This is not a story so much as an unanchored vignette. A group effort had started on #smarm, something involving the theme "Jim and Blair on a boat get in trouble" and it was on rocky shoals before long, foundering in heavy silliness that had something to do with potato salad. After a while, but mercifully before the kraken rose from the depths to wreak havoc, cat1 asked if she could try her hand at an idea she had. We were all happy enough to turn it over and watch her create the smarm we had been hoping for out of the scattered beginnings that are long since lost in the logs and, as far as is necessary for the reader to understand, consist of nothing more than the two guys out on the bay in a nice little sailboat, maybe a thirty-footer, with a slight hint of a storm far off on the horizon.
The boat rocked gently back and forth. Blair, relieved of his rope, settled on the deck, legs crossed and his back against the rail. He watched Jim fuss with the last few details, adjusting ropes and tugging gently on sails. His face had that look of intense concentration, the one that fascinated Blair when it was turned on something else...and that when turned on him was almost impossible to resist.
"Where are we going?" Blair asked.
"South-south-west," Jim answered, hint of a smile in his voice even though his face was turned away from Blair.
"Uh, any place more specific than that?"
"No." Jim made a last adjustment, then came and sat down on the deck next to Blair, his long body fitting with surprising neatness into the small space.
Blair grinned, pleased at that spontaneity from Jim. He had a suspicion his less than meticulous habits were rubbing off on Jim just a bit, which amused him. "You're good at this sailing thing," Blair said. And wondered, quietly, how that fit with Jim's occasional moments of nervousness around open water.
Blair shivered whenever he thought of the Cyclops oil rig, out in the middle of the black cold water, and how difficult it had been for Jim to dive off into it, how Jim's body had been trembling with the tension. They hadn't had any choice, of course, but it hadn't been easy for Blair to push Jim past that kind of resistance. But the calm bay water and the afternoon sunlight didn't seem to have anything like that effect on Jim now. The disparity tugged at Blair, at both his scientific instinct and his feel for Jim as his friend.
Jim uncoiled himself, went quickly below to the cabin, and returned with two cold bottles of beer, handing one to Blair before he sat down again.
Blair took the bottle; Jim had opened it for him. He tried it, it was a kind he didn't recognize. "Mad Monk Ale? Cool, you went to Brew Works again."
"It's on the way home," Jim said, drinking and looking contented.
"Not bad at all." Blair took a longer draft. It was strong for an ale, with a bit of an edge to it.
"We used to sail out here when I was a kid," Jim said.
Blair stayed very still, but his own Sentinel-like sense of Jim went on full alert, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling.
"We had a 24' boat. It was a big thing with my father, having a boat. It seemed to mean to him that he'd arrived. That he had the extra money for it, that he was part of the kind of people who had boats." Jim ran a hand over his short hair, looking down at the deck rather than at Blair, but still talking. "He wanted Steven and I to learn to sail it. We were little then, probably ten and seven. Too little to do it right, the way he wanted us to do it. But we tried."
"That sounds tough." Blair kept his voice gentle, level. He wasn't sure what Jim was driving at, or how much he wanted to tell. But he was okay with whatever it was. He kept a hand wrapped around the cool bottle, shook the hair out of his eyes, and kept listening.
The deck was rocking harder. Jim sat with his back against the rise of the cabin, his legs braced on the deck, still looking a little past Blair. Jim kept his balance absently, his beer staying level as if without thought. Blair had to work a little harder at not sliding sideways. Yeah, this was something Jim knew well.
"I never did it right." Jim looked right at Blair then, his eyes direct and a little weary.
Blair was about to answer when a wave unseated him and he went skidding along the deck, away from the rail.
Jim's hand shot out and closed on Blair's arm, stopping his motion easily. "Sit on this side," Jim advised. "The wind is against you over there."
Blair shook spilled beer from his hand, Jim took the bottle without being asked and held it while Blair scooted over and sat next to Jim. He took his bottle back, annoyed at himself for accidentally disrupting the confidence. "How could you not have done it right? You're really good."
Jim shook his head. "Not good enough. He wanted us competitive, able to sail races."
"But you were just kids."
"We were his kids." There was a bitter look on Jim's face that was unusual. Jim wasn't a bitter man.
"Yeah," Blair said, quietly. "You've told me about being his kid."
Jim nodded. His beer was empty, and Blair turned around and reached through the window. The kitchen was so small that since he fit through the window, he could actually grab a beer out of the tiny counter-top fridge without having to go inside the cabin.
Jim laughed outright as Blair backed out of the window with the beer. "You could use the door you know, Chief."
"Hey, I'm getting you beer. You going to complain about how?"
There was a softness to the blue eyes. "No, Sandburg." Jim's head turned suddenly, and he scanned the horizon in front of them.
"What is it?" Blair looked in the same direction, but didn't see anything.
"Storm. Far away, though." But a new tension had come into the sentinel's broad shoulders. "Funny, doing this with my senses."
Blair firmly squelched the thousand questions that sprang suddenly to mind at that comment. Could Jim sense the shift in barometric pressure? Hear far-off thunder? He'd always meant to explore the angle of sentinels in protecting against natural phenomena like weather....
Jim elbowed him gently. "You awake there?"
Blair nodded. He watched Jim's face, the play of conflicting emotion on it. Gentleness, as he watched Blair, but other things underneath, that had everything to do with the sudden tension. "What happened?" he asked Jim finally. "Something did, didn't it? Out on the water, when you were a kid."
Jim leaned forward next to Blair, resting his head on drawn up knees. "It was almost dark," he said. "Like this. Only there was a storm coming up. Steven and I and my father were out much farther than this. He'd wanted us to make Cypress Island by dark. Only we weren't going as fast as he'd wanted.
"There was wind, because of the storm, but we couldn't control it. My father wouldn't help, at first, he just leaned against the rail and yelled at us to watch what we were doing, that there was enough wind here to get us halfway down the coast if only we knew what to do with it.
"Steven kept dropping the ropes. He was little and they were big ropes and had a lot of tension on them. I tried to help him but there wasn't much I could do. There was just too much wind for him to be able to move them around.
"And then as the wind came up hard again the boat nearly went over. My father grabbed the tiller and got it straightened out. And then he asked us what happened. What we did wrong.
"Steven told him I did it, that I hadn't set the rigging right. And my father made Steven sit down and watch, and I knew I was in trouble. It was all the way dark, and the water was rough, and I was scared."
Blair, back against the hard plastic of their own moving deck, didn't want to imagine what that motion was like in a storm, or what it was like to be ten years old and trying to hold an entire boat on course by yourself.
"We had too much sail up for that kind of wind. I started trying to take some of it down, but my father stopped me. 'You've put us behind. We'll have to make up the time,' he said. 'Can't you smell the storm? You think we have all kinds of time? Get over to port.'
"I did smell it. I'd been able to for hours." Jim shook his head.
Blair put a hand on Jim's shoulder, squeezed, trying to be quiet and yet very much there beside Jim.
"He took us at a speed I've never seen," Jim said. "Never want to see again. I couldn't keep up with him. I couldn't hold the ropes either." The muscles in his arms were tightening, as if even now he were fighting with the thin ropes.
"Steven looked like he was about to cry. He was holding onto the railing, he wouldn't go downstairs, and my father seemed to have forgotten he was even there. It started pouring rain, and everything that hadn't been wet before was soaked now. It made the ropes slippery, and it made them burn worse when you lost hold of them. My hands were cut and slippery with blood so I couldn't hold on easily anyway. It was even harder with everything wet.
"I didn't know what to do. I knew we shouldn't be trying to even move in this storm, but I didn't know how to get out of it. So I did what my father said. Or at least I tried. And then there was a rope I couldn't hold. It ripped out of my hand, and the sail went flying. It pulled us over flatter and flatter, until the sail touched the water."
"Steven was screaming. My father grabbed him, had hold of him and even as the boat was going over he was still screaming at me, telling me to do things I couldn't even hear."
Blair was incredibly glad he'd never met Jim's father, or ever had to be civil to him. He kept his hand on Jim's back.
"I ran to the stern and cut the rope on the dinghy. There was water in it, inches deep, but it was still floating. It was what he'd told me to do, if the boat ever capsized. I crouched in the water and yelled, but even though the deck was tilted so badly he could barely stand on it, my father wouldn't come into the dinghy. And he still had hold of Steven."
"Then the boat went all the way over. The water was everywhere, spraying salt, and it was dark, so dark that in a matter of seconds I couldn't even make out the shape of the overturned boat. I couldn't see them. I couldn't hear them. All I could see was the water. Water, black and wild and in every direction seeming absolutely empty of life.
"I tied the rope of the dinghy to my belt, and I dived in. I came up through the waves, the surface was never in the sane place twice and I kept breathing water. The rope on the dinghy wasn't very long, and every time I got my head above water it would pull me back down. But it didn't matter.
"I was listening.
"And then I heard them. Heard Steven, crying and calling for me. Heard my father." Jim stopped, shook his head. "There was no way I could have heard them over the sound of the water. But I did. I could hear where they were, and I swam toward them. The dinghy was heavy, it pulled every which way, but I could still hear them and I knew I was getting closer."
"Of course you heard them," Blair said, in the voice he used when he wanted not to be argued with.
Jim's eyes went closed for one moment, his body under Blair's touch shivering just a little. Then he kept talking, as if he didn't dare stop. His eyes were open, but he was seeing different water than the easy swells in front of them. "I saw them then. I reached out as far as I could, trying to grab Steven. My father must have seen the dinghy. He picked Steven up and handed him to me, and I boosted him into the tiny boat. He held on tight, not even crying any more. I got back in myself, I almost tipped it over with my weight, but Steven moved to balance me.
"My father was still in the water. I reached out as far as I could, holding out my hand. He wouldn't take it. He fought his way past where I was reaching out and pulled himself into the dinghy as if I wasn't even there." Jim held out a hand in front of him, looked down at it, flexing the palm as if trying to find out what he'd done wrong with it. His face was shadowed in the fading light.
Blair, sitting next to Jim, could feel his partner's tension all along his own body. He'd run out of hesitation; he did the only thing he could think of, which was to close his own hand over Jim's and hold on tight.
"He never said a word to me," Jim said. "We floated for fourteen hours, until the Coast Guard picked us up. In all that time he never said a word to me." Jim looked down at Blair's hand over his. The planes of his face shifted, the bitterness disappearing, the blue eyes no longer lost and empty.
"It was not your fault," Blair said. "You saved their lives, Jim."
Jim shook his head slightly. Then he drew Blair toward him, almost hesitantly, his other hand flat on Blair's shoulders and touching him very lightly, as if he were afraid he would hurt Blair, or as if he were asking permission.
That was all Blair needed: he put both his arms tightly around Jim, holding on as hard as he could, as if it were their boat that was tossed by the storm and he were trying to keep Jim safe from the water.
Jim's body was warmer than Blair's, his heartbeat faster than Blair's. He put gentle hands around Blair, holding on still carefully at first, and then daring to pull him closer and closer. Blair's hair, loose, was spilling across Jim's hand, and slowly Blair felt Jim's fingers tighten on the strands, not hurting him but almost desperate in their hold. Broad, strong hands tangled in the soft curls as if it were their only anchor. But not hurting, never hurting, and Blair let his head fall onto Jim's shoulder.
Blair put one hand up blindly, touching Jim's face. He brushed his fingers across the slight trace of tears, said nonsense words over and over again that were mostly "It's all right." He knew it didn't matter what he said, only what he meant. And he knew that Jim could hear him.
Jim's heartbeat was slowing against Blair's cheek, slowing until it was closer and closer to what it should have been. Blair wanted not to let go of that touch, envied desperately a sentinel's ability to never be separate from that rhythm. He felt that steadying, that slowing, like a boat brought safely in to shore, leaning content against Jim, thrilled with having been able to help.
The boat rocked, and Jim balanced them both, holding Blair against the motion of the waves. He bent over Blair, and there was the soft brush of lips against Blair's forehead, there for just a moment and then gone.
That was all the answer Blair needed.
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