Title: Breathing

Author/pseudonym: alyjude

Rating: NC17

Pairing: J/B

Category: First time/hint of drama

Date: March 18, 2001

Status: New and complete

Disclaimer: Guess I'd better. Okay, officially, these guys belong to PetFly et al. I borrow, I play nice, I don't kill 'em or mutilate 'em but I have been known to make 'em have sex. I get nothing for this except fun. Loads of fun. Lots of fun. Endless, life-saving fun. Thank you Petfly.

Warning: Yep, there really is one. But if you need to read it, please

scroll past the spoiler space and anyone else can delete after the notes

and summary. Win-win that way. <G>

Notes: Thank you to Greenwoman and Melvin, as always. The best betas out there, especially considering who they're betaing. Poor people.

This story was also inspired by Greenwoman. We were talking songs and she mentioned Faith Hill's Breathing as a Jim/Blair song and I listened and this story was born. Also inspired by another song, Lee Ann Womack's Just Dance.

Notes - the sequel: I'm still having trouble using the wonderful interface so this is just to remind you all that I have to copy and paste each part onto an email before sending so there is a bit of lag time between each part. But I suspect all four parts will be playing at a local sxf near you within the hour. <G> Thank you.

Summary: A terrible case brings truth to the Ellison/Sandburg home.





























CAVEAT: the beginning of this story does describe a horrible event - a multiple murder with children involved. But the crime has already happened and is NOT (imho) graphically described, only the scene as viewed through Blair's eyes is described.

Breathing - part one

by alyjude


Okay, this isn't, like, serious or anything. Just a feeling of melancholy, you know? It's no deep depression or a manic depressive episode. Just a faint - hint of melancholy.


It sort of has me wrapped up, a bit lethargic, kind of a *move, who me?* type of feeling, you know?

Not serious, not at all.

Actually, maybe it's called *growing up*, or *turning thirty*. Or maybe it's just that things change.

But no matter what it is, it's nothing really bad. In fact, this whole melancholy thing is sort of silly when you consider that my life is finally on track. When you realize that upheaval was my middle name for a while and I survived. So I have a touch of melancholy, so what? Like I'm not entited?

And it's *not* because I'm a cop now. I truly love being a cop and I truly love being Jim's partner. And our friendship has never been better or stronger. We made it, and like me, our friendship survived. We're in for the long haul. We're solid.

Have two men *ever* had to deal with what we have in the last few years, let alone in the last year? I think not. No way. And if they had, their friendship would undoubtedly have gone the way of Pompeii.

But not us.

We're great friends. Solid friends. Forever friends.

And as working partners, we're unbeatable. We think and act as one unit and Simon is in a perpetual state of *How the fuck did they do that?*.

The trust is there, the respect. We're equals. We've got our groove back. We're rocking.

The past is the past - we profited from our somewhat large (okay, *gargantuan*) mistakes and I can honestly say that we're both better men for having made them. And as far as the whole sentinel thing is concerned, well, we move like two well-oiled machines. I anticipate; he talks. I drop a hand on a shoulder; he focuses and we both test and learn happily.

We're groovin'. We're hot, we're unstoppable.

Everything is perfect - except for this slight, wavering melancholic feeling.

But maybe the last case is responsible? I mean, it *was* a horror. Almost an entire family dead - mother, father, two daughters, ages 7 and 12 and two sons, ages 9 and 17. Even the god damned dog, murdered. Only one child exempt from the slaughter - the middle son - age 14. He'd spent the night at a friend's home.

The killings had been particularily horrible, what with blood everywhere, on walls, windows, doors, sinking into sheets and blankets and mattresses, the house suffocatingly rich in the sickening sweet copper scent of blood ---

Jim and I moving through the fresh scene, Jim's back ramrod stiff, eyes glinting pale silver instead of that surreal blue ---

His eyes taking in the children, the nine year old boy the only one who apparently woke, tried to get away - found in the hallway, the others killed quickly and silently in their sleep ---

And nothing stolen. Nothing disturbed. The trail of the killer simple for Jim to follow ---

He entered through the slider in the den, walked into the hall, out into the foyer, up the stairs, into the parents' room - then out and down the hall to the girls' room - then to the boys', the nine year old perhaps waking as his brother was being killed, trying to run but he and the killer meeting in the hall ---

Then the killer walks out the way he entered - killing the dog on his way out the back gate ---

Jim found no sign of hurry but rather an unstoppable, implacable juggernaut of death ---

It was the barking dog that alerted an aware neighbor who immediately called the police because apparently the Clifford's dog never barked needlessly. And the dog had, according to the neighbor, barked for over twenty minutes before silence, a spooky, unusual silence, a too quick silence, descended.

Twenty minutes. That's how long it took the murderer. Twenty minutes to take six lives. And one dog. A Scotty. That's where I lost it, believe it or not.

I made it through the entire fucking house. I tripped over a football, saw the razor scooter on the front porch, ballet shoes on the desk in the girls' room, open school books in both rooms, a used condom in the wastebasket by the parents' bed, family pictures that seemed to overflow, that told the story of the family, a happy story it appeared. A pizza box in the kitchen, an empty liter bottle of soda, bowls in the sink that signaled hot fudge sundaes for dessert ---

The backyard full of toys and patio furniture, a barbeque and a swingset


And by the back gate - a small black Scotty, its throat slit.

I made it that far, then like a rookie, lost it - in the rose bushes.

A hand on my back, a calm, steely voice telling me that I wasn't anywhere near the only cop that had *christened* the rose bushes that night ---

I recovered and straightened, pale but resolved to continue and continue we did.

Jim finished his crime scene once over and after removing the stupid little slippers you have to put on in a case like this - the blood, you know - we went back to the station.

Solving the case had been horribly easy. It hadn't been a serial killer - although the media had undoubtedly been praying for just that, news being slow and all, nor had it proven to be a whacko lover or drugged out teenager ---

No, instead it turned out to be a family friend and business partner. The wife's business partner. A business partner who was on the verge of being exposed by Karen Clifford, an honest woman who found something wrong with the books and who had tracked that something to her partner of fifteen years. The man her children called *uncle*.

For Brian Cutliffe, who faced a ruined reputation, his family embarrassed and humilitated, jail time for himself and the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars, it came down to his family or Karen's. He chose Karen's family. And once the decision had been made, he chose to destroy them in the most despicable manner possible, hoping that the cops would see the horror and assume a serial killer. That they wouldn't look too close to home, would never look at the business of the parents. Would never look at accounting spread sheets, books, deposits ---

But the man hadn't counted on Jim Ellison. Or his partner's ability with a computer. It took us forty-eight hours to wrap it up. Forty-eight hours of watching Jim suffer. Of watching Jim's attempts at checking his humanity at the door.

Forty-eight hours of watching Jim watch me.

But that's over and done. Case solved and the man arrested in his home, in front of his wife and two children, children who'd called the Clifford children friends. The Cliffords' middle boy is now living with his only relatives - an aunt and uncle who were devastated but hoping to become a family.

Fourteen year old Jeff Clifford is seeing an excellent therapist but --- or maybe *love* can truly heal? Because it was obvious that Janet and Dan Clifford have the love to spare and no children of their own on which to lavish all that love. Maybe young Jeff would make it.

And us this last week? A time of avoiding the bends, of coming up slow.

A week of watching each of us do for the other.

A cup of tea when most needed and least expected ---

A tube-steak sandwich suddenly appearing on a dinner plate ---

Ignoring the fact that the sentinel has control of the remote and letting him watch, sans the usual snide comments, wrestling ---

Then watching in surprise as he turned on the Discovery channel ---

Arriving home and finding my laundry washed, dried, folded and sitting on my bed ---

Coming back from court and discovering that his truck had been taken out and washed inside and out ---

Sneaking upstairs and turning the alarm *off* on a Saturday ---

Having your roommate turn to you and say, "Wanna talk about it, Chief?"


And then he listens ---

We heal and Jim and I go on - he's a bit thinner - some new lines around his eyes and mouth because he *feels* so much - *cares* so much. But he's smiling again and joking again and sleeping again.

It's kind of funny, really. Me, watching over him. But that's exactly what I did for several nights.

When Jim sleeps badly - I can hear it. The bed, the springs, and the creaking floor as he tosses and turns in that middle world between deep sleep and restless nightmares. So I climbed the stairs and just sat - on the floor. I didn't say anything, I didn't touch him - I just sat there.

And listened to him breathe.

Soft, steady, in and out, like the sun coming up and going down, like the tides making their way up the sand and then sliding back out ---

Each breath suddenly precious to me.

Each. Breath. Precious.

And the breathing would even out and he would slip into that much needed deep sleep and I would uncross my legs, stand, then walk slowly back downstairs and into my own room. I'd lie down and know that upstairs, that above me - Jim was - breathing.

That was sleepless days ago. A lifetime ago.

Now I'm exhausted and left with this damn feeling of melancholy.

So not the case - exactly. But the case crystallizing a few things for me. Like watching him hurt - working through it while trying to ease my hurt in that brusque, matter of fact way of his, but the eyes telegraphing warmth even when the action was a shrug ---

Hating the wear and tear on his body that checking emotions and humanity at so many doors was taking - wondering suddenly who was this man? And always coming up with the same answer, that he was Jim Ellison, flawed, heroic, and beautiful inside and out.

And then wondering if he'd always been there? Was this the same man I'd lived with for three years? Or was I the one who'd changed? And did it matter? Because while guarding the sleeping man, while listening to that precious breathing - I fell in love.

How did I know that I'd fallen in love? Believe me, I recognized some of the signs. I say *some* because I've never been in love *all the way*. I've been *in lust* and *in sex* and *almost in love*, but never *in love*. In fact, I never planned on falling. Ever. I never planned on marrying.

I *like* being in lust and in sex. I like the safety of being *almost in love*. And it's not that I can't commit, it's that I *won't*. Maybe my upbringing is responsible, maybe it's my past or maybe it's just a choice.

*Was* just a choice. Not a choice anymore. I'm there - in love. All the way. With Jim Ellison. Never even thought of loving him that way - not for one second of three years. He was always - Jim. Sentinel, cop, good fisherman, inventive cook, troubled soul. But still - just Jim. My friend.

Now he's *Jim*.

I worry about him in a different way, in a deeper way - a more involved way. And I feel damn protective of him all of a sudden.

And I want to crawl inside of him, make myself at home and never come out. I want his arms around me and I want to *feel* his breathing. His breath.

I want his eyes to crinkle up as he smiles down at me and gives me some

smartass remark while his right hand is resting possessively on my butt


I don't want much.

God, how the melancholy deepens.

Three day holiday starting tonight, but I'll be spending it alone. And I'm happy about that because Jim will be spending it with Elsa Minjarez. She has a beach house out on one of the islands and he left to pick her up at the bank where she works in New Accounts. They'll drive to the ferry and ---

That's how much I love him. I'm glad for him.

He's in love with a pretty terrific woman. And if the way she looks at him is any indication - the feeling is mutual. But being happy for him doesn't erase the melancholy. For instance, I could use a beer right now, but this lethargy, this warm blanket of melancholia is too damn comfortable. But I have to wonder who planned this, you know? I mean, Ipick *now* to fall in love? To just - fall?

I spend a week falling while he's having quiet conversations on the phone with Elsa?

Wouldn't I just naturally - stop falling?

Guess not. Guess you can't really control that. I wonder if mom ever loved anyone? Ever really fell in love? Or did she fall for all of them, then fall out?

I don't think I'll be falling out anytime soon. This is too - ingrained.

No, it's gonna be here awhile - a good long while.

I think I'm gonna take a little nap.




The television was droning in the background, one light was on and the heater hummed softly. The book was good, so was the sitcom. Blair was comfortable. Then a grating sound, a key in the lock and Blair glanced up in surprise as Jim stepped inside.

"Hey, Chief."

Stunned, Blair dropped his book, grabbed the remote, clicked off the television, then stood.

"Jim? Uh, buddy, it's Thursday night and you left two hours ago to pick up Elsa - right?"

Jim dropped his keys onto the table, let his bag slide down his arm to land on the floor with a small thud, then shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over the back of a chair.

"Yep. But she received an emergency call from the bank manager - they're opening a new branch in Sacramento and someone fell ill so they need her. She flew out an hour ago - I ended up taking her to the airport instead of the ferry."

"Well, fuck. Sorry, man."

Jim's shoulders raised and he smiled a small, wry grin. "Hey, best laid plans - if you know what I mean."

Blair grinned in return but he was worried. Jim had really been looking forward to this weekend. Where normally they would both have worked, Jim had decided to take one of those rare time-offs. But now - well, Blair knew damn good and well that without *something* planned - Jim would go in to the station tomorrow. And he really needed this time-off.

Sandburg put on his thinking cap, adjusted it, tweaked it and the answer came...

"Jim, since your plans have gone up in smoke, how 'bout we take advantage of the weather and go fishing?"

Jim's face lit up like the Cascade skyline after dark.

"Now *that's* an idea, Sandburg. I *knew* I had a good reason for keeping you around."

Blair rolled his eyes, flipped Jim the bird and said, "So how 'bout *you* haul everything up from the basement while I do some kitchen recon?"

"I am yours to command."

It only took them two hours to get their stuff ready, amid jokes about unplugging the phone and Jim *not* going out to meet any old friends. Blair had found almost everything they'd need for camping, foodwise, and with a short stop at the market tomorrow, they'd be fully supplied. After a little dickering it was finally agreed that the road would be hit by six. Looking every bit like a teenager, Jim almost ran up the stairs, Blair watching from below.

Fishing and Blair might not be comparable to a weekend with Elsa - but it couldn't hurt.

Blair did the locking up, then slipped into his room and settled down for the night - dreams of a weekend with Jim instilling a permanent smile on his sleeping face.




The radio played softly in the background, both men having agreed on a light rock station that would hold for the entire trip. Hot coffee sent tendrils of steam up from the cupholders and in a bag between the two men sat four of the best donuts in the Pacific Northwest.

Jim merged onto the freeway and once settled in lane three and cutting off the headlights as the sun made its full appearance, he reached into the bag and pulled out one thick, moist buttermilk donut.

"I tell you, Sandburg - the open road, fish just angling to be caught, a great buttermilk donut, a cup of Danny's best Colombian mix and I'm a happy man."

Blair rooted around in the donut bag and jubilantly held up his devil's food delight.

"Buttermilk may do it for you, Jim, but for me, it's devil's food - all the way. *And* Danny's cinnamon coffee." He made a low, rumbling sound in his throat and closed his eyes in bliss as he took a bite of chocolaty goodness. Licking his lips, he said, "You just don't know what you're missing, man."

Rebelliously, Jim took a huge chunk out of *his* donut and dared, "No, Chief, *you* don't know what you're missing." Then he waved the cake donut under Blair's nose.

"Wanna try a bite?"

"Mere buttermilk over chocolate, Jim? I don't think so, but here, try mine," he said as he waved *his* donut under Jim's nose. Then in a surprising move, Jim took a bite and like lightening, Blair withdrew his arm.

"Hey, no fair!"

Smugly, Jim taunted, "You offered, Sandburg. You offered. And by the way - quite good, thank you very much."

"You dickwad."




The remainder of the trip to the river was spent in joking, playing weird words games and often companionable silence. They'd decided to drive straight through and with that in mind, Blair had put together an *on-the-road* lunch. When Jim hit the turn-off for the Sol Duc river, Blair pulled the cooler up from the floor.

"Wanna pull over somewhere, take a stretch, enjoy the view and grab a bite?"

"Sounds good, Sandburg. You pick the spot."

They drove another fifteen minutes before Blair spotted the perfect turnoff. Jim negotiated the bumpy shoulder and brought the truck to the edge. From where they were parked, the view was spectacular. They both got out, stretched, walked to the edge and gazed out over the rainforest - the edge of the Olympic National Forest.

Both men breathed deep and sighed twin sighs of contentment. A chill permeated the crisp air and Blair shoved his hands into the pockets of his thick jacket. The sun was warm on his face and he knew that in another hour or two, the temperature would be perfect.

After several minutes of salivating over the view, both men returned to the truck. Blair opened the cooler and took out the large thermos and two mugs, followed by two foil wrapped packages.

"What's on the menu, Emeril?"

"Hot vegetable barley soup and crab salad sandwiches. With essence."

"Gimme, gimme, gimme."

Snorting, Blair parceled out the food. They ate with half an eye on the view and half an eye on each other.




"Okay, from here it's only a twenty minute hike down to the river. Sound okay to you?"

"Yep. Perfect, Jim. Especially since *you'll* be carrying most of everything."

"Ah, but *you'll* be carrying *me*."

"In another world and life, Jim."

Jim parked and within ten minutes they had all their gear piled next to the truck. Jim locked up and with some judicious juggling, they managed to get everything down in two trips.

They settled several feet up the embankment, under a small grove of trees. Working together, in well practised moves, they had the tent in place, the campfire made and the cooking rack set over the ring of rocks. Supplies were set up and sleeping bags unfurled in the tent. Jim's last official act before taking up his fishing rod was to slide the roll of toilet paper on the small rod braced just inside the tent. A Blair Sandburg must. He patted the roll, smiled and stepped back outside.

Blair already had his waders on, his vest, hat and sunglasses in place and he was impatiently tapping one rubber encased foot.

Smiling, Jim said, "So, whatcha waiting for? Let's get going, Chief!"

God, this was - nirvana.

Blair stood knee-deep in the crystal clear river, Jim a few feet to his left and slightly up river.

Blair's line trailed in the water and Jim was about to cast again. They were smack dab in the middle of Steelehead season and Blair's stomach was already anticipating the beautifully grilled trout that would be their dinner.

The gentle whooshing of the river was soothing, especially when accompanied by the slight, whisper light breeze that ruffled the leaves and tickled through his ponytail. The sun glistening off the water was a mosaic of glittering jewels, a kaleidoscope of shifting colored nuggets that danced with the river, the sun and the zephyr.

But the best of the moment had to be the sounds of the man behind him, like the occasional chuckle or grunt, the movement of Jim's body through the water, his rod cranking and the faint whip of sound as he cast. And of course - his breathing.

Blair discovered that if he really concentrated he could hear the catches in Jim's breathing and the small gasps when his line was tugged. And everytime he caught a gasp, grunt or chuckle, he'd find himself grinning like a loon.

Could any day be more perfect? He sincerely doubted it. Nothing that he'd ever imagined in his life, no event, nothing he'd ever anticipated could possibly equal this day.




Four trout represented their day on the river, each weighing in, according to Jim, at about 12 pounds. Because this part of the river was not a mandated *catch and release*, they kept the two slightly smaller trout and did in fact, release the other two - after the appropriate, *Simon, eat your heart out* pictures were taken.

The two perfect trout had been cleaned and gutted, heads and tails removed, and now lay butterflied and side by side in the frying pan, the odor wafting up and making two mouths water.

Next to the pan sat the black kettle, the lid banging and hopping as the thick chili heated up in anticipation of being devoured along with the grilled trout. And to top the meal off - a six pack of beer sat nestled in the river - chilling nicely.

Blair had dipped the trout in melted butter, then had lightly dredged them in a finely ground mixture of pecans and parsley and seasonings, then set the fish in the large cast iron skillet to brown. Now with both sides nicely crisped, he lidded the skillet and with Jim's help, raised the rack higher off the heat thus allowing the covered trout to *bake*.

While waiting, Jim browned some butter, added a couple of squeezes of lemon juice, more ground pecans and parsley and then set the whole thing aside. Later, this would serve as their *sauce* when everything was ready. A foil-wrapped loaf of french bread sat next to the hot chili.

As Jim sat down on the log a few feet from the fire, he sighed in contentment. Blair was walking down to the river to retrieve the six-pack, the food was almost ready and all was right with his world. The city was miles away, as was crime. His shoulders felt pounds lighter as the trials and tribulations of the last few weeks were brushed away by the peace of this day.

Nirvana - plain and simple.


Finely tuned reflexes allowed Jim to do just that as an icy cold and dripping wet beer sailed through the air. Laughing, he popped the top and took a healthy swallow. Blair sat down and did the same, then said, "Penny for your thoughts?"

"No way, Sandburg. Not in this day and age."

"Don't you mean not with a Republican in the White House?"

"Har, har. With or without a Republican, my thoughts are worth at least a ten."

One bushy eyebrow rose - eloquent, no words needed. Jim glowered. Blair grinned.




"God, I'm stuffed."

"Chief, that's because you stuffed yourself."

Giving Jim his best Joker grin, Blair quipped, "Yes I did."

"Well, so did I and may I say - Emeril needs to take lessons from you."

"Would you believe me if I say he did?"

"No, Sandburg, I wouldn't."

Jim scraped the remains of their dinner into the trash that would leave with them, then quickly rinsed and wiped down the dishes. As he set them on the small table, Blair said, "You know, I actually *did* cook with Legasse."

Adding the utensils to the pile, Jim muttered an absent, "uh, huh."

"No, seriously, Jim, I did. In 1987." As Blair talked, Jim took his seat again, eyes widening in surprise..

"He was chef at Commander's Palace and mom took me to New Orleans during summer break. I was already at Rainier, an exhausted eighteen year old that she thought needed a vacation before a scheduled expedition to the Yucatan Peninsula."

"Let me guess, Naomi knew Lagasse."

"No," Blair smiled, waited a heartbeat, then added, "She knew Ella Brennan, the owner of Commander's Palace."

Jim rolled his eyes. "Okay, *how* did you, an eighteen year old, get to cook with Emeril?"

"Mom's big mouth, naturally." Then in a perfect imitation of said mother, Blair batted his eyelashes and said, "Oh, but my darling son is a *wonderful* cook, Ella!"

Jim could only shake his head as he gave Blair a thumb's up sign.

"So the next thing I know - I'm hustled into the kitchen of one of the most famous restaurants in the world and they're putting an apron on me and this little guy and yeah, *I'm* taller, comes over and man, you think *I* have energy? You ain't seen nuthin' til you've see Legasse move around a kitchen. Anyway, he sticks out his hand, we shake and faster than you can say *Bam*, I'm cooking at the Commander's Palace."

"Chief, is there anything you haven't done?"

Blair made a show of thinking about that, striking the pose of Rodin's The Thinker, then smiled and said, "Nope."

"Of course, Chief, I'd be really impressed if you said that you'd cooked with Martha Stewart..."

"Well, now that you mention it..."

A piece of french bread sailed over the fire and hit Blair square in the face.

Tossing it behind him into the trash, Blair said sacchrine sweet, "Ready for dessert, Jim?"


Blair reached into one of the food bags, took something out, then tossed it to Jim. As the older man caught it, he held it up and grinned.

"Aw, Sandburg, for this - you are a prince."

Jim tore into the package of Sno-Balls.

"I swear, your stomach will petrify, Ellison."

Jim couldn't answer - his mouth was full.




The night sounds of the river seemed to wrap around each of them. Small creatures moving through the underbrush, the breeze a bit stronger now, the sound of the rushing river always in the background, keeping time with the echoes of life in a forest. The crackling of their campfire, the sparks rising up in homage to the Gods of the night, and across from him, Jim, bathed in firelight, eyes watching the flames.

"Bet the colors are incredible, eh?"

Jim nodded happily. "I have to look almost sideways or else I might..."


"Yeah. Guess you'd know that."

"Guess so."

They smiled across the flames.

"You ready to hit the sack?"

Blair stood and stretched, gave an exaggerated yawn and then said, "Race you?"

"Nah, you can get in first."

"Okay, I'll give a yell."

"Uh, Sandburg?"

"Oh, right - you'll know."




Blair was on his side, clothes folded beside him, wearing only his thermals. He'd climbed into his sleeping bag, but didn't have it zippered up yet. Jim lay opposite, between Blair and the tentflap and Blair idly wondered if sleeping like that was a sentinel thing.

They were lying head to feet, but thanks to a clear night sky that allowed the moonlight to stream in, Blair could see Jim's face. The older man was awake, hands behind his head as he stared up at the top of their tent.

"Whatcha thinking?"

Jim lifted his head, sniffed, then said, "I'm thinking your feet stink."

"They do not!"

"Who's the sentinel in this tent?"

"My feet do *not* stink."

"Whatever you say, Sandburg."

"Well, they don't."

Blair could see Jim's smile.

"You asshole."

The grin widened.

"Bet you're thinking about Elsa."

The grin faded slightly.


"You miss her."

"Sandburg, go to sleep."

"Right, boss."

He rolled over, zipped up, punched his pillow and settled in.

For several minutes Blair tried to concentrate on the sound of Jim's breathing, but the surrounding forest and its accompaning cacophany of sound suddenly decided to double in decibels.

"hey, jim?"


"are you dialed down?"

"the sounds aren't bothering me, chief."

"oh. well, wish i could dial down."

"so give it a try."


"you shut things out all the time. like when i say clean up your mess - you manage to miss that, or when i say stay here and two minutes later, i turn around and stumble over you..."

"such a wit."

"seriously though, if the sounds are bothering you..."

"no, not bothering me, would just like to isolate a few, you know? to really enjoy them."

"well, why don't we give it a try? let the sentinel be the teacher for a change?"

Blair flipped over and stared at his friend. "you think we could work this somehow?"

"aren't you the one always saying how the mind is capable of more than we know?"

"that was me?"


"okay, what do i do?"

"pick one sound, like maybe the river, and concentrate on just that."

"gee, *that* sounds original."

"hey, at least we don't have to worry about you zoning out."

"true. and jim, why are we whispering?"

"How the fuck should I know? Are you concentrating?"

Laughter was his only response for a minute, then, "Yeah, I'm concentrating."

"Okay, now concentrate on just the river - nothing else - picture it in your mind..."

Finding it only slightly odd that he should be hearing his own words echoed back at him from Jim, Blair slowly tuned in on the river, pictured it in his mind, listened intently and the other sounds began to fade into the background. He smiled dreamily in the darkness.

"Worked, didn't it?"

"Yeah, yeah, it did. Cool."

"How loud did it get for you?"

"As if I were standing on the bank."

"Man, I'm so good."

"Hey, you learned from the master."

"Yeah, that Burton was a genius."

Blair gave a loud guffaw and both men laughed.

"Jim, you're really missing her, aren't you?"

"How did we go from teaching you to *hear* better, to Elsa?"

"Just asking."

"I'm fine, Sandburg."

"Okay, okay. But let me do a little something for you."


Blair unzipped his bag, stuck out one leg and waved his socked foot in Jim's face.

"You little shit."

"Nice, huh?"

"Say good-night, Sandburg."

"No way."




Blair took the recent lesson to heart and listened. Not to the river, but to Jim's breathing.

He let the comforting sound warm him and soothe his exhausted body and mind.

For all his nights watching over Jim and living through the horror of the Cifford case - he'd been left with his own sleeping difficulties, but after a day with Jim, a day on the river and the hypnotic sound of Jim's breathing - Blair began to truly relax.

He might actually be able to sleep.




Saturday was a peaceful repeat of Friday. They fished through the morning, did some hiking before lunch, then settled down for some relaxation through the afternoon with Blair sound asleep by two, having found the one soft, grassy spot next to the river.

Jim finished tidying up the camp, a task that had him smiling as he imagined Blair's response to *cleaning* a campsite, then he strolled down to the river bank and sat down, knees up, arms around them, and watched his partner.




"Okay, I don't need this day to end."

Jim smiled at his partner, who was currently packing up his sleeping bag. "I'm with you there, Chief."

"We could call Simon and tell him the fate of the entire world depends on you staying up here. That the squirrels have taken over the forest and the chipmunks are up in arms - stolen arms."

"Think he'd buy it?"

"Hell, yeah. Only the weird for Ellison and Sandburg."

Jim tossed his bag at his unhappy tentmate and laughing, said, "Those chipmunks - a violent creature in the best of circumstances. And you get the first jaunt back up to the truck."

"Such a gift."

They finished packing up, then after the last trek to the truck, both jogged back to the river for a last look around.

"Chief, this was a great week-end. Thank you."

"Simon's gonna have a real fit when he sees our pictures. That one trout you caught will have him breathing fire."

Jim nodded happily as he thought back on the 15-pounder he'd reeled in that morning. They'd released the fish but it had been a beaut.

"I'm gonna frame that picture, Sandburg. Over Simon's desk."

"Remind me to call in sick on that day."

Jim punched him lightly in the arm and with a jerk of his head, indicated that they should head back to the truck. Relucantly, both men turned their back on the Sol Duc River.




The trip home was made in quiet, with one brief pit stop and to eat the trout sandwiches Jim had made for their dinner. They'd sat on the back of the truck by the side of the road and watched the sunset while munching and drinking Mountain Dew. There'd been no need for conversation as the sun lowered behind the huge mountains of the Olympic National Forest.

When the last streak of magenta had faded, they climbed back into the truck. They were still over two hours from home when Blair reached over and turned on the radio. The first song up didn't move him and he started to change the channel when Jim spoke up.

"Hey, that's one of my favorites."

"Oops. Sorry. Leaving alone. Me good partner." Chuckling, Jim added, "You good travel companion too. Kept your farts to a minimum."

"Me very good." Blair punctuated his statement with a loud burp.

"I'd flip you the bird but must keep both hands on the wheel."

Blair smiled in the darkness and as the song came to an end, he turned a bit and asked, "You and Elsa are getting kind of serious, aren't you?"

"We enjoy each others' company, Chief."

"Very well said, Jim. Very noncommittal."

His reward for that was a grin.

"Come on, you can tell me. Thick and thin, remember?"

"So what if we are? Would you be all right with that?"

"If you're happy - I'm happy, Jim."

Simple words, but spoken so softly that Jim turned his attention from the road a moment to look at his friend. Frowning, he asked, "You like her, right?"

"She's great. Funny, whacky, doesn't take the little stuff too seriously, understands your job, tolerates your best bud and weird roommate ... yeah, I like her a lot."

"Any advice you'd care to share?"

At that moment, a new song came on, one that Blair had found to be very appropriate in his life lately. He nodded toward the radio and smiled. "She's saying it pretty well, Jim."

Jim cocked his head and listened to the lyrics of the Lee Ann Womack song. As he listened, his heart started a fast thrumming as one line caused his fingers to tighten on the steering wheel...

*May you never take one single breath for granted. God forbid love ever

leave you empty handed.*

He almost closed his eyes at that, it was so close to home, so close to their history...

But then he listened to the other lyrics...

*I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance. Never settle for

the path of least resistance. Livin' might mean taking chances but

they're worth takin'. Lovin' might be a mistake but it's worth makin'.*

And finally the song wound down and the refrain was song again...

*And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you


The last strains of the music faded away and his grip tightened again as he said softly, "I don't dance, Sandburg."


"Okay, that's the last of it," Jim announced.

Both men collapsed onto the couch, legs outstretched in front of them.

The last of their gear had been brought up and either put away, dumped,

re-stored or tossed into the laundry.


"Good weekend, good to be home."

"Amen, Jim. And sometimes good that you have this affliction that requires us to *immediately* put everything away upon returning to our castle. Because I *know* I couldn't have faced doing it tomorrow."

"I do not consider the normal desire to unpack etc. to be an affliction, Sandburg."

"Right, sorry. Not an affliction, not at all. Perfectly normal. Everyone does it, puts everything away the minute they return, after hours on the road, fighting Sunday night holiday traffic - sure, don't they?"

"A slight affliction."

"Very slight. Hardly noticable."

"And you're glad we did it, said so yourself."

"An affliction that saves life as we know it. You should be immortalized. In cement."

Jim stood and glared down at his roommate. "You know, I have one package of Sno-Balls left. I was going to share - but not now. Oh, no, not now. Now I'm going to eat them both."

Blair waved his arm distractedly and said, "Will survive. I will survive the loss of that Sno-Ball. In fact, I'll thrive without it. You, on the other hand, will need a roto-rooter to plow its way through your veins."

"Yadda, yadda."

"Uh, Jim? Where you going?"

"To do the laundry of course."

Blair rolled his eyes heavenward.




The elevator loomed before them. Blair grabbed Jim's arm and stopped him.

"Jim, why do we always need a vacation after a vacation?"

"Sandburg, buck up. Bite the bullet. You're going back to work and you can't stop the inevitable."

"Your support and understanding is heartwarming. I'm all tingly inside."

"Let's go, and don't forget, we have *pictures* to show Simon."

Blair's face brightened immediately. "Oh, yeah. Gloating is something I so excel in. Right up there with *I told you so*."




"Jim, I don't think we should gloat anymore, do you?"

Jim poked his head over the rim of the garbage bin and grinned. "Oh, I don't know, you look pretty good in there, Sandburg."

A head of rotten lettuce slapped him in the face as Blair's voice echoed out at him. "You know, I think this is prejudicial. I think I have a court case. A suit."

"Because Simon gave us this case? I don't think so, Chief."

"No, because *I'm* the one in here and not you."

"Chief, you're the smaller one. You *fit* in there."

Blair shot up, arm out, finger pointing accusingly at Jim.

"AH, HA! See? Bigotry. A conspiracy against vertically challenged individuals! Flogging a minority! *Abusing* a minority!"

Jim stared at his partner. The man's hair was flying in every direction possible, with noodles, green leafy things and bits of foil clinging to the wayward curls. His face was smudged and Jim was positive that the red streak across his forehead was ketchup. And it didn't bear thinking about the other things that clung to his clothing. The odor wafting from him in waves didn't bear thinking about either.

Jim broke out in laughter.

Muttering dire threats of a horrible death, Blair dove back in.

A few seconds later, his tinny voice could be heard...

"If we *do* catch Corbenson - I'm personally going fry his ass. Just see if I don't. Prison will seem like heaven by the time I'm done with him. And how can a man who lives *alone* possibly have this much trash? Huh?

I ask you, how?"

Jim frowned and gazed around the trash room in the basement of the Regency Luxury Apartments. He pulled a piece of paper from his shirt pocket, checked it, then checked the number on the side of the bin that currently occupied Blair's time and energy.

"Uh, Chief?"

Two beer cans were thrown up and bounced across the cement floor.


"Uh, Corbenson lives in 832, right?"

"Huh, huh."

"Well, you're in - 823."

Slowly - painfully so, Blair's head reappeared, eyes narrowed dangerously.

"I'm *what*, Jim?"

"Well, it would appear that you're in - 823 when you should be - over there," he pointed tentatively to the green bin *behind* Sandburg.

"Jim. I'm in the bin *you* told me was his. *You* have the paper Sneaks gave you, not me. I *should* have the paper, but I don't. You do. That's *why* I'm in 823."

"Yes, well, we can argue that point till you're blue in the face but we have a case to solve, Sandburg. It's what we do, you know? So get your ass *out* of 823 and get it *in* 832."

Arms went out, index fingers pointing up as Blair said solemnly, "You are *so* dead."

Blair started to swing one leg over the rim when Jim's hands came up to help him.

"Touch me and I won't be responsible for my actions."

Hands up in surrender, Jim backed off. "Fine, whatever. I thought it was damn brave and helpful of me to *want* to assist you, considering the way you smell right now, not to mention the *stuff* you've got all over you."

Blair dropped down in front of Jim, then smiled up at him. "You are a generous man, Jim, and I should be chastised for thinking ill of your unselfish motives."

He then reached up and with both hands, patted Jim's cheeks. And in the process, left a slimy trail of - god knew what, on Jim's face.

Blair's grin widened as he wiped his hands on the front of Jim's shirt.

"Thanks, Jim."





Jim glanced up and waited. A moment later, Blair stood, waving a dirty piece of paper in his hand. Jim ambled over to the bin and using only the tips of two fingers, he carefully removed the item from the grimy hand. He perused it for several seconds, then nodded.

"Yep, seems like we do have it." He gave Blair a huge grin and added, "Me thinks Corbenson's going down after all."

Once again, Blair climbed from a trash bin and dropped lightly down in front of Jim. Who stepped back several paces.

"Man, Sandburg, you're gonna need a shower after this."

"You know what I'm wondering, Jim?" Before Jim could answer, not that he would have, Blair went on, "I'm wondering why I'm the one who always suffers when Simon is mad at *you*.

That's what I'm wondering."

"It's the short thing, Sandburg."

"I thought so."




While warrants were gathered, Blair showered and changed. At three thirty, he and Jim showed up at the law offices of Corbenson & Anderson, bearing a warrant for the man's arrest.

The offices were located in the Cascade Towers and Corbenson's office was on the top floor. The Executive suites. They were shown into the man's office by a quiet, elegant and lovely assistant who offered coffee, tea, wine or Perrier. Blair started to order the Perrier, but a shove in his ribs by Jim stopped him.

"I was just being polite, Jim."

"You're hopeless."

A moment later, Lanning Corbenson walked in. He immediately strode over to Jim, hand out.

"Detective Ellison, how good to see you again. And outside of the courtroom. Our last meeting didn't go so well for you, did it?"

Jim smiled benignly. "No, it certainly didn't. But then, after this meeting, we'll be even. Lanning Corbenson, you're under arrest for..."




Corbenson was booked and fingerprinted. The charges of bribing a jury and conspiracy to kill a federal witness would keep him in jail for at least forty-eight hours and there was the distinct possibility that no bail would be set.

Major Crime was very happy. Simon Banks, in spite of a photograph on his desk that showed Jim holding a fifteen pound Steelehead, was very happy.

Jim, as he wrote up the report and filed the evidence - a letter from one Gus Molina to Corbenson suggesting that the necessary money needed to *allow the jury to arrive at the appropriate verdict* had been placed in the proper account, was very happy. And the fact that the letter also suggested that a Mr. Carl Bergin should be permanenly dissuaded from testifying only made Jim happier.

Snitches were good, Sneaks was the best.

All was right with the Sentinel's world.

"Hey, Jim, when's Elsa due back?"

Jim glanced up from his typing and said, "Tonight, at least that's what she hoped."

"Bet you're excited."

"Is this a vicarious thrill thing with you, Sandburg?"

"Hey, just asking. There weren't any messages from her and I got worried, that's all."

"She said there wouldn't be much time for anything. Work, collapse, work again. Everything's just fine."

"Okay, okay. And you about ready?"

"Just putting the finishing touches on my report now. What about yours?"

"You're kidding, right?"

"Forget I asked."




"Hungry, Chief?"

"I could eat, but maybe at home?"


"Yeah. Deli?"

Jim changed lanes and made a right on Sanborne. "Deli it is. I could use a good corned beef myself."

He pulled up in front Brillsteins Deli, parked and both men jumped out, eager for the smells and sights of the delicatessen. Inside, they both browsed the cases, ordered two different salads, Jim's corned beef and Blair's tongue, a couple of huge dill pickles, and two orders of lentil soup. Armed with their treasures, they happily headed home.




Blair was setting out the paper plates and two beers when the phone rang. Jim, who was closer, put down the carton of potato salad and picked up the phone.


//Jim? It's me, Elsa.//

"Hey, you back?"

//Just got home. Is it possible for you to drop over? I know it's late,

but - it's important, Jim.//

"Hey, no problem at all. Everything okay?"

//Sure, just - just need to talk to you.//

"All right, I'll be there in twenty."

//Thanks, Jim.//

Hanging up the phone, Jim frowned. Elsa hadn't sounded good at all. He turned toward Blair who shrugged.

"This will make a great lunch tomorrow, Jim."

Ellison eyed the repast spread out over the table and sighed. He moved upstairs.




Blair sat at the table and stared down at his sandwich. Then he pulled the white wrappings over and carefully re-wrapped his dinner. He pushed his chair away and began to carry everything into the kitchen. Several minutes later it was all stored in the fridge, ready to take for tomorrow. Blair had suddenly lost his appetite.

He turned off the kitchen light, walked into the living room, turned up the gas under the fire, then sat down on the couch.

In spite of the many times he'd brought up Elsa's name over the last four days, the week-end had still been Jim and Blair. And now it was just Blair. And Jim and Elsa again.

The melancholy returned. In force.




Jim knocked on Elsa's apartment door and inside, he heard her heels tapping across the tile. A moment later, the door swung open and she stood before him, smiling slightly.


"Hey yourself." Jim smiled and Elsa stepped aside and let him in. She was still in the linen suit she'd obviously worn all day and she looked tired. Her dark chocolate eyes held a hint of sadness along with the exhaustion. He placed a gentle hand on her arm and said softly, "Everything okay?"

She took the hand and led him into her living room.

"Work was fine - tiring and relentless, but fine. Martha showed up this morning and took over, thank God. The branch will be up and running ahead of schedule."

"Well, good. But that's not why I'm here, is it?"

She stopped their forward movement and let go of his hand. Elsa faced him, her eyes now brmming with tears.

"Jim," her voice caught, but she swallowed and went on, "I could have done this on the phone, but I owe you an explanation in person."

"Now that sounds like beginning of the end, Elsa. Is that what this is all about?"

Nodding miserably, Elsa murmured a soft, "yes."

"Something happened in just three days?"

She lifted her face to him, gave another misery-laden nod and whispered, "roger."

"Your ex?"

Another nod.

Gently, Jim asked,"You gonna tell me or do we play twenty questions?"

That worked. A tremulous smile took over the edge of her mouth. With gratitude in her voice, Elsa answered, "He was there, in Sacramento. We agreed to meet and have drinks. A pub in Old Sacramento. He's changed, Jim. I could see it. And he said things, and we talked and you have to understand - he was my husband and the break-up wasn't my idea, I wanted to work it out and now, well, now he does too and I *have* to give him another try, see?"

Second chances. Jim was painfully and gratefully aware of the concept.

"I understand, Ellie, I really do. We had a good time but your relationship with him is real. Go for it, honey."

She searched his face and because there wasn't an ounce of guile or selfishness in her, she was truly glad to see that Jim *was* okay with her news.

"We were close though, weren't we?"

"Yes, Ellie, we were."

She raised a hand to his cheek and rested it gently, urging some happiness into this wonderful man. "But close only counts in horseshoes. I hope you find the clang, Jim."

At his quizzical look, she grinned and added, "An expression of my grandfather's. The sound the horseshoe makes when it rings around the spike."

Grinning back at her, he nodded his understanding, then took her hand and kissed the palm. "Be happy, okay?"

"I'm gonna try like never before, Jim."

With no need for further words, Jim took his leave following a soft kiss on the slightly parted lips.




He wasn't devastated. He wasn't even hurt. But no one would believe him. Jim drove home slowly and thought back on those minutes in Elsa's apartment. He *should* have been devastated, but he and he alone knew that Elsa was *instead*.

But in all honesty, it would have been easier if Elsa had been the real thing. A man can only have so many *insteads*. Eventually he gets tired of instead. Although Elsa had been fun and she was a good woman.

But the real thing was a better man.

His city was unusually quiet and as he drove, his mind conjured up the weekend. He and Blair had enjoyed many such trips, but none had been as relaxed or as fun. And why the heck was that? In fact, the last couple of weeks had been different.

Sandburg had been different.

A signal went red and Jim slowed to a stop.

Cars moved across the intersection, the sign flashed *walk*, a neon sign overhead flashed, *Coca-Cola*, and Jim saw Blair's smiles. And he *listened* to Blair's voice, watched the way he'd moved around him all week-end, the complete ease ---


The signal went green and Jim floored it.




Sandburg thought about going to bed but he'd just toss and turn until Jim got home - if - Jim got home. Of course, he'd have to go bed eventually, he supposed.

Funny, here he was, in love for the first time and he couldn't really enjoy it. Weird. When you fall, you should be able to enjoy it. Interesting thing, this thing called love. He grinned. Especially since he was sitting here thinking about love while Jim was at Elsa's experiencing it.

He ran a hand down his thigh and allowed himself to imagine making love with Jim. He could figure that Jim would be an attentive lover, and he tried to imagine Jim's moves on him but all he ended up doing was laughing.

Better he should think about his moves on Jim.

Oh, yeah, that was way better. Removing Jim's blue shirt, one button at a time, then letting his body rub sensuosly against Jim's as their eyes locked and his tongue flicked out...

Running his hand down Jim's flank, then up and across that chest, feeling the muscles quivering, Jim's breathing quickening - for him.

The bedroom filled with only sounds of their breathing, harsh, panting breaths...

Pale blue eyes filled with love for him, only for him...

He'd never seen that ---

Did Elsa truly appreciate what she had?

A sound rumbling outside in the hall captured Blair's attention and moments later, Jim burst into the loft.

Shocked, Blair scrambled up, his concern for Jim evident in his expression.

"Jim? Jim, man, what is it? What's wrong?"

Jim blinked and skidded to a stop. He kicked the door shut.

"The guy gave me a ticket!"


Jim's hand came up and now Blair could see the yellow paper, the crinkled up yellow paper, in the man's hand.

"He gave me a ticket, see?"

Blair nodded carefully as he noted the strange, half crazy gleam in Jim's eyes. "Yes, Jim, I see. A ticket. An officer gave you a ticket. Um, what for?"

The hand still holding the bunched up ticket waved aimlessly in the air in a gesture very reminiscent of Blair as Jim responded, "Oh, something about speeding. Yeah, speeding. He gave me a speeding ticket."

"May I see it, Jim?"

The hand shot out and Blair walked slowly over to the offered item and again using caution, carefully removed it from Jim's cold fingers. He spread it out across his palm and pulled his glasses from the neck of his shirt where they'd been hanging. He read the ticket and tried to bite back a grin.

"Uh, Jim, says here you also ran a red light."

"Well, duh. Of course I ran a red light - I was in a hurry."

"Well, duh, that's why you got a ticket."

"But I'm a *cop*, Sandburg. I *told* him I was a cop and he *still* gave me a ticket."

Blair blinked up into Jim's face. The man was - whining. And the expression currently residing on his handsome face was - petulant. There was no other word for it.

"Yes. Well. Not to bring up the past or anything, but I distinctly remember a time when I came home waving a ticket and saying how the officer wrote me up even *after* I'd told him who I was. Do you remember your response, Jim?"

Jim frowned impatiently and said dismissively, "Of course I remember, you idiot. I told you to pay it, I told you that you deserved it and that just because you were my partner you weren't excluded from receiving tickets for your gross negligence towards appropriate and safe driving habits."

Blair smiled sweetly and handed the ticket back to Jim as he said, "Pay the ticket, Jim. Just because you're my partner doesn't mean you're excluded from receiving tickets for your gross negligence towards appropriate and safe driving habits." Then as an afterthought, Blair added smugly, "You idiot."

Jim leaned in and down, hands on hips and growled, "But *I* had a good reason for speeding and running a red light, Sandburg."

"Oh, really? And what would that be?"

"I'd just figured everything out and had to hurry home and confirm my

suspicions, that's what!" Jim's jubilant expression clearly said, *so


"Would that be a suspicion that my left-over spaghetti with tofu ended up in *your* tupperware? Or perhaps that while alone, I had the audacity to put my ratty, unclean and stinky feet on *your* coffee table?" Blair's voice picked up in volume as he picked up steam. "Or maybe your suspicions had something to do with *my* having sex in the loft, which is bad, versus *you* having sex in the loft which is kosher. No, wait, I've got it, it's after ten and you were *positive* that I'd flushed which I fucking did because you weren't here..."


The diatribe temporarily halted, Blair gave an exasperated, "What?"

"Elsa ended our relationship and because I wasn't upset, I started wondering not about why I wasn't upset but about the fact that since she was an *instead* which explained why I wasn't upset, and where was I?"

All the steam seeped out of Blair at Jim's words about Elsa and without thinking about anything else Jim had said, Blair immediately sympathized.

"Aw, Jim, I'm so sorry."

"Don't be. Well, you should be, now that I think about it. You're the reason I got the ticket."

Sympathy took a nose dive.

"Wait," Blair stepped back, both hands raised, "wait, *I'm* the reason *you* got a ticket? Elsa ends it and *I'm* the reason? How does that compute, Ellison? Or am I just to blame for everything? Am I to blame for Elsa ending it? Probably, right?"

"No, of course not, but you *are* responsible for the ticket." Jim's face took on his *be reasonable, Sandburg* expression as he stepped close. "See, it's like this. I'm driving home..."

"Yeah, I got that part."

"Shut up and listen, asshole." At Blair's shrug, Jim went on. "I'm driving home and wondering about Elsa being an instead and that made me wonder about the real thing and how differently you'd been acting lately, how, I don't know, how - *soft* you'd been behaving..."

"Excuse me, did you just say *soft*? That I've been behaving *soft*?!"

"Yeah, hell, yeah. Soft. S-o-f-t."

"Gee, thanks for the spelling lesson. So you think I'm soft? Well, great, just great. You have to trust yourself to your partner and now you think he's soft."

Impatience tinging his voice, Jim said, "Not soft in that way, Sandburg. Soft in how you've been treating me. You know, the way a man in love treats the person he loves. *Soft*. Gently, caring. A good soft, Sandburg."

Blair's face scrunched up. His brows knitted together, eyes nearly closing as all the muscles were united. Then one eyebrow rose and lowered, then the other eyebrow rose and lowered. His mouth gaped, then shut. Arms rose and lowered.

Finally, "Are you saying that I love you?"

"Yes. And as soon as I realized what your recent behavior indicated, namely that after three years you'd finally fallen in love with me, well, naturally I rushed home so that we could begin. But the damn fucking cop gave me a ticket, Blair!"

Sandburg half expected Jim to stamp his size 11 shoe for emphasis.

Lips twitching, Blair commiserated, "Oh, poor Jim."

The corner of Jim's mouth quirked up and his eyes crinkled with mirth.

"Yeah, poor me."

They stood two feet apart, eyes smiling. Then Jim took a step into Blair's space and whispered, "i'm one lucky son of a bitch."

They were so close that Blair could not only hear Jim's breathing but could feel the softness of it brush against his forehead. But it wasn't enough, not nearly enough. He stepped into Jim's space, tilted his head up and whispered back, "me too."

Their breaths mingled - gentle and enticing. Jim lowered his head slowly, inch by eager inch, until his lips were so close to Blair's that the younger man could feel their heat and moisture. Blair cocked his head to the right ---

--- Jim smiled and cocked his head, then let his lips touch Blair's.

Eyes closed briefly, then fluttered open as heads reversed position, as smiles broadened and lips were molded together once more. Hungry lips moved and Jim was breathing inside Blair. Sharing breath and spit and tongues and not at all like so many months ago on a wet lawn in front of Rainier.

Blair felt Jim's warm hands, experienced the friction as their jeans rubbed, as his own hands slid up Jim's arm, and he smiled into the kiss, into the shared breathing as his fingers unbuttoned Jim's blue shirt --- one button at a time...

His hand brushed the material away and then ran up and over the skin, up to Jim's shoulder where he pushed the shirt off, then down to tug it from Jim's arms...

Somehow - he'd ended up shirtless as well. Magical sentinel hands? Equally amazing was the fact that his zipper was down and his jeans were hugging his hips. Oh, goody, Jim's jeans were open as well.

They stopped kissing for a moment, both allowing themselves a look, then hands had to follow eyes and smooth up and down, Jim grinning as his hand was tickled by soft, curling chest hair.

A touch of awe in his voice, Jim murmured, "You look so young until your shirt is off, then you're this wicked, erotic Pan-like creature..."

Blair reached up and bit Jim's ear. Softly. Then he let his tongue trail down Jim's jaw, up his chin to finally lick across Jim's bottom lip.

"Pan-like creature indeed." He tugged on Jim's lip, his tongue dipping inside the mouth...

Their kiss changed, moved, became a hunger, and finally arms embraced, legs moved, hair was trapped by fingers that gripped it at the base, pulled the head back, held Blair in place as Jim delved into his mouth only to have his tongue deliciously sucked...

Jim moved them, somewhat awkwardly considering slipping jeans, until Blair's legs hit the back of the couch. Jim encouraged both pairs of jeans on their downward journey, then gave Blair a small lift, their mouths never parting, and set him on top of the sofa.

Short, stocky legs came up, wrapped with a fierce strength, pulled and the two men were rubbing sensuously and humping slowly as Jim lightly bit his way down Blair's neck. He added small kisses and licks, then Jim paused to whisper into heated flesh, "when did it happen?"

Blair's perch would have been precarious if not for Jim's arms holding him in place and his own legs with their vise-like grip around Jim. With his head back and Jim's words tickling his skin, he managed to gasp out, "watching you sleep, and your - breathing."

Jim lifted his head, cupped the back of Blair's and with wonder in his voice, asked, "you watched me sleep?"

Suddenly shy, Blair nodded, his eyes skirting away from Jim's penetrating gaze.

"yeah. sort of. kind of. you were having trouble sleeping so i'd go up and just - sit. and watch."

"How could I not know you were there?"

"probably just, like, used to me, you know? subconsciously cataloguing me, dismissing me in your sleep..."

"How long before I'd settle down?"

"a few minutes, maybe."

Jim smiled tenderly and rested his forehead against Blair's. "A few minutes. Yeah, I was dismissing you all right. Dismissing you so much that minutes after you'd show up in my room, I'd settle down."


"Blair, Blair, Blair, what *am* I going to do with you?"

Blair moved his hands to Jim's butt and then gave a good pull. Their dicks bobbed against each other and Blair hissed out, "what you were doing before - that would be good."

"Well, that's a start."

They went back to kissing.

Blair jerked when Jim's fingers wound around his erection. He grinned as Jim's moan tickled his lips. He brought his hand down and gripped Jim's cock and slowly both men began to pump as tongues fought the eternal dance for control.

It didn't take long from that point on - harsh breathing, undulating bodies and hands, plunging tongues and Blair felt all of Jim's orgasm. Felt it in his mouth, on his hand and chest, felt it through every inch of his body. His own orgasm needed a push and it came in the form of Jim's body slamming hard into Blair as the last of *his* was spent.




Jim searched and sat up. Blair. He blinked, concentrated and discovered Blair in his old room. He swept the covers from his body, stood and headed down. He didn't stop to put on a robe.

The french doors were open, the small desk light on, giving the room a ghostly look in the otherwise completely dark loft. And standing buck naked, at the desk, Sandburg. And he was - bent over.

Bent over the desk, hair falling forward ---

God save him. He'd never seen anything as beautiful. Graceful back, tapering down, the swell of Blair's ass --- and Jim gasped.

Blair straightened, turned, a pen in his hand.

"Hey, Jim, sorry. Didn't mean to wake you. Tried to be quiet."

Mouth wouldn't work.

"Jim? You okay?"

Make head nod. Jim made his head move, up, then down. He licked his lips. Swallowed.

"i," cleared his throat, "I, um, you, what, doing?" Blair blushed. Everywhere. Looked down, rolled the pen between his fingers.

"I'm paying," he reached back, picked up something and held it out, "this. Seemed I should. Thought of adding a tip. Maybe - fifty percent?"

Jim managed to tear his eyes from - and to focus on the item in Blair's hand...

"My ticket? You're paying my ticket?"

"Yeah, yeah. Seems like a good - investment, you know?"

In two steps, Jim had Blair in his arms. The ticket drifted to the floor...




Lazy, spent, ethereal. The moonlight drifting in from the skylight above seemed to waver in front of Blair's eyes as he watched the ribbons of silver through eyes at half mast.

He remembered the first time he'd gone horseback riding and after hours of cantering, trotting and galloping, his body couldn't release the sensation, not even that night in bed. That was how he felt now. The room was moving softly, in waves and nothing seemed really solid - except - Jim.


Jim - breathing.

The rise and fall of his chest, taking Blair with it, up and down, the sound like the gentlest of whispers - like - Gabe's voice.

He'd never told Jim about that. About how Gabe's voice had sounded to him...

How he'd been drawn to the man's spirit - had somehow known who and what he was - because of his voice. The silky magical music of it, washing over him, binding him to miracles. In all reality, if not for Gabe that night, he'd have done something terrible when confronted with Jim's actions. And his own.

But Gabe *had* been there and that voice had slipped inside Blair's brain and his soul. As Blair ran his hand down Jim's flank, as he incorporated Jim's breathing into his own, he realized that while he'd known Gabe for what he'd been - he hadn't really *listened* to the entire message. But lord, how he was listening now.

He smiled in the darkness because Gabe probably knew.

Blair thought about that line from Womack's song - about not taking a single breath for granted and god forbid, never being left short handed...

God forbid Jim should ever be left shorthanded because Blair needed that breathing to live.

So simple after all these years - Blair Sandburg didn't need a home, a doctorate, success, a badge or a sentinel - he just needed Jim - breathing. Like now.

And could Jim dance? Yoo-ha.

<><><End - Breathing><><>