Off Limits by akablonded

Off Limits - akablonded

Throughout Detective Jim Ellison’s life, the words “off limits” held a special place of importance, although their meaning changed with time, age, and inclination.

As a child, the phrase brought feelings of dread. Dictates from his no-nonsense father, William Ellison, made them flash like a neon sign over one of the lesser circles of hell.

”Anything your mother left behind is off limits, Jimmy.”

“My life outside this house is off limits to you and your brother, boy.”

“The Cobra’s off limits, young man. End of discussion.”

As a member of the U.S. Army, the words brought with them a crystal clarity that only black and white military situations can.

“Town is off-limits, soldier.”

“The Sergeant Major’s wife is off-limits, lieutenant.”

“That section of the Pass is definitely off-limits, captain.”

And, now, there was a substantial laundry list of do’s and don’t’s associated with being one of Cascade’s finest.

“Don’t leave your backup 38 in an unlocked desk drawer, officer.”

”Don’t get the feds up-in-arms, detective.”

“Don’t take the pineapple Danish, Ellison. It’s for the Captain.”

Gold shield detective Jim Ellison was a great believer in cause and effect. Mostly, a man needed to adhere to his personal convictions by following certain rules and whatever passed for a moral code of conduct. You did that, the sun rose and set, the world continued spinning on its axis, and the Jags would have a fighting chance at a winning season.

Now, near the beginning of his fourth decade, there was only one area in Jim Ellison’s life still brandished an “off limits” warning in letters big enough to dwarf the famous “Hollywood” sign. That one was for anthropologist Blair Jacob Sandburg – scholar, teaching assistant, along with being Jim Ellison’s unofficial police observer and official roommate. (A one-week emergency sleepover had become more or less permanent, somewhere around Month 16.)

Blair Sandburg was the object of every waking thought that crossed the big detective’s mind – and some that danced their way through nighttime dreams and, more alarmingly, unbidden fantasies.

Sandburg’s relationship with Jim was convoluted, to say the least, like everything in his regularly chaotic life. It had to do with the “why” of their being together. For Blair, Jim Ellison was the “real deal” -- a living, breathing Sentinel (as the anthropologist practically gushed the first time they met). Sandburg went on to practically rhapsodize using the words of Sir Richard Burton, the 19th Century explorer – not the actor: in all tribal cultures every village had what Burton named Sentinel, a watchman who patrolled the border, looking for approaching enemies, change in the weather, movement of game. Tribe survival depended on it. A Sentinel was chosen because of a genetic advantage -- a sensory awareness that could be developed beyond normal humans. The senses were honed by solitary time spent in the wild. In this day and age, there were certain manifestations of maybe one or two hyperactive senses, like taste and smell, people who work for coffee and perfume companies. Even in Vietnam, the Army long-range recon units changed their diet to fish and rice because a Cong scout could smell a Westerner by his waste.

In his years of study, Blair Sandburg had amassed hundreds and hundreds of documented cases of one or two hyperactive senses but not one single subject with all five.

Then Blair stumbled across Jim Ellison. And the former Army Ranger/now Major Crime detective had been big winner in the “How Many Senses Are Heightened?” Sweepstakes. All five – taste, touch, sights, smell, hearing – were off the charts. Blair Sandburg was awed, amazed and frankly astonished at the serendipity of their meeting. And lucky freaking Jim Ellison? In layman’s terms, he could see a parking spot open up in front of Java Joes from six blocks away and the steam rising off the coffee, smell the powdered sugar on the donuts, and taste it floating through the air while still in his truck. What’s more, Ellison could close his eyes and feel the size and shape of the person who’d sat in a booth before him. (It had been a guy who could stand to pass on the jelly-filleds and knock off a few pounds.)

Not only that, when the edge of the counterperson’s fingertips grazed his, Jim knew that they’d just been rasped with an emery board - hopefully, nowhere near the food.

Of course, ‘Joan’s’ weren’t the ones Jim Ellison secretly craved. If they’d been strong, square nails, clawing at his back, belonging to the guy in the spare room …

It was a thorny problem, no matter which way you looked at it. Blair Sandburg was a godsend who helped Ellison manage the senses, which Jim considered both a gift and a curse. Much like Sandburg himself.

At first, Ellison’s feelings for the young man were clean, brotherly, and non-sexual. Jim could swear to that. But somewhere along the line, they had changed course and vectored off into uncharted waters. It might have happened after Blair moved into the loft. Or, maybe it was the first time Jim Ellison saw Sandburg sitting cross-legged in lotus position on the loft sofa. In ratty tee-shirt and even rattier boxers, with the ever-present “little professor” glasses sliding down his short nose. As he marked student blue books, Blair was an eye-opener – and heart stopper. Talking to himself, furiously scribbling notes in the margin, Sandburg seemed totally oblivious to Jim Ellison’s keen, almost feline study and naked appreciation of him. (Jim would really have appreciated his partner being naked, but he took what he could get.)

Who knew when it began? No matter the day or hour, Jim’s feelings had morphed into the forbidden, the delicious, and the totally unacceptable -- like trying to open up your life jacket with a knife, only not so smart.

Jim Ellison had to stop this. Loving Sandburg in the darkest recesses of his soul was permissible. Anything else was not. So, of all the commandments Ellison permanently carried within him, the first and foremost was “Thou shalt not touch the Guide.”

Blair Sandburg was the ultimate “off limits.”

***

From the beginning, Jim and Blair were unofficial Cascade Police Department partners. It was the only way Sandburg could ride along and help “guide” Sentinel Jim Ellison keep those pesky senses in check.

Surprisingly, Blair and Jim became good friends -- hell, best friends – overshadowing their researcher/subject connection and Sandburg’s being resident thorn in the Sentinel’s side. The disparities in life styles, life stations, and life lessons didn't seem to matter. Jim Ellison's "keep out" defenses were plainly ineffective where Blair Sandburg was concerned. Somehow, the all-eyes-and-elbows grad student snuck under them with a New Age, neo-hippie, witchdoctor punk legerdemain Harry Houdini might envy. Jim Ellison could only shake his finely chiseled, hair-challenged head in disbelief at how it had all happened. So, if colleagues of both men were shocked as the two worked together, roomed together, and spent most of their un-police-related time together, they were no more so than the big, gruff detective.

Blair Sandburg didn't waste time on the minutiae of “what if” and “who’d have thought?” He'd found his 'Holy Grail" – a fully mature Sentinel. It was a sometimes debatable choice of adjectives particularly when said Sentinel was being a royal pain in the ass). But, to Sandburg's way of thinking, he was “in like Flint” and never letting go, at least without a fight where his thesis subject and friend was concerned. Which suited Jim Ellison to a “T.”

Yet, the oddest thing about their relationship was that Blair Sandburg, so remarkably perceptive about everything Ellison, seemed totally oblivious of Jim’s feelings for him. Sure, Blair knew his partner looked out for him, made sure he had a cell phone that worked, a car that ran, a ride when it didn’t, full belly, and a warm, dry place to sleep. In essence, Blair was some shaggy, friendly mutt with an A.B.D.* who could drive.

It went without saying that when dangerous things cropped up, Jim Ellison cranked up his Blessed Protector duties to the stratosphere -- all to keep the affable Blair Jacob Sandburg in one piece.

In one straighter-than-straight “you are woman, I am man” piece.

If Jim wanted something more, that was the major stumbling block: Blair Sandburg was thoroughly and enthusiastically heterosexual. It was amply evidenced by almost everything in the young man’s life, including his repertoire of jokes and rejoinders.

"I'm a trisexual – I'll try anything!"

The more au courant, "Meta-sexual? I never met anything sexual I didn't like!"

On more than one occasion, Ellison was tempted to ask if Blair might actually be bisexual. But knowing Sandburg as he did, he was sure the smart-aleck response would be something like, "Bisexual? Nah, man, I'd never buy it!"

So, Jim Ellison dismissed the thoughts, kept his head low, and tried to avoid the minefields presented by having Blair Sandburg working at the desk across from him and sleeping in the little bedroom below his.

Still, as the days and months passed, and Jim's genuine fondness for and growing attraction to the other man began to ache like a bad tooth, Cascade’s Cop-of-the-Year three years running worried about where it would all lead.

Or end. What would be the final straw? One more broken bone? One more gun shot? One more close call with a psychotic maniac? One more instance of Jim’s seeming ingratitude or callousness?

Or would it be an unwanted slip, an unguarded moment, or a thoughtless confession where personal limits were breeched and desires confessed?

Would that be the final "something" to send Blair Sandburg forever out of Jim Ellison’s “Dirty Harry” cop world?

God, the thought of it twisted in the big detective’s gut like a Chinese Triad’s triangular knife. The worst of it all would be the aloneness -- creeping, stultifying, and hopeless. Jim couldn’t take that chance.

Muttering two words to himself -- “off limits” -- Ellison would just … not.

***

Over the years, Jim had learned how to take care of his ‘needs.’ It wasn’t all that difficult. In the military, there were always interested parties. Captain James Ellison possessed natural advantages. In the plus column: heads and shoulders above average-looking, as people of both sexes had often told him. (The hair issue was a small tick on the negative side, but no one in the military had any.) Special Forces military training coupled with some damned impressive DNA had served him well. His warrior’s body was spectacular.

Ellison’s forays to same sex liaisons were discreet and circumspect. They happened when they happened, and then they were over. No blood, no foul, no record, no recrimination.

The Police department was slightly different, in that the people you met didn’t move in and out of your life nearly so often, unless they transferred to a different department or precinct. And after his short-lived marriage (which mercifully ended in divorce), to Technical Support Division’s Carolyn Plummer, Jim Ellison might have taken a run at the young, attractive, unattached "potentials." But with Sandburg in Ellison’s life, it seemed somehow faithless to do that -- as though Jim would be betraying his one, true love, even if the one, true love were oblivious to it all. Because in another time and place, Blair Sandburg would be “the one.”

Jim Ellison’s “real deal.” But not here and now. Proximity and the “Sentinel” business notwithstanding, why would someone as extraordinary as Blair Sandburg choose a slightly-the-worse-for-wear, never-to-see-the-upside-of-thirty-again cop like Jim? Blair Sandburg, whose social calendar was always filled and whose dance card was never empty? Blair Sandburg, who seemed to know virtually everyone and be recognized everywhere in Cascade: at St. Philip's Mission in the red light district; the tea shop in Chinatown; the newsstand at 5th and Chew where you could buy papers from around the world, even at the petting zoo at Cascade Farms. Ellison wondered if it wasn't the pretty volunteer in the baby animal nursery Blair went to visit. He found out later it was actually a set of twin female lambs that relished the treats Sandburg brought them. Blair Sandburg, it seemed, was loved by one and all, even those outside his own species.

No matter which way Jim Ellison turned, someone was after Sandburg – Sandburg the teacher; Sandburg, the colleague; Sandburg, the friend, and, for a lucky few, Sandburg, the love interest.

There was no respite from being caught in the Sandburg Zone. It was relentless and exhausting. If it wasn't dozens of calls like, "Hi, Blair, can you take over my 12:00 lecture for me?" and "Hey, Sandburg, did you think any more about going to that day seminar?" and "Hello, Mr. Sandburg? I hear you’re doing tutoring again this semester …” then it was, "Hi. Does Blair Sandburg's live here? If so, this is Miriam Thomas, and we met a couple of weeks ago ..."

Day in and day out, everyone wanted to take a bite out of the Sandburg apple. And why not? It was ripe for the plucking.

Ellison felt like a majority of one: the only person who didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of landing the shining boy. That very first day -- in Sandburg’s broom closet of an office -- the phrase surfaced from Jim’s subconscious. It was an old poem his mom used to recite:

"With playmates like himself,
The shining boy will sing,
Exploring wondrous woods,
Sweet with eternal spring."**

When Sandburg was a hundred, “the kid” would still be blessed with eternal spring.

If Ellison didn't fuck it up. If he didn’t drive his roommate away.

It was the most exquisite of tortures, always to want Blair, to crave him like a drink of water in the desert or a breath of air in a vacuum, but at the same time to keep him at arm’s length.

Loving Blair Sandburg was the pain the ass to end all pains in the asses. There were the mundane things that could -- and did -- infuriate anal-retentive, neat-freak Jim Ellison: papers and bluebooks littering every corner of the loft … algae shakes smelling like they belonged on the bottom of your shoe … and ritual death masks strewn around, barring the way to the head in the middle of the night. There were interrupted conversations, altered plans, and truckloads of un-obeyed orders, which usually ended with one or both of them sporting contusions or oozing wounds.

Then there was Blair Sandburg’s unorthodox thinking process, a weird kind of outside-the-box creativity that would have brought the younger man up on charges in most organizations, hell, even the Boy Scouts of America. Its saving grace was that it seemed to pull Jim’s bacon out of the fire on more than one occasion.

On the plus side of loving Blair “for real,” there would be Sandburg’s eyes glistening “that way” only for Jim Ellison, hearing Sandburg’s breath catch in the anticipation of touching and being touched, watching Sandburg’s emotions ratchet up exponentially as hormones pounded through his body, seeing Sandburg’s naked body stretched across Jim’s bed. Their bed. Sweat running every which way, down the hairy chest and sturdy torso, to what was probably a beautiful piece of real estate: Sandburg’s cut dick in all its glory. Icing on the cake.

And the "cake?" Just about everything else … Sandburg’s unflagging wit, his unbridled enthusiasm, the formidable intelligence, his gentle strength, and ever-present "rachmunis," a Jewish term Jim had learned, meaning empathy for fellow human beings.

All of these, Sandburg had in spades. Or hearts, because Blair Sandburg's heart could barely be contained in that compact body of his.

Jim sometimes contemplated what life would be like with Blair Sandburg as his better half. No, that wasn't the right description. Maybe another Jewish term nailed it – Jim’s “beshert,” literally, a match made in heaven.

To have someone like Blair Sandburg love you, and only you, to be there every morning, noon and night -- it would have to be a gift from God. Nothing could be better.

But what if … was the singer, Meatloaf, right? What if Blair would do anything for love, just not that? Where would that leave Jim Ellison? With neither love nor friendship. Both would disappear in his ex-partner’s dust as Sandburg ran out of the loft and vaulted onto the first plane/train/expedition he could sign up for.

It was too horrible, too possible to consider. So, with a heavy heart, Jim Ellison relegated dreams of “them” to erotic ones, accompanied by solitary, late-night relief.

And life moved forward, as it always had a way of doing. For his part, Detective Jim Ellison worked hard and worked out harder. He dated just enough. Blair Sandburg, on the other hand, dated anybody who struck his fancy. Still, no matter how good the pairing or how much fun he had, the young anthropologist slept at home in his room, more often than not. It was a fact that gave Jim some small satisfaction, if not comfort.

But, a few months into Blair Sandburg’s second year with Jim, the status quo was challenged. Like most life-altering things that happen, it started innocently enough. Maybe there were too many pieces that didn’t fit. Or, maybe it was that they fit together a little too neatly. Who knew? Certainly not Jim Ellison. Knowing about Sandburg's exploits in the abstract was one thing. Seeing them up close and personal was a horse of a different color. (Stud might have been a more appropriate choice of words.)

The morning it all began started with Sandburg, bagel in mouth, travel mug in hand, tossing a hasty schedule over his shoulder as he left for Rainier. He rattled off the agenda: office hours, late class, followed by a mandatory faculty meeting. It culminated in the familiar admonition to Jim. “It’s Friday, man! Rituals! Rites of passage!” Loose translation of the Sandburg-speak: The kid was probably going to score some major points with whichever sweet young college thing was earning his attention this week. Knowing Blair’s modus operandi as well as he did, it meant Sandburg might be making other sleeping arrangements for the evening/weekend. So, Jim Ellison had made a last-minute decision accepting an invitation from Brian Rafe and Henry Brown, two other gold shield partners, for an after-work drink. Rafe wanted to check out all the hoopla surrounding GLACIER, the latest in a never-ending string of glossy upscale watering holes. Usually, Ellison would have begged off, but he saw no reason to go back to an empty loft and eat leftovers alone.

As Henri Brown maneuvered his new RAV 4 into the last available parking lot space and Rafe checked his GQ self out one last time in the vanity mirror, Jim Ellison felt something niggling at him, something familiar reaching out toward his sentinel senses. It was merely a hint, a whisper of a sensation, both comforting and arousing. It translated to his partner’s presence nearby. No doubt about it. Jim Ellison felt confused. The aforementioned Blair Sandburg was supposed to be miles away, sitting on an uncomfortable straight-backed chair in an even more uncomfortable conference room.

But, fate and the vagaries of life had apparently relocated the anthropologist to the other side of the dance floor at GLACIER. The three men entered the bar area of the chi-chi club. Jim Ellison’s eyes had no difficulty in zeroing in on his errant roommate. The toss of that mane – a fluid bronze catching both the eye and the soul with its magnificence – was unmistakable, the auburn hair sparkling as it did and turning into the old gold of Renaissance masterpieces. Even in the inky blue-black surroundings, it was as bright and beckoning as a lighthouse beacon – at least to a Sentinel in love.

At the same time, something else caught Jim’s gaze: the hand of a stranger -- or at least someone he didn't know -- resting on Blair's thigh. It was like a flare at the scene of an accident, or a crime waiting to happen.

Henry Brown's sentence beginning with "Hey, Jim, isn't that --" was left hanging, cartoon-like, as Ellison cut a swath through the crowd of shoulder-to-shoulder, von Furstenberg and Cavalli-wearing urban professionals. Approaching the unaware twosome Jim slowed his pace somewhat when he recognized at least six other university types milling around. They were all having drinks and enjoying several plates of what smelled like vegetarian appetizers. (Barbequed seitan had a peculiar odor, as did tofu anything.) Even as Jim eyed the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, he began etching every detail of the mystery man’s face into his mind for future reference.

Almost immediately, Jim Ellison recognized the woman on the other side of Blair. It was Christie Philips, one of the secretaries in the Anthropology Department. The detective had visited the offices to pick Sandburg up at least a half-dozen times, and, in Christie’s conversation and manner, she’d made no bones about her attraction to his partner. (”You’re so lucky to have someone so …effervescent …as Blair living with you.” The devil in Jim Ellison busted Sandburg’s ‘effervescent’ chops about that for days). Even now, a hungry look washed over her pert face as she stole a handful of glances at his partner. Jim could read it like a dime-store novel and recognized it for what it was: if Blair offered, Christie would never say “no.”

Well, Ms. Phillips would have a good, long wait. Using tact and common sense, and as nicely as possible, Sandburg had tried to douse whatever torch the hungry young woman was carrying. (“She’s nice and all, Jim, but definitely off limits. I make it a policy never to shit uh, ‘date’ where I eat. Besides, if it didn’t work out, having the Department secretary pissed at you would be like one of the seven circles of hell.”)

As for “Mr. X,” well, Jim would have to scope out the lay of the land.

“Detective! “Small world, huh?”

“Getting smaller by the minute, Christie.”

“Did Blair know you were joining us?” The flushed young face threw a lethal smile in Jim’s direction. She was damned pretty, Ellison had to admit, and would be more than willing, under the right circumstances -- if he were Sandburg, that is.

"Hey, man! What are you doing here?" A tipsy and clearly delighted Blair Sandburg turned around and tried to slap Jim playfully on the forearm. He missed.

"Careful there, Chief. I could ask you the same thing. This place the new Rainier annex?"

Sandburg chuckled, as he fondly patted his partner’s rock-solid chest. "We all decided to blow off a little steam and –"

"-- celebrate." A voice from behind the anthropologist chimed in. It belonged to the tall, thin, well-dressed thigh-patter, whose expensive gray suit matched his expensively-cut gray hair.

Jim Ellison stiffened, at the timbre, the cadence … the sheer balls.

"What’s Sandburg celebrating, Mr. … "

"Gelbart. Doctor Tom Gelbart." The emphasis on the “Doctor” made the hairs on the back of Jim’s neck stand up. Ellison extended his hand, even as he rested a proprietary palm on his partner’s shoulder.

“Jim. Detective Jim Ellison. I’m Blair’s …”

“Roommate. Yes. He’s told me.” Tom Gelbart accepted Jim’s hand. “Young Mr. Sandburg has been regaling us with stories about your exploits together.” The alpha male in Ellison noted the strong grip, and how it instinctively made him ratchet up his response. He squeezed back – hard – and took a certain amount of satisfaction watching a flinch of pain skate across the other man’s face.

“Lucky you.” Jim didn’t miss the other man flexing his hand slightly, trying to get some of the blood flow back.

Blair beamed at both men, oblivious to the little posturing drama that had just occurred.

“You can’t be here alone, man. Who else is prowling around?”

“Rafe and Brown …”

“Oh, man, bring ‘em over. Hey, guys!” Blair waved enthusiastically at the two detectives on the other side of the extraordinarily long bar. “I want them to meet my posse.”

The concept of Blair’s academic cohorts being called that made Jim Ellison laugh out loud.

“Your ‘posse,’ Chief? I hate to tell you. But. You. Are. Flagged. Buddy.”

"Nah, I’m good, big guy.” Sandburg grabbed his South Beach Punch.*** “This is a ‘flyweight.’ It only has one shot of rum in it.’” He noisily slurped up a mouthful of ice and began chewing energetically. “Oh, hey, Jim. Did I tell you? Tom’s the visiting professor of anthropology from Northwestern."

“University?”

“No, Airlines.” Blair Sandburg joked. “They’re letting him give lectures instead of passing out mid-flight snacks.”

Everyone laughed, fueled by good spirits. Some chortled louder than others, depending on how much alcohol was stoking their perceptions. Christie Philips’ woman of mystery aura was somewhat dimmed as she wobbled on her leather perch. Only a frantic scramble to hold onto Tim Winston sitting next to her prevented a pratfall onto the polished hardwood floor.

For a few seconds, Ellison eyed Blair Sandburg. Sniffing his roommate surreptitiously, he judged the young anthropologist well on his way to be happily anesthetized. Sandburg was dewy-eyed, touchy-feely (to use the kid’s own adjectives), verbal at warp speed, and damned funny, probably the result of at least three ‘flyweights.’ The sugar alone would have given Jim’s partner enough of a buzz to entertain everyone in the bar.

“Very funny, Chief.”

“I’m a very funny guy.”

“And one who’s just been given the chance of a lifetime, Detective Ellison.” Tom Gelbart added, as he waved to get the female bartender’s attention. Even in the practically non-existent light, Jim could see that she had multiple piercings, including both nipples, easily spotted through the tight tee-shirt. He kept that little factoid to himself.

“Oh, how’s that?” Jim couldn’t help but notice Gelbart’s eyes coming back to his roommate’s animated face.

“I’ve offered Blair a position on an upcoming research trip to India.”

Jim could only wonder about the position Dr. Gelbart was contemplating. Somewhere in a section of Ellison’s brain, he was remembering how to dispose of a body so that no one would ever find it.

Maybe it was just jealousy spurring him on – Jim-the-Sentinel suspicious of anyone who could conceivably tempt his Guide away from Cascade. And him.

Jim-the-Man was rattled by gut-wrenching fear. If Tom Gelbart had his druthers, Blair Sandburg might not be smiling at his roommate from across the breakfast table or PD desk. (Grimly, Jim remembered when Sandburg’s mentor, Eli Stoddard, had offered his protégé a chance to spend a year in Borneo. It had almost ripped Ellison’s heart out. But, incredibly, Blair declined and decided to stay with his Sentinel. “It’s about friendship. I just didn’t get it before.”)

“Sounds … interesting.” The detective lied.

“It is, Jim! Tom’s going to study caste organization and social change in Uttar Pradesh. He and I are going to talk about it more at dinner Monday night.”

“And much, much more.” The not-so-good doctor added, popping a piece of bruschetta into his mouth.

Jim Ellison decided that he didn’t like Gelbart and the smug look on his face.

“Northern India, huh? Interesting.”

“Why, yes, Detective. I’m surprised that you –“

“Don’t let the good looks fool you, Tom.” Blair chimed in, as he scarfed up humus on a taro chip. “Jim’s just about one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet.”

“High praise coming from you, my boy.”

Jim looked at his friend, with pride and satisfaction in the remark. He pressed himself into Sandburg’s back as he reached into a large bowl of pino nuts. “So, how long would the study last, Chief? Should I be looking to rent out your room?”

“I haven’t agreed to anything yet, Jim.” Suddenly, Blair’s voice sounded younger, unsure of itself. The blue eyes looked different, too -- as though they were searching for … something. “There are a lot of … things to consider before I … you know …”

Jim was distracted by Rafe and Brown’s good-natured, boisterous arrival, the shouted introductions, ordering of additional drinks -- and one of his senses being thrown into overdrive. Amid the chatter, the overlay of dozens of conversations and the surprisingly good music coming from a jazz trio across the room, waves of pheromones inundated the Sentinel’s super-sensitive nose. (In places like this, everyone leaked those little chemical devils in the never-ending quest to attract Mr./Ms. Right. Or Mr./Ms. Right-for-Now. Dripping them like carnal honey.)

Like kayaks on rapids, a fair number were wafting through the air in Ellison’s direction. Jim wasn’t so self-effacing not to know that he always attracted his fair share of interest in places like this … women who had a he-man, macho fantasy … and men who had a taste for the big, strong, and seemingly dominant. One set – with an extremely familiar “high note” -- made his aroused body quiver in response. They were Blair’s. And he hadn’t smelled them before, until they’d touched.

Jesus H. Christ on a cross.

Was it remotely possible? Did his Guide truly have major league hots for him?

Had the situation had gone from fantasy to somewhere in the neighborhood of scary reality? Doing the horizontal mambo, knocking boots, locking lips and demolishing the final barriers between them? Might they end up together, as in “together?”

Wouldn't that be freaking dandy?

Smoke signals from his partner. Sandburg was apparently interested.

Jim Ellison would bet his life on it. And not in a “You’re my thesis. I want to write about you” non-sexual, totally platonic way. Blair Sandburg – well, Blair’s body, at least — clearly toyed with the notion of extremely close-order drill time with his roommate.

Normally, Jim Ellison wouldn’t quibble with the “what,” except, the kick in the head was Sandburg’s total unawareness of what was going on. Sure, the kid probably had a hitch in the front of those soft, thread-bare jeans, now tight across the crotch – and an undeniable itch that needed to be scratched. The sensible part of the Sandburgian mind would register it as “Terri” from Rainier or the nearby stranger with a tattoo peaking out from skin-tight leather pants. (The Black widow smile was both threatening and promising. It was like catnip to someone like Sandburg, who seemed to favor rides on roller coasters instead of merry-go-rounds.) It wouldn’t – couldn’t be tied into feelings for his partner.

Could it?

If Jim Ellison were coming to these conclusions as a detective, there might have been some small margin for error. But as a Sentinel, well, Jim Ellison's body knew.

Ellison shook his patrician head, hearing the little voice inside scream, "Danger, Will Robinson! Off limits!" even as Blair was spirited out to the dance floor by some beautiful young woman. Dozens of clearly adoring acolytes tracked Sandburg’s every movement, the renowned Dr. Thomas Gelbart among them.

And that included one 6’1”, 200 lb. Sentinel.

Jim sipped a little of Sandburg’s South Beach Punch, savoring the rum-flavored concoction, mixed as it was with a hint of Blair Jacob Sandburg.

Life really was a bitch. Especially when you wanted to be one for your oblivious partner.

***

As it turned out, Saturday wasn’t as bad as Jim Ellison thought it was going to be. Or as lonely. Blair Sandburg arose – albeit late – his almost chipper self. The two men had come home together sometime after one. Blair accepted a ride back to the loft with Jim, rather than leaving his transportation arrangements to “the kindness of strangers.” (The “Streetcar Named Desire” Blanche DuBois impression was slightly disturbing, but nonetheless funny.) Blair, in fine fettle, had serenaded him all the way back to the loft, singing a slightly off-key, but thoroughly enjoyable rendition of “No Balls At All.” (Sandburg was a wealth of arcane knowledge including a handful of drinking shanties he’d learned when he and his mother, Naomi, spent a gypsy summer in Cavan, Ireland during the mid ‘70s.)

When Jim was getting ready for his run the following morning, he met Sandburg as he left the bathroom. Blair seemed none the worse for wear. The only thing Ellison could detect was a certain roughness in his roommate’s mumbled “Morning.” Sandburg’s usually rich baritone was a few notches lower than usual. It was the way Jim imagined Amaretto would sound poured over gravel.

Amaretto over gravel? Christ. Could Ellison be any more transparent – and pathetic? (Sure, he could start drawing little hearts with “JE” and “BS” in them. Or better yet, pee their initials in the snow.)

A groan escaped Jim’s lips at his colossal foolishness, as he reached for the big mixing bowl on the other side of the kitchen island to start preparing breakfast.

“Jesus, James. What the hell’s wrong?” A still-sleepy Sandburg asked as he padded barefoot into the kitchen. “The last time I heard a sound like that, it cost me $900 bucks for a new transmission.”

“Nothing’s wrong.” Ellison lied, starting batter for the banana nut pancakes Blair loved so much. “I’m just getting older, Sandburg. You know, the body’s being held together by duct tape and sheer will power.”

“No way, man. You’re not getting older. You ARE old.” Sandburg picked up his “TEACHERS DO IT WITH CLASS” mug and proceeded to swallow two-thirds of the Nicaraguan Dark Roast. (The beans had been a gift from Simon Banks, whose cousin owned a gourmet coffee shop. The Captain swore it all tasted like Maxell House to him.) “Do I have enough time for a shower before the chow’s ready?”

“If you get your keester into gear, yeah.”

“’kay.” Sandburg headed back toward the bathroom, but not before Jim Ellison smartly snapped the younger man’s ass with a damp dish towel.

“Hey, man, watch the merchandise.” Blair jumped out of the way before a second swat could find its target.

Like a good Sentinel, Jim Ellison obeyed his Guide’s orders. He stared at the fabulous rump encased in ancient boxers, until it and its owner closed the bathroom door, leaving Jim alone with his thoughts and his batter.

***

After a big breakfast, the two men settled into a nuts-and-bolts kind of weekend, with Blair Sandburg grading stacks of student papers and Jim Ellison tackling a big project he’d been putting off: replacing the actual kitchen sink and faucets.

“That drip’s going to be history come Sunday night.”

“Jim, I’m begging you. You HAVE to get a life, man. You’re way too intense about all things chrome.”

“You have to go with what you know, Chief.”

“Man, that’s … deep. Maybe I should change my diss to study men and their relationship with tools.”

“Speaking of tools …” Jim looked at his roommate whose long hair inexplicably was sticking out at right angles, “what’s with the hair, Sandburg? Thinking of transferring to Bozo Clown College?”

Blair caught his reflection in the highly-polished surface of the coffee table. He smiled, knowing that the hand of Jim Ellison of the “Pledge Patrol,” had been hard at work earlier that morning. “Man, I know. It’s ruthless, what with the humidity.” Sandburg tried patting the wild mane down, coaxing it into a more manageable lay. Success was fairly limited. “It has a life of its own.”

All Ellison could think of, as he rearranged pliers, screwdrivers, and a half-dozen wrenches, was what that glorious mass of hair would look like spilling this way and that over the yellow pillowcases upstairs. Jim shook the picture from his head, while he tried to “will” away an erection rubbing against the Easy-Glide on his jeans.

***

The morning passed quickly and pleasantly, what with the physical labor Jim Ellison so enjoyed, the sounds of Sandburg’s pen scribbling notes on the bluebooks and Santana playing in the background both acting as his own personal white noise generators.

A little after noon, Blair ordered pizza from Longitano’s, which was delivered quickly. (The Ellison-Sandburg household was on the “A” customer list for the pizzeria. Not only did the two men tip well, but it never hurt a small business to have a Cascade detective and his partner right around the corner.)

Jim answered the door, took the pie from Jimmy Longitano, and shot the breeze for a few minutes before giving the kid a nice contribution to his college fund. Ellison pulled out two ice-cold beers from refrigerator, grabbed a handful of napkins, and carried everything over to the coffee table.

“Lunch is served. Sandburg, tie your hair back before it ends up on the pizza. Maybe it’s the new conditioner you’re using.” Ellison mentioned casually, as he seated himself next to his partner. When Sandburg looked confused, Jim nodded toward the errant locks of hair, jutting out from a small leather band at the nape of Blair’s neck.

“You smelled the difference? I thought it didn’t have any scent at all. Oh, wow.” Blair Sandburg was clearly delighted at the assessment. “I found it at the health store last week. It’s like 99.9% pure. No chemicals, no additives, no testing on animals. I figured I’d try it and if it didn’t set your ‘alarms’ off, you could use it, too.”

Ellison looked at his partner, happily stuffing a slice of the Number 4 Special into his mobile face and thought, once again, how the young scientist was always watching over him – whether it was making sure a new food wasn’t too spicy, a different fabric softener didn’t irritate super-sensitive skin or a new type of P.D. equipment make Sentinel hearing go on the fritz. With his every action, Sandburg showed that he loved Jim. The detective mused on the notion, as the two shared the enormous half-mushroom, half-sausage pie, ice-cold Becks, and a Jags game memorable for its awfulness. As it wound down in a whimper rather than a bang, Jim decided to play super-sleuth and nose around about Tom Gelbart.

“So, Chief …”

“Oh, man, could they have sucked any more if they tried?”

“… you and Dr. What’s His Name …”Jim pressed on.

“Gelbart, Jim. Tom Gelbart.” Blair answered, somewhat distractedly, watching the scores of other games flash by on the post-game wrap-up.

“You’re going out to dinner with him Monday night? At La Fourchette? That’s pretty serious coin.” La Fourchette was a recently-opened five-star French restaurant in the newly-gentrified Baywater section of Cascade. It was on everyone’s ‘must eat there’ list.

“How did you—“

“Sandburg, I may not be a techno-geek like some people I know, but I can manage the intricacies of an answering machine. He left a message.” The Gelbart plan to wine and dine Sandburg was sticking in Ellison’s craw even more than the Italian sausage. “There’s one from you’re your buddy, Dave Arnold, too.”

“Oh, yeah. He’s probably checking about Thursday. You’re in court that day, so we’re going to meet for lunch.”

“You’re on everybody’s dance card these days, aren’t you, Chief?”

Blair answered with a thumb to his nose that segued nicely into a bird flipped at Jim. “Did Tom leave a number?”

“Yeah. His cell. So what do you have planned after dinner?”

“Jesus, Jim, you make it sound like a date.”

“Is it?”

“Get out of Dodge. It’s just dinner.”

“At that ritzy place? I hate to break it to you, Sandburg, but it’s a date. The only thing that place doesn’t have on the menu is a four-poster bed.”

“Knock it off, Jim.”

"Hey, just making conversation." Jim stood up and began policing the table.

“You’re so full of it, Ellison, your eyes should be brown. It’s NOT a date. But, I’ll admit, it ‘is’ the kind of place a poor T.A. likes best — any place outside our price range that doesn’t involve talking into a clown’s head. And, Jim, I am ‘a poor T.A.,’ in case you haven’t noticed.”

“Well, bon appetit, Sandburg.”

“Bon appetit, my ass, Ellison.” Blair tried lightening up the moment by tossing a wadded-up napkin at Jim, who handily caught it. “I think it’s a nice gesture on Tom’s part.”

“Yeah. He’s a prince, alright.” Ellison laughed perfunctorily to show Sandburg what a good sport he was. But inwardly, he fumed as he walked to the kitchen. Dumping the trash, Jim got himself another beer, and leaned against the room stanchion – a habit of his -- bottle clutched tightly in hand.

“What about this guy’s …”

“Tom’s …”

“What about ’Tom’s’ offer? Other than two lines you yelled at me last night, you haven’t told me anything else about it.” Jim took a sip of his beer, as his stomach somersaulted at the possibility – and implications -- of suddenly being Sandburg-free

Blair’s blue eyes clouded. “You know, man, it’s the kind of opportunity—“

“ -- you can’t turn down, right?”

“Of course, I could turn it down, Jim. Free will and all that crap. It’s just …”

“Something you want?”

“Well …”

“What about our project … this Sentinel thing?” Ellison dropped his eyes down and began ripping the Beck’s label off, little by little.

“Man, you don't have to preach to the choir. I know how important it is, but …”

“Then you should go.”

“Don’t put words in my mouth, and don’t shove me out the front door. I know you’re upset.”

“I’m not –“

“I haven’t decided yet. I need ‘way’ more information from Tom, and, you know I would NEVER leave you in the lurch, partner.”

“No?” Ellison’s heart lightened a fraction of a degree.

“No. Trust me, Jim.”

“Coming from you, Sandburg …”

“Yeah, I know, ‘two of the scariest words in the English language.’” Both men laughed, relieving the tension that had crept into their dialogue. Blair reached into his flannel shirt pocket and pulled something out. “Not to change the subject, but look at this.”

"What is it, Chief?"

"A bone bead." Blair rolled it between his thumb and index finger.

"Where'd you get it?" Jim walked back over to the couch, and slid down next to Sandburg.

"Found it."

"Found it where?"

"Can you tell you're a detective, or what?"

"Answer the question." Jim practically growled, slamming the now-empty beer bottle down on the coffee table.

From past experience, Blair knew his roommate was on an extremely short fuse, and wanted an answer. Immediately. "I just … found it."

"What, like in your cereal?"

"No, Jim." Blair shot back, using the tone he reserved for whining freshman, dogs weighing over 40 lbs. and nosy Sentinels. "As a matter of fact, it was on my desk at the U. ..."

"Somebody left it for you at Rainier?"

"It's the only 'U' I have."

"And how does something like that happen?”

"You mean in general? Well, the use of bone for beads –"

"No. Chief. I. Mean. Specifically. To. You. " Each word was enunciated painfully -- for Sandburg’s benefit.

Blair took a sip of his Beck’s. "Courtship ritual, is the closest I can figure."

"Courtship --" Jim snorted. A bone bead was nothing like having someone make breakfast scrambled eggs for you, as a way of an apology. (That’s what Blair had done when his monkey -- scratch that, his Barbary ape -- named Larry had practically torn the loft apart. It was during the first week the two of them bunked in with the detective. The words “courtship ritual” had been bandied about. Larry was long gone. Sandburg was another story.)

“What do you mean, Chief?"

"Well, you know, little gifts from one individual to another to express a certain attitude … "

Ellison held a large hand up to stop Blair's building a head of steam. "Yeah, I understand the concept." Sandburg always got excited at the prospect of lecturing about anything to anyone who would listen.

"… and since it's not the first –"

The words weren't even out of the young anthropologist's mouth before Jim Ellison was up on his feet, his full height and mass looming over the smaller man.

"Let me get this straight, Sandburg. Someone's been leaving you little souvenirs and you didn’t think to mention it?"

"See. This is EXACTLY why I didn't say anything before. Jesus. It's not like they left knives sticking into my desktop.”

“The week isn’t over yet.” Jim retorted, tight-lipped. "How many have you gotten so far?"

"Beads?"

Ellison was tempted to say something crude and sexual, but instead, ground out through his teeth. "Yes, Sandburg. Beads. How. Many. Beads. Has. This. Joker. Left. You?"

"A few."

"What's a 'few' in your book?"

Blair sighed, slowly sipping the last of his beer, savoring its taste -- postponing the inevitable. Over the last several months, Sandburg had come to learn from personal experience that a protective Sentinel was a wonder – and a terror – to behold. Particularly if, say, a Guide’s safety were concerned. (You could shake a pit bull off a side of beef faster than a Sentinel in “protection mode.”)

And you certainly wouldn’t chance giving him a flippant non-reply, and deal with the consequences. "A dozen, Jim. I've gotten a dozen."

Jim Ellison stood motionless. For a minute, Blair worried the detective had fallen into a zone-out, the gray area of non-sensory input that sometimes threatened the Sentinel. He needn’t have been concerned. The yelling that followed could never have come from a zoned-out Sentinel.

"A dozen? A dozen, Sandburg? Over how long a space of time are we talking here?”

Blair sighed. "The last couple of weeks."

"So, let me see if I got this straight. Every day or so, somebody's been sneaking into your office – unseen, unheard by any one in your department. They’ve left you a bead. Am I right, so far?”

“Well—“

“And you have no idea -- "

" I have my suspicions."

"Who’s on your list of ‘possibles’? Anybody who might be considered – I don’t know, what's the word – obsessed. dangerous, psychotic –"

"Jesus Christ, Jim. Calm down. This is probably just a harmless little student crush on an instructor. She'll either 'fess up before the term's over – or not."

"'Probably,' huh? One question, Sandburg."

"Just one?"

"Why 'she'?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, last time I checked, there were two sexes. Maybe your stalker's a guy."

It was Sandburg's turn to be incredulous.

"First of all, ‘stalker’? Aren’t you getting a little carried away? I think I’d use the word ‘admirer.’ And, as for it being a man, well, that would be just too –"

"Crazy?"

"A guy taking a fancy to me? No. People are always rearranging their orientation -- that’s part of the college experience.”

“Not mine, Chief.”

“Okay, let me rephrase that. One or two students might, given the right circumstances and enough liquor cross over to the ‘dark side.’”

The look on Jim’s face spoke volumes. It made his partner chuckle.

“Don’t ask. Anyway, it just seems the method is … circuitous.” Trust Sandburg to use a five-buck word when the 10-cent ‘roundabout’ would have done as well. “Something a woman might do to get my attention and peak my interest."

Never having been accused of being the most politically correct of people, Ellison was still tempted to point out how sexist Blair’s remark sounded.

And in Jim’s experience, being a nut job wasn't the exclusive providence of one gender or the other.

"Uh-huh. You're the anthropologist. You tell me. Males go the gift route all the time. And they don't even have to be human to want to 'wine and dine' a potential mate. Weren't you drilling a hole in my forehead for a couple of weeks about the male empid fly?” Sandburg had absorbed impressive quantities of God-awful cocktail party chatter from fellow grad student Barbara Caplan during his dating blitzkrieg on the pretty entomologist. Blair went on ad nauseum about it over breakfast one Sunday morning. He praised everything about the woman, praising everything from the long red hair to the “legs up to there” and the work with insects until Jim had given his roommate the "Enough!" glare. (Ellison could put up with pretty much anything while he ate, but enthusiastic talk about dating a “bug lady,” bug mating and bug parts were an effective appetite killer as he spread blackberry jam over his toast.)

"Yeah. It gives its potential mate a gift - a smaller insect." Blair put his empty bottle down next to his partner’s. "If the female goes for the potential mate, she's supposed to eat the gift during copulation." The smaller man still had the decency to make a classic "yuk" face as he shared the facts. (Even that, on Sandburg, still looked pretty damned good, Jim had to admit.)

“Only you, Chief, only you. I need another beer while we sort this out.” The tall detective got to his feet and headed back to the refrigerator.

“Slow down, man—“

“Shit, Sandburg. We’ve hit rock bottom.” There was nothing left except the ‘emergency beer’ -- some damned local swill Blair had bought on a recent foray to find the best local mini-brewery in the Cascade environs. This particular concoction tasted faintly of blueberries and lavender. Awful. But since, in Jim’s mind, this qualified as an emergency, he practically drained it in one long gulp.

The roommate in Jim Ellison could see the twisted logic in romancing someone as extraordinary as Blair with an unusual, exotic gift.

The detective in Jim Ellison was suspicious of any out-of-the-ordinary approach to love and relationships -- no matter how short-lived -- where a trouble magnet like his partner was concerned. Over the years, Jim had seen how terribly wrong things could go between two people, and how fast it could happen. (Just look at his own marriage.)

"I think we need to find out what's going on, Chief." The would-be lover in Jim Ellison was ready to protect Blair Sandburg, no matter what the cost.

Blair chewed on his bottom lip, contemplating what his partner had just said. "You don't really think …"

"Sandburg, better safe—"

"Than sorry?"

“Than having to swear out a restraining order.” What Jim Ellison had wanted to say was, "Than dead." But why rattle his Guide's cage any more than was absolutely necessary?

Come Monday, gold shield detective Jim Ellison would start making sure his partner was out of harm’s way, no matter what it took.

And the “what” in an ex-Ranger/covert operative’s playbook could be almost anything.

Blair Sandburg might be off-limits, but protecting him wasn’t.

***

Blair Sandburg taught three morning classes on Mondays. Then, he’d head over to the station to meet Jim a little after one -- or a lot, depending on how backed-up the teaching assistant got himself.

The beginning of this week saw one holdover report -- the Jansen case. It was the first thing the two would have to handle. Jim knew it would take the bulk of his morning to go through the dozens of statements and photo-filled manila folders before his unofficial observer/transcriber made an appearance. The detective would then turn the rough draft over to Sandburg who typed the final version, cleaned up his grammar, fixed the punctuation, and edited out any “Ellisonisms” that might have found their way into the report.

Arson was the kind of crime Jim particularly hated. It was a greed-driven, white-collar felony perpetrated by a rich man in a poor, largely uninsurable section of town. Sadly enough, pillar-of-the-community Arthur Jansen’s story – told tearfully and with a stiff, upper lip -- made it perfect for a plea-bargain with the D.A.’s office. The defendant’s high-priced lawyer would call it essentially a victimless crime, the office complex was empty and no one hurt in the four-alarm blaze. Tell that to the Enterprise Zone neighborhood where the property was located. Values would plummet even more, and insurance premiums would sky rocket – even if you could even find someone to write a policy. If Jim and Blair couldn’t get their ducks lined up in the water, to show what kind of person Mr. Jansen really was, that’s exactly what would happen.

True to form, Sandburg trotted in late, but Jim was twice as happy to see his partner, since he bore Jim the ultimate gift: fatty corned beef on rye from Murray’s Deli on Fourth and Highland. Sandburg took pity on the detective (knowing the beginning of this particular week would be a bear), and also brought him coleslaw, dill pickles, kettle chips, along with the special, non-diet cream soda Jim could drink by the gallon. Dessert was Double Stuf Oreos.

“Here you go, Jim. I have your cardiologist on speed-dial, so you’re good to go.”

“Thanks, Chief. I love you. I may even offer to have your babies.”

Blair laughed as he tossed his coat on the rack and backpack on the floor. “Uh, Jim, where’s my chair?”

“Sorry, Sandburg. Rhonda borrowed yours because one of the wheels on hers came off. I’ll go get it back for you.”

“Nah. She needs it.”

“So, what? You’re going to stand all afternoon?”

“No. Maybe I’ll go down and get the forensics report from Dave Arnold. I’d like to talk to him about some theories I have. Eat your lunch. Unless you wanna come along?“

“Please, Chief, my brain hurts even thinking about it. On a good day, yours is all the thesis-speak I can manage.” Sandburg was one thing. Having to listen to sky-high IQ Dave Arnold, the senior tech in Serena Chang’s lab, would be tantamount to geeks in Surround Sound. Ellison always “encouraged” Blair do as much interfacing with Forensics as he did -- alone.

“Okay. Our firstborn better be a blue-eyed boy. Catch you in a few.”

Sandburg never seemed to mind making the trek to Forensics on the fourth floor. In truth, he was singularly at home among the sights, sounds, smells, and noises emanating from the P.D.’s state-of-the-art labs. Most of the staff, Serena Change among them, genuinely liked Ellison’s “Shadow”, a.k.a. Major Crimes’ “Un-Ob.” (Jim put it less delicately. “The Nerd herd’s always looking for new members.”)

As Blair swung into Forensics’ reception/waiting area, he was greeted through the glass divider by a stereotypical scientist, complete with lab coat, pocket protector, and horned-rims.

Dave Arnold – “Science Guy,” as the detective squad liked to call him -- took his glasses off, and transformed into a more-or-less regulation human being. Mr. Arnold’s only other distinguishing feature was his apparent height, taller than Jim Ellison by at least four inches. Blair often wondered what perverse god decided that every single person at the Police Department --- with the possible exception of the bagel girl – towered over him. It obviously had to be one lanky deity.

From where he was sitting, Arnold threw a broad smile at the much shorter Sandburg and waved him through the door.

“Blair! Good to see you! How’s it going?”

“Same old, same old. You know how it can get ‘up there’ –“ Sandburg’s head nodded toward the sixth floor, and the Detective’s area -- “… always a little TENSE.” He grimaced, emphasized the word, and used several frenetic hand gestures to get his point across.

Dave Arnold laughed. “Yeah. They could definitely benefit from decaf in an I.V. drip. Or some of that chamomile tea of yours. So what can we do for you today?” Arnold was used to solo visits from Jim Ellison’s partner and liked it that way. The detectives and officers visiting broke up the monotony, but they tended to be all-business when they swung through the doors. .

Civilians were better. At least, they usually had a smile on their faces and quick words of greeting on their lips. Sometimes, they even stayed a while to chat about non-police things.

When it came to Blair Sandburg – Arnold’s favorite civilian -- it was better when Jim Ellison wasn’t with him. To Dave Arnold, it seemed the younger man was always swallowed up in an invisible, highly-protective bubble Ellison effectively cast around him. Dave wondered if other lab personnel noticed how proprietary the detective was. After all, what kind of observer (usually 90-day wonders) stuck around 18 months especially when the purpose of the ride-along was to get material for a thesis? In 18 months, you could get enough material to knock out a hell of a dissertation – if research was what you were doing for a year and a half.

Getting Sandburg to discuss his work was easy. Getting him to stop, nearly impossible. On an Ellison-free day a couple of months earlier, Blair Sandburg had shared the details over a quick sandwich and bad coffee in the break room.

“Yeah, the whole ‘subcultures’ area is just ripe for study. The thing of it is, if we were someplace other than Cascade, I’d never have access to Jim, members of the force, key departments like Forensics, and higher ups, like Captain Banks. Hell, even the Mayor’s office, for God’s sake!”

“You must have somebody in your corner.”

“Nah. Just the right place at the right time. So, you follow the Jags? What do you think their chances are …”

Besides being an extremely intelligent individual, which appealed to Dave Arnold, Blair Sandburg seemed a genuinely nice guy. They’d had lunches together and grabbed a drink now and then, when schedules permitted. And, funnily enough, Dave was certain that Sandburg didn’t do it just so that he could get his partner's work moved up the ladder before other detectives.’ Jim Ellison. The "official" partner. Arnold didn’t have much interaction with or feeling about him. Sure, he was what the other police officers called ‘a cop’s cop.’ Sandburg seemed to think the world of him, that the sun rose and set on the man. But the real story? Who knew?

And, Arnold had heard the scuttlebutt about Ellison and Sandburg. To be Ellison had an interesting back story: Ex-Army hero, stranded in the jungles, last man in his unit, back to Cascade and into the police force, transferring in from Vice to Major Crime, then being promoted to detective in record time. There was the whole mystery surrounding Jack Prendergast, Ellison’s partner, who’d disappeared with a suitcase full of ransom money from a botched kidnapping. And the detective’s marriage, followed in pretty close order by a break-up -- with Lieutenant Caroline Plummer, also of the Cascade Police Force.

Arnold had been hired around the same time, and came to know 'lone wolf' Jim Ellison on sight, but not much else about the man. By consensus (sometimes begrudgingly) Jim Ellison was a brilliant detective – the best on the force. The best of the best.

But as a human being, that seemed to be a different matter.

Then came the big change, and it had happened when Blair Sandburg made his first appearance at Metro. As a scientist, Dave Arnold didn't believe in coincidences. So there was some interesting cause-and-effect to consider. How had someone as … different … as Blair Sandburg cracked the infamous Ellison wall, and also had gotten himself a ride-along, not to mention a place to live?

That prompted the “other” stories floating around, explaining how and why the two were paired up. Those revolved around Sandburg’s mouth, and how it was good for a lot of things besides talking.

As David Arnold turned to the centrifuge sitting behind him, he pictured the young man who’d just left.

He decided that “they” might be right.

Too bad it was wasted on a Neanderthal like Jim Ellison.

“Is that the folder?” Blair’s pleasant voice brought Dave Arnold back to the matter at hand. “Thanks, buddy. They’re waiting for this. Gotta go. See you at Xi Chang’s. Thursday around one?”

“You’re on. Maybe pressed duck or Mongolian lamb?” Xi Chang’s was the best Chinese restaurant on the Eastside of the city. It was, hands-down, Sandburg’s favorite.

“Excellent. Later, Dave.”

As Arnold turned back to his pleasantly-interrupted work, he thought about the young man who’d just left in a cloud of flannel and enthusiasm. Blair Sandburg, with the pretty face and the prettier ways. In all the police department laboratories he’d worked -- Chicago, Seattle, and now in Cascade -- Dave Arnold had met some eclectic characters, but at the top of the list was Blair Sandburg, who not only broke the mold, but redefined what the mold should be.

***

Christie Phillips had one nerve, and virtually everything was getting on it. If Mondays were bad, Tuesdays were terrible. Everything everyone had put off came to the forefront starting at 8:00 AM on the dot. The Hargrove Hall office was drafty, the coffee singularly terrible at so early an hour, the light overhead flickering, and Maintenance was still dragging its feet fixing it. Even the sound of her fingers hitting the old computer keyboard irritated her. (Would CTRL ever stop sticking?) But worse, bar none, was the nasty ring of her phone that seemed to have a life of its own this morning.

"Anthropology Dept." Christie Phillips kept her voice professional, but a discerning ear could pick up the unmistakable edge to it. "Oh, sorry, Detective Ellison.” Her tone softened. “Blair isn't here. He’s gone to class. Can I take a message?"

The one saving grace about speaking to Jim Ellison was that their chats tended to be brief -- 25 words or less.

If Blair Sandburg were available to take the call, however, that would be a different story. From the give-and-take she would hear from the grad student's cubby-hole of an office, Christie surmised that Jim Ellison was perfectly capable of carrying on a better-than-average conversation. Judging by Blair Sandburg's reactions, the detective could be articulate and even funny at times. And there was a special quality in Sandburg's voice, when he talked to his friend and roommate.

For whatever reason, it made Christie Phillips jealous.

From the first day she’d laid eyes on him, Christie Phillips had wanted Blair Sandburg. She’d become quickly smitten by his boyish good looks, his intelligence, his likeability, and from what she’d heard through the University grapevine, his sexual prowess. Apparently, Rainier’s Mr. Sandburg was quite the bed partner. He obviously liked women and they returned the favor.

The winning Mr. Sandburg was everything she wanted in a life-time companion, and didn't have.

As Christie Phillips answered the phone for the umpteenth time, she decided her plan to woo and win the T.A. needed to be ratcheted up.

And the sooner the better -- before someone else snagged the clueless Mr. Sandburg.

***

“I don’t like it, sir.”

“Jim. Let me say it again. This ‘big brother’ thing you have for your partner … he can take care of himself, you know.”

Simon Banks poured himself a cup of what had once been a decent pot of expensive Ethiopian Harrar. Now it was lava-colored sludge. He offered some to Jim Ellison, who wisely waved it off.

“I know, Simon, but the kid—“

“—is pretty damned self-reliant. Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t Sandburg been around the world a few times?”

“Yes—“

“From the time he really was a ‘kid’?”

“Your point being?”

“Jim, he’s not your responsibility.”

“I have to disagree with you there, Captain. He is.”

“You mean because of the ‘sentinel’ business?”

“That … and more.” It was Ellison’s stood up and paced around the room. “This business with the beads … there’s something really wrong, Simon. I can feel in it my –“

“Bones?”

“Not funny, Sir.” There was no humor in the situation, as far as Jim Ellison could see. (And in a Sentinel’s case, that was pretty damned far.)

“Look, Jim, I admit it’s an unusual kind of gift. But we’re talking about college types. Some of them are probably a few beads short of a bracelet on their best day.”

Jim Ellison threw himself back into the chair on the other side of the Captain’s large desk.

“And supposing the ‘secret admirer’ isn’t a college type?”

“Wait a minute. Why would you think that? You have any evidence to support it?”

“No. Just my gut feeling.”

“Sure you’re just not letting your imagination run wild? Do you realize how much time and planning it would take for a non-university person –“

“Exactly, Captain.”

Simon put his cup down, and took a good, hard look at his best detective. If Jim Ellison thought there was reason for concern, there probably was. “So, how do you want to handle this? Sandburg isn’t going to be happy with your going ’mother hen’ on him. Especially if you start doing background checks on people he knows.”

Mother hen? If Simon only knew about Ellison being Sandburg’s ‘Blessed Protector.’ Blair had dubbed Jim with the moniker after the detective rescued the anthropology student from psychotic David Lash. After all the media hoopla was over, Sandburg had shared the old Chinese adage: you saved someone’ life, you were duty-bound to do it forever.

No matter how much he busted his partner about it, Ellison believed it deep-down to his very core. It was a job he took seriously.

Standing up again, grim-faced but purposeful, the tall detective headed toward the door. Blair a little miffed? That would be the least of it. Sandburg’d probably be mad as hell.

But Jim Ellison didn’t care, because Blair Sandburg would be alive and well and around to fight with him another day.

“Simon, this is what I’m going to do …”

***

“Dr. Gelbart speaking.”

“Detective Jim Ellison.” The Sentinel’s official title and no-nonsense attitude got him patched through immediately to the visiting professor’s office.

“Well, good morning, Jim.” ‘Jim’ was punctuated dismissively.

“For some, more than others, ‘Tom.’” Gelbart had no idea what being cavalier might ultimately cost him.

The professor was intelligent enough, however, to catch the sobering inference. He quickly adopted a less pedantic attitude as Jim Ellison continued to speak.

“I know you’re a busy man, so I’ll get right to the point. Your interest in Blair Sandburg. Purely professional?”

“What are you implying?”

“Blair’s been receiving gifts from an anonymous person, and I intend to find out who it is.”

“Isn’t this above and beyond the call of duty? Would you be doing this for anyone other than Mr. Sandburg?”

“As a police officer, I have a responsibility to protect all the citizens of Cascade. But, let’s cut through the crap, Tom.”

“Dr. Gel-“

“Tom, if anything or anyone were to threaten or actually hurt Blair Sandburg, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be in his or her shoes. Believe me.” The chilling inflection on the last two words hit, their mark dead center.

“Is that a threat, Detective Ellison?”

“No, Dr. Gelbart. It ‘is’ the promise of a wealth of trouble for anyone who fucks with my partner and my best friend. Have a nice day.”

Tom Gelbart felt perspiration on his upper lip. Patting it away with his index finger, all the while contemplating the man of few words he’d just spoke with. Here was, essentially, a one-note caveman, on a mission. That made him infinitely more dangerous than any force of nature Gelbart had ever confronted

Pretty boys like Blair Sandburg and the hormonal hulks they always seemed to gather around them were more than bothersome.

They were downright dangerous to your health, Gelbart thought as he considered his options.

Being anywhere but Cascade, Washington was suddenly looking pretty damned attractive.

***

With his Anthro 101 lecture done by 10:45 AM, Blair Sandburg walked out of the lecture hall and into the sunlight, set to enjoy two hours of wonderful, unaccustomed late-morning freedom. Freedom from the tyranny of ringing phones, stacks of bluebooks, and constant rap-tap-tapping of students at his chamber door.

The day, not to mention Blair’s mood, quickly turned muddy gray as Tom Gelbart approached him, looking like the wrath of some earth-bound god.

“Tom, this is a—“

“I’ve heard of some pretty unconscionable things, but –“

Blair Sandburg stopped dead in his tracks. “Whoa. What’s wrong?”

“Don’t play the innocent with me. I’m talking about my records, my associates, hell, my life being opened to public purview.”

“Tom, if you were speaking in tongues, I’d have a better shot at figuring out what’re you’re talking about.”

“In plain English? I got a call from your friend, Ellison, and just found out I’m being investigated by the Cascade Police department.”

The younger anthropologist looked stunned. “The police? I don’t--”

“I’m not surprised that the mouth-breathing cretins from your ‘other life’ would do something like this. Heaven protect the intelligentsia from police mentality. But that you asked Ellison to do it. I’m astounded and frankly disappointed, Sandburg – both as a fellow scientist and as someone I’d hope could become a valued colleague.”

“Tom, I swear to God –“

The other man would not be assuaged. “That’s Dr. Gelbart to you, Mr. Sandburg. Enjoy your life here in Cascade because, apparently, its confines will be the scope of your future travel.”

With that, Thomas Evan Gelbart, Ph.D. turned on his well-shod heel, and walked out of Blair’s life, taking with him the possibility of the Lucknow expedition. As Sandburg watched the retreating figure, he wondered what the hell had just happened.

***

“Ellison.”

“Jim. Tell me you did NOT call Tom Gelbart. Or start a background check on him.”

“And ‘hello’ to you, too, Sandburg.”

“I just finished getting an earful from him on the quad.”

“Look, Chief –“

“I can’t believe you did that. What is your problem?”

“My problem? The freaks you seem to attract -- that’s my problem.”

“Freaks? Me?” An irate Sandburg was not a happy-sounding Sandburg. “At least I’ve never exchanged gunfire with anybody I’m involved with.”

“Yet.”

“Very funny.”

“I’m only doing it—“

“For my own good. Yeah. Been there. Done that. Have the bloody tee-shirt to prove it. Your meddling is getting pretty stale. Next you’ll be telling me you’ve done a check on everybody I know.”

“Not everybody. Just –“ The whole “standing firm” was losing its panache as Jim Ellison’s partner systematically reamed him out over the phone.

“You mean to tell me—“

Calm down, Chief.”

“You know, Ellison, as it is, I have precious little privacy around you. But this is the final straw. It’s wrong on so many levels … next, you’ll be telling me you’re going to check out the secretarial staff. Hell, I don’t know why I’m so surprised. Why stop there? Why not the cleaning people? Or the UPS guy? Or how about the --”

“Sandburg, you’re overreacting—“

“You know what, Jim? I’m going to hang up now, before I say stuff I won’t be able to take back. I have to have some time away from you to –“

“Process?” Jim hoped lifting a page from Naomi Sandburg’s book would mollify her son.

It didn’t.

“Process this, Jim: Fuck you, and the horse you rode in on. Don’t wait up for me tonight.”

“Where are you now, Sandburg? Sandburg? Chief?”

The cell phone went dead. The silence was deafening.

***

That didn’t go as well as it could have, Ellison. For a couple of minutes, the Sentinel toyed with the idea of tracking his roommate down, and figuring out the best way to apologize. In the end, he chalked that up as a bad idea – one even worse than the “processing” flap. Jim would just have to handle the situation when Blair finally landed. As Ellison maneuvered the Ford down Blandings Avenue, and pulled into his space in the front of the loft, he wondered if there were a decent bottle of wine upstairs, one that would bring out the natural flavor of crow he’d probably have to eat when he saw his Guide again.

***

“You’re reached 555-3724. Leave a message at the beep.”

“Hi. This message is for Blair. It’s Dave Arnold. It’s Wednesday afternoon. I’m just checking about --“

“Jim Ellison.”

‘Oh, uh, hi, Jim, uh, Detective. I tried calling Blair at his office and on his cell but he’s not answering. I thought he might be at home … uh, there.”

“He’s not here at the moment. Probably went out and grabbed a bite to eat. And knowing Sandburg, the battery in his phone’s dead.”

“A bitch, huh?”

“What?”

“Batteries? Always dying when—“

“Dave, I want to know something. Have you been sending Sandburg gifts?”

“What?”

“Simple question. Have you been leaving things at Rainier for Blair?”

“No. Why? Is someone—“

“It’s just a little situation I’m looking into. And I needed to ask some of the people Sandburg’s been spending time with recently. Anyway, if I see him later or talk to him, I’ll tell him you called. He got your number?”

“Yes, I’m sure he—“

“Fine. See you at Metro.”

“Sure, Ji—Detective.”

Dave Arnold stared at the Nokia which suddenly seemed slippery. When had he started sweating? Was just about the time Ellison asked if Blair Sandburg “had his number?”

***

Something was definitely wrong. It wasn't just the late hour. Being deprived of sleep never hit Blair Sandburg like the proverbial ton of bricks. Everything was off. Even his peppermint tea tasted funny. Christie Phillips had been nice enough to fix a cup before she left for the evening. Blair struggled to keep his eyes open. Head sagging perceptibly, he lowered it to the cluttered desk.

It could have been the fight with Jim. He always hated confrontations and being on the “outs” with the most important person in his life.

But first, a little rest. Then, Blair would call Jim before going back to mark papers. Jim. His friend. His best friend in the whole world.

That’s what he should do. Give old Jim a call. “Jim …Jim?” Why wasn’t Jim answering him? Was Jim angry at him? Maybe using the phone would help. Why wasn’t the phone cooperating? No dial tone. There was something ... what was the word ... Sandburg knew the word … he’d heard it before … used it … not right … something ...

"Wrong, baby?" A voice purred in his left ear. "Nothing’s wrong, now that we're going to be together. We’ll head off campus to a little place I have. Then you’ll see. You won’t need anyone but me."

As a black hole – blacker than any black Blair Sandburg had ever seen before – swallowed him head-first, the young man felt small hands jerk him to his feet. They roughly pushed him out of the office toward the freight elevator, which gaped open, like a monster, ready to devour him. But Blair’s legs were traitors, and he slid helplessly down to the floor.

The last things Blair Sandburg saw before the darkness wrapped welcoming arms around him were a pair of women’s ankles -- and a bone-bead bracelet tied around his wrist.

***

“Chief, pick up.” Where the hell was Sandburg? It was now Thursday. He’d stayed out all night, and hadn’t even called. The kid could be a miserable son-of-an-anthropologist when he was pissed.

Being a Sentinel in flagrante, so to speak, hadn’t helped. Okay. So, maybe Jim had been a little … forceful with Tom Gelbart. He’d done the same in his brusque dialogue with Dave Arnold. (Ellison would probably get an earful about that, too.) Each man had denied it, more or less vehemently. Both seemed unsettled by the questions. Or, more likely, the tougher-than-nails cop-speak Jim had used set their alarms off.

Gelbart and Arnold were the two people taking up large amounts of Blair’s time recently. Eliminating them from the list of possible suspects seemed a cop no-brainer.

And that’s exactly the phrase Blair Sandburg would probably use when he decided to come home to the loft and have a nice little chat about it with his partner.

***

Blair was nowhere to be found. There was something definitely wrong. Ellison had made a few calls to some of Sandburg’s friends and colleagues. No one at the U. had seen him since yesterday. He’d missed classes on Thursday morning. He wasn’t answering his cell phone, and hadn’t picked up any of the dozen messages Jim had left for him.

Jim Ellison took and early lunch, and headed over to Rainier to retrace his partner’s steps from the night before.

After parking the Ford in a space he considered his own, Jim Ellison headed to Hargrove Hall. His long legs took the steps three at a time up to the anthropology department and Sandburg’s office. When he got there, he saw Barbara Yeadon, one of the other administrative assistants, at the Canon copier.

“Detective Ellison! How are—“

“Barbara, I don’t mean to cut you short, but have you seen Blair Sandburg since yesterday?”

“I was off yesterday, and he hasn’t been in today. Funny. Christie Phillips was a no-show today, too.”

“Did you try calling her?” Christie Phillips. Fear began to grip Jim Ellison, because he knew what the answer would be even before he asked it.

“A little after nine, but she didn’t pick up. And her answering machine doesn’t seem to be on. What’s wrong, Detective?”

“Can you think of any place the two of them could be?”

“Mr. Sandburg and Christie? Together?” Barbara looked shocked at the thought. “No way!”

“What about places that Christie might hang out at or go to –“

A worried looking Barbara Yeadon considered it for a minute.

“Sometimes, she drives out to Dr. Tepper’s to water the plants, make sure everything’s okay.”

“Maureen Tepper? Archeology, right?” It was a name Jim recognized from several of Sandburg’s faculty stories.

“Yes. Dr. Tepper’s in England this semester on sabbatical. She’s got a cottage out on –“

“-- Ivy Column Way?” Several tenured faculty members had homes in the picturesque – and expensive -- ocean-front community. Last summer, Blair had taken Jim to a fancy cocktail party at one of the larger ones.

“What’s the address?”

“It doesn’t really have one. But you can’t miss it. It’s the last house on the road. Please, Detective, you’re scaring me. What’s happened?”

Jim Ellison was out the door so fast, even Sentinel ears didn’t catch Barbara Yeadon’s question.

***

“Sandburg, what the fuck have you gotten yourself into?” Detective Jim Ellison hit “2” on his speed dial. “Simon, we have a situation …”

***

The moment Blair Sandburg came to, he knew he had been kidnapped. His mouth felt like he'd been chewing on an old tennis ball, his eyes seemed unable to focus properly, he was wearing only boxers, and his hands were bound together over his head, tied securely to a hook on the wall.

Yes, sir, Blair. You’ve been kidnapped.

Again.

For a moment in the hazy world of “what if,” Blair Sandburg pulled at the hook with all his strength.

What if he dislodged it?

What next?

What if the anthropologist made it to the door he saw at the opposite end of the room?

What if he called for help?

What if no one came? Ever?

What if he died here? Who would care? Naomi, no question. Of course somebody would have to find his globe-trotting mother first, at whatever ashram, kibbutz, lamasery, or spiritual retreat she was visiting at the moment.

People at the U, sure. (Someone would have to pick up all his classes.)

And Jim … well, yeah. A Sentinel needed his Guide.

But what about Jim Ellison? Would he care past the point of having to find someone else to help him handle his senses? Sure, Jim would. He really was one of the good guys, like most of the cops and detectives at Metro.

But Jim … Jim was the best of the best. Jim Ellison looked out for him, made sure the T.A. ate regularly and slept once in a while. Jim saved him from having to hoof it when his classic Corvair gave up the spirit. The big, gruff detective worried about Blair the way someone close to you would. In a way, Blair was sure that Jim loved him. He knew it. Jim … loved … him.

Blair’s epiphany cleared the cobwebs better than a slap in the face.

Jim loved him. Not like a pesky little brother, an irritating academic observer, or a tag-along, cop-wannabe. (Well, that, too.)

Jim Ellison loved Blair Sandburg in a “When a Man Loves a Woman” way -- except for the woman part.

Sandburg just realized the same was true for him. He loved his partner not in a big brother from hell, “He’s my thesis,” or macho-cop fantasy. (Well, that, too.)

Crap. Blair Sandburg loved Jim Ellison. And wasn’t it just like Blair? Always a day late and a dollar short? To discover something so profound, so important, so elemental -- and probably be dead before being able to do anything about it?

Blair started to laugh, and stopped just short of sounding hysterical. Were his captors nearby, he wondered? Could they witness the freak show he was putting on? Did they observe his every move, or could he possibly pull a ‘MacGyver’ and get himself the hell out of this predicament. Probably not, Blair reasoned. First of all, he was pretty sure he didn’t have the prerequisite tube socks, turkey baster, chewing gum, and road map of Vermont in his jeans pocket. (His jeans were somewhere else. The whole almost being naked thing --except for the bracelet and boxers– was another factor.) Second, Sandburg’s legs were this side of Jello, probably because of whatever drugs he’d been force-fed. Third, there was no way in hell Blair’d be able to get his hands free without dislocating both thumbs, or cutting his wrists to shreds.

As Blair Sandburg lay there, he came to the conclusion that he was royally screwed. The next uneasy thought was that if someone taken all this trouble to spirit him away from Rainier knowing full well that Jim Ellison would be on their trail when he discovered his partner was missing, it had to be someone whose grip on reality had slipped badly.

If that were the case, using Sandburg’s body like a circus ride would be the least of the young anthropologist’s worries.

Being dead would be a lot higher on the list.

Blair had to get away and back to Jim. As his mind was sorting through a dozen different plans, he heard footsteps coming down what he assumed was a hallway.

In a few seconds, Blair Sandburg – bound and gagged -- would finally see who the host of this weird little get-together was.

Maybe his pants would be the party favor.

***

Christie Phillips stopped in front of the bolted door, thinking about how she could smooth over this little escapade. After all, how mad could Blair Sandburg be? Sure, the teaching assistant might be a little aggravated about the “ruffie” she’d dissolved in his tea. But, Sandburg had to have taken other drugs in his free-form life. How bent out of shape could he be from a dose of Rohypnol? And it wasn’t as though she’d actually raped him.

Yet.

Christie Phillips wanted him to love her, and only her. To accomplish that, the determined Ms. Phillips needed time – and a bag full of “goodies.” She also needed him to be away from all those people who took up his time and filled up his life – students, instructors, other T.A.’s, and, of course, Jim Fucking Ellison. It was understandable why everyone wanted a piece of the young anthropologist. He was only being Blair Sandburg, kind and generous, warm and willing, grabbing life with both hands and running with it. Christie Phillips just hated that he was so willing to share it with everyone.

Blair Sandburg was like all the others. It was the world according to Christie Phillips. Why didn’t they ever listen? She'd tried explaining it to Mark Cunningham, her last boyfriend back in Quog, New York. That was right before the argument, and his backward somersault down beach house steps.

Mark’s broken neck effectively ended the fight.

The Labor Day mishap was eventually ruled an accident, blamed on too-much alcohol and a slippery flight of stairs.

In point of fact, it was, more of a not-enough alcohol and an end-of-the-affair occurrence. 's need for "more space" and the urge to "see other people" didn't sit well with Christie. Not at all. Christie had wasted several precious months on “Mr. Right.” It also didn't mix well with the half-dozen or so wine coolers he consumed – and the none-too-gentle push she gave him to emphasize her displeasure at being an “end of summer” dumpee.

After the funeral where Christie Phillips reveled in the role of the bereaved girl friend, almost as much as the graveside flowers, the young woman decided a change of scenery might be wise.

So Christie packed up and headed for the West Coast. Seattle was her first choice, but the cost of living was almost as high as New York’s. So she settled on Cascade. And, as to employment, wouldn't a college campus like Rainier be the ideal hunting ground for that "special" someone?

After a few months and switch in secretarial assignments, Christie Phillips’ prayers were answered when she'd met Blair Sandburg. True, he hadn’t gotten his doctorate yet, and with no money to speak of. But time would change all that. The world would eventually beat a path to the door of someone so bright and with so much potential.

Dr. and Mrs. Blair Sandburg. She'd loved the way it sounded. When she announced to one or two acquaintances back East that she’d found "the one,” Christie coyly offered a few tantalizing details to pique their interest – but not enough information to figure out exactly who the mystery man was. (“Oh, he’s great – perfect, in fact -- but I don’t want to ‘jinx’ it by telling you too much.”) They were kept in the dark, as was mystery man himself.

To make her latest dream come true, Christie Phillips was going to need a revised plan. Blair Sandburg wasn’t dumber-than-dirt but gorgeous Mark Cunningham, after all.

No, for Mr. Sandburg, the enterprising Ms. Phillips would need something … different. Then, she remembered the Orvelle Wallace, the Masai bracelet incident (the one, in fact, that had brought that awful Jim Ellison into her orbit) and the path to true happiness was set.

Where Blair Sandburg was concerned, nothing was off-limits.

***

“Jim, it’s Simon. Joel’s just gotten his hands on a police report from New York …”

***

Though she’d never considered herself anything so crude as a stalker, Christie Phillips, nonetheless, had seen nothing wrong in following the object of her present obsession. When time permitted (and she found some every day) the determined Ms. Phillips trailed Blair Sandburg. Much to her distress, she saw him together with Jim Ellison, talking, laughing, sharing a life with him. At those times, old feelings would come home to roost, like emotional vultures circling carrion: first rejection; then, anger.

Blair Sandburg was rejecting her – like everyone before -- in favor of someone else. And as before, the rejection fed on itself, turning into a terrible, all-consuming rage.

To assuage the tumult churning inside her, Christie started pilfering little bits and pieces of Blair Sandburg’s life … a bookmark from a text book, a funny little note on a Post-it, and a Police Department cap Sandburg had carelessly tossed into one of the closets. But the prize of Ms. Phillips collection was the small Zuni fetish of a panther-like figure which sat in a place of honor in Sandburg’s office. Blair hadn’t realized it was missing until a few days ago – his desk was that untidy -- and asked everyone in the department if they’d seen it. Laughing to herself, she promised the clearly upset Sandburg, “Don’t worry, Blair. I know it’s going to turn up. I bet it’ll be in the last place you look.”

Christie could almost guarantee it.

Blair Sandburg would never think to search for his treasure in her red shoulder bag.

***

As Jim Ellison raced toward the cliffs overlooking the ocean, he savaged himself for not seeing the handwriting on the wall. For not recognizing the real predator hunting Blair Sandburg. What had Simon read to him? The conclusions in the two-year-old police report Taggart tracked down about the death of Christie Phillips’ fiancée, Mark Cunningham, were chilling. “Suspicious … lack of evidence … findings inconsistent with accidental death … inconclusive … no charges filed …”

Words on paper. Ellison’s years of experience, and never-erring gut, told him all he needed to know. Christie Phillips, who liked easy-listening jazz, cross-country skiing and baking cookies for the Anthropology Department was, in all likelihood, a psychotic killer.

And she had Sandburg.

***

Blair Sandburg smelled the distinctive perfume before his captor came through the door. The sickening realization hit him like a sledgehammer. Christie Phillips, his sweet, personable, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth secretary, had drugged him and brought him here – wherever the hell “here” was. Sandburg had a few clues. It was somewhere near the ocean because he could hear the surf. Since there weren’t that many places he assumed Christie had access to near the shoreline. It was likely one of the faculty cottages on Ivy Column Way.

Not good.

Unless you were specifically visiting someone, were really lost, or intending to rob any of the expensive buildings, you’d never find yourself out there.

And without at least a handful of solid clues, Jim would never find him – until it was too late. His partner and best friend had been right. He was a fucking trouble magnet, even when he didn’t realize it.

And the look in Christie’s eyes convinced Sandburg that he wouldn’t be able to talk his way out of this predicament. Blair would have to do whatever was needed to get away.

***

Maneuvering the winding roads out to the Cliffside area and accompanied by two black and whites, Captain Simon Banks sped out to meet Jim Ellison at the destination he’d hurriedly shouted over his cell.

Banks was tempted to curse the day Ellison had introduced him to Blair Sandburg and wangled an approval for the Rainier anthropologist to ride along and observe Metro’s “best.” In the rearview mirror, Simon’s smile was more of a grimace as he remembered his preconceived notions being pretty well shot in the ass the first five minutes after their first meeting. From what Jim Ellison had told him about the guy, he was half-expecting an academic -- not some neo-hippie flower child sporting earrings, long hair, and a ribbon vest, with time on his hands since the Grateful Dead had broken up. The captain had a hard time buying that Ellison wanted the kid on his tail or swallowing the whole “family thing.” (“Blair's my cousin's kid. They've been supporting him through college for the last seven years. They figured if he finally got his doctorate he'd go out and get a job.”)

The subterfuge lasted for less time than it took to say “Sunrise Patriots,” “Flying Apaches in Desert Storm,” and “studying people in pre-civilized cultures.”

It was too much information for Simon Banks then, and even now, dealing with the “Sentinel thing.” (“He's really an anthropologist. He's made a study of people like me in pre-civilized cultures. He wants to observe me so he can help me figure out a way to deal with this.”)

Probably what ticked off Simon Banks more than anything else was how just much he’d grown to care for the sometimes-infuriating civilian.

Sandburg, who could talk your ears off and bore holes in your forehead on any arcane subject of his choosing. Sandburg, who could jerk your chain because he always seemed right about most things – whether you were willing to admit it or not.

Sandburg, who could be so observant about virtually everything – except danger that danced around him like moths around a bright flame.

Sandburg, who always saw the best in people, and who seemed to be paying the price for it.

Yes sir, Banks was going to kick Blair Jacob Sandburg’s butt eight ways to perdition -- if Jim Ellison were lucky enough to get the kid back in one piece.

***

This wasn’t going the way Christie originally planned. She’d wanted to spirit Blair Sandburg away from Cascade so that they could get properly acquainted. Then that damned Tom Gelbart started making noises about offering Sandburg a slot on his upcoming Indian expedition. Christie Phillips could compete with other women – men, too – but not with something every anthropology TA at Rainier would give his or her eye teeth to join. So she took Blair before he had a chance to sign on the dotted line.

But the way the drugged Sandburg looked at her when she’d dragged him into Dr. Tepper’s cottage was a combination of disbelief and. Sadly, Christie realized that Blair – her Blair -- would have to meet with an accident.

Just like the others.

But not yet. Why waste a perfectly good couple of hours with such a pretty toy? Once Christie finished with Blair Sandburg, Her escape plan would be put in motion. She’d switch vehicles at the nearby mall (after you’ve killed someone, stealing a car was nothing), do it again while driving down the coast, and ultimately disappear into Oregon or California.

By the time anybody found poor Blair Sandburg, Christie Phillips would be somewhere else.

And be somebody else.

As Christie opened the door, she felt, with no little satisfaction, the cool surface of the long blade in her hand. She wondered if she should give the little black panther back, Blair had been so concerned about its loss.

After all, once she was finished with Blair Sandburg, she’d have no use for the trinket. And, for that matter, neither would he.

***

The Ford screeched to a halt at a barricade across the road to the cottages. A massive repaving job, seemingly on hiatus, stopped Jim Ellison from driving up the incline. It was nearly two miles to Dr. Tepper’s front door on foot. He began running as fast as he could, extending all of his senses. He hoped to hear Blair’s voice, or catch some other trace of his Guide’s living presence,

Beating an ever-increasing tattoo on the uneven ground beneath his feet, the Sentinel swore a solemn blood-oath to his partner. If worse came to worse, and Blair Sandburg died at her hands, Christie Phillips would see hell before she saw another sunrise.

And Jim Ellison would punch her one-way ticket.

***

“Honey, I’m home!” Christie Phillips flashed her straight white teeth at the bound and gagged Blair Sandburg. “Sorry, we couldn’t be … together earlier, but I guess you had a bad reaction to the tea I made for you.” Making a cackling noise -- an obscene parody of her usual giggle -- she stroked the side of Blair’s face gently, with the point of the long knife. Sandburg’s breath hitched at the feel of the cold metal on his flesh.

“Don’t worry, baby, Christie won’t hurt you. Unless you like it that way. Your arms must be sore by now. Be nice and Christie will make it all better.” She swung the knife upward and cut through the set of ropes on Blair’s left wrist. “Here. Let me get the other one.” The bindings fell away as she sliced them easily.

Sandburg winched in pain as the feeling came throbbing back into his almost-useless hands and arms.

“So, ‘Darwin’—“ Jim’s nickname for his partner sounded like a curse coming from the woman’s lips – “what do you say? How about a little –“

Using a half-formed fist, Blair fumbled with the gag in his mouth, finally spitting it out. “Don’t call me that, you bitch!” The rage in Sandburg’s voice caught Christie Phillips off-guard. So much so, that she didn’t see his left elbow swing upward and connect solidly with her nose. The sound of breaking bone was unmistakable.

Christie roared like a wounded animal.

It was now or never. Blair Sandburg made his move. He rarely prayed, but offered up whatever came close to the concept in his fevered brain as he staggered to his feet and began to run. Shoeless and wearing only boxes, he left his captor screaming in agony, rolling on the floor, as he bolted from the room.

Luckily, the front door wasn’t locked. As Sandburg’s shoulder connected to it, it flew open, and Blair found himself on the porch of a cottage overlooking the ocean. Everything looked familiar – and yet foreign. But there was a road in front of him. And where there was a road, there was hope. Hope of escape. Hope of getting back to Jim. What did that old adage say? "In the hour of adversity be not without hope, for crystal rain falls from black clouds." ****

Blair was still nauseated from the drugs, but, as he stumbled along, they also made the pain from the stones cutting his bare feet tolerable.

Or maybe trying to stay alive made everything else pale in comparison.

If the young anthropologist could just make it to a phone or flag down a passing car, he might live to teach another day. And he might have a chance to love Jim Ellison.

“Stop right there! You’ll never get away from me!” Christie shrieked, banshee-like, as she suddenly appeared. Blood rolled down from her broken nose and into her twisted mouth. She spat it out, along with a curse. “You fucking bastard!”

As he tried to navigate down the stony path, Blair rolled on the gravel, and pitched down onto some large, jagged rocks. The cracking sound his left forearm made reminded Blair Sandburg of a gunshot. The pain radiating up and down his arm left Sandburg speechless as he fell hard on both knees. Stunned to helplessness, he stared at the cloudless blue sky overhead and caught sight of a Herring seagull. Circling lazily, the large bird eyed the action below before flying out of Blair’s line of sight.

Dazed, Blair suddenly felt his head being jerked backwards, and something sharp pressed against his throat.

Blair Sandburg’s last thought was of Jim, as he whispered the name like a prayer.

And a goodbye.

***

Jim Ellison heard the ragged, familiar voice saying his name as he ran up the path.

Blair.

Blair was alive.

Blair was nearby.

Blair was scared.

As Jim hit the top of the hill, the Sentinel saw a wild-eyed Christie Phillips holding a gleaming blade to his Guide’s throat.

One shot. One chance.

Jim breathed, focused, and fired.

The dead woman fell, like a marionette whose strings had been cut.

Ellison raced toward the kneeling figure and looked down. Blair Sandburg’s stalker lay lifeless, her arms akimbo, the knife sparkling in the bright afternoon sunlight near her lifeless hand. The detective pulled out his cell and called for backup, even as he dropped to his own knees, and gathered the smaller man in his arms.

"Sandburg … Blair!”

The tone, the comforting sound brought Blair’s head up to look at what clearly was a drug-induced illusion. Jim Ellison couldn’t possibly be there, since Sandburg was probably about to die. And his friend wouldn’t want to witness that.

“You’re all right, buddy. I’m here.”

"Jim?” Blair's speech was slurred. “Am I dead?"

“No, Chief. You’re alive. You’re going to be … okay.” Jim Ellison squeezed the sagging shoulders of his friend, and eased him down onto the ground. Blair yelped as his arm touched the gravel.

“Oh, man! I have to be alive. Being dead couldn’t hurt this fucking much!”

The cell phone rang. Jim flipped it open. “I’ve got him, Sir!”

“Talk to me, Ellison!”

“He’s pretty banged up, but he’s alive. She isn’t.”

Jim listened to several rapid-fire questions from his Captain.

“We’re going to need an ambulance for Sandburg. And the coroner’s wagon. See you soon. Thanks, Simon.”

Jim Ellison snapped the cell shut, and pocketed it. He carefully swept Blair’s tangled hair way from his face.

“Jim …”

“Yeah, buddy.”

“Is she – is Christie …”

“Sorry, Sandburg. It was her or you.”

As Ellison heard Banks and the uniform police vehicles coming to a halt at the bottom of Ivy Column Way, he placed the gentlest of kisses on Sandburg’s forehead. The Sentinel offered up a silent prayer of thanksgiving to the God who had gotten him there in time, steadied his hand to make the one-in-a-thousand-shot, and had given him back his Guide.

Alive.

***

Two days later, Jim was signing the necessary paperwork to release Blair Sandburg from Cascade General. Even a single day of observation was one day too many for the anthropologist, who hated hospital stays marginally less than attending Republican fundraisers or being stuck next to an insurance salesman on a cross-country airplane flight. After getting a long list of instructions and a bagful of prescriptions from the doctor, Jim Ellison headed for Room 672. Dr. John Pullman, the Cascade General physician who had treated Blair on one or two other occasions, had also advised the detective to get the injured Sadnburg into counseling as soon as he was up to it. “I don’t have to tell you know important it will be for your partner to talk to someone about what’s happened to him.” Jim promised the doctor – and himself – to get Blair whatever help might be needed.

As Jim entered the room, an almost-dressed Blair Sandburg waved “hello” with his robin’s egg blue cast, its color a cheery contrast to the ugly reason for being on the anthropologist’s left arm. The break had been a clean one, thankfully needing no surgery to correct it.

"You ready, Chief?"

“I was born ready, man.” Awash with a smile of relief, Blair Sandburg's face was pasty-looking, dark smudges underscoring the cornflower blue eyes. "You can't get me out of here fast enough."

Jim Ellison pushed a wheelchair toward his partner. "Your chariot awaits."

“The horses, too, Jim?"

“Sweetheart,” Jim’s two-toned beauty, was parked in front of the hospital, in what Jim was beginning to consider his, and Sandburg’s, permanent space. “250, according to Ford."

***

Like a Blessed Protector on steroids, Sentinel Jim Ellison was super-vigilant as he brought his guide home. The younger man was uncharacteristically quiet. Jim pulled the truck into the parking spot smoothly and turned the engine off. He walked around to the passenger’s side, and helped Sandburg out of the cab, careful not to jostle the injured arm. The two navigated into the building and the old elevator. Jim hit their floor number and the car moved upward before grinding slowly to a halt on the third floor. Jim Ellison put a large hand on the small of Sandburg’s back, gently maneuvering him into the loft before closing their front door and locking it.

“You OK, Chief?"

Blair's voice was rusty with emotion. "I thought I'd never see home… I mean the loft again." A tear clung to the corner of Sandburg’s eye, the solitary witness to all the still-churning emotions that were threatening to engulf the young man as he stood near the kitchen island.

“C'mere." Jim dropped Blair's duffle bag, and pulled the small man into a crushing hug. "You were right the first time.”

They stood that way for several moments, as if drawing strength and solace from one another's proximity.

"I thought my time was really up. And I was even more scared I’d never see you again, Jim." Blair mumbled into Ellison's granite hard chest.

"Me, too." Jim whispered into the comforting darkness of the soft auburn curls. "That's what we have now, Chief. Time."

Hesitantly, chastely, the Sentinel placed a soft kiss on his Guide's head. His lips drifted slowly down the forehead and bruised cheek.

"Jim …" Blair's voice was laced with questions. But no fear, or worse, rejection.

"We got a second chance, Blair. I can't waste it. I have to tell you. Even if this isn't what you want. I just need you to know that …"

Blair's eyes looked up, brilliant and large.

"What, Jim? What should I know?"

Ellison could feel the pulses of the smaller man’s breath on his face and lips, drifting into his mouth like perfume. Jim’s sentinel eyes could actually see them. It was intoxicating, like drinking in Sandburg’s life force.

“That you’re … my brass ring, Blair. You always have been. I was just a horse’s ass for not telling you before.”

Without any additional preamble, Jim Ellison kissed Blair Sandburg on the mouth. As their lips met, it sealed the two in a lovers’ concordat - with tongue and teeth and the joining of two souls. This “first” moved the friends into an uncharted, yet rich-with-promise neighborhood.

The men’s bodies reacted like quicksilver. Blood diverted southward. Parts of Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg burned equally, crying out for an immediate exchange of touch and fluids and much-needed release.

“Oh, God, Jim …”

Jim’s limbic brain – the one screaming for immediate satisfaction -- hurtled him full throttle at his partner, mindless of Sandburg’s present physical condition.

The ex-Army Captain in Jim Ellison, the one standing apart, watchman-like, barked “STOP! NOW!“ as Blair’s mottled skin, cuts, immobilized wrist came into sharp focus, and brought the Sentinel back to his senses.

Their first time together had to be more special than a quick fuck, a rough push down and roll across the hardwood floor -- no matter how spotless the floor was.

The Sentinel held his Guide at arm’s length.

“Chief, wait …”

“Why, Jim?” Blair’s fear was as palpable as another person in the room with the two.

“Because, ‘Guppy,’” Ellison fell back on a singular term of endearment, as he fondly tousled Blair’s hair. “You deserve the best.”

The gesture, coupled with the words, made Sandburg positively glow. “You ARE the best.”

It was Ellison’s turn to smile back. His heart was as full as his hands, which he’d lowered and, playfully, squeezed Blair’s butt.

“I want to love you, Chief, but only when you’re 100% …”

“Freak a guy out, why don’t you? For a minute, Jim, I thought …”

“What, Chief? That I was going to pull another classic ‘Ellison’ on you?”

“No … yes … maybe …”

“Well, that’s pretty much covering your bases.” Jim massaged the well-formed ass cheeks. “You need rest. And a bath. And soup. Not necessarily in that order. Let me bag the arm so you can shower. I’ll rustle us up some grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato bisque for lunch. How’s that sound?”

“Great, man. But …” Blair paused, and questioned, almost shyly, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have me instead?”

“Soon.” Jim stared at the moist full lips, the face, so open, so unguarded and the sturdy compact body swaying in his direction. “In a week – a couple at the outside – you’re going to be in my bed – our bed. Naked on all fours. Me in you. Having the time of our lives. And, except for work, I’m pretty much going to keep you that way.”

The little speech hit Blair Sandburg in the heart -- and lower. Its effect was everything Jim hoped for as he saw the tremble in the other man’s body.

“Fuck.”

“Well said, Buddy.” Jim put his large hands on Blair’s shoulders, spun him around and swatted the delicious bottom and nudged him toward the bathroom. “Now go. Wash. I’m begging you. If you need help, give me a yell.”

“Come with me, and you’ll probably get lot more than that.” Blair wiggled his butt against the front of Jim’s body a few times before heading off to shower.

Passersby on Prospect Avenue could hear Ellison’s groan.

***

Blair stared at the edge of his sandwich, picking at little pieces of burnt cheddar, as the two men talked around what had happened with Christie Phillips. Not surprisingly, Sandburg was still “processing” the kidnapping and its aftermath. Jim Ellison had seen the same reaction in hundreds of crime victims. It was never easy to deal with violence – particularly the kind inflicted by someone you knew. The people Detective Jim Ellison and other members of the Cascade PD had helped, they’d been strangers.

This was Blair. His Blair.

“I’ve been where you are, Chief – and I know what a bitch it is. I won’t push. But, just promise me that when you feel ready, you’ll talk to someone. Okay?”

“Yeah, big guy. Just not yet.”

“Understood.” Jim finished the last spoonful of soup. “And, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry I acted like such a horse’s ass about Tom Gelbart and Dave Arnold.”

“Since you saved my life – again – I may be willing to cut you some slack on that.”

“Thanks, Chief. You’ve got some stuff --” Jim took his napkin and dusted round Blair’s mouth.

“I can do it.”

“I know, but let me… Sandburg.” Ellison had been tempted to call Blair ‘shining boy,’ but resisted the urge.

Maybe later.

Instead, the conversation danced gingerly around the “the beast with two backs.” Finishing up the last potato chips from his plate, Blair finally spilled the beans about his status in the world of men on men. It came down to Sandburg’s knowledge came from having read a lot about “it,” asking questions about “it,” and knowing some pretty interesting practitioners of “it.”

But there’d never been any “hands on” experience, so to speak.

“Never?” Jim tried not to sound incredulous. It had never occurred to him that his unofficial partner was virgin territory.

“Not ‘never’ never. Just ‘guy’ never.”

“So that crap about college type reorienting their preferences all the time …”

“They do, Jim.” Blair popped the baby gherkin into his mouth. “It’s just that ‘I’ don’t. Haven’t. No reason to. Until now.”

A Cheshire-cat grin erupted on Jim Ellison’s face.

“What?” His observer-partner asked, somewhat suspiciously.

“Blair Sandburg … cherry.”

“Jim …”

The thought gave Ellison the beginnings of a ruthless hard-on that he’d have to take care of later. “Sorry, Sandburg. I’m just … anyway, keep eating. And drink your milk. You’re going to need all your strength.”

***

Two weeks later, around six o’clock, Jim Ellison came home after a fairly boring, non-descript Friday. He remembered very little of it, except a ton of report forms he’d filled out, calls from the FBI (always a treat), and Simon Banks griping at the squad all day because someone had taken the last chocolate glazed donut, condemning him to eat a no-fat, sugar-free, cardboard-tasting dried up “turd of a muffin.” Jim smiled as herelived scarfing down the last bite of the Captain’s snack in the breakroom.

If the biggest ‘off-limits’ was going to come tumbling down tonight, what was a little piece of cake among friends? This was the beginning of the weekend. The weekend when he and Blair Sandburg, whose body was now bruise-free, all the cuts totally healed, would finally become lovers. Only the bright blue cast on Sandburg’s left arm reminded them of what had happened. It still acted as a highly visual cue for the bigger man to take special care with his partner.

As soon as Jim Ellison arrived at the loft, took his jacket and shoulder holster off, and hung them on the pegs next to the door. He’d stow his Glock in the gun safe after dinner. His Sentinel nose immediately detected a tantalizing meatless lasagna warming in the oven. There was also an excellent bottle of opened Bardolino breathing on the counter, a gift from Steven. The table had been set with Grandmother Ellison’s good china and silverware, and candles waiting to be lit. Without looking, Jim knew there was salad chilling in the refrigerator, along with a bottle of freshly-made dressing. A dozen different herbs from Torello’s Market around the corner made it the specialty of the house. (Well, at least the Ellison-Sandburg house.)

“Honey, I’m home! Where are ‘Princess,’ ‘Bud’ and ‘Kitten’?” FATHER KNOWS BEST was one of Blair’s favorite 1950’s TV sit-coms.

“Up here, Jim …” A voice drifted down from Jim’s bedroom, Ellison trotted up the stairs and stopped dead in his tracks on the landing.

Across the large bed stretched royal blue satin sheets, bathed in warm candle light. Standing near the head of the bed stood Blair Sandburg, in an almost-matching short silken robe. It was tied invitingly, seductively – and loosely -- at the waist.

“Wow” – was the only acceptable adjective that came to Ellison’s mind and mouth as he plopped himself down at the foot of the ocean of lapis. “Where in hell did you get these?”

Blair looked confused. “Me? I didn’t … uh … I sort of ‘found’ them in your linen closet. I thought you kept them … for special occasions.”

Jim thought for a minute, then remembered where they’d come from.

“Caroline. It was Caroline who bought them.”

“I guess you didn’t use them a lot if you didn’t remember them, huh?”

Jim Ellison looked embarrassed. “She thought it might help fix what was wrong with our marriage. It didn’t. Too little, too late.” He also thought it probably wasn’t the best time to explain just how expensive it was to clean the expensive sheets after a morning/afternoon/evening of “fun and games.”

“Sorry if it brings back bad memories...” Blair offered sympathetically, as he sat down next to Jim -- and promptly slalomed off the slippery surface down to the floor.

“Shit!”

It was so fast, even Ellison’s lightning-fast reflexes couldn’t stop the smaller man’s swan dive.

Although he tried not to, the big detective started to laugh – and laugh hard. Wiping tears away from his eyes, he extended a helping hand to his partner who was sprawled inelegantly beside the bed. “Jesus, Chief. You don’t need one more black and blue mark on that carcass of yours. Come back up here.”

“Who knew ‘traction’ would be my biggest problem with you?” Joining in the laughter, Blair let himself be pulled easily back onto the sheets.

“Relax, Sandburg.” Jim placed an affectionate kiss in the center of Blair’s forehead. “If I have to, I’ll throw myself on top of you to keep you here.”

“For my own good, right?”

Jim Ellison answered by standing up and peeling off his clothes, the hunger in his eyes and the action in his jeans both evident to his young lover. “That’s my story – and I’m sticking to it.”

***

The satin sheets, it turned out, were a surprisingly good idea after all. Jim Ellison would have to thank the “ex” the next time he saw her. The effect of seeing his naked Guide splayed out across the fabric, with eyes matching and morphing into a thousand different shades of blue, was threefold. One: it made the Sentinel instantly as hard as diamonds. Two: it made him want to love Blair stupid. And three: it made Jim want to offer up yet another prayer of gratitude that this ball of unbridled enthusiasm, energy, and erotic whimsy was dropped into his life in the first place. And for the cosmic “do over.”

Jim and Blair would never have to play the ‘what if’ game so many people were forced to in their lives – sad lonely people who’d missed their ‘real deal.’

Jim Ellison whispered “thank you” a dozen times as he rained kisses down Blair’s strong, straight back. But as he approached the nirvana of Sandburg’s most secret areas, Jim felt the other man tense up, and clench his beautiful butt cheeks tightly together.

Jim stopped.

“Chief?”

“Yeah, Jim?”

“We don’t have to do this.”

“I ‘want’ to.”

“Look, I know this is all new to you, so--”

“It isn’t, Jim. I told you I’ve had girlfriends who’ve … you know …”

“Played with this gorgeous ass?” Jim licked the base of Blair’s spine. He felt satisfaction as his lover’s body shivered under the tip of his tongue. “Did you like it?”

The smaller man moaned a soft answer. “It didn’t suck.”

“Not exactly a ringing endorsement.”

“C’mon, man. That was different. I didn’t ... love them.”

“Good answer, Chief.”

Jim reached up to touch Blair’s sable locks, running his long fingers over the well-shaped head. He scratched lightly, remembering Blair loved having that done to him. Ellison smiled at the sounds of contentment coming from his young lover. Sandburg almost purred at the attention, then laid back and tried to still himself. He failed miserably. Blair’s body seemed incapable of not responding to Jim Ellison’s every thought and caress. From over his shoulder, and from under those incredibly thick eyelashes, the smaller man threw an almost incendiary look in Ellison’s direction. (There was no doubt in Jim’s mind that, under the right circumstances, it could actually melt lead.)

The Sentinel took it as a sign, a tacit permission to do whatever he wanted. “God, Chief, you are something else … ” Suddenly, play turned to passion. “And it’s all mine.”

Covered with a golden sheen of sweat, Blair was a sensual feast laid out for Jim’s eyes alone. No one else would ever be privileged to see how the perspiration rolled down in myriad directions, or how every muscle responded to a nip or a breath or a swipe of the tongue.

No one else would witness the beautiful rosebud orifice winking at Jim begging for more.

And certainly no one else would be the first for Blair. The first in Blair this way.

Slowly, purposefully, Jim inserted a well-lubed finger into Sandburg. He lay still for a half-second, then struggled to have it enter him further. Jim angled downward and struck carnal gold by raking over Blair’s prostate.

The effect was instantaneous and mind-boggling. Ellison was rewarded with a string of surprised screams. Over and over, Sandburg repeated “Jim!,” “Yes!,” and “There!” The trio of monosyllables became commands, then supplications, and ultimately, praise when Blair’s first orgasm ripped through him like an out-of-control freight train.

If Jim lived to be 100 (doubtful, with a youngster as your bedmate), he would never forget tonight - when nothing was off-limits.

“Let me turn over, Jim. I want us to be face to face.”

“No, it’d be too rough on you that way.”

“Hey, I’m no candy ass. I can—“

“Gotta disagree with you there, Chief. Your ass is definitely candy.” Jim gave the left cheek a playful nip.

“Jim,” Blair wheedled,” let me flip over.”

“If we do it that way, then we do it ‘my’ way.”

“As long as you do me, I don’t care if I’m hanging from the rafters.”

Jim’s laughter bounced off the bedroom walls.

“Next time, Chief.” Satisfied with his preliminary efforts, Ellison bent his head down and kissed above the full pubic thatch, even as he pulled withdrew his finger from the flesh chute trying to hold him hostage. Jim craned his head to to slowly lick the inside of Sandburg’s thigh. Like a large cat, he languidly brushed at the flesh with his tongue, catching drops of moisture that ran from Blair’s groin down toward his waiting lips. The taste was earthy and heady … and pure Sandburg.

Again and again, Jim lapped up every drop, as though it were a life-giving elixir. Blair moaned and mewled, rolling his buttocks and hips into the sheets, losing himself to the twin sensations of the satin and the rasping surface of his lover’s wicked, talented tongue. "Think you get this on me with one arm in a cast?”

Blair saw a condom and a bottle of lubricant in Jim’s hands. “If I can’t, I’ll use my teeth.”

The “Little Sentinel” doweled eagerly toward Blair’s hands. “Christ, Sandburg. You do have a way with words. Need help?”

“No, Jim. I think I can handle this mission on my own. Lean back, man.”

Resting against the pillows, Ellison noticed how nervous Sandburg was touching his partner’s erection for the first time. “It’s just like yours, babe. It won’t bite.”

“That’s what they all say, and then someone loses an eye.” Blair rolled the condom down the length of Jim’s shaft, after which he liberally applied the Astro-Glide over it. The Sentinel stretched out two fingers toward his Guide, who squirted a large dollop on them. Jim warmed it with his breath, before penetrating his lover’s ass again.

The small, rational sliver of Ellison’s brain still functioning was frankly amazed at his partner’s responsiveness. Everything he did seemed to fan Sandburg’s sexual fires.

Jim couldn’t wait any longer. Pulling his knees up, he made a cradle for Blair’s ripe, round, ready bottom.

“Swing your leg over me, Chief. We’ll take this as slow as you need to.”

Sandburg did as he was told. Jim pushed his finger’s into Blair’s anus, and scissored them back and forth until he judged his lover was as loose as he was going to be. Removing his fingers, Ellison positioned the head of his dick just under Blair’s anus.

“Ready, Chief?”

“Uh-huh.”

Sandburg was primed and ready. As Ellison breeched the small opening with the head of his dick and pushed in slowly, Blair grabbed onto his shoulders for support.

A sharp intake of air and a jolt of pain flashing across Blair’s face stopped Jim immediately.

“Too much, babe?”

Digging his fingers deeply into Ellison’s flesh, Blair grunted. “Just give me couple of seconds.”

The next few minutes seemed like hours made up of infinitesimal steps, as Sandburg slipped further down Ellison’s large, throbbing cock, acclimating its considerable girth inside him. All the while, Blair inhaled deeply and blew out air in little puffs, yoga-style. Finally, he was sitting flat against Jim’s groin. The smaller man brushed the sweat-soaked hair away from his face and neck, and spoke.

“It’s okay now, Jim. Just go slow.”

“’You sure, Chief? We can--”

“MOVE, ELLISON. NOW.”

“Pushy virgin.”

Jim stroked his lover’s hard thighs as he thrust upward into the unbelievable, welcoming tightness. The two began rocking slowly, moving together in a dance old as time itself, but as new as their almost-lost opportunity.

As Blair rode Jim’s erection, marveling at the complete joining, the oneness of their act, he had never felt so wanted, so coveted, so needed, so loved. The Guide’s heart and soul were now annealed to his Sentinel’s. Sandburg was owned, lock, stock and satin sheets by the man who’d been “off limits” to him. But no more. Nothing would ever part them …

“You’re thinking, Sandburg. Stop it.” Jim changed his position slightly so he could wrap his arms around Sandburg’s back and pull him closer. As he kissed, licked and chewed Blair’s neck, Jim began thrusting in earnest.

“Oh, God … OH GOD …Now ... NOW!” Blair ordered. Through the pounding, Sandburg made sounds of mindless rutting, until finally, with Jim’s last powerful penetration, the room around them exploded. Blair came all over Jim’s chest, even as the big man poured his scalding hot semen into the depths of his lover’s smaller body.

As the aftershocks of their climaxes ran through them, the two collapsed, laughing, crying, making nonsensical noises at one another. In the half-light, Jim whispered, “I’m going to pull out, babe.”

“Don’t.”

“I want to while you’re still pumped full of—“

“Jim juice?”

“Endorphins, Sandburg. I don’t want it to hurt you any more than I have.”

“Ellison, I am what Naomi used to call, ‘high, dry and finger-licking good.' After what we just did, you’d need a phaser set on ‘stun’ to hurt me.”

"Doofus. If you knew how much I … I …"

"Love me?"

"—yeah … "

"I’d be embarrassed?”

Using the element of surprise, Jim rolled him over and sent the two tumbling backward onto the rumpled sheets. "… you'd freaking pass out."

"Man. Hearts and flowers from Jim Ellison. I’m touched. So, what do we do now?"

"I guess I’m going to have to make you pass out the old-fashioned way."

"How, exactly?"

"By fucking you stupid.” Jim began alternately nipping and licking the side of Blair's neck, before traveling down the sweaty torso, over the hipbone and to the back of the knees. “And considering your brain’s the size of a Volvo, it may take a while."

"Jesus, James …" Squirming like a puppy on jello, Blair gasped, as he ground his aching erection into the sheets.

"Christ, Sandburg, could you be any hotter?" Jim separated the two ass cheeks, bent down and blew over the gleaming hole.

Before the now-whimpering smaller man could answer, Ellison stuck his long, talented tongue into the now-relaxed, stretched passage and hit Blair's prostate again. The howl of pleasure was witness to Jim's unfailing aim.

Sentinel Jim Ellison reflected that having five heightened senses wasn't all that bad. They were working out to be damned fine sex aids – at least when you were using them on your Guide.

And now, where Blair Sandburg was concerned, there’d never be anything “off limits” ever again.

Which was just fine with Jim Ellison.

The end

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AUTHORS NOTES:

*A.B.D. - All But Dissertation

**Congo and Other Poems, “In Memory of a Child,” Vachel Lindsay

***South Beach Punch – Signature drink at available in five boxing class categories, determining its strength--from Flyweight (one shot of rum) to Knockout (five different types of rum).

****"In the hour of adversity be not without hope, For crystal rain falls from black clouds." Nizami Ganjavi, Azeri Poet & Philosopher (1141 - c.1209)

AUTHOR’S NOTES: Thanks to Mary, a.k.a. krystalrain, my Moonridge Auction Story Winner, not only for her suggestions (which I hope I’ve covered), but also for her graciousness -- and great patience.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: As always, thanks to the Mongoose tribe (editors, writers, betas, artists, et al) who encourage me -- and one another-- to keep cranking these puppies out. We hope you SENTINEL fans continue to appreciate our efforts.