Whispers of the Heart by Natalie L

Whispers of the Heart - Natalie L

~~~

Previously published in "Bonded 7" from DE Press.

~~~

Jim couldn't quite pinpoint when it happened. All he knew for certain was that it had. Casting his mind back, he speculated that it had begun at the fountain that horrible day when he'd had to bring Blair back from the dead. Blair had said something while he was in the hospital, but Jim hadn't been ready to follow that path at the time. Their relationship had slid slowly downhill after that; had been sliding downhill for some time, if he was being perfectly honest with himself.

It had all come to a head when Naomi thoughtlessly sent Blair's dissertation to a publisher and it had been leaked to the media. In order to protect Jim's identity, Blair had made the ultimate sacrifice: his career, what had been his life up to that point. Once Jim had gotten over his initial anger at what he'd perceived as a betrayal on Blair's part, he'd come to realize just what his partner had done.

Back around Christmas, nearly a year and a half ago, he'd had an encounter with an angel. He didn't know it then, but he believed it now. Gabe had told him, "What good does it do for a man to have ears that will hear a thousand miles, if he cannot listen to the whispers of his own heart?" As Blair prepared to head off for the police academy, Jim was finally listening to the whispers.

"Blair? Blair!" Jim reached out to grab an arm as the young man sped past. "Hold up a minute, would you? You're not leaving for another three days. I've got something I want to talk with you about."

"Can it wait?" Blair asked.

"No." Jim steered his partner over to the couch and sat him down. Settling on the cushion next to Blair, he looked him directly in his eyes. "No, it can't wait. It shouldn't have been put off this long." He took a deep breath, steeling himself. Words didn't come as easily for Jim as they did for his friend. "This isn't easy for me--" he began.

Blair squirmed in his seat, wrenching his arm from Jim's grasp. "Look, Jim... if you want me to move out, just say so. I thought things were getting better between us--"

"They are, Blair!" Jim interrupted. "They are getting better, and I don't want you to move out. I want you to move in."

"Excuse me?" Blair turned a perplexed gaze toward Jim. "You want me to move in? I'm in, Jim. How much more 'in' could I get? I've been living here for four years now."

"I want you to move in permanently; to be a part of my life." Jim reached out to clasp Blair's hand. "This isn't easy for me to say, but, Blair, I love you."

"Whoa! Wait a minute," said Blair, his words tumbling over themselves. "That came out of the blue."

Jim noted that Blair hadn't pulled his hand away. He smiled. "Not so much out of the blue," he countered. "It's something that's been brewing for a long time; I just didn't take notice before."

"But you're noticing now. Now that I have to leave to attend the Academy," Blair clarified.

"Don't go," Jim pleaded. "Stay here, and we'll work things out."

"Jim, man... If I don't go, I don't get the badge," Blair reminded him. "Don't you want me to be your official partner?"

"More than anything," Jim admitted. "But you don't have to be a cop. That isn't you, Blair. I don't want to spoil whatever it is that makes you, you. I'll talk to Simon, we'll work something out, I promise."

"But meanwhile, you want me to become, what -- your lover?" asked Blair, watching as Jim nodded slowly. "Um, Jim... are you sure? This is a big step. If anyone at the station found out--"

"They won't," Jim assured him.

"Hmmm..." Blair appeared to think about the proposal. "Considering how rocky our relationship has been recently, if we're going to do this, I want to be courted. Prove to me how much you want me."

"It's a deal." Jim leaned in and pressed a chaste kiss against Blair's lips. The younger man seemed startled at the intimate act, but didn't pull away. "Go unpack your things. I'll call Simon."

+++++

The following day, Jim left for work, insisting that Blair stay home and unwind. Blair had been reluctant to abandon the Sentinel, even for one day, but Jim was adamant.

Blair puttered around the loft, wondering what he was going to do next, and how he was going to tell Jim.... While he had long harbored feelings for his partner, he'd always dated women. The suggestion that Jim court him had been given to allow Blair time to adjust to the idea of actually sleeping with another man. It would be a first for the otherwise experienced anthropologist, and the thought made him nervous.

When there was a knock at the door, Blair jumped. Shaking his head over his jitters, he opened the door.

"Delivery for Blair Sandburg," the boy said, holding out a clipboard. "Sign right here."

Blair signed and took possession of a large floral box. Closing the door, he walked over to the dining table to set it down and pull off the lid. Inside, nestled in soft tissue, was a bouquet of exotic, expensive, orchids. He lifted the card from between the stems and slipped it out of the envelope.

Rare orchids for a rare friend. Love, Jim

Blair found himself deeply touched by the simple message. He fetched a crystal vase from the cupboard and filled it with water, arranging the bouquet and leaving it on the table.

For the rest of the day, as he puttered around the apartment, his eyes kept straying back to the flowers. It was an extravagant gift, but that was Jim -- always giving one hundred and ten percent. He sighed, massaging the sudden ache in his groin.

+++++

That evening when Jim came home, Blair was waiting for him.

"Have a good day, Chief?" Jim asked, hanging up his coat.

Blair shook his head, a smile curling the corners of his mouth. "You shouldn't have," he said, gesturing toward the bouquet on the table.

"What's the matter? Don't you like them?"

"I love them!" Blair said, his smile intensifying. "But men don't usually send flowers to other men."

"And that's a problem because...?" Jim raised his eyebrows as he studied bewildered blue eyes. "I wanted you to know that I'm not always the caveman you seem to think that I am."

"I-I didn't think that... at all," Blair stammered. "It's just--"

Jim stepped up and gathered Blair into his arms, placing a kiss on the furrowed brow. "It's a romantic gesture on my part," he explained. "Part of the courtship ritual. As an anthropologist, I'm sure you know all about that." At Blair's dumbfounded nod, he continued. "Then you shouldn't have been surprised. I love you, and I intend to keep showing you just how much until you admit you love me, too."

"I do love you," Blair whispered. "I've loved you for forever, it seems. I just never expected my feelings to be returned."

"And I apologize for that. I've treated you like crap, but you've stuck by me, even sacrificing your career--"

"I did that because it was the right thing to do," Blair interrupted.

"The right thing for me, perhaps," Jim countered. "It certainly wasn't right for you. You were meant to be in academia, not toting a gun and playing cop."

"I'd make a good cop!" Blair bristled, stiffening in Jim's embrace.

"I know you would, Darwin," Jim reassured him. "It just isn't who you are. I want you to stay true to yourself."

"That's hardly an option now," said Blair glumly. "My career as an anthropologist is over. What can I do, if I don't become your partner?"

"Leave that to me," Jim answered cryptically.

+++++

"Jim, are you sure you want to do this?" Simon asked his best detective the next day.

"Never more sure of anything in my life," Jim assured his boss. "It's about time it came out, don't you think?"

"I didn't think you wanted the celebrity," Simon argued. "The press will be all over you if you go through with this harebrained scheme."

"A flash in the pan, Simon," said Jim. "It will all blow over quickly, and then things will get back to normal. Have you talked to Chief Warren about getting Blair a permanent job as a consultant?"

"He's willing to consider the idea on a case-by-case basis," said Simon. "It wouldn't be steady work, but when his expertise is needed--"

"I need him beside me, you know that," Jim appealed to his superior. "He's the one that knows best how to deal with my senses."

"I think we can work something out," Simon agreed.

Jim nodded, satisfied. "So, did you set up the press conference?"

"This afternoon at two o'clock," confirmed Simon.

+++++

With nothing more to do, now that he was no longer preparing to attend the police academy, Blair turned on the television and sat down with a late lunch to do some channel surfing.

A live news broadcast on Channel 4 caught his attention and he settled down with curiosity to watch. Jim hadn't said anything to him about a press conference. He must have busted a big case, and the Chief of Police had convinced Jim to make the announcement.

When Jim started to speak, however, Blair lost all interest in his meal. Listening, slack-jawed, to the speech, he felt his stomach lurch and turn over as his heart settled firmly in his throat.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here. I'm going to try and keep this short. Three weeks ago, my partner, Blair Sandburg, held a press conference where he proclaimed himself and his research to be a fraud. He claimed his paper on Sentinels was a lie; he did it to protect me. I have never known a more honest man. Sandburg has stood beside me for four years, teaching me to control my senses; guiding and protecting me, even from myself. When news of my abilities leaked to the press, his first thought was to sacrifice himself and his career to save mine... And I let him do it. I'm here today to right a gross injustice. Blair's paper is not only well researched, it's valid, and I'm living proof. I call for Rainier University to reinstate Blair into their graduate program and to offer him his doctoral degree. I will do everything in my power to see that comes to pass, even insofar as submitting myself for additional, independent, testing. I want the criminals in Cascade to know that the Sentinel is watching. Thank you; that's all I have to say.

Jim stepped down from the podium, only to be surrounded by reporters juggling for space, hoping to get an additional statement. Blair watched in awe as Jim pushed through the crowd and disappeared from the screen.

Sitting back, Blair ran a hand over his head, sweeping long tendrils of hair from his face. What the hell did Jim think he was doing? Now all hell was going to break loose, and he'd be left to pick up the pieces once Jim realized his mistake. He wiped at the tears that had flowed, unbidden, down his cheeks. His anger and confusion were overrun with the love that filled his heart.

The phone rang, and Blair leaned over to pluck the handset from the cradle. "Hello? Blair Sandburg speaking."

"Mr. Sandburg? This is Chancellor Edwards. We saw Detective Ellison's press conference and are agreed that we should reinstate you at the University."

Thanks, but no thanks, was Blair's first reaction to the proposal. He generally could get along with just about anyone, but the Chancellor was the one person he wasn't sure he could forgive. "Let me think about it," he answered coldly.

"We look forward to having you back," the Chancellor said, sounding optimistic.

"Yeah, thanks," Blair grumbled, hanging up. Maybe he'd consider transferring his degree program to the University of Washington, even though the nearest campus was in Seattle.

+++++

When Jim returned home that night, he looked worn, tired, his limp more pronounced than it had been for many days.

"Rough day?" Blair asked innocently.

"You could say that," Jim responded with a sigh.

Blair shook his head. "I caught your press conference on TV. What were you thinking?"

"I was thinking that I needed to right a terrible wrong. You should have never sacrificed your career for me."

"I did it because I loved you then, as I love you now," Blair replied softly. "What next?"

Jim shrugged. "I don't know. Whatever happens, I'll deal with it. It was worth it to get that weight off my chest. I feel that I can enter a relationship with you now that doesn't involve the pain I've seen in your eyes every day since your press conference."

"I chose to do that for you," said Blair. "I wanted us to be able to live quietly. Now you're a celebrity and we'll never get any peace."

"It will all blow over," Jim predicted. "Don't worry about it."

"But I do worry," Blair said with a sigh. "I can't help it. You've never been good with publicity."

"Who knows? Maybe knowing I'm out there with my heightened senses will give some of the criminals pause," Jim replied, trying to put a positive spin on the conversation.

"Or maybe they'll start thinking of ways to use your senses against you," Blair shot back. "Did you ever think of that?"

"That's what I've got you for," Jim said, reaching out to grasp and massage one of Blair's shoulders. "You're my guide; you'll watch my back."

Blair snorted. "Your back, your front, both sides... I've got my work cut out for me." He sighed and smiled, realizing that he wouldn't win the argument. "I got a call from Chancellor Edwards today," he told Jim.

"Oh?" Jim asked. "What did she have to say?"

"What do you think?" Blair countered. "They want me back at the university. They're giving me an opportunity to complete my thesis and defend it."

"And what did you say?" Jim prodded.

"That I'd think about it," replied Blair.

"You should take it. If anybody deserves 'Ph.D.' after his name, it's you."

"Yeah, well... It's just not as important as it used to be," Blair answered.

"I've got an idea," Jim said, perking up a bit. "How about I take you out to eat? I don't feel much like cooking tonight anyway."

"Got someplace in mind?" Blair asked, more than willing to change the subject.

"I was thinking of Chez Robert," Jim answered. "You don't mind dressing up to eat, do you?"

"Chez Robert?" Blair's eyebrows rose toward his hairline. "You have to have reservations to get in there. We'll never be able to just walk in and get a seat."

Jim grinned mischievously. "Reservation for two at 7 PM. Now, go shower and get changed."

"Is this part of the courtship ritual?" Blair asked, returning the grin. "Are you planning to wine and dine me?"

Jim chuckled. "Just don't ask me to dance."

+++++

Chez Robert was a posh French restaurant in the heart of Cascade. Jim had secured them a table in an isolated corner with a picture window view of the city. They were escorted to their seats and handed menus. Jim perused the wine list and ordered a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. The waiter poured the wine and left them to decide on their meal.

"This was quite the romantic gesture," Blair said quietly, leaning forward across the table. "Keep this up and you won't have to worry about luring me to your bed."

"Who said anything about luring? I plan to wine and dine you until you beg me to take you."

"Wipe that smug grin off your face, Ellison," Blair quipped. "You haven't got me there yet."

The waiter came to take their order, and a few minutes later their salad had been served. They were looking forward to the main course of veal, when a woman stopped by their table.

"Aren't you that man from the press conference this afternoon?" she asked. "The Sentinel?"

"Ma'am, we're trying to have a quiet dinner here," Jim said politely. "If you don't mind?"

"Oh, not at all!" the oblivious woman prattled. "I was just wondering if I could get your autograph?" She extended a note pad and pen that she held. "My son will be so excited!"

Jim grimaced, took the paper and pen, and scribbled his name. "I'm not the one that should be giving out autographs," he said, handing back the signed paper. "It's my partner, here, that you should be after."

The woman glanced briefly at Blair and then looked quickly away, embarrassed. Gathering her autograph, she mumbled her thanks and hurried off.

"That's what you're in for, and more, Jim," Blair warned. "I really wish you hadn't gone and given that press conference. At least, not without telling me first."

"It was my decision," Jim said. "Like I said earlier, it was something that needed to be done. You should never have had to give your own press conference. You're not a fraud, but you are a liar."

"A white lie for a good cause," Blair argued. "And you go and screw it up."

"Look, Blair," Jim said quietly. "I didn't bring you here to argue. I wanted this to be a nice, quiet evening that we could enjoy together. Could we maybe drop the subject for now?"

"Sure," Blair agreed. "So, when did you have time to make reservations? This place is usually booked weeks in advance."

"I know someone who knows someone," Jim answered cryptically. "One of the perks of my job."

"Are you going in to work tomorrow?" asked Blair.

"Yes, of course," Jim said, around a mouthful of his salad. "Why wouldn't I?"

"I'm going in with you." Blair's statement was most definitely not a request.

"You're that Sentinel detective, aren't you?" Another woman had elbowed her way to their table. "Could I get your autograph?"

Jim wiped his mouth on his napkin and replaced the linen in his lap before turning to the intruder. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"I saw you on TV this morning," the woman insisted. "You were having a press conference..."

"You're mistaken," Jim growled. "Now, will you please let us eat our meal in peace?" The woman frowned and turned away, muttering quietly about the rudeness of people these days. "The nerve of some people!" Jim hissed. "And she had the audacity to say I was rude!"

"You're a celebrity now, whether you like it or not," Blair explained. "That's what I was trying to tell you. You're not going to have a moment's peace anymore."

There was a commotion out in the lobby of the restaurant, and Jim concentrated his hearing on the raised voices.

"I'm sorry, but you cannot come in here!" the maitre d' was saying.

"But we got a tip that the Sentinel was dining here tonight," a reporter argued, trying to push his way past and into the restaurant.

"I will not have my diners disturbed!" the maitre d' insisted. "You will have to wait outside.

Jim grabbed his napkin and put it up on the table, pushing back his chair to stand. "Come on, Blair, we have to leave."

"But we haven't had dinner yet," Blair complained, his stomach growling in protest over the missed meal.

"We'll sneak out the back, through the kitchen," said Jim. "Maybe we can get them to make the meal to go."

+++++

They managed to make their escape, avoiding the press and getting their meal in take out containers. Too exhausted to eat, the evening ended with both men going to their separate bedrooms. The following morning, routine took over as they readied themselves to go down to the station.

"You don't have to come," Jim reminded his partner. "You're not officially on the team yet."

"I'm still your partner, your guide," said Blair. "You're going to need me today. Trust me."

Jim shrugged. "Suit yourself."

When they got down to the police station, the front walk was crowded with reporters and cameramen. Microphones were shoved in Jim's face, as he and Blair tried to make their way to the front door. It was a repeat of the day after Blair's press conference.

"Detective Ellison! Detective Ellison!" one persistent reporter called out. "Now that your Sentinel abilities are known, do you think the Police Chief will want to review your case files?"

"I don't have an inside track on what the Chief has planned," Jim growled as he tried to guide Blair through the crowd to the front door.

"Do you think that crime might increase, with criminals wanting to test your abilities?"

"No comment." Jim pushed his way through the mass of bodies and managed to get inside the door. The reporters tried to follow, but uniformed police kept them out.

Simon walked out of the elevator to greet his star detective. "I hate to be the one who said 'I told you so'..." he began.

"Then don't," Jim snapped. "Sorry, Simon," he apologized a beat later. "I know you warned me. Blair did, too, after the fact. But I had to do it. I couldn't live with myself knowing what Blair sacrificed for me."

"The Police Chief is up in my office," said Simon. "He wants to talk to you both."

+++++

They arrived in Simon's office and the captain sat down with a sigh of relief. He'd only been back on the job for a week after being shot by Klaus Zeller three weeks prior. His doctor had been hesitant to clear him for duty, but he'd insisted. Considering Jim's timing, it was a good decision.

"Well, you really put your foot in it this time, didn't you, Ellison?" Chief Warren greeted the Sentinel. "There's a media circus outside, and I've had to put extra operators on the phones to field calls to my office. What were you thinking?"

Jim rubbed his forehead, feeling the beginning of a headache forming. "You're not the first one to ask me that, sir," he replied. "It's not that I wanted to come out and make my Sentinel abilities known, but I couldn't live with myself knowing that Blair sacrificed not only his career, but his reputation, to cover my ass."

The police chief sighed. "It's too late to second guess ourselves now," he said. "Actually, we might be able to put some spin on this to put the department in a good light for a change."

"And the District Prosecutor won't be able to say that Jim couldn't possibly have seen or heard what he did anymore, like in the Tommy Juno case," Blair added. "From now on, people will believe him when he says he's seen something."

"The kid's got a point," Simon commented. Then, turning to Blair, he pinned the anthropologist with a glare. "And what's this I hear about you deciding not to attend the Academy?"

"I-I..." Blair stuttered. "I haven't really decided yet. I was going to go and get my badge, but then Jim comes up with this press conference scheme--"

"It wasn't a scheme, Chief," Jim argued.

"Two wrongs don't make a right," Blair countered.

"In this case, they do," Jim snapped back.

"All right, you two, cut it out," Simon said, coming between the two verbal combatants. "Let's try to remember that Chief Warren is here as well--"

"Captain Banks has a point," Warren said. "If you're not going to attend the Academy, I won't be able to make your position as Jim's partner permanent."

"But I need him," Jim said, sidling closer to Blair. "He's my guide, the one who keeps me grounded, who allows me to use my senses without letting them overwhelm me. We have to work something out to keep him around."

"He could still go to the Academy," Simon suggested.

Jim shook his head. "No. I need him here. Now. Besides," he added, "I don't think Blair would be happy being a cop."

"I don't have to be happy about it," Blair said softly. "I just need to be beside you. I'll do whatever it takes."

"I know you would, Chief," Jim replied tenderly, "but you shouldn't have to." He turned back to his captain and the police chief.

"Couldn't we offer him a position as a consultant to the office? His anthropological background has already been a boon in solving several cases," Jim suggested. "He's been offered his position back at Rainier and the opportunity to get his degree. You gotta admit that having a Doctor of Anthropology working for the Department would add to our prestige."

"I'll have to see what the budget will allow," Chief Warren said. "We wouldn't be able to fund a full-time position. At best, it would be on an 'on call' basis."

"Fine with me," said Blair. "Just so long as I can stay by Jim's side and continue working with him."

"I don't think getting you cleared for that will be a problem," Warren said. "I'll get back to you on the status of the consulting position." With a nod of his head, the police chief took his leave.

Simon turned his attention back to the pair standing in front of his desk. "You two are going to be useless to me until this business with the press blows over," he said. "Get out of here. Take some time off and lie low, would you?"

Jim nodded and turned to go. "Oh, Jim, hold up a minute." Simon looked over at Blair. "Sandburg, you go wait in the bullpen. I have something to say to Jim in private."

"Sure," Blair said with a dubious tone. "See you at your desk in a few minutes, Jim."

When the door had closed behind Jim's guide, Simon grinned. "I have a proposition for you," the captain began....

+++++

Jim took Blair out the back way, and they managed to slip past the reporters still gathered out front without being noticed. They climbed into the cab of the truck and ducked out into traffic, neatly evading the media.

"So, what do we do now?" Blair asked. "Anywhere we go in town, you're going to draw attention. And it won't take long before someone from the press shows up at the apartment."

Jim reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys that he dangled in front of Blair's face.

"What are those for?" Blair asked. "I don't recognize them."

"Simon suggested that we drive up to his cabin in the mountains and stay there for a couple of weeks. What do you think?"

Visions of the serenity of the forest drifted through Blair's mind, along with thoughts of fishing the lake and just relaxing. They needed the time away. Time to recoup. Time to think. Time to consider their options. Time to explore the new feelings that sang between them. "I think we should take him up on his offer." Blair grabbed the keys from Jim's hand with a grin.

They stopped by the apartment to throw their clothes into suitcases and pack some supplies. Jim slipped the take-out from Chez Robert into the cooler under the ice and beer. Simon had told him that the cabin was fully supplied, except for fresh food, and an idea had hatched for Jim to woo his reluctant guide. He carried the supplies down to the truck and, after making sure everything was locked tight and secure, he turned his attention to the mountains and a cabin retreat.

+++++

"This is great!" said Blair, looking around the cozy cabin. "I can't believe that Simon is letting us have it all to ourselves for two weeks."

"He wanted to get us out of town," Jim said with a chuckle. "And I wasn't about to argue with him."

"Me neither!" Blair confirmed with conviction. "It's been a long time since we had any quiet time alone."

"I have a suggestion," Jim began carefully. "How about we don't talk about my press conference or your thesis until we get back home? I'd like for this time to be about us getting to know each other better."

Blair nodded. "Okay. I can live with that. So, where do we start?"

"How about like this?" Jim peeled off Blair's coat and tossed it in a pile with his own before gathering Blair into his arms and kissing him.

No longer taken aback by Jim's affection, Blair relaxed and parted his lips, allowing Jim's tongue to slide inside, tasting him. When they finally parted, Blair was breathless.

"Whoa, that was intense!" Blair backed away, but Jim could tell by his smile that everything was okay.

"Don't start anything for dinner," said Jim, heading out to the truck to carry in more supplies. "I've got that covered."

"I thought we were going fishing," Blair replied, helping to stock the kitchen with the boxes Jim brought back.

"Plenty of time for that later," Jim said with an air of mystery. "Why don't you go lie down and take a nap, or go for a refreshing nature walk?"

"You're trying to get rid of me, aren't you?" Blair said with a crooked grin and a wag of his finger. "What are you up to, James Ellison?"

"You'll find out soon enough," Jim answered. "Now, go take a hike."

With a chuckle, Blair complied, gathering his coat and heading out the back door to the nearest trailhead.

Once his companion was gone, Jim got to work. He went back out to the truck to bring in the ice chest. Putting the beer in the refrigerator, he unpacked the take-out containers from Chez Robert. The two veal dinners were perfectly preserved inside their Styrofoam containers, ready for Jim to reheat and serve. He unwrapped the bottle of wine he'd also thought to pack, and set it on the table to warm to room temperature. In the cupboards, he found the china and crystal Simon had promised would be there.

Blair was gone about an hour. When he returned, he was greeted to the wonderful scents permeating the cabin. "Mmmm... smells delicious! What are you fixing?"

"Why don't you go take a shower to freshen up?" Jim countered, helping to hurry Blair through the main room and back toward the bedrooms. "Don't forget to wash that mop of yours." He playfully ruffled the tangled mane with his fingers.

"Okay... I guess I'll play along," Blair agreed. "Call me when I can come out?"

Jim nodded. When Blair had disappeared and he could hear the water running in the shower, Jim began to set the table. First came the linen tablecloth, followed by the china, crystal, silver, and two tall candlesticks. Lighting the candles, he turned down the lighting in the rest of the room, except for around the stove area where he was putting the finishing touches on their dinner.

By the time Blair was done showering and getting dressed, Jim had the meal served. Instead of calling for his partner, Jim went back into the bedroom where Blair waited on the bed, and took his hand. "Dinner is waiting," he said with a soft grin.

Blair allowed himself to be led by the hand out to the dining area. "Oh... Jim..." Jim pulled out a chair and Blair sat, still stunned by the romantic dinner set out before him. "How long have you had this planned?"

"Since our dinner at Chez Robert was interrupted," Jim said, smiling at the look of awe on Blair's face. "I decided to bring the restaurant atmosphere here, where we have plenty of privacy."

"This is delicious!" Blair said, cutting into his veal. "You went to an awful lot of trouble--"

"Nothing's too much trouble for the man I love," responded Jim. "And I want to show you that every single day we're here." He took a bite of his own meal before continuing. "I've treated you like shit the past few weeks. I've accused you of a lot of things, and all because I was feeling insecure. And then I realized... I realized what I'd be losing if you left, and if you became a cop, you would have eventually left...."

Blair shook his head. "I'd never walk out on you, you should know that by now."

"But you wouldn't have been happy," Jim countered. "You never liked holding a gun, you've never had to shoot anyone. It's one thing to be my guide, and quite another to be an official police partner."

"So what bit of enlightenment brought you to this conclusion?" Blair wiped his mouth on his napkin and took a sip of wine.

"Something Gabe said a couple of Christmases ago."

"Gabe? Gabe-the-angel, Gabe?" Blair looked astonished. "What did he say to you that was so profound?"

"It was as though he knew about my Sentinel abilities," said Jim, pondering what the man had told him over a year and a half ago. "He asked what good it was to have ears that could hear a thousand miles if I couldn't listen to the whispers of my own heart. I shrugged it off back then as the ravings of a madman. But it came back to me just a few days ago, and suddenly I understood. My eyes opened, and it was like my heart was filled to the bursting point. I knew I couldn't continue without you, and that I wanted more, much more, from our relationship."

"Weren't you afraid... afraid that I might not feel the same?" Blair asked softly.

"I was terrified," admitted Jim. "But then you told me that you loved me, too, and all the world seemed right."

"What if I can't give you what you want?"

"What do you mean?" Jim noted the tension lines creasing Blair's forehead. "You've already given me what I want; you love me."

"But you want me to... share your bed." Blair's voice had gotten small and soft.

"Eventually," said Jim, hopeful that he hadn't already said too much. "When you're ready."

"It's not that I don't want to," Blair added hastily. "It's just that... well, I've never slept with a man before. All my experience has been with the opposite sex."

"So you're a virgin?" Jim asked with an innocent smile.

"With another man, yeah," Blair admitted. "Do you have any experience... like that?"

"Some, not a lot," said Jim. "Does that bother you?"

Blair shook his head and pursed his lips. "But we're not going to rush it, right?"

"Of course not. We won't do anything until you feel comfortable," said Jim.

"Can we soak these dishes and curl up on the couch?" suggested Blair, pushing his chair back and carrying his plate to the kitchen.

"You didn't finish your meal," Jim protested.

"I've had enough," said Blair, coming to take Jim's hand and lead him over to the couch in front of the fireplace.

Jim had started a roaring blaze just before Blair had returned from his hike, so the room was cozy and warm. He came to sit next to Blair and was pleasantly surprised when the younger man rested his head on Jim's shoulder.

"Hold me."

Eager to comply with the gentle command, Jim wrapped an arm around Blair's shoulders and pulled him in closer. "We take this slow," he whispered into the ear beneath his chin.

+++++

The following day, after spending hours at the lake fishing, the two men cleaned their catch and fixed a more basic dinner, filling themselves with the delicious trout. After dinner, Blair pulled Jim over to the couch once more.

This time Blair was the aggressor, leaning in to capture Jim's mouth and leaving the older man gasping for breath. A hand stroked through the short, buzz-cut hair and down a stubbled cheek. "So different," Blair said with a sigh. "You're so different from any woman..."

I would hope so, Jim thought, keeping his musings to himself. "Not so different, really," he said aloud. "I still love you with all my heart. I want to hold you, kiss you, touch you..." He slipped a hand inside Blair's shirt and brushed his fingers across the tiny nubs of Blair's nipples, causing him to gasp. "Hasn't a woman ever touched you like that?" Jim asked, gently amused at his partner's reaction.

"It doesn't feel the same," Blair said, his voice soft.

Jim brushed his hands over Blair's nipples again, then pulled the shirt over his head, laying bare the furred chest. Pushing Blair down onto the cushions, Jim hovered over him for a few moments, listening as the breath quickened in Blair lungs, before leaning down to suckle an erect nub. Blair gasped again, writhing beneath Jim as the pleasure of Jim's actions shot straight to his neglected cock.

Jim continued to tease the nipple a while longer, before moving to give its twin equal treatment. Heightened senses could smell Blair's arousal, feel the heat emanating from his skin, hear the tiny hitches in his breath as he tried to control his rising passion.

He moved up to capture Blair's lips in another kiss, while his right hand slid between them to pull down the zipper on Blair's jeans. Slipping his hand inside the fly, he kneaded the hot, cotton-clad flesh.

Blair broke the kiss, panting for breath as Jim increased the attention to his cock. "Oh, godddd..." Jim felt the pressure as Blair's hips twisted and lifted to meet him, his face flushed with pleasure at Jim's touch.

With a suddenness that surprised them both, Blair's orgasm peaked, pumping out semen to coat his chest and Jim's hand. Breathing heavily in the aftermath, Blair stared at his new lover. "Oh, man...!" He continued to drag in labored breaths, his efforts shifting subtly to laughter. "Oh, man, that was good, Jim!" Blair chuckled, rubbing at the mess he'd made on his chest. "God, I didn't know it could be like that with another man. Now I need to shower again."

"Need help?" Jim asked coyly.

+++++

Jim waited until he could hear the water running in the shower before approaching. Opening the shower door, he stepped in behind Blair and wrapped his arms around the younger man's chest. Lowering his head, he nipped and kissed his partner's neck, causing Blair to moan and lean back against him.

"I love you," Jim whispered into Blair's ear, gently licking along the curve until he could nip at the lobe.

Blair squirmed as the ticklish sensations sent new bolts of arousal through him. "Love you too."

Stepping away from his lover, Jim soaped his hands and washed Blair's back as he had promised. As he got to the firm, round cheeks of Blair's ass, the young man spoke.

"I'm not sure I can do this."

"Do what? The shower?" Jim asked, taking Blair's shoulders and turning him around to face him.

Blair shook his head. "No, the shower is fine. I-I don't know about sleeping with you--"

"Look," Jim began, stroking wet strands of hair away from Blair's face. "It's early yet. We still have the better part of two weeks to go here; and if that's not enough time, so be it. I would like to share a room with you, though. One has two twin beds, the other has a king-size."

"The king," said Blair, his eyes nervously darting between Jim's gaze and his own feet.

Jim leaned in to kiss Blair's forehead before picking up a washcloth and quickly scrubbing himself down. "You take your time," he said, stepping out of the stall. "I'll be waiting."

+++++

After Jim left, Blair took the time to wash his hair. Climbing out of the shower, he toweled himself dry and went to work squeezing all the excess water from his hair. Contrary to Jim's bantering, he did not use a blow dryer. If he did, all he'd have was a halo of frizz. He combed his fingers through the tangled curls, letting the conditioner he'd used help to separate the silken strands. When he was satisfied, he turned out the light and stepped into the narrow hallway that led to the bedrooms.

Passing the first, smaller room with the twin beds, he approached the master bedroom. Opening the door, he was greeted by an amazing sight. Jim was in bed, his bare back braced against the headboard and his lower body covered by the blankets. Surrounding the bed were candles: tall ones, short ones, fat and slender; in holders and not; on the night stand, dresser, and floor. The flickering light created an ambience to the room that put Blair immediately at ease.

Jim lifted the covers and Blair slipped into bed. He immediately found himself engulfed in a tender embrace. Their naked bodies molded each to the other as though they were meant to be this way. Blair rested his head on Jim's chest and sighed. "I never thought I'd be here like this," he said. "But it feels right, like this is how things are supposed to be." He closed his eyes and his chest rumbled with contentment.

Jim stroked a hand over the still-damp curls and smiled. "Sleep now, Sweetheart. We have our whole lives ahead of us."

+++++

The two weeks flew by. Jim and Blair sat side by side on the small dock, their fishing poles dangling into the water, both contemplating their return to Cascade the next day.

"I wish we didn't have to go back," Blair said, finally. "I don't look forward to deflecting all that publicity you're going to get when you return to work."

"At least you're off the hook," Jim replied amiably. "I didn't like the way some of the guys at the station looked at you; like you were less than the dirt on their shoes."

"I always had to battle that attitude," Blair reminded him. "From the first day I walked in with my long hair and loud clothes."

"But they came to accept you once they realized what an asset you were to the department," Jim argued.

Blair shook his head. "Not all of them. There are a few who will never accept my being there."

"Then they're fools," Jim stated with authority. "And the rest... well, they'll look at you differently now."

"They're going to look at you differently, too," Blair reminded him. "But I guess we'll learn to deal with it, like we did after my press conference."

The two men fell silent and continued their fishing until the mountain air took on its evening chill. Standing and stretching, they picked up the bucket with their day's catch and headed back toward the cabin.

"You start cleaning the fish and I'll get the fire started," said Jim.

Blair stayed out on the back porch of the cabin where the table was that they used to clean their catch. He was about half done with the work when Jim came back outside.

"Let me finish that and you go inside to warm up," he suggested.

"You're great, thanks!" Blair rose up on his toes to plant a kiss on Jim's cheek before handing over the fish knife and heading inside to clean up.

+++++

After a satisfying meal, it was time to clean up and start packing for the return trip the next day. Blair looked up from his work, his eyes twinkling. "Can't we leave this until morning? It's our last night here, and I had something else in mind."

"Oh, and what might that be?" Jim asked, stopping what he was doing to watch Blair.

The younger man shrugged. "You'll see." Blair stood up and headed toward the bedroom.

"There's not much left here to pack," Jim called after him. "I'll be there in a few minutes."

+++++

Candles were lit, like their first night together, and Blair lay naked and uncovered on the pristine sheets, a shy grin of welcome curving his lips. Jim quickly stripped and climbed onto the bed.

"Is this what I think it is...?" Jim asked hopefully, moving up alongside Blair and capturing his mouth with a gentle kiss.

When they parted, Blair nodded. "I want this, Jim. I want it now, while we're still here, in the peace of the forest. It's my gift to you, for your sacrifice."

"It was no sacrifice," Jim replied softly. "It was the right thing to do. God, I love you!"

"You'll have to be my guide." Blair's eyes held firm determination. "I know the mechanics, but..."

"Slow..." Jim purred. "We'll take it slow." He covered Blair's mouth with a more passionate kiss, wringing a groan from his lover's throat. Reaching down, he stroked the burgeoning erection until Blair was struggling for breath. "That's it, Baby. Good, good."

Jim slipped lower, taking first one teat, then the other, into his mouth and suckling. Blair's back arched into the tender torture and his breathing became erratic. When Jim slipped lower to engulf the head of Blair's cock with his mouth, his lover cried out and bucked beneath him, his fists balled into the sheets.

"Jiiiiiiimmm! Oh, God; ohgodohgodohgod...!"

Jim looked up, gently stroking Blair's hips as he spoke. "Hold on, Babe, hold on. We're just getting started." Blair nodded, gasping for breath, his knuckles white as his fingers dug into the sheets in an effort to hold back his mounting orgasm.

Wetting a finger, Jim teased the tight hole in Blair's ass before continuing to give his attention to the straining cock. A shudder ran through his lover's body, and Jim knew that Blair, inexperienced in this form of lovemaking, wouldn't be able to hold out much longer. With one hand cradling the heavy balls and the other wrapped tightly around the base of the turgid organ, Jim took the cock into his mouth once more. Relaxing his throat muscles, he was able to take in more of Blair's length, licking and sucking at the thick, hard flesh.

Blair trembled, his muscles tense, and Jim knew he was out of time. Backing off until only the glans was still in his mouth, Jim kneaded the testicles cradled in his right hand and felt the pulse of blood in Blair's cock as his orgasm ripped through him with violent passion. Jim felt the penis jerk before spraying semen down his throat as fast as he could swallow.

Panting as though he'd just run a marathon, Blair huffed, "Oh, man, Jim! That was so... so..."

Jim slipped back up Blair's body, pressing his lips against the gaping mouth of his lover, allowing Blair to taste himself in Jim's mouth. Blair's hands were all over Jim's body, trying to touch all of him at once: through his hair, down his back, over his ass, until one hand slipped between their bodies to reach for Jim's cock.

"No, no, no..." Jim clucked, shaking a finger at his lover. "I have plans for that -- if you're ready--"

Blair nodded vigorously. "Ready. I'm ready," he gasped. "What do we do?"

Jim reached across Blair to the night stand, where he'd stashed the lube their first night in the cabin. Holding the tube aloft for his lover to see, he said, "Now, I prepare you, get you stretched and ready. At least you're relaxed."

"Relaxed... yeah," Blair mumbled, already feeling the post-climatic lethargy claim him.

"Roll onto your side," instructed Jim, giving Blair a push in the right direction.

Blair sprawled on his side, giving Jim ample access. Spreading the lube thickly on his index finger, Jim began to gently probe at the tight hole. "Just stay relaxed for me," he crooned. "Good; that's good, Sweetheart."

"Uuuunh..." Blair groaned as Jim's finger slipped inside.

"It's your first time, and you're a little tight," Jim explained softly. "There's going to be some discomfort, but try to stay relaxed." He wiggled his finger inside the tight passage and smiled when he heard his partner's satisfied groan. "Feels good?"

"Yeah, man... good." Blair's voice was soft and breathy.

"Then we'll make it better," said Jim, pulling out to lube two fingers. "This might feel like a bit much at first, but just--"

"...relax," Blair finished for him, grunting as the two fingers entered his body. "Easy for you to say."

"We can stop this any time, Sweetheart," Jim said. "Just give the word."

Blair's fists were knotted into the sheets again, but he shook his head. "I-I want to d-do this. Go on."

"You're so beautiful, Babe," Jim whispered, kissing Blair's cheek as he continued to work his fingers inside. "You're giving me such a gift... more than I deserve." He began scissoring his fingers to stretch the tight muscle. "I'm going to love you every day for the rest of our lives... or for however long you'll have me."

"I want you," Blair claimed, "forever." He pressed back against Jim's hand, impaling himself further.

Jim removed his fingers and positioned his cock at the lubed and stretched opening. "This is it, then. No going back."

"No going back," agreed Blair. "Love you--"

As his cock slid slowly into the still-tight tunnel, Jim could feel Blair's body tense. Remembering his own first time, he stopped and massaged Blair's shoulders. "I know it hurts," he said softly. "But it doesn't last long. Try to relax for me, Babe. That's it." He felt the minute loosening of the muscles around his cock and took the opportunity to slide in farther. When his balls bumped up against Blair's ass, he stopped, wrapping his lover in a loose embrace and kissing the back of his neck.

"So full--" Blair groaned, burying his face in the pillow.

"Just give it a little time. We're in no hurry here," Jim whispered.

"Unnnnhhh..." Blair groaned again, and then began grinding back against Jim. "Move, Jim. Please move--"

Jim began a slow, shallow thrusting, getting his lover used to the new sensations. Blair's skin was slick with perspiration, the candlelight giving his body a golden sheen. Chestnut hair, haloed with red, lay spread on the pillow, giving him the look of an angel. Jim vowed to himself that he would never let Blair down again.

His musings were cut short when Blair suddenly began to move beneath him, rocking his hips in a counterpoint to Jim's thrusting. Encouraged by the response, Jim gripped the slender hips and dove in deeply. As his penis brushed the nub of Blair's prostate, his lover screamed. Reaching across Blair's body, Jim began to stroke the reawaking cock, nursing it to fullness. Blair moaned, covering Jim's hand with his own to increase the pressure.

Jim angled his entry to rub against the sensitive gland again, this time feeling the pulse of Blair's cock as he drew toward his second orgasm of the night. Picking up his pace, Jim began to pound into the willing body, pulling them both to the pinnacle. One last thrust against Blair's prostate brought a howl from his lover.

"Ohhhhhh, maaaaan...!" As Blair's cock released its seed, Jim could feel Blair's muscles clamp around his cock, milking his own climax from him moments later.

The two men lay joined, relaxed and complete, until Jim's softening cock finally slipped out on its own. Pulling the blankets up over them both, Jim pulled Blair against him and the two men slept.

+++++

The next morning, Blair awoke to find Jim watching him.

"Good morning, Sleepyhead," Jim greeted his lover with a kiss on the nose.

"Is it morning already?" Blair asked, squinting at the clock. He tried to roll over, but groaned. "God, my ass hurts."

"You're going to be stiff for a while," Jim agreed. "Was it worth it?"

Blair's eyes grew wide. "You're kidding me, right? Worth it? I'll tell you how much 'worth it' it was--" He finished rolling over and tackled Jim, bathing him with passionate kisses until both men were hard and aching.

Fifteen minutes later, Blair crawled out of bed. "That's better," he said with a contented sigh. "They always say that the best way to work the lactic acid out of your muscles is to keep exercising them." He turned to Jim, who still lay in bed, bathed in a contented afterglow. "You coming, or do I shower alone?"

+++++

They finished packing the truck and decided to take one last look around the cabin before they had to leave again for Cascade.

"Remind me to thank Simon for the use of his cabin," said Blair, giving Jim a sultry grin as his eyes glanced toward their bedroom.

"We'd better not tell him what went on up here," Jim said. "Otherwise, he might not want to use the place again."

"Think he'd consider selling it to us?" suggested Blair. "I wouldn't mind living here."

"Someday we'll have a place of our own," Jim promised, locking up the cabin and walking back to the truck to hold the door open for Blair.

+++++

They had only been home three days, when the phone rang. Blair was the closest, and nabbed the handset before Jim could grab it away. "Hello? Blair Sandburg speaking."

"Blair? This is Alexander Holloway. I have some good news for you."

"Who is Alexander Holloway?" Jim whispered, standing next to Blair.

Blair covered the mouthpiece with his hand and mouthed quietly, "The president of Rainier University."

"Oh." Jim nodded and continued to shamelessly listen in on the conversation.

"What news is that, sir?" Blair asked, wondering why the president would call and not Chancellor Edwards.

"I've talked with your review committee and we are all in agreement that your thesis on Sentinels is a brilliant piece of work," said Holloway. "We'd like to give you the opportunity to finalize your paper and defend it. Once the formality is over, I would personally like to offer you a place on the faculty."

"That's very generous of you," Blair said, stunned by the offer. "I'd like to defend my paper, but I'll have to think about the job offer. I have other obligations now, as you must realize."

"Completely understood, Mr. Sandburg, but the offer will stay open."

"Thank you, sir. I promise that I'll get back to you." Blair said his good-byes and hung up the phone. "What do you think about that?" he asked, turning to Jim.

"It's the best news I've heard in a long time," Jim said. "What do you have to do to get your paper ready?"

Blair thought about it and then shrugged. "Before Naomi sent the manuscript off to Sid, I'd meant to go through and take out all direct references to you," he said slowly. "But now," he looked up and met Jim's eyes, "I guess I don't have to do that, do I?"

Jim chuckled. "No, I guess you don't. So, what else does it need?"

"Not much," Blair admitted. "Like I told you once a while back, I have enough research for ten papers. All the dissertation needs is a strong edit and I think it's ready to go."

"How long will that take?"

Blair shrugged. "It depends on how busy we are. If I had a few days free, I could probably finish up before the end of the week."

"Then consider it done," said Jim. "I want to discuss another press conference with Simon. Until this mess with the media is finally put to rest, we're not going to be able to get any productive work done."

"Oh, Jim, not another press conference...." Blair sighed. "You know you don't handle the attention well."

"It has to be done," Jim said with a shrug. "I have to give the press a chance to ask their questions. Until I do, I won't be able to get them off my back."

"I suppose you're right," Blair admitted reluctantly. "But this time, I'm going to be there with you. Perhaps if we both can openly and honestly answer their questions, they'll leave us alone."

"All right, but on one condition," Jim said, shaking a finger in Blair's face. "You defend your thesis first."

"But, Jim... I..."

"Just do it, Chief. No arguments."

+++++

Blair stepped out of the lecture hall and into the corridor where Jim waited.

"How did it go?" Jim wrapped an arm around his guide. "You're trembling!"

"It went fine." Blair took a deep breath. "It's just a little nerve wracking, is all. I've waited for this day for so long, and then for a while I thought it would never come.... I'm still adjusting."

"I'm sure you did just fine. How long will it be until you know?"

"Could be a few hours or a few days," Blair said. "There's no point in waiting around. The press conference starts in an hour, so we ought to get going."

"Nervous?"

"About the press conference? Nah," Blair said with a grin. "After what I just went through, it'll be a piece of cake."

They started walking down the hallway when a voice stopped them. "Blair, could we speak with you a moment, please?"

Blair turned and looked back at the university president. "Uh, sure, Dr. Holloway." He walked back toward the gathering group of professors and notables from the university, followed closely by Jim. "Is there something more you need?"

Holloway smiled. "Only to say congratulations, Dr. Sandburg." He reached out to shake the dumbfounded man's hand. "The decision was unanimous. In the face of your stunning discovery of a living Sentinel and the quality of your research, the decision to award you your doctorate was a mere formality. The committee will be reviewing your paper more closely in the coming weeks and will submit it back to you with suggestions before publishing; but as of now, you can officially add Ph.D. to your title."

"Oh, um, wow," Blair replied, dazed by the pronouncement.

"Well, this is a first," Jim said with a chuckle, wrapping an arm around Blair's waist to steady him. "You've struck him speechless."

"We'd like to present you with your degree this Sunday at a special ceremony," Holloway continued. "If you could be at the Hargrove auditorium at 2:00 PM?"

"Yes, sir; I'll be there," said Blair. "Thank you."

As the faculty watched with bemusement, Jim turned his stunned guide around and led him out into the fresh air of the university's quad.

+++++

The press conference lasted over two hours, and by the time it was finished, both Jim and Blair were exhausted. The noise of the media had finally died down, and Simon met the pair in the quiet of his office.

"So, that's it, gentlemen," Simon said. "I'm sure you'll make the news, Jim, every time you make an arrest for a while, but at least the press won't be following you every step you take."

"There's always a few," Jim grumbled.

"But we can handle it," Blair added.

"I hear congratulations are in order, Dr. Sandburg," Simon said with a grin. He reached out to shake Blair's hand. "About damn time, don't you think?"

"Definitely overdue," Jim agreed. "There's going to be a ceremony this Sunday at the university, if you'd like to come."

"I wouldn't miss it." Simon studied the two men with a critical eye. "I think you two should take the rest of the day off. You look beat."

"It has been a rather long day already," Blair agreed. "Thanks, Captain."

"You can call me Simon," Banks said with a grin.

+++++

"How about a beer to celebrate?" Jim asked, as they walked into the loft and hung up their coats.

Blair nodded and grinned. "I could use a little alcohol right about now. My head is still spinning."

Jim got two bottles from the refrigerator and brought them over to the couch, where Blair had collapsed in a sprawl. He twisted the cap off one and handed it to his partner. "You look like you've been run over by a freight train."

"Thanks. You look quite handsome yourself," Blair responded dryly, taking a sip of his beer. "Ahhh, that's good."

"Are you going to call Naomi and tell her the good news? Maybe she could fly out here for the ceremony on Sunday," Jim suggested.

"I'll give her a call," said Blair, "but I doubt she can make it out here right now. She's at some retreat in New Mexico studying the art of Reiki healing."

"She deserves to know you accomplished your dream," Jim said, stroking a hand over Blair's head and tangling his fingers in the long curls.

"Mm-hmmm," Blair murmured, closing his eyes and laying his head down against the back of the couch. "Feels good, Jim."

"I know something else that feels good," said Jim, plucking the nearly-full bottle of beer from Blair's fingers and setting both drinks on the table. Shifting his weight, Jim turned to face Blair, taking in the boyish beauty of his young lover in repose. The worry lines that had creased Blair's forehead were relaxed, now that his eyes were closed, and made him look years younger than his actual age. Acting on his words, Jim bent down and captured the full lips, teasing them apart with his tongue and tasting his guide. Blair moaned beneath him, shifting to a more comfortable position as he allowed Jim to have his way with his body.

Jim slowly unbuttoned Blair's shirt and brushed his fingertips over the dusky peaks of Blair's nipples.

"Oh, God, Jim...." Blair groaned into Jim's mouth, squirming as the Sentinel pinched and twisted one solid nub, sending frissons of arousal straight to Blair's cock.

Smelling the scent of arousal on his guide, Jim let his mouth drop lower to suckle the nipple he'd just been abusing, as he moved his hand to loosen the belt and free Blair's trapped erection. Blair's fingers dug into the cushions, fisting the fabric as Jim's hand stroked his shaft, his breath coming in irregular gasps as strong fingers teased the sensitive head of his penis.

Jim could feel the pulse of blood and semen build in the hard shaft, and slid to his knees on the floor so that he could take the cock in his mouth. He heard the sharp intake of Blair's breath, just before his throat was filled with the warm essence of Blair's seed. His lover's cry of completion filled his ears and warmed his soul.

Moving slowly back onto the couch, Jim peppered the exposed chest and belly of his guide with feather-light kisses. He stroked the sweat dampened hair from Blair's face and bent to whisper in his ear. "How about we take this upstairs to finish?"

He got his answer with a sudden snort, followed by a raspy snore. Sitting back, Jim smiled down at his guide. Exhausted by the day's events and his momentous orgasm, Blair had fallen asleep on the couch, exposed and naked from neck to crotch. Jim pulled the blanket from the back of the cushions and covered his lover, then sat back with a contented sigh to watch Blair sleep.

+++++

Late that afternoon, the telephone rang. Blair emerged from his bedroom, where he'd been changing clothes. "I can get it," he called to Jim, who was resting in the loft bedroom. "Hello? Blair Sandburg speaking."

"Blair! It's good to hear your voice. Sid Graham here," the publisher said. "I heard the news about Jim's press conference and I've just gotten out of a meeting with a number of very important people. We've decided that we want to make you a very lucrative offer."

"Not interested," Blair said, getting ready to hang up the phone.

"No! Wait! Please listen," Sid pleaded. "I promise... this time nothing will happen without your express approval first."

"All right," said Blair, sitting down. "I'm listening."

"We want to publish your thesis as a novel. It's guaranteed to hit the New York Times Best Seller list its first week," Sid enthused.

"Look, Mr. Graham," Blair said with as much patience as he could muster. "My paper was a scientific treatise on Sentinels. It would bore the average person to sleep in the first two paragraphs. It would take a monumental rewrite -- no," Blair said, second guessing himself, "it can't be rewritten into a novel. I'm sorry."

"Then how about a novelization of your experiences with Detective Ellison?" Sid continued, unwilling to give up his bone. "You could write the next best seller! I even have a movie deal lined up. I'm willing to offer you fifty thousand up front to write this book. Think of what that could mean to you and your studies!"

"That's a lot of money," Blair agreed. "But I don't know.... The last time my dissertation was leaked, it caused a lot of trouble. Even though Jim is 'out' now as a Sentinel, he's still a pretty private guy. I don't think he'd like me writing about us."

"Talk to him," Sid pleaded. "You can change all the names; it's a novel after all! Tell him about the advance. There's a lot more where that came from. You'll be rich!"

"There's more to being rich than just having money," Blair said. "I'm rich right now, in ways you'll never understand."

"Think about it," Sid insisted. "And call me back."

"I promise, I'll give it all the thought it deserves," said Blair. "'Bye, Sid." He hung up the phone, feeling exhausted all over again.

Jim came padding barefoot down the stairs. "What was that all about?" he asked.

"Sid Graham is after me to write about our experiences together as a novel," Blair explained. "He says he's willing to give me a fifty thousand dollar advance on the sales, and he wants to write movie rights into the contract."

"A month ago, I would have been pissed as hell about that," Jim said with a rueful grin.

"You were pissed as hell," Blair reminded him. "You thought I'd betrayed you."

"I wasn't thinking straight, Chief. Things are different now."

"I'll say they are." Blair snickered. "If Sid only knew, huh?"

"Don't kiss and tell," Jim said with a grin. "But what I meant was... my situation has changed. Since the world now knows I'm a Sentinel, it doesn't matter anymore what you publish. Go for it, Professor. You earned it."

"Are you sure, Jim?" Blair looked skeptical. "I'd be writing a novel about the past four years of our lives. It could get pretty personal."

"Let me read it first," Jim suggested, "like you promised to do with your dissertation."

"You'd trust me to do that? My paper slipped out without your approval the first time."

Jim stepped up and sandwiched Blair's face between his palms, then leaned in to press a chaste kiss against the parted lips. "Last time was a whole different set of circumstances," he said. "And our relationship has changed since then, too. Yes, I trust you. Always."

"I'll make sure to password protect the book this time," Blair promised, "so that Mom won't be able to take a look without my approval."

"Sounds like a plan," Jim said with a chuckle, patting Blair's cheek before turning to walk away.

+++++

Blair adjusted his tie for the fifth time as he nervously prepared to leave the apartment to formally accept his degree.

"What are you going to all that trouble for?" Jim asked, coming downstairs dressed to the nines in a charcoal pinstripe suit. "You're going to be wearing a cap and gown for the ceremony, aren't you?"

"Yeah, but there's a reception afterward," Blair said. "The university president is going to be there, as well as the department heads and Chancellor Edwards."

"You've already impressed them," Jim reminded him. "This is just the icing on the cake."

"Too bad Naomi couldn't make it." Blair sighed, still fiddling with his tie. "Not that I expected her to. She was really happy for me, though, and said she'd come out for a visit as soon as she'd completed her Third Degree Reiki Master's training."

"And when will that be?" Jim asked, an amused smirk curving the corners of his mouth.

"Sometime next month, most likely." Finally satisfied with his appearance, Blair turned toward the door. "I guess we'd better get going."

+++++

"Blair Sandburg."

Blair walked across the stage as his name was called, accepting the diploma from President Holloway with a handshake. He proceeded to the podium and cleared his throat.

"Today is a great day. Today is the culmination of a dream and of many years of hard work," Blair began. "But it wouldn't have been possible without the cooperation and support of my partner, Jim Ellison, Cascade's own tribal Sentinel." He paused as the crowd, many of whom were from the police department and Major Crime, erupted into applause. "Detective Ellison allowed me into his life and his home, putting up with a number of inconveniences as I tested and charted his abilities. If not for him, I would not be here today. Thank you, Jim, for this and for... everything."

Jim acknowledged the compliment with a loud whistle and a whoop of victory. Rising to his feet, he led the thunderous applause as Blair stepped down from the stage to be greeted by Chancellor Edwards and the department heads of Rainier University, welcoming the newest member into their ranks.

Later, at the reception, Jim stayed very close to his guide as people came over to congratulate Blair on his success. They were standing beside the table with the punch bowl when Simon and Chief Warren approached.

"Congratulations, Dr. Sandburg," the police chief said, shaking hands with Blair.

"Thank you, sir."

"So, do you have any plans, now that you've achieved your degree?" Warren asked.

Blair shrugged. "Not much is going to change. I'm still going to be working with Jim."

"Well, how would you like to make that official?"

"Sir?" Blair looked at Chief Warren quizzically.

"I've gotten approval to hire you on as a consultant to the department," the police chief said. "You'll be attached to the Major Crime Unit as Detective Ellison's permanent partner, but you'll be on call to any of the other units, should they need your expertise. How does that sound?"

"Would I have to carry a gun?"

"Not unless you pass the firearms training!" Simon said in no uncertain terms. The four men chuckled.

"You haven't carried a gun for the past four years," Jim pointed out, "and you've still been a lethal force to deal with."

"I am pretty good at thinking on my feet," Blair agreed with a grin.

"It's settled, then? You'll accept?" Warren asked.

Blair nodded. "God, yes. This is a dream come true!" He reached out to pat Jim's shoulder and grin. "Partner."

+++++

Jim wrapped himself around Blair with a contented sigh. Their lovemaking that night had been slow and tender, the culmination of all they felt for each other. Now, Blair snored softly, exhaustion from the day claiming his body. Jim took a deep breath, cataloging the scents of his lover: herbal shampoo, musk, sweat, the remains of their orgasms mingled together; and he thought how very lucky he was to still have this magnificent man in his life. His thoughts drifted back to that one chaotic night shift less than two years ago and to the words of a self-proclaimed angel.

"Thanks, Gabe," he said softly, "for teaching me to listen to the whispers of my heart."

THE END

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Acknowledgements: Many thanks to my peerless betas -- Mary, Bobbie, and "B" -- for their unstinting help and support. Thank you to Marianne for the cover art and to Patt for the ending art.