

"What do I think?" Ellison didn't make eye contact, but another smile crept across his handsome face. "I think you never take a breath unless it's absolutely necessary."

Blair's answering smile was even brighter. Brilliant, in fact. It reached all the way to his shining, guileless eyes. "You're wrong, man. I breathe all the time. Even took a course in it once. So, you need anything?"

"Well, maybe a little water."

"Water? What do you use the water for?" A puzzled Blair asked. "Isn't that, like, dangerous? I never heard of ... uh ... oh, you mean you want a little water. For yourself. To drink."

"Something like that, yeah." Now Ellison was chuckling, and not trying to hide it from the other man.

"Jesus, I sound like my IQ points are dropping faster than the NASDAQ. Let me get you a Poland Spring." Blair walked over to the tiny refrigerator hidden away in the corner to get a sports-top bottle.

As the little door swung open, the big man suddenly shielded his eyes as though he'd blinded. "Christ!" He yelled. "Shut that damned thing, will you?" Helplessly, Sandburg looked around to see if something corrosive had splashed in Jim's face. But from where?

The small light certainly couldn't have been the problem, could it? The young teacher knelt down beside Ellison.

"What's wrong, man? Talk to me! Take your hands away from your face! Please! Here, let me see your eyes!" Blair tried to peel away Jim's hands from his face, a bolt of pure electricity coursed between the two of them. Jim's hands fell away and he looked at Blair, He felt breathless and open and exposed. And young. And aroused. Alice must have felt this way falling down the rabbit hole into unfamiliar, uncharted territory.

Ellison's icy eyes shot arrows of promise deep in the anthropologist's direction -- equal parts fire and passion. And Blair Jacob Sandburg was the one and only target. Jim's two large hands wrapped themselves around the younger man's waist and held on, as if for dear life.

Neither spoke for a time, but rather, tried to get their rapid breathing under control. The tableau finally ended when the jarring ring of the phone brought them back to the here and now.

"You better answer that, Sandburg." Ellison let his fingers trail down Sandburg's thighs before dropping away.

"Uh, what? Oh, the phone. Yeah ... yeah, I'd better." The flushed and flustered anthropologist released Jim's face, got up unsteadily on his feet, leaned over the edge of his desk and picked it up on the sixth ring. And he never stopped looking in Ellison's direction.

"Uh, hi. Uh. Anthropology."

"Blair?"

"Yes. This is Blair Sandburg. Can I help you?"

"You're kidding, right? Blair, it's Terri."

"Terri? Terri. Uh, Terri! Hi! I didn't ... I was going to call you. So, hello."

"Blair? What the hell's wrong with you? You're stuttering. Are you alright?"

"Me? Nothing's wrong with me. Well, that's not exactly true. My damned office computer gave up the spirit earlier today, and I've got grades due, and a tech guy's here right now trying to fix it. Everything's ... you know ... 'fubar ... "

"What?"

"Fucked up beyond all repair."

"You sound funny. You sure you're OK?"

"Uh, yeah, aside from the obvious."

"So, are we still on?"

"I don't know, Terri. I'm in the middle of this mess, and I ... maybe we'd just better cancel dinner."

"And what about later? Can I still expect you?"

"About later ... Can I take a rain check on that too? I just don't know how long this is going to take."

Jim looked up at the young man perched on the edge of the desk and mouthed "About a half-hour more."

Blair stared down at the chiseled profile, and felt as though he'd been kicked in the stomach. But in the best possible way. Turning his back toward the tech center rep who'd taken over his chair - and, a lot more in the last hour, it felt like - Sandburg almost whispered the lie into the phone, "He says he doesn't have any idea how long it's going to take." Even as the words left his lips, Blair could feel his co-conspirator grinning from ear to ear. "I'm sorry, but this is really, REALLY, important, Terri. Everything has to be turned into the office by 9:00 AM tomorrow, or I am, uh, screwed."

The usually understanding nurse Blair Sandburg had been dating for the past several months disappeared. The woman who replaced her was tough as nails and twice as unforgiving. "Well, at least you're gonna get screwed somewhere tonight. Goodbye, Blair." Sandburg heard the receiver on the other end of the line slam down hard enough to make him wince. A quiet laugh rose up behind him.

"So, as long as your plans fell through, chief, maybe you want to come over to my place while I retrieve your stuff."

"You mean you really can do it? You can get all of it back?"

"Well, there are no absolutes, but, yes, I'm 99 percent sure. What you've managed to get yourself is a variation of Trojan horse virus that tags along with e-mails. Something you accessed, probably yesterday or earlier today. I can clean it up with one or two programs I have at home. We'll pack up the computer, and get out of here in a few minutes."

"We're gonna take it, just like that?"

"Well, we're not going to steal it. We'll fix it and bring the damned thing back later tonight."

"And you got the equipment I need?"

Ellison smiled. "Yeah. I think so."

"Well, OK, but only if you let me buy you dinner afterwards. That goes even if you can't get my stuff back."

The look on Ellison's face said it all. "I'd never lie to you, Sandburg. I'll do right by you." The seemingly odd, determined choice of words, and the feelings backing them up that Blair heard in the other man's voice, made his heart race.

"Promise?"

"I promise you'll have those grades faster than you can get this place cleaned up. And you don't have to buy me dinner. Fact is, I don't eat out much."

Sandburg was surprised. "Really? I'd have pegged you for a meat and potatoes kind of guy from way back."

"Well," Jim admitted ruefully, "I used to be. Wonderburger was my favorite. Now, food tastes and smells ... peculiar. It even 'feels' weird in my mouth."

A stunned Blair Sandburg slowly assembled pieces of the puzzle in his mind. The overreaction to visual stimulus, problems with olfactory and oral sensations. No. It couldn't be, could it? This wasn't the movies.

"That sucks, man. Which foods?"

"Just about everything." Jim answered, as he unhooked the power cord and monitor cables.

"Well, I bet I could whip something up that'd make your mouth water."

"I'll just bet you could." Ellison looked embarrassed as he realized what he'd just said. "Uh, sorry, I didn't mean that the way it sounded."

"Too bad." Blair teased.

The color in Jim's cheeks seemed to intensify. "So, you want to ride along, or follow my truck?"

"Truck?"

"Yeah. A classic. A '69 Ford."

"'69?' Hey, that was a great year! It was the year I was born!" Blair informed him, as he donned a dark green parka and six-foot long, non-matching scarf.

"Well, I won't hold it against Ford. Or you. So, you trust riding with a perfect stranger?"

"Perfect? I don't know as I'd go that far. But, you're no stranger to me. And I ..." Blair stammered as he admitted, almost shyly, "I think I'd always be safe with you around."

Jim stopped putting on his semi-dry work shirt and the jacket he'd worn in. Something special flashed across Ellison's strong, patrician features. Or was it just Blair's imagination?

"Here," he handed Sandburg the small tool kit he'd brought with him. "You take this," Jim said gruffly, yet pleased, "and I'll haul this thing out. Hey, chief, make sure you lock up when we leave."

"Of course, I'm going to lock up. Do you think I'm a fool? Don't answer that!" Nag, nag, nag. They sounded like an old married couple. Unfamiliar feelings washed over Blair, overwhelming him. I've never been so 'at home' with anybody in my life. Jesus, is this what the 'real deal' feels like? He watched the tall figure precede him out the door and down the hallway, carrying the desktop computer easily. Blair knew, for a certainty, that Jim would fix it. More than that, this man could fix anything in the young scientist's life that needed fixing.

Jim Ellison was Blair Sandburg's 'brass ring.'

***

The two men enjoyed the mostly-silent ride to Ellison's place at 852 Prospect Avenue. As Jim swung the door to #307 open, Blair was frankly amazed by the number of computers, monitors, printers, and other paraphernalia placed neatly throughout the living room. Little furniture decorated the apartment: a small desk, couch, TV, fireplace in one corner, and a dining room table covered with additional electronic equipment. Sandburg guessed that the bed, and maybe the bathroom, was in the loft overhead. A spotless kitchen area and small empty room under the steps was the sum and total of Chez Ellison. Not a very warm or inviting kind of place. More like a laboratory than anything else.

"Christ, are you a spy? I've never seen a setup like this. I mean, other than in bad cold-war films. How can you afford this, working for Rainier? Unless you're, like, independently wealthy or something. Are you? Uh, sorry, man, I didn't mean to pry. It's none of my business."

Jim looked at the slightly flushed, upturned face. "You're right, it isn't. But I have the feeling that never stops you, does it, professor? So, want a beer before we get started?"

"Get started doing what?" Blair's eyes widened at the suggestion. "Oh, the computer. I got it. Sure, I could go for a cold one. Thanks, man."

Walking toward his refrigerator, Jim suddenly veered toward the counter where the phone sat and picked it up. For a moment, Blair wondered what had happened, since he hadn't heard the ring. Ellison began to speak.

"Ellison. Oh, hello, dad."

So, there were no wife or kids in evidence, but there was a father. Judging from Jim's tone of voice and cool attitude, Blair got the distinct impression that it wasn't a cordial relationship.

"No. Stop right now. We've been over this before. I'm not going to keep the appointment." Even though Ellison's face was turned away from Sandburg, the body language spoke volumes. "Because I don't want to. I've been to too many doctors as it is. No. You're not listening to me. But then, when did you ever?" Jim began to stalk back and forth through the living room, reminding Blair of a black panther he'd seen as a kid at some small, out-of-the-way zoo in the Southwest. There were striking parallels. Both of these animals seemed out of place. The cat, imprisoned in a cage that didn't fit it; this man, in a life that did the same. "I don't care that they're the best that money can buy. Money can't buy everything, Dad. You should know that by now. It couldn't buy you the son you wanted, or me a real father. This conversation is over. Good-bye." With that, Jim cut the connection. Angry silence rang through the apartment, then almost-chant, "Shit, shit, shit, shit ..."

Feeling helpless, but needing to do something, Blair moved slowly toward the big man who was standing motionless nearby. Tentatively, Sandburg stretched his hand forward, within touching distance of the small of his new friend's back.

"Jim? Are you OK?"

"It was my father."

"Yeah, I kind of figured."

"Christ, I'm fucking 30 plus, and my old man's still pushing all my buttons."

"You want to talk about it?"

"No, I don't want to talk about it. Talking doesn't solve everything."

"OK!" Blair put up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Well, uh, let me see what kind of food you've got around here."

"The kitchen's ..."

"I think I can handle this mission on my own, Jim."

"Listen, I'm sorry. Usually, I don't bite the hand that's going to feed me. While you're doing whatever the hell it is you're going to do, I'm going to take a quick shower. I've been in these clothes about six hours' too long. Can you stay out of trouble for 10 minutes?" As he spoke, Jim stripped off the grimy tee shirt.

Seeing the magnificent chest that Blair could only have guessed at - or imagined in his deepest, most erotic dreams - his mouth almost refused to obey him. But it came through in the pinch.

"I'll try not to hurt myself or touch anything important."

"Riiiiiggghhhttt." The lines of tension in Jim's face began to smooth out.

"Jim, how did you hear it?"

"Hear what?"

"The phone. I didn't. And the display light is so small, you couldn't possibly have seen it from across the room."

"No? Well, my hearing's pretty good."

"Pretty good? Bats must be losing sleep over you, man."

"Then they're the only ones." Ellison said offhandedly, but with a sadness that only a sensitive ear - and heart to match - could recognize. Blair didn't know how to answer that, but he needed to say something. "I bet that's not true."

"You'd lose, chief. I'll be out in a few minutes." With that, Jim turned away and headed through the closed door at the end of the hallway.

As Sandburg heard a strong spray of water continuing to hit tile, he reflected on what he knew so far: sight, taste, smell, and hearing off the chart. Four out of five. He needed to find out about the fifth sense: touch. Then, he'd know for sure.

Blair wandered around the living room to absorb ... what? More clues to the puzzle that was Jim Ellison? The most obvious thing was that there were precious few photos. Only one, actually, hung on the wall on the far side of the room. He walked over to it, and peered through the second set of doors, which led to the balcony. The view of Cascade's bay was probably wonderful on a bright, sunny day. In the picture, a younger Jim Ellison stood in an Army uniform, facing the camera, alongside a group of seven other soldiers. Hell, that was a Ranger's beret and insignia and ... Ellison ... Ellison ... Jesus H. Christ. Blair's hand went to his mouth as everything began to click into place. This guy was Captain James Ellison, the hero who'd spent 18 months in Peru, the sole survivor of his lost Army unit. Sandburg remembered reading about it in the NEWS cover story. Details had been sketchy about Ellison's mission (with the Army supplying the information, would could you expect?). But the one thing that impressed Blair was that the Chopec natives with whom Ellison had lived had apparently adopted the American Army Captain. Blair knew that kind of honor was bestowed on few. Ellison had to have done something special, or been someone special, to those indigenous people. Sandburg's ruminations were interrupted as Jim Ellison reappeared, barefoot, wearing sweat pants and toweling off his short hair. The magnificent body gleamed with water droplets clinging like jealous lovers. Blair swore that he'd never seen anyone so beautiful in his entire life.

"What's the matter, Sandburg? You OK?" Ellison hung the pale blue towel around his neck. It matched his eyes perfectly, and made them look luminescent in the soft lights scattered throughout the room.

"Uh, yeah, sure. Let me finish up dinner. I found the fixings for three-cheese omelets. Well, actually, two-cheese omelets. And some old bread. You know, you really shouldn't be eating white bread. It's not good for you."

"Lots of things aren't. But I eat them -- and do them -- just the same."

Hearing Blair sputter, Jim smiled to himself and walked over to the waiting computer. In less than two minutes, it was set up with power cord, monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Then, Jim placed two special recovery disks, that he pulled from his desk's top drawer, into the drives and turned the unit on. While Sandburg concerned himself with setting the table, tending to the food which he turned down to 'warm,' and brewing some fresh coffee, Ellison cleaned out the virus, and found the lost Anthropology 101 grades, everyone from Avery, R., to Zysk, L. He duped the information onto a backup floppy, and then pulled it out of the computer.

"How's it going?" Blair put down the silverware, trotted over to stand behind Ellison and watched what was happening. Names and numbers he recognized flew by.

"You're back in business, chief."

"You did it, man! You are GOOD!" Enthusiastically, he thumped Jim on the back in gratitude. He left his hands sitting gently on the broad shoulders. "It's like ... magic."

Magic. That described how Blair felt to a "T". But was it shared? Sandburg lifted his hands, and walked back to check on the toast. "Dinner will be ready in five, man."

Ellison's fingers continued stroking the keyboard. A Word file, called TSBBS.DOC caught his eye as it popped up on the 21-inch monitor. It was the document Sandburg had worked on immediately before the grading program. Curiously, Jim double-clicked, and opened it to make sure that the file hadn't also been corrupted. Scanning quickly through the introduction, Ellison slowed down, as he began to realize what he was reading. Jim's features blanched as he recognized what was, for all intents and purposes, a scientific explanation of who -- and what -- he was. His condition had a name.

"Sandburg! Come over here!" He shouted. "Your thesis ...this Sentinel thing. Tell me about it!"

"Calm down, Jim! First, can I ask you a couple of questions?"

"But -"

"It's important."

"Go ahead."

"When did your senses first begin to act up? To come 'on-line'?"

"In the Army. No, that's not true." Jim admitted. "When I was a kid, I had problems. But I seemed to get over it when I was about 11."

"Get over it - or forget about it?"

Jim nodded.

"You repressed your abilities and the memories of them." Blair clarified.

"I don't know. Maybe. I guess. I just didn't want to be a freak. Then, everything seemed OK until a few years ago. My control started to slip. It was bad, really bad. Everything went haywire. I thought I was losing my mind." Ellison began to pace.

"Can you be more specific, Jim?"

"You want a list? Lights too bright, sounds too loud, smells that made me want to vomit, skin so sensitive I couldn't stand wearing clothes. I've seen dozens of doctors, some high mucky-muck specialists, but none of them have been able to find anything wrong with me."

Sandburg's heart beat a tattoo of unbelievable discovery. God, he prayed to whichever deity was listening, please let this be what I think - and hope -- it is. And let me be able to help this man I think I ... love.

"And this all happened after you came back from Peru, right?"

Ellison stopped dead in his tracks in front of the younger man. "How did you know about the time I spent there?"

"I put two and two together. I remember reading about you when you first got back to Cascade. Then you kind of fell off the face of the earth. I can imagine how hard it's been for you." Tentatively, Blair stretched out his fingers and touched the bigger man's chest. A surge of energy passed between them as they automatically drew closer. "You need someone who understands your condition. Let me show you something." Blair walked over to where he'd dropped his backpack, and pulled out the copy of the Burton book that he carried with him. "Sir Richard Burton - the explorer, not the actor -- was the one and only expert on sentinels, people born with a genetic advantage, like you. In primitive cultures, these ..."

"Scouts?"

"No, 'watchman' would be a better translation. Under the eye of the tribe's shaman, they'd develop their hyperactive senses and use them to protect and serve the village."

"So, what's this got to do with me?"

"Jim, in my thesis research, I've found hundreds of people with one or two heightened senses. Like people with an acute sense of taste working for a coffee company, or heightened sense of smell working for a perfume manufacturer. But never anybody with all five senses heightened. You don't see it, do you? I don't want to scare you with what I'm about to say. But I think you just may be the living embodiment of ... of my field of study."

"You're losing me, here, chief." Jim retorted, handing Blair the formatted disk with the lost grades and a copy of the dissertation saved to it. "I'm no watchman, no caretaker, no protector. I'm nothing, or no one special."

"You're so fucking wrong! You could be. And should be. You need someone who understands your condition ... like me." Blair's hand had no sooner closed over the floppy, than he found his highly charged words swallowed up by Jim's lips on his. The shorter man reached out blindly, dropping the disk on dining room table with one hand, and wrapping his other around Ellison's corded neck. He relished the ravenous lips on his, in contrast to the feel of the hard, bare muscles pressing against him through his flannel shirt.

"Jim ... Jim ...one more thing ..." Sandburg gasped as Jim continued to rain kisses on his face and neck, and milk his mouth ruthlessly. "what about ... what about ... heightened tactile ... extra-sensitive ... oh, fuck ... touchy-feely?"

"Christ, yes!" Jim's magical touch wasn't limited to Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, Dell, and other no-name brands. His fingers were everywhere, on Blair's face, sliding down the young scientist's shoulders, clawing at his back, massaging, groping, taking possession of what Ellison knew now was his.

And just when Blair thought the sensations couldn't get any more intense, Jim's tongue plunged into the waiting mouth. This was no testosterone-spiked dream. Jim Ellison was real, and in the process of lifting Sandburg off the ground, and encouraging him to wrap his short, muscular legs around the taller man's waist. In a split second, Blair understood and launched himself toward Ellison. Everything was wet and arousing and needy and passion-filled. Sandburg felt his butt hit the kitchen countertop, luckily devoid of food. As he looked down, Jim was unzipping his fly and diving for buried treasure. Bang! Holy Grail for a second time. The single-minded Ellison fondled Blair's impossibly hard cock with his hand, stroking it masterfully, lovingly.

"And what's in it for you, chief?"

"Jim ... Jesus ... what ... what ... I ... I ... want ... want you to ..."

"Is this what you want, Blair?" The tip of Blair's dick was swallowed up by Jim Ellison, who began sucking masterfully. Sandburg felt the smooth, cool surface against his ass, in stark contrast to the hot, ragged intensity of Jim's mouth on him. Staggering surprise and outrageous pleasure made Sandburg whimper and cry out at the intimacy and the intensity. Jim Ellison reacted to the intoxicating sounds and pushed forward to take the whole cock into his waiting mouth. Hanging on for dear life, there was nowhere else to go, and still Jim needed more. Blair couldn't hold out for another second. He screamed loudly as he spurted his hot seed down into the waiting throat.

Then, it was over. Gradually softening and growing calmer, Sandburg patted Jim's head fondly, smoothing the golden brown hair with his fingers. He spoke quietly as he continued to stroke across the broad forehead.

"You, know, sentinels used to have someone with them ... someone to watch their backs ..."

"You volunteering, chief?" Jim questioned, still resting his head against Blair's wet groin.

"Yeah ... if you let me ... if you want ..."

"I want it all, chief. I want to know more about this Sentinel thing. I want to help you with your work. And ... uh, shit, Blair ... I want you."

"You mean like your guide?"

"I mean like 'everything.'"

Jim licked his way up Sandburg's chest until he reached those full, parted lips. The two kissed again, but this time, with all the tenderness and love both were starved - and destined -- for. Blair struggled to find the right words. "So, you're OK with it, Jim? With 'us'? Jim? Please say something, man."

As Jim Ellison, soon-to-be-former computer geek, and now finally-identified Sentinel, scooped the smaller man up effortlessly and carried him up the stairs toward the bed - their bed, if he had anything to say about it - he answered. "Byte me, Sandburg."

The answer shot back: "Anytime, big guy. Anytime."

The End

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Acknowledgements: Thanks to Lisa for asking me to come out and play with our favorite Sentinel and Guide in her experimental AU e-zine, to Patt and Amy whose artistic hands and eyes interpreted my cyber-mumbled requests so wonderfully, and to Will, Lisa's techie hubby, for putting it all together.

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