The Big Thaw - akablonded

Of all the ways Blair Sandburg had thought he was going to die - and, truth be told, that particular concept hadn't taken up much of his relatively young life - something as absurd and farfetched as freezing to death wasn't high on the list. That happened to the Donner party,* to homeless vagrants in alleyways, and to people who painted themselves the colors of their favorite football teams and sat out in zero degree weather during NFL playoffs. Not to someone Like Blair Sandburg. Someone who'd survived countless treks to unexplored areas of the world and endured a startlingly inventive variety of tribal rites and customs at the hands of primitive peoples. All of which could have done in a less resourceful person than one Blair Jacob Sandburg.

But there was no one else around, so maybe it did happened to people just like Blair. Cocky, over-confident, so sure that everything would always go his way. Well, wake up and smell the coffee, Blair, old boy. The train's pulling out of the station for the last time, and you got a ticket to ride.

How had he gotten himself into this terrible fix? Think, Blair, think. Run, Blair, run. Die, Blair, die. Oh, yes, now he remembered. Jim. It had been Jim's suggestion to take advantage of an unseasonably warm turn in the winter weather. His friend had made an impetuous offer (no mean feat for someone so un-spontaneous), of a holiday weekend away from classes, students, faculty advisors, and conflicting schedules, and Blair accepted in the proverbial cold New York minute. 'Cold' minute. Very funny, Blair. They'll find you dead, with a frozen smile on your lips. They'll laugh themselves silly as they chisel you out of the ice.

Back to his present predicament. In retrospect, the idea of camping out in March could be found high on the list of "Things You Should Never Contemplate, Much Less Do." Kind of like booking steerage class on the Titanic. Or eating corned beef with mayo on raisin bread. Yes sir, number three or four - oh, what the hell - number one for Blair Jacob Sandburg on that dubious roster of stupid human tricks was sleeping out under the stars in Washington's Northern Cascades at this time of year.

It hadn't seemed so stupid on Thursday - the beginning of Blair and Jim's first real vacation together. It had been close to 60 degrees, 60 fucking degrees of unaccustomed sunshine and dazzling blue skies, with no end to either in sight. It was as if some large, cosmic hand had given Blair Sandburg the final, decisive shove toward the object of his unrequited affection -- the big man whom he'd focused on, lusted after, despaired over, and loved unashamedly for the last six months. It was, Sandburg reflected (as he tangentially considered the very real possibility of his existence reaching an ignominious conclusion in this cold, craggy, unmarked location), a seemingly good idea at the time.

And nothing had been so important as Jim.

Jim. He and Jim had somehow become separated in the sudden storm that blew up around their campsite on the second day they were there. Fuck camping. Fuck the Northern Cascades. And fuck the undeniably handsome man he'd agreed to accompany. Being smitten by the handsome, poly-science professor he'd met at a Rainier University faculty get-together was proving to be his undoing.

As Sandburg began losing the feeling in his fingers and toes, he cursed his penchant for tall lookers -- male or female. Thinking with his dick had gotten Blair into a passel of trouble before. This time, it would cost him considerably more. The tent he'd crawled back into after an abortive attempt to find a way out and back down the mountain was almost as cold as the raging storm outside. Correction. This wasn't a storm.

The radio had said so. Blair Sandburg would be found dead in the middle of an "unexpected cold front stalled over the area mountains."

The young scientist was growing drowsy, and knew, in this temperature, it was a precursor to something more sinister and a hell of a lot more permanent. He sadly bid a nearly silent, teary farewell to Naomi. Blair thought how sad it was going to be for his free spirit, wandering mother to learn, after-the-fact, about her son's passing. It would come in a 25-words-or-less cable from some nameless, faceless government bureaucrat.

As the youngest teaching fellow in the history of Rainier's Anthropology Department began to slip away, Blair Sandburg visualized the lips he would never, ever kiss in this lifetime, and whispered the name "Jim" over again and again, until his mouth could no longer move.

Suddenly, something remarkable happened. He felt something - or someone - bending over him in the small, cramped tent. Blair lost his terror. He felt calm, serene, un-alone and unafraid. Oh, wow. An enormous, blue-eyed angel - in a ski jacket, no less - touched the frozen tear clinging to his cheek almost reverently, then wrapped surprisingly strong Spyder** wings around him.

Maybe the next life wasn't going to be so bad after all.

***

Contrary to his last conscious thought, Blair Sandburg decided that the hereafter sucked.

Every part of his body hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. All of Sandburg's extremities throbbed incessantly, hands, feet, nose and ears burned; skin felt like wasps had had a field day with it. And there was something lying - make that tied - across his eyes. Blair scrambled to rip whatever it was off, and found his fingers decidedly non-compliant.

"Don't touch the bandage," a stern, disembodied voice ordered.

"Jesus, Christ, don't yell!" Blair tried to shout back in a scared, but laced-with-bravado rasp. "What the hell kind of heaven is this, and what the fuck kind of angel are you?"

"One who'll kick that nearly-frozen butt of yours down six flights of stairs and through the damned pearly gates if you don't cut out the attitude."

"So, this isn't my final reward?"

"Not unless your life has really bitten the big one up to now."

"So I guess you're not an angel, or anything?"

"I've been called a lot of things in my life, but angel? No." The stranger's voice softened a bit. "Sorry. I'm not used to company. Or being the rescue mission for idiots hiking in the middle of a storm."

Both men fell into an uneasy silence. Then, the memory of what had happened to him flooded back, and he panicked.

"Jim!"

"Yeah, that's my name."

A momentarily confused Blair continued: "No, no! Not you! My Jim ... the Jim I was camping with before we got separated! Jim Prescott." Blindly, Sandburg flailed his almost useless hands outward in the general direction of the owner of the voice, and suddenly connected with an incredibly muscular forearm. He tried grabbing it, like a drowning man clutching a life preserver.

"My ... my buddy! Did you find him?"

"Sorry, chief. There wasn't anybody else with you, or within a mile of your campsite. If anybody had been out there, I'd have found him."

"How do you know that? Did you even look? His car. What about his car? A red Jeep Ranger?"

"There was no car."

"But --"

"Take it easy." A warm cloth was dabbed at Blair's forehead and cheeks, as Ellison tried to calm the young man down. "I did see some tire tracks before the storm covered them. Could have been a Jeep's. They were wide enough. It looked like the driver headed down..."

"No! He'd never leave me."

"Maybe your buddy tried to get help," this Jim suggested.

"Aren't 'you' the help? Who are you, anyway? The ranger at the station we passed on our way up to the campsite?"

"No. I'm just the one who heard you calling my name and found you before we both froze to death."

"You heard me saying 'Jim'? I thought I was only mumbling it to myself. Or was I out of my head and screaming?"

"'I' heard you. Ellison, in case you're interested. I'm Jim Ellison. Pleased to meet you, Professor Sandburg." With the brief introductions over, Ellison went to move Blair's fingers resting on his arm. For an instant, something akin to electricity passed between the two, until Jim let his hand drop.

"How'd you know my name's Sandburg, and that I'm a professor?"

"Nothing mystical. Your wallet. Driver's license. Photo ID from Rainier's Anthropology Department. And fourteen dollars. They still don't pay teachers much, do they?"

"No, not to low men on the totem pole." The blind Blair agreed. " But I do get plenty of academic bullshit to make up for it."

"I hear you, chief. And the pretty lady in the picture, the one taken in Thailand?"

"That's my mom, Naomi. How'd you recognize the Wat Sampran temple? You some kind of citizen of the world?"

"..."

" ... Arm-chair traveler?"

"Long story, kid. Maybe sometime during the next few weeks, I'll tell you. You need to rest now. Jesus, stop screwing around with those bandages."

"What do you mean 'the next few weeks'? "

"First things first. I covered up your eyelids because they were swollen and raw from exposure. They probably hurt like blue blazes."

"Classic understatement, man."

"They'll be OK. Like all the rest of you."

"How do you know? You a doctor?"

"No. Not really."

"Then how --"

"Why don't you save your strength, and your breath?" The walls of the shelter and what sounded like window panes shook violently as they were buffeted by the raging storm outside.

"Jesus, what is that?"

"Winter in the Northern Cascades. You might as well settle back, and take another nap. There's really nothing you can do but sleep and heal."

"But where am I? How long have I been unconscious? How did you get me here? Where is here? And lastly, where are my clothes? Why am I lying under tons of covers, more or less, buck naked?"

"Jesus. Take a breath and try to calm down. I'll try to answer your questions later."

"OK, OK. But, first, can we call the rangers' station, and see if Jim's there?"

"Sorry. No phone."

"How about turning on your TV, and getting an update on the weather?"

"Up here? Are you serious? Where do you think you are - a ski resort? You're in the only cabin within 10 miles of where I found your sorry ass." Ellison snapped pointedly.

"So I guess e-mail ..."

"I'd say 'three strikes,' but you're probably feeling pretty miserable as it is."

Sandburg groaned. "Isn't there any way I can get a message to my family and friends, and find out if Jim made it back down the mountain?"

"Hey, chief," Ellison snapped, "how many ways can I say 'no'?" But seeing just how distraught the other man was becoming, Jim tempered his rhetoric. "Listen, I know you're feeling lousy and upset about your partner. I promise, as soon as the worst of this storm blows over, I'll try to make contact with Ron Corbett."

Before the question could tumble from the anthropologist's lips, Ellison explained. "He's the forest ranger you and your friend probably met on the way up to your campground. It's the best I can do."

Blair wasn't sure he altogether liked the way this man spoke to him, but the suddenly exhausted young scientist realized that he and all his important parts were safe and almost sound because of the kindness of a stranger. Hopefully, Jim Ellison was a kindly stranger and not someone wanted by the FBI or other law enforcement organizations. Calm down, Sandburg. If this guy wanted you dead, he'd have left you out in the cold to become a Blair Popsicle. Another equally nasty, unwelcome scenario niggled at his mind. Supposing Ellison was going to get the anthropologist on his feet so that he could get him on his back, like some nickel and dime mountain version of Deliverance (Blair hoped his rescuer didn't like banjo music). But, almost immediately, Sandburg dismissed the disquieting, uncalled for, notion. Deep down, on some deep, unspoken level, Blair trusted the unseen man who went along with the gruff voice.

"Did you hear what I said? I've got to make sure the generator is OK, and bring in the last of the wood for the fireplace and stove, or it's going to get a lot colder in here fast. Will you be alright on your own for a few minutes?"

Blair used the little energy he had left to respond, "Do what you have to."

"Don't go anywhere, kid. I'll be back in a minute." A door swung open on Sandburg's right side, the room chilled dramatically, and a cold blast of air slapped his face. As his body shivered involuntarily, Blair drew the bedding up under his chin and buried himself in the warmth of the massive covers. As Blair waited, he murmured, "Please come back, Jim," almost prayer-like to his now lost love, Jim Prescott. Then, the need for sleep washed over him, and consciousness slipped away, like water running through open fingers. The last thing Blair Sandburg heard -- or imagined he heard -- over the howling wind was someone say, "I'm here, buddy. There's nothing to be afraid of."

And he wasn't.

***

A nightmare of razor-like sleet flayed the skin from Blair Sandburg's back. Screams of agony and unrelenting torment stuck in Sandburg's throat, as he thrashed around trying to escape. Unexpectedly, magically, hands from nowhere saved Blair, pulling him out of the abyss, banishing the unnamed terrors that threatened to swamp Blair from all sides. The body of the young man seemed pressed against a wall - a wall of warm, solid flesh. No, more like 'pinned' to the location by those same competent, comforting hands.

Sandburg stopped his struggling, and leaned into the touch, the warmth, the contact of ... Blair drifted away again, this time, a smile of acceptance on his face, because he wasn't alone.

***

"Chief? How you doing?"

For a moment, Blair Sandburg had no recollection of where he was, what had happened, and whom the deep, rich voice calling him 'Chief' belonged to. Befuddled, his mind pitched in several different directions. The most cogent response he could come up with was, "Uh ... uh ... thirsty."

"Here you go." Blair felt a hand cradle the back of his head and neck while something smooth - a straw - touched his bottom lip. He greedily drank the water offered. "Slow down." Sandburg was ordered, even as the thumb at the nape of his sore neck rubbed in small, concentric circles. "I don't want you throwing this back up." The soothing gesture triggered a familiar feeling of trust and Blair obeyed. As Sandburg sipped more slowly, everything came flooding back. The storm. Almost dying. Jim Prescott's being nowhere around. Jim Ellison saving him. A cabin in the Cascades and something about ... what was it ... no way out? Shit! How long had he been here? Or had he already asked the same question?

"Do you want some more?"

"Uh ... huh." Sandburg's throat was parched and hamburger-raw. It hurt just about as much as everything else on his body.

"Think you can keep some apple juice down?"

Blair nodded, rather than answered. A different straw brought the cool, sweet, soothing liquid into his mouth. Sandburg sucked greedily until he finished it. Jim Ellison took the cup away, asking, "You want to go back to sleep?"

Blair shook his head no.

"OK. Tell you the truth, I could use the company. I'm making myself something to eat. Maybe you'll be able to handle broth." The man's hand squeezed Sandburg's shoulder. "And I'll find something for you to wear."

Blair shook his head yes. Fuck. His long hair was grimy and clinging to his bare neck and shoulders. Like Sandburg himself, his long, curly mane never went more than a day without being washed and conditioned. At the very least, Blair needed to run a comb or brush through it. As if Ellison could read his mind, he called over from the far end of the cabin. "Afterwards, I can take a crack at doing something about that rat's nest on the top of your head." Blair heard the opening of cans, the clanking of pots, and, as his nose could attest, the brewing of strong coffee. It was pure heaven.

Funny, how you could get such great pleasure from something as little as the smell of coffee. Or a warm, dry place to sleep.

As he lay in the big bed, cataloging a laundry list of aches and pains feeling thoroughly useless, Sandburg began reflecting on a great many things while his host busily himself around the kitchen. Was Jim Prescott alright? Ellison had said he'd seen Jeep tracks leaving the mountain, so his friend was probably OK. Were his eyes really healing, or was Jim Ellison just humoring him, so that he didn't have to contend with a half-crazy blind man for the next ... who knew how long? No, if nothing else, this Jim seemed a straight shooter. As opposed to ... wait a minute. Just because Prescott hadn't been the one to find him, didn't mean ...actually what did it mean? Had his camping partner come looking for him when things got really tough? Blair was sure he had. Or maybe Prescott's sense of direction was as bad as his own and he'd lost his way. Maybe ... maybe ... maybe. All the maybes of his fledgling relationship with the poly-sci professor were giving him a headache.

Better to think of something else. Something more germane to his present situation.

Bare. He was bare. Bare from head to toe. OK, so he shouldn't go there just yet.

What about everything he'd learn in his study of the blind during that UBC*** workshop last year?

Sandburg tried to extend his sense of hearing to map the room's ambience. It sounded fairly large and well built. Blair guessed that there were probably covers, rugs, perhaps, over the walls to insulate them. Warmth radiated from two locations. The closest, to his immediate right, felt like a roaring fireplace. The other, less intense source was farther away. Blair judged that it was a wood-burning stove that Ellison was presently using to prepare their meal. There were also two crackling sounds resonating in the area toward Blair's left. The easily identifiable one was from the fires, fueled by pine and, perhaps aspen. Crackle No. 2 was ... wait, wait ... he got it! Jesus. It was the sound of static on a radio. A short wave radio, probably. Damn it to hell. Jim Ellison *did * have a way to reach the outside world.

The question was, had he? Had Ellison tried to contact the ranger station? Did anybody else know Blair Sandburg was alive? Was Jim Prescott there, waiting, hoping against hope for a miracle -- that his tent mate was still alive, and not the mountain's latest casualty?

"You!" Blair tried to shout, to scream, to get Jim Ellison's attention. Sandburg spat out "Radio!" but his fragile voice cracked on the word, and was reduced to a frustrated, hoary whisper by the effort. Likewise, Blair's body betrayed him, racking his thin frame convulsively with coughs. Before he knew it, Sandburg was being thumped, none too gently, on the back.

"The short wave? Is that what brought this on?"

Wheezing and hacking up phlegm, and God knew what else, Blair could only nod his head miserably and accept a sip of water.

"What the hell's the matter with you? You think I'm keeping you up here against your will? Holding you for, what, ransom? Get this through that damned thick skull of yours, Professor. You don't have an 'out.' You're stuck up here with me, at least until the worst of the storm blows over. Then, I'll get you back to wherever the hell it is you want to be. And stop fucking around with those bandages!" Ellison was yelling now, loud enough to give the howling weather outside a run for its money.

The small man in the bed shrank under the withering words, and stopped touching the dressing over his eyes. By anybody's standards, Sandburg was acting like a quantum asshole to someone who, so far, had been a ... Christ, only word that came to mind was 'hero.'

"Sorry," was all Blair Sandburg could croak, as he sunk back into the pillows.

The ring of sincerity must have touched something in Ellison, who had moved close enough during the fight for Blair to touch him, if he'd had the strength to try.

"You're something else, you know that, chief?" Ellison felt Sandburg's forehead, which was unpleasantly warm and moist to his sensitive touch. "Here, I want you to take these pills."

"Don't ... wanna -"

"You're in no shape to make decisions. Besides it's only aspirin. It'll help bring down the fever you're running. You can't afford to get pneumonia on top of everything else. This discussion's over. Open your mouth, Junior. Now." Complying in atypical resignation, Blair felt two small pills being placed on his tongue. "Here's some water to wash them down." Sandburg took a long swallow from the supplied cup.

"Hell, kid, don't look so sad." Jim Ellison tried to lighten the strained atmosphere between them, as he tucked the bed covers around his indisposed guest. "I'm kind of glad you ended up here. I don't get much company during the winter."

"No?"

"No, as a matter of fact." Ellison turned to more practical matters. "Do you need to hit the head?"

"Uh ..."

"I'll take that as yes. Hey, don't even think about getting up. Here. Meet your new, best plastic friend."

***

What day was it? Monday? No, Tuesday, Blair thought. Definitely Tuesday. He'd awakened, feeling better. Good enough to stop being such a royal prick. When Jim Ellison had tried engaging him in conversation, Sandburg acted like damned spoiled brat and sulked. When Jim described his family's cabin, and all the improvements he'd made, Blair feigned indifference. And when Ellison tried to explain what had brought him up here in the first place, Blair showed no interest.

So, this time, after Jim had asked the perfunctory "Need to use the head?" Blair decided to make amends, and dragged out some of the legendary Sandburg charm to accomplish it.

"Jim, can I talk to you for a minute?"

"What? You say something? Are you OK?"

"I didn't mean to startle you! I didn't realize I was shouting."

"You weren't. I just have ... good hearing."

"Yeah? Well, listen, I'm really sorry that I've been acting like ... a ..."

"Dick?"

"Well ..."

"A dick."

"See, the thing is ..."

"A dick."

Could you at least make that a 'big dick'?"

"You're on."

The two men shared their first laugh together, a small, but significant victory for Blair Sandburg.

"So, now that we've established that you're a big dick, I think I'd better change the bandages. Sit up, chief. When I take the old ones off, make sure you keep your eyes closed. The light would be too much for you to handle." That having been said, Ellison worked quickly and efficiently, removing the gauze, taking a moment to dab what smelled like aloe over the sensitive lids, then rewrapping Sandburg's eyes.

"How's that feel?"

Blair gingerly touched the soft fabric to make sure it was secure without being too tight. It was a fine, professional job.

"So, Jim, why are you up here?"

"For lots of reasons. And no particular reason. Just needed a change."

"Change? Sorry, change is moving from the city to the suburbs. Not Prospect Avenue to sharing space with Sasquatch.****"

"And what about you? How did you get from a Dogon village in West Africa to Rainier? Don't look so surprised. Your passport was in your backpack that I rescued along with you. You've been to a dozen countries in as many years. People in glass hogans shouldn't throw stones. Especially rolling stones, kid."

"Touché, man." Blair laughed. The more Sandburg talked, the more this Jim Ellison character didn't seem like a homicidal maniac or paramilitary survivalist. And, if his "blessed protector" were either, at least he was a fairly well educated one.

"So, are you hungry?"

"Man, I'm going to roll down this mountain, you keep feeding me like this. But, yeah, I gotta say, I could eat."

"Good. I'm going to get you something a little more substantial. How about clam chowder I just heated up and a few soda crackers?"

"Sounds great." Blair heard rubber-heeled boots on the floor walking away from him, and then, a few moments later, back. Sandburg felt heat radiating near his face, as Ellison warned, "Careful, this is hot. Here, let me hold the cup for you. Give those fingers a rest." Blair sensed the lip of a comfortably warm mug near his mouth. He sipped experimentally and found the liquid thick and creamy.

As Blair finished what tasted like the best soup he'd ever eaten, he heard a chuckle from the man sitting, somewhat low, next to his left elbow. From the sound, Blair judged that Jim was perched on something small, a footstool maybe.

"This is, like, excellent. Thanks, man." Blair slurped appreciatively, feeling better, and more like himself.

"You'd probably think hot bathwater tasted pretty good right about now. Want more?"

"Yeah. That'd be great. Could you bring your chair over a little closer? So I don't make a mess of myself?" The sound of the "chair" wasn't the expected one - not wood against wood, rather, something "tinny" sounding, more like metal scraping against the floorboards.

"Noisy chair."

"It's a footlocker."

Blair continued to slurp, as neatly as he could. Feeder and feed-ee fell into a comfortable rhythm, and soon Sandburg finished the second cup.

"Jim, what about the clothes thing? Not that I'm complaining. I'm just, you know, interested, that's all."

"Well," Ellison began to explain, as he set the cup down on the nightstand next to the big bed, "when I got you back here that first day, I needed to get you warmed up fast. It's nothing I wouldn't have done for anybody else."

"So, you ..."

"Did what I had to do."

"What does that mean, exactly?"

"Shared some of my body heat. OK?" The voice sounded embarrassed. "It was the safest way to get your temperature back to normal with the least amount of damage. And you were lucky. You know, no frostbite. You can thank your tent --"

"Jim's tent."

"Jim's tent. Other than some patches of skin that are starting to peel, you're getting to keep everything that's important."

"If you're not a doctor, how do you know that?"

"I'd know if anything else were seriously wrong. Trust me."

The temporarily blind scholar did as he was told.

***

Blair awoke from sleep to realize: he still hurt all over, he was semi-erect, he wasn't alone, and he didn't mind as much as he'd have thought. Truthfully, Sandburg had stopped minding the sleeping arrangements soon after he'd arrived so unexpectedly at the cabin. He rolled to his left, touched the close-cropped hair on the dozing Ellison and whispered "Jim, Jim ..." His urgent plea stirred Jim, whose voice became suddenly alert.

"Sandburg, what's wrong?"

"I need the ... the ..."

"OK." The bed sagged, the big man got out, and came back about 30 seconds later. Blair was then taken in hand, so to speak, and his cock was directed into the neck of the urinal. He mused that nothing else felt like that particular sensation. Once Sandburg was done, a soft piece of tissue dried him off. He was about to settle back into the blankets when Jim said, "I think it's about time to change the sheets. You sit here," Jim eased Blair into a rocking chair, then draped something soft and warm across the smaller man's lap.

"What is this?"

"It's ... wolf."

"My God, you ... killed a wolf?" Blair yelled, disbelievingly, as he tried tearing the animal skin off his legs as though it were burning him.

"No, I didn't kill him. And leave it there, chief."

"If you didn't, then what happened?"

"I tried to save him."

"You did? How?" Blair's voice took on an indefinable quality.

"I found him near the cabin, when I first moved up here. He was wasting away. But he still let me approach him, and touch him. As though we..." Jim struggled for words, "connected, somehow."

"But, you couldn't save him?"

"No, he died a short time after I arrived. He's buried nearby. But, on some unspoken level, I knew I had to keep him with me. So, I ..."

"Kept his pelt."

"It's not like I ... See, I'd done it before in South America."

"Kind of like 'psychic ingestion'? Getting strength from an adversary you bested?"

"No, more like getting it from a friend who went ahead."

"Jesus, that's almost mystical."

As the conversation paused for a moment, Sandburg felt himself picked up and re-deposited onto surprisingly crisp, fresh-smelling linen.

"It was like he seemed to tell me..."

"What? Come on, Jim, it's just you and me, and this guy here," Blair urged, as he stroked the fur reverently.

"As though ... he told me to keep him with me until..."

"... what?" Blair prompted.

Ellison's voice was filled with palpable emotion. He took a breath, then continued, " the right one found the way home to me."

"What, you mean another wolf?"

"Who the hell knows? I guess that's when I knew I was as crazy as everybody said. It was just like all the other stranger things that happened in the past. "

"Like what?"

"That's another long, boring story unless it's happening to you. I'll tell you some other time, Sandburg. I'm going to get breakfast started."

"No, now that I've got my voice back, let's talk a little, first. Please?" He asked plaintively, and added an almost apologetic confession, "When I'm nervous, I tend to rattle, you know?"

"I've noticed. You need a lullaby to calm you down?"

"No, but, maybe you could read to me."

"You're kidding."

"No. Come on, what else do we have to do? You're not going out to shovel snow. I'm not going out to chop firewood. And there aren't any Andy Griffith reruns to watch."

After some consideration, Jim asked, "Like what?"

"Really? Anything, man. Whatever you've got handy. I'm very flexible in my tastes."

"I don't think I've got anything around here that would, well, I do."

"Come on. What is it? Jesus, it's not a 'stroker' mag, is it? I'm blind, not brain-dead. Besides which," a devilish grin spread on the absurdly handsome face," I can't see the pictures."

"Well, you're safe on that account. But, I don't think I've got anything around that would -"

"Come on. I know you have a book here by the bed. I felt it on the nightstand. What is it?"

"It's ... something from my Army days."

"You were in the Army?"

"Yeah."

"How long?"

"Too long."

"Vietnam?"

"How old do you think I am?"

"I don't really - how old are you?"

"Older than you. Well, actually I have pants that are older than you."

"Hey, wait a minute. I'm not that ..."

"Oh, yeah? Then I guess I'd better stop cooking up that batch of pabulum."

"You're a regular laugh riot, you are. So what was it that you were going to read to me?"

"Can we skip this?"

Blair was relentless. "You would begrudge someone who's blind -"

" - temporarily -"

" -- a little bit of solace ..."

"Sandburg, you're so full of shit, I can't believe your eyes aren't brown."

"That's as may be. So, what is it?"

"Something by Pablo Neruda."

"The poet? You read poetry? Far out!"

"No, I don't read poetry. Just this one guy whose work I liked."

"Kind of an unusual choice, then, isn't he? How did you come across him? I mean if you don't 'like' this stuff."

"I didn't say that, exactly."

"So, now I'm really interested. How'd you come across his work?"

"Well ... after Peru ..."

"Peru?" Blair interrupted excitedly, having been given an unexpected window into Jim Ellison's past. "When were you in Peru?"

"Toward the end of my enlistment. Anyway ..."

"What were you doing there?"

"My unit ... well, it doesn't much matter. Anyway, after the Army pulled me out of Peru, I was debriefed at a base ... truth was it was on God's backside. There wasn't much there," he explained. "So, other than weapons manuals, the pickings were pretty damned slim."

"And after you read all the weapons manuals, you segued into poetry?"

"Something like that."

"Which one of his is your favorite?"

"Why do you think I'd have a 'favorite'?"

"Because you seem the type of person who sinks his teeth into whatever he's doing, learns all about it, takes the best of it he can, then moves on. How'm I doing in the instant analysis?"

"Pretty good, Sigmund*****. But, first things first. Those bruises. I need to rub some liniment on them so you won't stiffen up any more than you already have." When he'd first brought the unconscious young man to the cabin, Ellison noticed large bruises beginning to appear on the knee and small of Blair's back, extending around to the right hipbone. Jim guessed that Sandburg had taken a bad spill onto rocks somewhere during the abortive escape down from the mountain. "It will help loosen the muscles."

"Don't worry about it, Jim. Just let me get up and -- Christ!" the curse escaped the smaller man's pinched face, the pain shooting up from the knee he'd twisted falling down during the storm.

"Lie still, Sandburg. Even though you're feeling better, you're still pretty banged up. We're going to have to do some work to get that knee back into shape."

"We?"

"And while I'm at it, lie still, and let me get you cleaned up."

"You don't have -"

"We're sharing the same air space. Believe me, I have to."

"Am I that ripe? Really?" Sandburg wrinkled his nose, and sniffed around. Sure, he was a little bit "off," but no more so than anyone else who'd almost died from a freak snow storm, been trundled in a bed with about a half-ton of covers, and not enjoyed an actual shower for ... just how long had it been?

"What's the matter, you hurting?"

"No. Just ... how long have I been here? Like this?"

As Blair felt capable hands clean him gently, thoroughly, he began to blush furiously. Even though it wasn't all that unusual to have a physical reaction to having the lower part of the male body touched, Sandburg still was embarrassed at his erection.

"Sorry, man, I ..."

"It happens."

"You learned that as an Army medic?"

"No."

"No? Then, what?"

"What this man's Army taught me," Ellison seemed to confess as he continued sponging off and drying his houseguest, "was that I was a 24-carat mistake."

"I don't believe it."

"You don't know anything about me, kid."

"I know, for a fact, that I'd be dead if it hadn't been for you. No mistake -- or real screw-up -- would have risked his own life."

"OK, Jimmy Olsen. So I'm Superman. Turn over and let me rub some of this anti-Kryptonite ointment onto your back."

Flipped like a small Blair-berry pancake, Sandburg found his face resting on one of the pillows, and Jim's hands kneading the small of his back. As Blair tried to get comfortable, he shifted his legs and rump - and found Ellison suddenly massaging his butt.

It was one thing to get some much-needed first aid. It was another to have an almost perfect stranger cup your ass. Even if the stranger seemed as perfect as the one working "behind the scenes" here.

"Hey, man, watch it!"

"Well, stop wiggling that bottom of yours around! I've seen bait on hooks moving around a lot less. And, by the way, if this is some shy thing, trust me. You don't have anything I haven't seen before."

"Yeah, well, I usually like to know someone just a little better before I drop my pants for him. Or have him get familiar with my butt, for that matter."

"Stop bitching. I'm done anyway. So, how's it feel?"

"About 1000 percent better," Blair had to admit.

"Good. OK. You can get back under the covers while I make you something to eat. You like corned beef hash?"

"Man, it's my absolute favorite guilty pleasure food! And if you say you have Heinz Ketchup to go with it, I'll give you my first born."

"Hold on to the Baby, Sandburg. But I found you some tea, and honey to go with it. Will that do?"

"So, you'll only be able to visit the kid on weekends."

"Oh, and Sandburg ..."

"Yeah, Jim?"

"You might want to dress up a little. Here's a shirt you can wear." The feel of the garment placed in Blair's hand was soft, often-worn flannel. Blair knew good flannel when he felt it. Flannel was Blair Sandburg's life. It also seemed enormous to the smaller man.

"This yours? Jesus, you're like, what, 10 feet tall?"

"Closer to six, Darwin. And here's a pair of boxers."

Before slipping them on, Sandburg carefully sized the underwear up in his mind. He was frankly amazed at their proportions.

"And these fit you?"

"Sure. Why?"

Seeker of knowledge that he was, Blair reached his hands out impulsively and wrapped them around Ellison's middle. He found the waist was almost tiny compared to the rest of the man standing over him. The abdominal muscles leading down to it were rock hard; the back, equally solid. "Wow. And I mean that in the best possible way. I guess it's all the manual labor living out here like Jeremiah Johnson******."

"I guess. So, Sandburg, you want to 'kiss the cook,' or unhand me so I can get chow on the table?"

"Sorry, man, let me get into these."

"Good. Oh, and by the way, chief ..."

"Yeah?"

"Nice ass."

***

Blair munched away happily at the small table where he'd been permitted to sit for the first time this morning, and continued to prod Ellison about his past. As a bit of subterfuge, Sandburg decided to share one of the many tidbits of extraneous cultural information that floated around in his head. Others, less kindly, often called it "crap by the cupful."

"You know, Jim, the Chinese have a saying, that once you've saved someone's life, it's your responsibility to do it forever."

"Sorry, chief, I don't 'do' forever. You're here only until I can get someone up the mountain to get your sorry ass out of my hair."

The comment had been as effective as a cold bucket of water on the blind Sandburg. Blair stopped eating, and pushed the plate away. Seeing the change sweep over his suddenly unanimated breakfast companion - and feeling like shit for causing it -- Ellison tried to make amends for his hard-edged words. "Hey, kid, I know you're going to be happy getting back to your real life and friends once the weather breaks. I'm surprised you haven't been bored out of your skull while we're waiting for the thaw."

"It hasn't been all that bad. Really." Sandburg warmed at the apology enough to lighten and joke, "And from what little you've told me, as for my getting out of your hair, well, the boat's pretty much sailed on that issue. Know what I mean? So, as long as we're sharing the space, want to tell me how long you've been up here?"

Blair heard the big man moving around at the far end of the cabin where the food pantry was located and kitchen utensils seemed to be kept. "Like, Hello. Hell-oooo? You still here? Or am I talking to myself?"

"You talk enough for two people."

Magnanimously, Blair chose to ignore the jibe. "And both of them are asking how long?"

"On and off, three years."

"Three years? Jesus Christ! It's a wonder you aren't certifiably nuts! What did you do? Rob a bank?"

"No, I didn't rob a bank." The voice sounded defensive, and almost petulant - like a child who's been scolded for misbehaving. "I just didn't ... let's skip the third-degree. OK? And I didn't say steady."

"No, but ..."

"And I've had visitors now and then."

"Like who?" Blair asked, as though he expected to hear a list of imaginary friends, ranging from Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Mt. Everest, to Santa Claus, with or without eight tiny reindeer.

"You mean 'whom', don't you, professor? I'm crazy, not illiterate."

Blair snorted in mock contempt. "Like 'whom,' then?"

"Well, Ron Corbett, for one. My cousin, Rucker and his fiancée, Andy, came up for a weekend around Thanksgiving."

"You've seen three people in the last 36 months?"

"More like 12."

"One every three months. That's alright then." Sandburg snorted.

"Sarcasm, I can pretty much do without, chief."

"Sorry, but how can you stand it? I mean, humans are social animals."

"Speak for yourself, junior."

"I didn't say 'party' animals, Jim." Blair's retorted good-naturedly. "We need the company of our own pack. We need them to support us, care for us. You know what I'm saying." What Sandburg couldn't say was the word 'love.' Even though it sat perilously close to the surface, hanging on his lips, the young man couldn't let it slip out. He knew the word would betray him to this stranger - the stranger whose face he'd never seen, but whose heart and mind had captured him, just as assuredly and mercilessly as if he'd stepped into a tempered steel trap.

"Like this guy." Blair continued his train of thought, as he fondly stroked Wolfie's pelt. "He needed a pack. Maybe that's why he found 'you' and let you get close."

"I guess anything's possible."

Sensing this part of the conversation was over, Blair jumped to yet another subject.

"Well, if you're not going to tell me about the personal world of Jim Ellison in 25 words or less, can I arrange to get a shave? I hate feeling this scratchy." Blair gestured to the substantial beard growing on his handsome face. Sandburg preferred being clean-shaven, even though it took great effort on his part to stay ahead of his perpetual five o'clock shadow.

"It's a possibility. I think I have a hacksaw around here that will do."

"Very funny." Blair made a silent "ha-ha" face and aimed it across the table at Ellison. "Hey! Speaking of funny, how 'bout I tell you a joke?"

"A joke?"

"Yeah. You know, an anecdotal retelling with a humorous conclusion."

"I know what a joke is."

"We'll just see about that. Let me think for a minute. OK, OK. Here's a terrific one. A guaranteed gut-buster."

"Sandburg -"

"Trust me, Jim, you're going to be falling down laughing in two minutes."

"I can't wait."

"A woman takes her dog to the vet. The vet finds the dog suffering from serious ingrown hair in its ears. The vet informs the woman that if he takes care of the problem, it will be pretty costly. But she can do it herself by carefully using a regular human depilatory. The woman thanks the vet, goes to her local drug store, finds what she's looking for, and asks the pharmacist how to use it. "Well, if you're putting it on your legs, leave it on 20 minutes, wipe it off, and don't go into the sun for at least six hours. If you're putting it under your arms, leave it on for 10 minutes, wipe it off, and don't use deodorant for at least three hours." The woman asks, "And if I put it on my schnauzer?" The pharmacist drops his voice and says, "In that case, leave it on for only two minutes, wipe it off, and don't ride a bike for a week! Get it? 'Don't ride a bike for a week?' Jim?"

"Sandburg, I'm amazed."

"You are?" Blair's self-satisfaction was short-lived.

"Yeah. That your parents didn't name you 'Shecky.'"

The spoon that Sandburg threw in Ellison's direction harmlessly bounced off the table.

"That was funny, Jim, admit it."

"If you say so, chief."

"There is something seriously wrong with you, my friend. That joke is hysterical. Everybody thinks so. Nations have fallen laughing over it. Well," Blair continued, changing tactics to make this man open up to him," if I can't make you laugh, maybe we can continue our conversation."

A groan was his answer.

"Oh, come on. I talk. You talk. Back and forth. And pretty soon, we're going to Jags games together and sharing a beer in your loft back in Cascade. Don't look at me like that. And, no, I don't have to 'see' to know you're looking at me ... well, the way, you're giving me the look."

"Is there no other way I can keep you occupied?'

"Nope, unless you can materialize a laptop out of thing air."

"OK, what do you want to know?" came a resigned reply.

"Great! Let's start off with something easy. Tell me about your family."

"Standard issue. Father, mother, brother."

"Living?"

"Depends on your definition."

"Man, this is going to tougher than I thought. OK. Tell me what it is that brought you up here originally?"

"A '69 blue and white Ford."

"Come on, get serious here."

"Me, too. It's a Goddamned classic, parked in back of the cabin. Right now, it's under a few feet of snow."

Ellison paused for a moment, weighing his next statement. "If I told you that it was for the peace and quiet, would you believe me?" Peace and quiet and things Jim Ellison couldn't talk about to anyone. Like William Ellison, who didn't care about his elder son and his crazy behavior. Or Grace Ellison, who walked out the front door when Jim was 11 years old, and never looked back. Or Steven, Ellison's younger brother, whom he rarely saw, connected only through a blood bond with the same dispassionate father. And a string of ill-chosen women who shared his bed - and one other thing in common. They were less interested in him than in his being Jim Ellison, heir to his family's considerable fortune. Loss and futility -- and, as far back as South America, trying everything to get a handle on his five haywire senses. So out-of-control, even the army had given up on Captain Ellison, who could see things others couldn't see, and hear things others couldn't hear. Captain James Ellison, who'd finally gone over the edge when he'd lost the seven men in his unit on that last, failed covert operations mission.

Since then, outside of a battalion of high-priced doctors on William Ellison's hefty payroll, no one else - friend or family -- had bothered to try.

And Ellison never knew when the weird array of aberrations would happen: lights too bright, sounds too loud, smells that made his stomach turn, tastes that made him gag, and touch that made even the most common fabric rub his skin raw. Sometimes, he'd wished for the blessed oblivion of sensing nothing. Of drifting away into a sea of gray. Of listening to something like Sandburg's voice, and dissolving into a million harmless pieces ...

"Cat got your tongue? Jim? Jim?" Getting no answer, Blair inched his hand across the table, and found Ellison's lying motionless. This wasn't good. Correction: this was bad. Jim Ellison was having some kind of attack. And a blind Blair Sandburg sat there helplessly. The situation went from bad to worse, when he heard something hit the ground, and knew it was Jim's unconscious body. Blair jump up off his chair and immediately found out just how weak his left knee was. It would support only a small portion of his weight. Only by sitting down again did Sandburg avoid a "header" fall onto the floor. Somewhere very nearby, he heard uneven breathing.

"Jim? Jim, can you hear me? If you can speak, say something, anything, for the love of God! You're seriously freaking me out here!" Blair's hands, flailing around, finally connected with the prone figure. Sandburg began to rub the other man's hands, then moved up to massage his neck, and slap the cheek turned toward him gently. Finally, Blair felt Jim's eyelids flutter open.

"I hear you, I hear you."

"Stay still. What happened? Are you an epileptic or something?" Blair pillowed Jim's head on his thigh, and ran his fingers back and forth in broad, soothing strokes over the other man's forehead.

"No, I'm not an epileptic. I'm ..."

"Tell me. Let me try to help."

And something deep inside made Jim Ellison wanted to do just that. So he listened to the first voice since that of Incacha, the Chopec Shaman in Peru who had helped him tame his spirit guide, the black panther within. Ellison told his story to the paradox of boundless youth and ageless wisdom holding him so protectively. Instinctively. As though it were meant to be ... as though they -- Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg -- were meant to be.

***

"So, your senses came 'on line' after you'd been with the tribe for ..."

"Give or take, 18 months ..."

"God, no wonder your Sentinel abilities ..."

"Whoa ... wait just a minute there, chief. My 'what' abilities?"

"Your Sentinel abilities ... it's a term coined by Sir Richard Burton - the 19th Century English explorer, not the actor. See it goes like this: in every primitive culture, there was one individual born with a genetic advantage -- five heightened senses. Now, these senses were developed in that person to help protect the village."

"You mean, like a scout?"

"No, more like a 'watchman' who'd do just that. He - or she - would watch the movements of other tribes, migration of birds and animals, and changes in the weather. Anything that might impact on his - or her -- people."

"But what good is all this stuff if I can't depend on it?"

"With practice - and help from someone who understands your condition - you 'can' depend on your senses. Jim, you could be ... hell, you *are* ... the real deal. A Sentinel. The damned brass ring. What else could you want?"

"To get off this damned hard floor, for one thing. Then ... control. What I want - what I need -- is control over them. Without that, it'll be just like the army over again. And I'll be right back where I am now."

"We'll work on it together. I promise. OK?" Blair's face was awash with excitement and the thousands of colors the firelight cast over it. Jim knew for a certainty that he'd never seen anything so beautiful in his life. But Ellison shook himself free of the thought, and where that particular thought was trying to lead him. This brilliant young man would soon be off the mountain, back into his 'real' life, with the 'other' Jim. The lucky bastard who'd done something right, had been the *one * to make Blair Sandburg smile ... and laugh and ... 'want.'

"Jim, don't zone out on me here again. OK?"

"OK. So, what do I do?"

"You mean, what do *we * do? First, we get up and give us a shave, then..."

***

As the intense talk continued over the next day, Jim Ellison learned from - and became more and more impressed with - Blair Sandburg, as anthropologist and teacher. And good friend. After the first few hours, Ellison had sent the exhausted Blair back to bed for an early afternoon nap. He watched the sleeping figure breathe slowly and, thank God, easily. Sitting on the footlocker, braced against the bed and taking a sip from his now-cold coffee cup, the big man wondered at the odds of a hiker lost on his mountain turning out to be not only an expert in what Jim Ellison was but also, on top of that, someone so attuned to his specific needs that he could guide him through the rough spots. Like two sides of the same coin. As though it had always been that way - as though it were meant to be.

It didn't seem very probable. Impossible, really. That a Sentinel should find his... guide was the word that kept springing to mind. (He'd have to ask Sandburg about it, when the young man woke up.) Something - or someone -- bigger than themselves seemed to have played the cosmic dice with their individual universes. Jim Ellison mused about these things, even as he sensed the storm that had brought them together begin to dissipate, the winds die down, and the sun finally make its appearance.

***

Blair awoke alone, but smiling over the miracle that had happened. There was no such thing as luck. It was serendipity - being at the right place at the right time. Blair Jacob Sandburg, anthropologist and Rainier University research fellow, had found himself a real, live Sentinel, Jim Ellison, a man with five heightened senses and latent abilities that only needed Blair's help to nurture and develop to their full potential. Jesus. Life was surprisingly good, considering only a few days ago - or was it weeks ago - Blair had been this close to doing a damned fine impression of Mr. Freeze, but for the intervention of the gods (deus ex machina, in the form of a surprisingly clean-shaven, modern-day Prometheus), he'd be an ex-Blair.

Beginning to stroke his cock slowly, pleasurably, as was becoming part of his daily morning ritual, Sandburg yet again wondered what Prometheus looked like. Not that it really mattered, because no matter how the packaging was put together, the soul of Jim Ellison was something special. It had been bad karma on the part of everybody who'd ever treated Ellison badly or unkindly, and bang-up karma on Blair's part for him to be here, now. Goddamned serendipity.

***

As Blair Sandburg mentally waxed poetic over his good fortune, nature began wreaking havoc with his overly full kidneys. Having been flushed, day after day with all the water and other fluids Jim Ellison had been forcing on them, they "encouraged" Blair to get rid of it all -- and fast. Sandburg swept his hands around the nightstand and the floor nearby but couldn't lay claim to the accursed portable urinal that had been his constant companion.

OK. So that meant Blair was going to have to get to the bathroom that was no more than 20 feet away. He could probably navigate it blind, but Sandburg resisted reinjuring his knee by falling over any unseen obstacles.

It was now or never. And Jim had said that he was going to remove the gauze from Sandburg's face today, anyway. So, carefully, tentatively, Blair worked the bandages off his eyes, then blinked them opened for the first time in what seemed to be months. The glare of even the subdued room light sent bolts of pain deep into his head, and he snapped them shut immediately. Slowly, incrementally this time, Sandburg's eyes adjusted more easily to the pale morning sun.

Sun. The sun was out. The storm was over. He turned his head around to take in the room he'd spent the last few weeks in. It was larger than Blair'd imagined, and as he suspected, a model of functionality. It was neat as a pin, sparsely decorated, and the walls were indeed lined with Indian rugs. Not Native American, No, they looked more like the work of Peruvian weavers. Perhaps, the beautiful rugs had been gifts from Chopec tribesmen for their Sentinel.

If it weren't for the fact that he was about to explode, and the portable urinal was still nowhere in sight, Sandburg would have stopped to examine them more closely. As it was, Sandburg got onto his feet cautiously, and was pleasantly surprised to find that his knee would indeed support his weight. Blair inched his way toward the room on the right where he heard the sounds of running water - the solar shower that Ellison had described to him early in his recuperation, during one of their many talks.

Hanging first onto the back of the rocking chair he'd spent may pleasant hours in, then balancing himself on the rough-hewn wall, Sandburg succeeded in working his way to the bathroom.

There, for the first time, he saw what Jim Ellison looked like. Jim was ... a god, standing in the golden morning sun, which filtered dramatically through the skylight overhead.

Magnificent, the man was magnificent. No other word would do the man justice. It was as though a Michelangelo-carved, heroic figure had suddenly come to life and, in joy, decided to wash off the marble dust and studio detritus. Blair Sandburg stood, transfixed, mouth agape, eyes widened to comic proportions, taking in the remarkable scenery. The statue's head turned, scanning Blair's equally nude figure with a mixture of curiosity and ... something else.

Certainly not self-consciousness or embarrassment. Quite the contrary. The giant (at least, in the smaller man's opinion) continued to let the water sheet over broad, well-defined shoulders and chest, sluice down the impossibly chiseled abdominal muscles and end by running off a beautiful, semi-erect cock nestled in a wet, golden pubic thicket. And he had a face that in another lifetime would have demanded worshipping -- and maybe a thousand or so kisses to be rained on it, reverentially, from a lowly pilgrim.

"What the hell are you doing out of bed, Sandburg?" the god questioned, in a deceptively mild tone. His face looked not unlike some sort of predator, waiting for prey to fall across his path.

Like a small creature hypnotized by something - or someone - who could be his undoing, Sandburg stammered a reply. "Uh, uh ... had to ... you know ... pee," as he steadied himself against the doorframe.

"You should have called. Well, here, let me help, before you fall down." One long stride had Ellison out of the old cast-iron tub, by his guest's side, wet hands resting authoritatively around Blair's shoulder. Supporting and steering Sandburg to the commode, Jim smiled, and semi-ordered, "OK, chief, let her rip."

"Uh, Jim ... you ... don't ... I can't with someone ..." Blair blushed furiously as he felt the wet, hard body behind him, pushing into him gently, bracing his shaky stance.

"Don't pull the shy routine with me, Sandburg. Remember who took care of all this stuff while you were unconscious. So ... what are you waiting for?"

"Jeez, don't put any pressure on a guy!"

The soft laughter that drifted into Blair's left ear plastered a smile on his radiant face. Despite the seemingly unreal situation, Sandburg's body relaxed. When "business " was done, Blair suggested, somewhat timidly, "Could you maybe give me a hand washing up? I probably need it, huh?" He added, almost as an afterthought.

"Yeah. You're ripe, kid. Like Jersey tomatoes at a Fourth of July picnic. Come here."

Sandburg felt himself easily lifted, placed into the tub, and slid forward, to make room for the other man who urged, "We'd better get this done in a hurry, chief. My set-up only generates enough water for a five-minute, pretty warm shower."

As large, confident hands rubbed soap over Sandburg's body in quick, no-nonsense strokes, Blair turned his head backward to ask, "And what happens after - yeow!" The chilly -what the hell, COLD -- water hitting his chest and groin, made Sandburg's blue eyes pop like aggies from a slingshot. Blair heard "Sorry, buddy! " and felt a soft, warm bath sheet wrap around him. Then, he was hoisted over the rim of the tub and carried back out to the large bed.

Blair was nestled back in the pile of blankets and down comforter left askew from his recent defection. Suddenly, nudity became an issue - because Sandburg was naked in front of his now-seen, personal deity. And because Blair Junior had begun to make it crystal clear that he liked what he saw.

"Uh, where's my ... your shirt," the skittish anthropologist scrambled to retrieve the errant piece of clothing, when a damp hand covered his nervous one.

"Chief, you don't have to ... I won't come near you. You're 'safe' with me. You know that, right?" Jim Ellison sounded a handful of years younger, as he spoke quietly, gently. Blair's hand squeezing Jim's sinewy forearm was the answer.

"I still don't know a lot of things about you, Jim Ellison, but one thing I do know. You'd never, ever hurt me." Sandburg's grip became more solid, more urgent. "I need to feel safe, Jim. Come to bed. Please?" Almost unwillingly, Jim Ellison slid his wet, excited body in, next to Blair's equally primed, more compact one.

Ellison's patrician face seemed lost in a dream - a dream come true. "Jim ... Jim ... Jim ..." Blair murmured the name over and over, like a mantra -- seductively, hypnotically, urgently. As their lips and cocks were about to merge together, Ellison's laser blue eyes jerked open, and he leapt back, as though scalded by the unbearable heat of long-untapped want and need.

"No! No, chief, we can't!"

"Why? Why not? What is it? Is there something wrong with me? With us?" Sandburg erupted in anger and hurt.

"No, Blair, none of those!" The naked Ellison stalked back and forth across the wooden floor leaving dozens of beading footprints in his wake. "I can't. Not like this. Seems I've always just been a fuck and run. I can't do that with you."

"And you think that's what I want?" A now openly incensed Blair Sandburg jumped out of the bed, and found his knee wasn't so sturdy as he'd assumed. Crumbling to earth like a broken-winged bird, Blair yelled "Shit!" at the top of his lungs, as much from the embarrassment of flopping bare-bottomed on the rug, as from the pain of twisting his already abused joint.

In less than an instant, Jim Ellison was by his side, running hands over Blair's legs to see if any additional damage had been done. Once he was satisfied that the only thing wounded was Sandburg's pride, Jim looked at the face, flushed from the exertion of their fight, beautiful beyond all reasoning. The face of a man who had just offered himself to Jim Ellison, willingly, eagerly, and, most of all, lovingly. No conditions, no provisos. What kind of fool had William Ellison raised? One who had sacrificed a great deal for country, kith and kin.

But not this time. Jim continued to move his long, elegant fingers over the young man's hair chest, lingering on the nipple ring, feeling Sandburg's heart beating a wild tattoo. "I'm sorry, chief. Really. I guess I'm an idiot where you're concerned." Jim sat down gracefully next to Blair, like a large, predatory feline settling onto its catbird seat. Shoulder to shoulder, the two shared a now uncomfortably wet rug -- and a pregnant silence. Sandburg could feel the edges of a steel-like hipbone against his own more pliant flesh. The touch made him shiver with excitement.

Ellison reached back, grabbed the wolf pelt and wrapped it around Blair's body. He pulled Sandburg's hair out from under the fur, and fanned the chestnut mane out to dry. Once that was done, he placed his bent index finger under Blair's defiant chin, and tilted the face upward.

Any resolve of acting tough and untouchable on Blair Sandburg's part melted away into the ether when he looked into Jim Ellison's eyes.

"When you look at me, like that, Blair, it makes me think that I'm falling in ..."

A stranger's voice, broken by static and interference, shattered the moment into a million pieces. The message emanating from the wireless radio, broadcasted its intention across the cabin to where Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg sat.

"This is Ranger Station #24 calling WM4394. Over. Ranger Station #24 calling WM4384. Jim? Jim Ellison? Can you hear me? Over?"

Neither man moved, each frozen in his respective spot. Ranger Ron Corbett's insistent cadence finally made Jim Ellison turn silently toward Blair Sandburg, whose face - and suspiciously wet eyes -- mirrored his own sadness.

"I guess you'd better answer him, Jim, while I get dressed."

***

"Thanks. He's pretty much recovered. He should be able to travel any day now. Over."

"I'll get in touch with his camping buddy, that Jim Prescott. He's the one that reported Professor Sandburg missing. Over."

"So is he there, waiting for news about Blair? Over."

"No. He went back to Cascade when we called the search off. Over."

"Ranger Corbett, this is Blair Sandburg. When exactly did Jim leave?" The young man interrupted.

"Say 'over,' chief."

"Uh, 'over.'"

"Hello, Professor Sandburg. Glad you're in one piece. Our search and rescue people will be thrilled. Prescott said he had classes to teach at Rainier, so he went back on the second day of the storm. Over."

"I see. Thank you. Uh, over." Jim's steadying hand on Blair's slightly sagging shoulder offered comfort at the disquieting news. Sandburg freed himself, and backtracked to the other side of the room.

"We can make arrangements to come up by the end of the week, Jim. How's that? Over."

"Sounds good. We'll be in touch, Ron. This is WM4394. Over and out."

The short wave went silent, save for the droning buzz of dead air. Sandburg moved around slowly, pulling on his own clothes and boots, then walked out the front door toward mountain road. Ellison dressed quickly, snagged an extra jacket, and followed his young ... what? Friend? Confidante? Lover?

About 100 yards away, Blair stood, surveying the vista in front of Jim's cabin. This Jim. His Jim. The only loose end in Blair Sandburg's life had just been tied up neatly moments before. The beauty was so overwhelming, for once, words failed him. It brought to mind something he'd read a million years ago. When he was 13 years old, Sandburg had convinced his mother, Naomi, that he wanted to prepare for Bar Mitzvah, a Jewish male rite of passage. Blair had made a compelling argument, much to the New Age proponent's astonishment. Eventually, Ms. Sandburg found herself warming to the idea with her signature response, "I hear that, honey." She'd even found a reformed rabbi to do the honors. Rabbi Kessler gave the small, bespeckled, and insightful Blair Sandburg a compendium of meditations, usually reserved for special, older students. Sandburg still kept the book in a place of honor, no matter where he was in the world, no matter how modern or primitive his home at the moment. On this exceptional day, under God's gracious spaces, Blair remembered a particularly relevant admonishment from Rabbi Nachman of Bratizlava. "May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grasses, among all growing things, and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer to talk with the one that I belong to." The Rabbi knew of what he spoke. And the last line had made him thing of how it could so easily apply to someone - the right someone. It wasn't sacrilegious.

Wasn't real love about belonging to someone in the best possible way?

"Hey, chief, where's your jacket? You shouldn't be standing out here without it." Jim draped the spare plaid garment around the smaller man's shoulders.

"It's so glorious here, Jim. I can't believe that just weeks ago - hell, days ago - this," - his hand gestured toward the mountainside - "was covered with snow. And, anyway, it's not all that cold."

"I know, I know. But you can't afford to get sick again. Particularly since you're ... going to be leaving soon." Almost imperceptibly, Ellison's voice stumbled over the last phrase.

Blair turned unhappy blue eyes upward. "So, it's set? The road is open?"

"It will be by the end of the week. Then Ron or one of the other rangers can come up here to get you."

"Jim, come back to Cascade for while."

"I wouldn't survive very long."

"But you would!" Blair grabbed the big man's arms for emphasis, as much as to steady and center himself.

"You've made so much progress with your senses in the short time I've been here."

"I've only taken baby steps, it feels like."

"It's just that I've been so ..."

"Happy? Yeah. Well ... I know what you mean." Ellison tried to brush off the emotion that had crept into his voice, but succeeded only in making it more evident.

"Come on. Let's not talk anymore, and just try to share this afternoon together."

"But, Jim --"

"Sandburg, one of the things you've taught me - yes, you taught me -- is to stop being so fucking worried about tomorrow. So, relax and enjoy here and now."

Blair leaned back, a hair's breadth away from the man behind him. He slowly turned his head, and looked over his shoulder at Jim. Ellison's breath was literally stolen from his body by the sheer, unadulterated beauty of a Blair Sandburg in love. But in love with him? Suppose Sandburg decided it wasn't such a good idea, and ended up leaving. There were no percentages in loving a ghost, Jim knew from sad experience. He couldn't risk it again.

"Quit it, chief!"

A backhand across the face couldn't have hurt Blair any more than the seeming rejection. "No problem, Ellison! I'll throw my stuff together and be ready when they come to haul me out of here. And I'm sorry to have foisted myself on you. I guess I just thought that ... "

"What? You don't think it's been the biggest struggle of my life to keep my hands off you? To know that if I opened up my senses and took my fill, I'd never survive your leaving? Jesus Christ, for a smart guy, Sandburg, you are one stupid bastard."

"Then, why, Jim?"

"Why what?" Jim retorted angrily.

"Oh, I don't know." Blair Sandburg was now on the offensive, because he was fighting for his life. For their life. "'Why' didn't you tell me? 'Why' did you keep it to yourself? 'Why' are you feeling the way you do? And if you care for me - and I'm betting you do, you dumb fuck - 'why' the hell are you shipping me out of your God-damned, perfectly self-contained life?" Blair shouted back, angry with the sullen man towering over him - and angry with himself for having been so slow on the uptake. His curses echoed in the pristine hills around them, and fell harmlessly onto the rapidly melting snows.

"Because ... I ... thought ... if I asked, you wouldn't stay ..."

"You're hopeless, Ellison. You know that, don't you?" Blair's eyes grew suspiciously bright as he listened to this repressed son-of-a-bitch who'd fed him, cared for him, read to him, made him laugh, and stolen his damned heart. "What you need is a keeper."

"I've been told worse."

"On second thought, you don't need a keeper. You need a ..."

"A what, Sandburg? A partner, and a roommate, someone who'll 'guide' me?"

"I was going to say, 'Someone who'll love you.'"

Their first kiss was chaste and tender and yet filled with such promise that both of them drew back and stared at one another in wonder.

Then Jim Ellison did something totally surprising. He began to laugh, a laugh as big as the sky they stood under, as bright as the trills of songbirds in the distance, and as joyous as tiny, mountain flowers that had bravely begun to pop through the patches of snow. "Don't ride a bike for a week!" The disbelieving look on Sandburg's face notwithstanding, Jim continued the laughter, as he bent down to kiss any exposed flesh he could find on the man he now held tightly in his arms. Blair began to breathe rapidly as his taller lover ran perfect, white teeth over his collarbone, up to his ear, seized it in his mouth and began to chew purposefully.

The fast, hot breath aroused and inflamed Blair, making him try to climb the nearest natural wonder - Jim Ellison's rock-hard body. In some small compartment of his mind, Sandburg thought that special tours should be run by the park service to take in the undeniable beauty of this particular piece of scenery. Immediately, the more reptilian part of his brain nixed that. Nobody would ever get this close to Jim Ellison again. Not if Blair Jacob Sandburg had anything to say about it.

Blair's train of thought was unceremoniously derailed by being lifted easily off the ground and encouraged to contort himself around said object of desire. Sandburg's shorter, sturdy legs wrapped sensuously, and tightly, around Ellison's small, muscular waist, as his torso was crushed against the titan's.

Under God's blazing spring sun and cloudless sky, as Jim carried him back to the cabin and the unmade bed, Blair Sandburg was treated to the experience of a lifetime by his soon-to-be lover. First, a rain of kisses, then 10 fingers feeling like 1,000 working their magic up and down his body. Digging into Blair's leg was the very evident body part of Jim Ellison he would soon be impaled on, that would slide into his waiting body in deliberate, take-no-prisoners rhythm, over and over again, and finally claim the anthropologist, lock, stock, and willing soul.

But whatever Blair imagined, it paled, like a faded photograph, against the reality of having Jim Ellison love you into a puddle of insensible lust goo. The feel of flesh rubbing against flesh, nipple against nipple, and his own hairy chest against the smooth, even planes of Jim's granite-like one, was a mind-boggling, tactile experience. Like end-of-the-night fireworks at some traveling carnal carnival. How many hands did the big man have, exactly? Sandburg could have sworn he felt hands in his hair, in his mouth, and ... thank you, Lord ... in his ass, scissoring, probing, pushing, looking for ... what? (The source of the Nile had been found a while back, he remembered.) Or maybe ... JESUS H. CHRIST OFF THE CROSS ... nobody had ever done that before. He'd never been rimmed for a very simple reason: Blair Sandburg was never of a mind to be anywhere other than in the driver's seat.

But the one constant in life was change. For the right person, you could make a change. A big change. And if that meant that someone else - specifically the man whose face was now imbedded between his ass cheeks - wanted, no needed the control over this most intimate of undertakings, well, then, so be it.

"Oh, God .. oh, God, don't ... don't stop ... there ... there ... do it ...further ... coming, coming soon ... can't ... harder, fuck me ... there, that's it .. that's it ... oh, oh, OH -" Every nonsensical syllable, each of which Blair had used at least twice in the last few minutes, that people gasp when they're fucking and loving one another was totally non-descriptive to how he actually felt as he spewed come all over comforter. Actually, Blair Sandburg felt almost virginal, and the ride on Jim Ellison's tongue was one of the nicer things that could have happened to him - right up there after winning a $100 million lottery, finding out you're actually descended from royalty and they want you back on the throne, and you can wear $23 glasses from Four Eyes and not look like a total geek.

So it was with some degree of surprise that when Jim Ellison turned the boneless young man over onto his back, and gazed down at him with an almost hungry look, Blair knew exactly was Jim was asking. And the answer was simple.

"Yes."

And after Jim lubricated that magnificent cock of his with the aloe cream sitting on the nightstand, he placed the throbbing organ at Sandburg's already loose, willing opening. Not able to wait one second longer, Blair grabbed the big man's arms, squeezed them for all he was worth, then thrust himself onto Jim Ellison. Not gently. Primal and primitive. And what they were to one another.

Essential.

Sinking into his mate as though his life depended on it, Jim Ellison's astonishment knew no bounds. Aside from the physical paradise of being trapped inside Blair Sandburg, gripped by passion and longing, he was awash with torrents of emotion: joy, and fear, and uncertainty, and finally, bliss. He had found his bliss. Not in hiding from the world, nor in denying what he truly was, but here, making love to this man, this gift from a sympathetic God who knew not only that the Sentinel's physicality was the other side of his great gifts, but that this young man so totally connected would be the instrument of bringing Jim Ellison back to life. Back to the world that needed him. Blair Sandburg would be the catalyst, the pure element to melt away the isolation, to bring about the resurrection of Captain James Ellison.

The orgasm that rocked the two of them brought a sound of unexpected pleasure - an almost howl of joy -- from Blair Sandburg who screamed his completion to the sun and the sky. Jim Ellison's eyes filled with tears of gratitude as he now understood that the spirit of the blue-eyed wolf he'd been waiting for was here.

Forever.

Lying together, dazed by the consummation of their love, Jim Ellison realized that the ice on the mountain wasn't the only thing thawing. So was this wounded man, with a heart half-hardened by circumstance and neglect.

But now, it seemed to be opening up - he was opening up - to this damned annoying, in-your-face, one-of-a-kind stranger who'd stumbled into his life, invaded his space, and, more importantly, taken up what seemed to be permanent residence in his soul.

For the first time in who knew how long, Jim Ellison couldn't wait for spring ... or summer ... or fall ... or ...

The End.

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Author's Acknowledgements: Thank you, Lisa and Lisa's hubby, for giving me a place to spin my winter yarn, so to speak, and to Patt for her artistic efforts on my behalf in the Many Seasons of Love. I also want to thank her for having worked above and beyond the call of duty this go-around. After the e-zine is "published," I'm writing you a note, Patt, so that you can go play hooky, and rest up before the next one rolls around!

*Donner Party - Ill-fated wagon train party stranded while crossing the Sierra Nevadas in the 1800's. Several party members died from exposure. While waiting to be rescued, others resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.

**Spyder - Ski wear.

***UBC - University of British Columbia.

****Sasquatch - Big Foot.

*****Sigmund - Sigmund Freud, father of modern psychoanalysis.

******Jeremiah - Legendary American mountain man.