Return to Sender - alyjude

~~~~~

Author's notes: This was first posted online back in July of 2002 but has been revised and hopefully improved for inclusion in My Mongoose Ezine. It's based on the Joseph Cotton, Jennifer Jones movie, Love Letters. I believe I've been true to the spirit of the movie and my memory of it. Haven't seen it in years! :)

~~~~~

MARCH 5, 1988 - SOTA CANO, HONDURAS

Jim Ellison sat on the patio of the small cantina, a bottle of beer trapped between restless fingers. He watched the foot traffic with indifference. Barnes was late as usual. He yawned, then glanced down at the small puddle of water his cold beer had created on the surface of the table. Slowly he began to trace abstract designs through the pooled liquid.

He was bored senseless, which was odd considering that in a few days, he and his men would be heading out on another covert mission. Normally, he was antsy, jumpy and filling the time doing and redoing his mission preps.

"Earth to Ellison?"

Jim glanced up to find a tall cool blonde gazing down at him, a smile playing about her lips.

"You're late again, Barnes."

She pulled out a chair and, with an elegant, almost feline grace, sat down. She reached for his beer, brought it to her lips, and took a long swig. Smiling in relief, she handed it back.

"Gee, thirsty?" he asked sarcastically.

She grinned wickedly. "Not anymore, thanks."

"So what was so urgent that we had to meet here and now?" Jim asked, not really caring.

Alex reached into her briefcase and took out a buff colored envelope. Jim, even from where he sat, recognized the sprawling handwriting on the outside. He immediately sat back and crossed his arms stubbornly across his chest.

"No way, Alex. No way. I told you the last letter would be it and I was serious."

"Jim, this will be the last one, I swear it. Please?"

She batted her long dark lashes, knowing full well it would have no effect on Ellison. She waved the envelope in front of him. "Don't you want to know what it says? Come on, Jim, please?" she wheedled.

"NO!" Jim said loudly. Seeing the stares of other patrons, he immediately lowered his voice. "It was wrong the first time and it's wrong now."

"Jiiim, you know I'm no good with words. But you are, even if I'm the only one who knows it. You, Captain James Ellison, are terrific with the written word. And this really will be the last one…." She let her voice trail off hopefully. Jim had to admit that Alex spoke the truth about his letter writing abilities. He might not be known for his verbal skills, but under the right circumstances, he was a whiz with letters. At 30, Captain James Ellison was usually seen as terse, even taciturn, but on paper, he could be a poetic genius. Especially when writing letters to a young man in Cascade, Washington. Love letters.

As he stared at the paper that Alex was waving in front of him, he was struck by an overwhelming need that almost convinced him to capitulate, to write one more letter for Alex. Damn, he still couldn't figure out why he'd agreed to this farce in the first place. Why had he written to a complete stranger and to pretend, at least on paper, to be Alexis?

But he knew.

He should never have read that very first letter, a letter written by one, Blair Sandburg. He'd been hooked almost instantly. Imagine, Captain Jim Ellison, hooked by a kid. A twenty-one year old who wrote with great exuberance of his hopes and dreams, while at the same time presenting a wisdom and maturity so at odds with his youth. The very essence of Blair Sandburg had managed, through the written word, to travel over 5,000 miles and settle in Jim Ellison's hardened heart. And that was why he'd agreed to write Alex's letters for her. He'd have said yes to anything just to be able to continue to read Sandburg's letters. Fingers snapping in front of his face brought him back to the cantina -- and Alex.

"Jim," she was saying, "This really will be it. I leave for Washington on Friday."

Jim didn't miss the smug tone, nor her victorious smile. "You're not actually going back there?"

Eyes dancing with excitement, she said, "Not only going back, but I'm going to marry him, Jim."

Voice suddenly cold, Jim said, "Unless I missed a couple of letters, he hasn't asked."

"He will," Alex said confidently.

Jim shook his head. This was wrong, dangerous even. "Alex, he doesn't know you. And since when is a 20-year-old grad student--"

"You haven't seen him, Jim. In spite of his age, he's fucking incredible, and on the fast track to success and fame. Shit, he already has his Masters in Anthropology. He was a child prodigy, Jim. He wants to travel, see the world, and so do I. I'm telling you, we're a match made in heaven."

Heaven wasn't the part of the spiritual world he'd have used to describe whatever it was.

"Alex, this isn't right."

"A little late to be thinking of what's right, don't you think? How many letters have you done in my name? Ten?"

Fifteen, Jim thought, but who's counting?

"You do this last one, and Blair and I are out of your hair forever." She held out the letter. "One more and it's over--"

Unable to resist the lure of Blair Sandburg's words, James Ellison took it. Smiling like the Cheshire cat, Alex said, "I'll pick it up from you tonight. Seven at Lupe's?"

Jim was staring at the papers in his hand, felt them them burning through to his skin, but he nodded slowly. Alex got up, leaned over and dropped a quick kiss on the top of his head. "Thank you, Jim." As she straightened, she added, "You know, I'm going to miss you."

Jim tore himself away from the letter and glanced up only to be surprised when he spotted a wistfulness in her eyes. Then she was gone with a grin and a wave and he was left alone--with the letter.

Hands shaking, he unfolded it, spread the sheets out on the table and with equal parts dread and anticipation, he began to read-

From the desk of Blair Sandburg

Dear Alexis,

In your last letter, you wrote: -A world of color, vibrant and alive. Voices full of life. Smooth, rough, patched, ridged, so much to touch and feel. Complex spices, the simplicity of bursting saltiness on the tongue. The scent of our earth; dark, rich and mysterious. How can this world so fill our senses and yet one individual exist in darkness?-

You don't ask the easy questions, do you? The darkness of which you speak is a world in which I'm well acquainted. But the feelings you've shared with me have illuminated the darkest corners of my heart and I find myself reaching out as I've never done before. The world is vibrant and alive and I've found its colors, sounds and scents contained within your letters.

I'm running my finger over the ink of your words and suddenly I can visualize that small table in the cantina that you've told me about. I can taste the cold beer on your lips and, for me, the world is brighter. And considering that I'm here in Cascade, that's saying something. Yeah, I'm smiling right now.

I've learned that the darkness is temporary, Alexis. Trust me on this. A hand on your shoulder, a warm laugh breathed out against your skin, and the world will once again be full of light and grace. Your words do that for me, so allow my hand and voice to do the same for you?

Would it sound silly to say that I'm actually counting down the minutes until your arrival? I know, it does. Just so you have the right picture in your mind -- I'm grinning like a 14k fool.

By the way? How do you like the sound of Borneo? There's talk of an expedition to be led by my mentor, Doctor Eli Stoddard, and I'm pretty sure that I'll be asked to join. As it stands now, the expedition is scheduled for Spring. Not bad timing, I'm thinking. Yes, I'm grinning again.

Class starts in five so I'm going to end this one, knowing full well that it will probably be the last. Did you know that smiling is excellent exercise? There's a candle in the darkness, Alexis. One for each of us.

Yours,

Blair

Slowly Captain James Ellison ran his finger over the ink. He smiled, pulled up his own briefcase, took out a pad, unclipped his pen and started to write--spilling his soul in the process--

***

"You brought it?" Alex slid into the booth, her gaze questioning.

Without saying a word, Jim held up the letter. Alex grabbed it saying, "Thanks, Jimbo."

She opened it, set it down and handed Jim a pen. "You need to add my flight information, please?"

With a huff, Jim took the pen and as Alex recited her flight number, time of arrival etc., he wrote. When finished, she took back the letter, folded it, then slid it into the envelope she'd brought. After sealing it, she slid it over to Jim, who, without hesitation, addressed it. Alex picked up the finished product, kissed it, stamped it, then slid it into her purse.

"So, what did you say this time?"

"You should have read it before you sealed it, Alex."

"Yeah, but I didn't. So tell me."

"Nothing much," he said, finding it difficult to express the words that now sat in Alex's purse.

"Right, nothing. Oh, well, it hardly matters now." She sat back with a satisfied grin and said, "Rumor has it that you're shipping out soon. Is it true, Jim?"

"Alex--" he said, warning in his voice.

"So it is true. Don't worry, I won't ask where, but if the reports about the guerilla troop movement in Peru are any indication…." She leaned forward, eyes darting cautiously around the room before resting once again on the handsome man opposite. "You be careful, Jimmy. Word is out that North is after your hide."

"Since when do you care, Alex?"

"Hey, I've always cared, Jimbo. And the Barnes family may not have any money left, but we still have influence, so I hear things. What worries me is that if those strings my father pulled don't work, I may end up back here and you'd be gone. Who'd write my letters then?"

"Ah, selfish to the end."

Alex smirked and patted her bag. "Selfish is my middle name. But if all goes well, Sandburg will soon be my last."

A cold feeling of dread filled Jim. He reached a hand out and clasped Alex's.

"Tell him," he hissed out.

"Tell who what?" Alex said, puzzled.

"Tell Sandburg about the letters. The minute you get off the plane -- tell him."

"Are you crazy?"

"Crazy to write them for you in the first place. No good can come of it, Alex. You need to tell him."

She smiled a feline grin. "You really want me to divulge the fact that for two months, he's been exchanging letters with… a man?"

"Tell him, Alex."

She slid out of the booth, straightened her uniform and shook her head. "Ellison, you're a fool."

Jim watched her walk away and the coldness in his heart increased.

***

CASCADE, WASHINGTON

Blair Sandburg tore around the corner of the building. He was late -- again. He'd just come from the campus postal center and in his book bag, tucked into the corner -- a letter.

The letter.

From Alexis.

In ninety minutes, he'd know her arrival date. Blair pulled open the door to his psych class and tried to sneak to his seat.

"So glad you could join us, Mr. Sandburg. Perhaps, after you've settled in, you'd like to share with the rest of the class some of the symptoms of the chronic compulsive obsessive personality?"

Damn.

***

No class had ever gone this slow. Worms -- hell, turtles - moved faster than Professor McGinty today. And of course, it had absolutely nothing to do with the letter currently burning a hole in his backpack.

No sir.

The class finally ended and Blair was the first one to exit. He hurried to the student lounge, grabbed himself a chair in the corner and took out the letter. He knuckled back a chunk of errant hair and grinned. Alex had been right about letting it grow. He did look cool. The nerd had all but disappeared, to be replaced by a kind of cool hippie. Blair grinned. His mother Naomi, would be so proud.

Blair fingered the two rings in his ear. Amazing what a guy will do for a woman. He pulled the letter from the envelope and, as he opened it, found himself shaking his head. How was it possible that only in letters had Alex Barnes been able to show her true self? When he'd first met her last summer, he'd been struck by her beauty, sure, but had found her shallow and uninteresting. He'd promised to write, but until her first letter had arrived, he'd had no intention of doing so. But then he'd read it and – he'd been lost.

A soul-deep loneliness had run through every word she'd written. Buried hurts had been in every sentence and they'd shot through him, changing him. After that, it had only taken a couple more gut-wrenching, beautiful letters for Blair to fall and to fall hard. If he still had difficulty reconciling the woman he'd met with the woman in the letters, well, he was in love and no one had ever touched him as she had, and with nothing more than eloquent, heartfelt words. In her letters he'd found a kindred spirit, the other half of his soul. He unfolded the stationary and, with a gentle smile, began to read-

Blair,

Is there a more welcome sight in the world than that of one lone candle alight in a window, its warmth permeating the cold dark life outside? Can anything mean more to that weary traveler than the flickering glow, a beacon that signals a sense of belonging? Can any hope be more potent than that of your candle, promising warmth, safety and a home?

I remember as a small child, going to the beach with my family. We stayed until dark, figuring that the lighthouse would provide the illumination required to find our way back to the car. I watched the sunset from the safety of my father's arms -- one of the few times I can remember feeling that way about him – and when darkness finally descended, the lighthouse failed us.

Clouds hid the moon and the trek back to the car was hard but my father took my small hand into his strong one and said, "Don't worry, it's all right. I've got you." Another rare moment of complete safety never to be repeated -- until you, through your letters, entered my life.

Be the candle for me, Blair. Light my way and show me my path, my destiny. Let your breath caress my cheek and your hand guide me home.

Alexis

PS: My TWA flight arrives on March 8th at 2:00pm.

PSS: Borneo? Yes.

Blair lifted his head, surprised at the burning sensation behind his eyes. He blinked a couple of times, removed his glasses and rubbed hard. His stomach did a few flip-flops and he felt that ball of excitement usually reserved for those exciting hours just before leaving on an expedition. He ran his finger over the words again.

Tuesday. Alexis would be here on Tuesday.

***

MARRH 15, 1988 - CASCADE, WASHINGTON

Alexis looked at the lovely Colonial home. With a grin, she walked up to the front door and knocked. A moment later the door was opened by a small oriental woman.

"Yes?"

"I'm Alexis Barnes? I called earlier today?"

"Oh, yes, please come in." The woman stepped aside and Alexis entered.

As she gazed about her, she gave a silent whistle of appreciation. If only she'd known that Jim came from such wealth—

"Mr. Ellison is not here, but his son, Steven, will see you. Please, follow me."

Alexis was led into a large living room where a young man in his late twenties stood, hand held out in welcome. "Lieutenant Barnes?"

As she nodded and smiled politely, they shook, then the young man motioned her to the couch. As they both sat, he said, "Oddly enough, I was just finishing a letter to my brother." He indicated the small desk behind them.

"Oh? That surprises--I mean, Mr. Ellison--"

"Please, it's Steven."

"Steven. In my conversations with your brother, well, I somehow got the impression that you two didn't, that you, well--"

"That we weren't talking? Not close?" At her nod, he went on. "We weren't. But he wrote me a few weeks ago and we've been corresponding ever since. I miss my big brother."

"I'm happy to hear that. I told him I'd look you up upon my arrival in Cascade." She smiled charmingly. "I'm a little late."

"No problem. Please, how was he the last time you saw him?"

"Fine. Dour as usual." She gave Jim's brother another dazzling smile. "Hey, do you mind if I add a postscript to your letter? I have some information he'll be interested in hearing."

Steven Ellison rose and with a wave of his hand and a smile, indicated the letter and desk. She walked over and lifted the pen. Bending low, she scribbled:

Hey, Jimbo. Guess who? I dropped by as promised. Your brother was just finishing this and kindly allowed me to add a few words. I thought you'd like to be the first to hear; I'm married.

Take care, Ellison.

Alexis Barnes Sandburg

***

MARCH 24, 1988 - SOYA CANO AFB, HONDURAS

Jim Ellison stood in the hanger, a letter in his hand. Around him the ground crew moved efficiently, loading equipment and prepping the chopper. His own men stood several feet away, talking quietly. They were due to lift off in thirty minutes, but at that moment, all Captain James Ellison could see were three words on the white paper—

Alexis Barnes Sandburg.

He finally crumpled the letter in his hand. As he walked toward his men, he tossed it angrily into the trash bin.

***

OCTOBER 5, 1994 - CASCADE, WASHINGTON

Jim stared up at the brightly lit building. He was battling with himself as to whether he should go inside or not. It was the fact that Detective Megan Connor actually lived in an old warehouse that convinced him to go up. His leg was bothering him again and the sounds coming from Connor's party were enough to make him cringe and reconsider his decision. But damn, a warehouse? He had to see the place.

Jim shrugged, walked over to the speaker box and pushed the button. As soon as he let go, the scratchy sound of a male voice said, "He-lllo?"

"Um, Jim Ellison to see Megan Connor."

The background party almost drowned out the reply, but Jim caught it.

"Oh, sure. Come right up."

There was a loud buzzing and Jim heard the door unlock. He pushed it open and found himself in a poorly lit entryway. A freight elevator stood to his right so he slid cage door open, stepped in, pulled it shut again and pushed the up button.

As the elevator rose, so did the party noise. He thought of going back down and home, but besides his curiosity regarding Megan's residence, he also had to admit that he owed her big time.

Megan Connor was a new addition to the Major Crime division of the Cascade Police Department and, since Jim's leg injury in the line of duty, she'd taken over most of his cases. And yeah, he had to admit that not only was she attractive, bright and funny, she was also a damn fine detective.

Then of course, there was the small detail that the party was, in a way, for him.

The entire Major Crime gang was celebrating the capture of Garett Kincaid following the man's botched attempt at taking over the station. Kincaid was the leader of a terrorist group calling themselves the Sunrise Patriots. The group had been busted months ago by Major Crime, but Kincaid had escaped and, in an attempt to free his men, had taken the entire sixth floor hostage. It was in rescuing his fellow officers and capturing Kincaid that Jim had received his leg injury. He'd been on medical leave for the last two weeks, but now that he was up and around, Conner had decided it was time to party down.

With a start, Jim realized that the elevator had stopped. He opened up the doors and stepped out. Before he could knock on the brightly painted red door, it swung open and a man in his mid-twenties said, "Detective Ellison, welcome!" The voice, low and gentle, moved through Jim like a zephyr. He started to say something, but a booming voice from inside stopped him.

"Ellison, get in here now – I need you to settle this argument!"

Jim couldn't ignore the voice of his captain.

***

Voices, music, artificial scents, smoke, the smell of cooking food, a cold drink in his hand, the hot bodies surrounding him—

"Eighteen months? You spent eighteen months stranded in the jungles of Peru?"

"How the hell did you survive?"

"He's a Goddamn hero!"

The questions and remarks came from spouses, dates, and friends outside of the police department, all apparently interested in Jim Ellison, sole survivor of a helicopter crash while on a mission five years previous.

Jim took another sip of his scotch and smiled, but didn't answer. Someone moved – shifted -- to his left and, for the first time Jim could see the young man who'd welcomed him initially. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor with a tabby kitten curled up in his lap. The man was stroking the animal but his eyes were fastened on Jim.

Jim found himself smiling at the gentle glow that seemed to surround the younger man. He couldn't seem to tear his gaze away from the long, curly hair, the light of an overhead lamp capturing the strands and revealing shades of burnt copper, gold and deep chestnut mingling with rich mahogany. For a moment, Jim lost himself in the rich colors, but then someone moved again and blocked his view. He blinked a couple of times, shook his head and tried to pay attention to the young woman speaking breathlessly to him.

***

There were only a few people left, most talking quietly as they came down from the natural energy of the party. Jim, kitten in his hands, sat on the floor next to the curly-haired young man. The kitten was purring loudly as Jim blew gently into its fur.

"His name is Skeeter."

Jim turned his head and made contact with a pair of bright blue eyes. "Skeeter? Interesting name." Jim spoke slowly and with great care. He was drunk and knew it. He lifted the kitten above his head and studied it. "No, he is definitely not a Skeeter. This cat needs a new name."

"What would you suggest?"

Jim turned the furball in every direction, felt its small heart beating against his palm, felt the softness of the fur as he searched the golden eyes and watched the small pink tongue flick out -- and a name came to him.

"Blair. His name should be Blair."

A glass shattered and Jim glanced up to see Megan staring at him, her face pale. "Shit, sorry," she said quickly before hurrying into the kitchen for something to clean up the mess.

The quiet young man said, "Blair. I like that. Okay, Skeeter is no more. From now on, he is officially christened Blair. Very original, James. Is that name important to you?"

Jim scrunched up his face as he tried to concentrate. Through his alcohol-fuzzed brain, the name that had haunted his dreams swam into focus.

Blair Sandburg.

"Yes, I think the name Blair--Blair Sandburg--is very important to me."

The young man leaned forward, his expression one of sympathy and interest. "Was this Blair someone you cared about?"

He tried to focus but found his bleary gaze skittering past the kitten and around the room as he nodded fuzzily. "Yes, yes, someone I cared about and lost."

Megan, who'd been cleaning up the broken glass, suddenly bent over, scooped the kitten from Jim's hands and, as she handed it over to the young man, said, "Jimbo, I think it's time you headed home. You're drunk, mate." She helped him up and added, "Henri is here and he's going to give you a lift, okay?"

Jim tried to see past her, to find the young man, but Henri had his arm and was leading him toward the front door. As his coat was being slid up his arms, Megan leaned in close and whispered, "Jim, if you remember any of this, see me tomorrow, Saturday. We have some--one, in common."

Jim wiggled around, or at least tried to, but his arms were caught in his jacket. He only managed a garbled, "Huh?"

"Just remember the name -- Blair Sandburg -- and see me tomorrow. Don't forget, Jim."

***

It was Sunday before Jim remembered anything. And even then, the only thing he remembered of the party were Megan's words – and a name. The name.

Blair Sandburg.

Once he remembered -- nothing could have kept Jim away, in spite of knowing that following up with Megan was the last thing he should do.

Drawn back to the warehouse, Jim found himself following a vaguely familiar routine when he pushed the button on the call box. He was somewhat startled by a male voice doing a fine imitation of Billy Crystal.

"Hell-lo?"

Jim leaned in and said, "Jim Ellison to see Megan?"

"Hey, Jim, great! Come on up."

A buzzer sounded, setting Jim's teeth on edge, but he entered, took the freight elevator up and, at the top floor, got out. The red door was already open, a curly-haired young man wearing a happy grin welcoming him.

"Come in. Megan is at the store, but she's due back any second. Have a seat."

Jim's answering smile was as natural as the young man's exuberance. No one could fail to smile in return. The man fairly bubbled over with good cheer, innocence and a kind of bounce that said life was great. Jim watched him as he walked ahead of him and into the cavernous living space, and wasn't the least bit surprised when his gaze just naturally drifted down in appreciation to the tight jeans that were hugging a very nice ass.

"You want something to drink, Jim?"

The words forced his gaze back up and he blinked. The kid acted as though they knew each other. And damn it, Jim would have remembered meeting this guy, no matter what. Wouldn't he?

"Um, do we know each other?"

One expressive eyebrow rose and a slightly wicked gleam came into the man's eyes. "You don't remember Friday night?"

Jim felt the heat start at the collar of his white cable knit sweater. Fuck. Had something happened between he and this kid? No. Absolutely not. He would have remembered.

Before he could stammer out a response, the man was laughing delightedly and lifting up a small bundle of fur.

"Skeeter, aka Blair, remember now?"

Blair.

Shit, he'd renamed the kitten. He remembered now. Jim reached for the furball in an effort to stave off any response to his heated skin and nodded. "Sure, I remember. You're--you're...."

The young man dropped his head a bit and shuffled his feet and Jim realized he'd just embarrassed the kid. "Shit, I'm sorry I don't remember your name. I think I was a little worse for the alcohol. Clue me in?"

When no answer came, Jim decided to try and guess. "Okay, how about--John? Or maybe -- Michael? Yeah, you look like a Michael."

The young man grinned and shook his head, clearly getting into the game. Jim gave him a mock frown and turned the kitten in his hands until they were staring at each other, the kitten's moist nose a few inches from his own. "Come on, Blair, you can tell me what his name is, can't you? Whisper it to me--"

The kitten purred, but that was it. Jim allowed it to crawl onto his shoulder as he regarded the young man, who was now blushing. Jim held out his arms in supplication and said, "Hey, I'm sorry I don't remember, honest."

"That's okay, I don't actually remember it myself."

Jim blinked and shook his head in confusion. "Excuse me?"

"I don't remember--who I am. But Megan calls me Sandy."

Jim was dumbfounded. "You don't know who you are?" he asked, incredulous.

"Nope," Sandy said with a helpless shrug. "Hey, it makes for interesting conversation, you know?"

By now, Jim was thoroughly confused, especially when trying to fit Megan into it. He put the kitten down and watched it scamper off, then asked carefully, "So, are you and Connor related, or something?"

"No. I met her in the -- hospital. We kind of struck up a friendship and when they -- released me, she invited me to stay with her."

Further questions were stalled when the door opened and Megan, arms loaded with groceries, walked in. "Jimbo, fancy meeting you here."

Her voice welcomed him, but he didn't miss the wary look in her eyes. Jim quickly took a couple of bags from her and, as Sandy went after the kitten, Jim followed Megan into the kitchen. As he set the groceries down on a large butcher-block, he forgot about the young man in the other room in his need to find out about Blair Sandburg.

"I'm here, I remembered. Talk to me, Connor."

"Not now, Jim." She turned to face the door and yelled out, "Sandy, I forgot your medication. Could you run back down to the pharmacy and pick it up?"

The man in question poked his head in and smiling, said, "You mean the great Megan forgot something for a change?"

Her answering grin was so full of love, it took Jim's breath away.

"I'm afraid so, Sandy. Must be getting old."

Sandy gave her a raspberry, then said, "I'll go, but only if Jim promises to be here when I get back?"

His look was so hopeful, Jim found himself automatically nodding. Sandy grinned. "Great. I'll hurry. Be good you guys!"

A moment later, they heard the closing of the front door and Megan gave a sigh of relief.

"Okay, we're alone now. And considering," Jim took a prescription bag out of one of the large plastic shopping bags and held it up, "that this must be the missing medicine, that was your intent in getting him out of here."

"Yes, I wanted to make sure we were alone. I nearly died last night when you named the kitten Blair."

"Why, Megan? How do you know Blair Sandburg and where is he?"

"Jim, it's more important right now for me to know how you know of him."

Jim stared at his friend, assessing how much he dared tell--but the honest, open gaze that Megan gave him was enough.

"I don't know him. I know his wife, Alexis. We served together in Honduras." Megan frowned then stepped closer to Jim. "His wife is dead, Jim. She was--murdered."

Jim felt the world narrow and his vision darken—

"Ellison, you okay?"

He came back, albeit reluctantly. "Murdered," he whispered.

"So they say."

That got his attention. "What do you mean? Who says--"

"Jim, according to the police, Alexis Sandburg was murdered by her husband--Blair Sandburg."

***

Jim felt the world tilt as words written on paper floated through his consciousness, followed immediately by denial.

"No," he found himself yelling. There was no way the man who'd written those letters could ever kill anyone. Jim knew that with a certainty given to very little else in his life. "No way," he repeated, quietly this time. "That's not possible."

"Jim, I'm only--"

But Jim wasn't listening—

"Letters," he mumbled. "I knew it was wrong, knew it, but damn, I did it anyway, wanted to do it, wanted to share with him--his words--so--"

Megan grabbed at his arm, her fingers digging in hard enough to bruise. "What do you know about the letters? How could you know about them?"

Jim pulled himself together as the detective in him took over. "Megan, we're talking in circles here. Let's start from the beginning. How do you know all of this? How do you know Blair Sandburg?"

Megan dropped her hand from Jim's arm and, realizing that he was right, that they needed to start over, said, "Blair's mother and I were friends and I've known Blair forever. Seven years ago, he met Alexis Barnes at a party. He wasn't impressed with her at the time, but then they started exchanging letters. He fell for her."

Megan ran her fingers through her hair as she said, "God, he was so young, Jim." She gave herself a mental shake and went on. "Naomi, his mother, was against any relationship between he and Alexis, but not because of the age difference, but rather because Naomi saw through her. In fact, I can't remember Naomi ever being so angry about anything as she was when she found out they were going to be married."

Jim pulled a chair away from the kitchen table and Megan gratefully sat down as she continued.

"You have to understand, Blair was her only child, the light of her life. She gave him everything, took him all over the world, spoiled him something awful. And yet--Blair grew up to be the kindest, most wonderful person anyone could want to know. But--he also grew up innocent, although, that might not be the right word."

"It is," Jim said. "Innocent in his view of the world."

Eyes widening in surprise, Megan nodded. "That's exactly it. He had this outlook and it in no way prepared him for someone like--Alexis. Naomi understood this and fought the marriage. But like all children, Blair revolted by marrying Alex almost the moment she returned from Honduras."

Megan paused to take a deep breath and her next words hitched a little as she struggled with a deep emotion.

"It was bad almost from the beginning. Naomi cut him off financially, hoping I'm sure, that Alex would leave him. What she hadn't counted on was his imagination. He began to write brilliant short stories while attending Rainier. He was published and the money kept their heads afloat.

"But Alex wanted more. She needed people around her, she needed parties and action. What she got was Blair. Studious, nature loving, a teacher and a writer. And Blair? He wanted the woman in the letters. The woman who spoke of soul mates and this beautiful vision for the future. They began to fight. Not that you could call what they did really fighting. She'd yell, he'd try to reason, then she'd stalk out and disappear for days."

Megan began to shake as she re-lived those days so Jim went in search of something strong to drink. He found a bottle of good whiskey and quickly poured her a shot. When he handed it to her, she smiled wryly before drinking it down in one swallow.

"Thank you. I hate to say this, but I needed that."

Jim returned her smile, then sat down next to her. "Go on, Megan, tell me the rest."

"The last fight--was five years ago. Alex went to Naomi, told her that Blair was in serious financial trouble and begged her for help. Naomi listened. She then called Blair and asked him to meet her. Back then, she lived in a large home on Blind Man's Bluff. Now from this point on, I'm only telling you what the Cascade PD thinks happened.

"Blair drove up to Blind Man's Bluff. Wait, I need to back up a bit. You need to understand the layout of the house. See, the front of the home actually overlooked the bluff and the ocean. And it was there, on the lawn, that Blair found Alex and Naomi. They must have all argued and apparently Naomi finally left the two alone. Blair was adamant that they leave, Alexis resisted. The police think they fought on the bluff, that there was a struggle and--Alexis Barnes Sandburg ended up dead--at the bottom of the bluff."

"Dear God. But what about Naomi Sandburg? Surely she was able to--"

"No one knows what Naomi saw or didn't see. She did, at some point, return to the bluff because when the police arrived--she was sitting against the large tree that stands several feet away from the cliff edge, the victim of a stroke. She's been at the Edwards Rehabilitation Center for the last five years. She can't speak, doesn't know anyone, she's in a world all her own."

"And Blair? He confessed? What?"

"Blair was found lying near the edge, his hands and face bearing the scratches that told the police that Alex had fought hard for her life. He'd evidently sustained a blow to his head, God only knows how."

Jim's heart seemed to stop as he felt all the blood drain from his face. "Oh, God. He's--Blair's--dead, isn't he?"

"No."

Jim's head shot up as his gaze nearly burned a hole through Megan. "No? NO? Where is he, Connor?" Jim stood, knocking the chair over. "Where. Is. He?"

Megan looked up at the irate man and said simply, "You met him last night, Jim. And you were talking to him this morning when I came home. Sandy--is Blair Sandburg."

***

Jim's hand flailed behind him, struggling to find the chair. He connected with it, then pulled it up. Shaking badly, he sank down.

Blair.

Sandy.

Dear God.

As everything he'd heard settled, he dropped his head into his hands and murmured, "He killed her."

"No one knows what happened, Jim. When Blair came to in the hospital, he was as you saw him today. Without memory of who he was or of his life before waking. There was a trial, if you want to call it that, where he was convicted of manslaughter. Blair went to prison."

God, no. Shutting his eyes against the truth, Jim bit back a moan. Megan leaned forward and rested her hand reassuringly on Jim's arm.

"He was safe, Jim. And he has no memory of that time, other than meeting me. He spent most of his sentence in the psych ward. I was always like his big sister so he trusted me immediately. When he was released, I brought him here and applied with the Cascade PD. I've made damn sure that he's been safe and happy every day since. He takes medications for the migraines, the only leftover from – that day. He works part-time at the Cascade Natural History Museum."

Megan walked to the sink and began to prepare coffee for both of them. As she worked, she told Jim more.

"Blair used to sit in their small apartment and read her letters over and over again. During one of her many absences, I was there when he took them out. I remember asking why he stayed with her. He looked at me, smiled this sad little smile, waved her letters in the air and said, 'Because this is the real Alex and I know I'll find her one day.' God, Jim, I hate those letters. He even had them with him the day she died. They found them on the cliff, one even clutched in Naomi's hand."

Megan brought two steaming mugs of coffee over and, after placing one in front of Jim, she re-took her seat. Jim stared at the black swirling liquid and saw only the beloved sprawling handwriting of Blair Sandburg --and words he'd long since committed to memory—

..a hand on a shoulder, a warm vibrant laugh breathed against trembling skin and suddenly the world is full of light and grace. Your words do that for me, Alexis. Let my hand, my voice, do the same for you...

Without thought, Jim said softly, "I wrote those letters, Megan, not Alex. I'm the murderer here. I destroyed them both as surely as if I'd shot them."

"You wrote them? You?" Megan fairly screeched.

He nodded, his mind numb.

"But why? My God, Ellison, why?"

Jim dropped his head into his hands again. "It seemed so harmless at first, and later--the letters, his words, the world he created for me--God, Megan, I couldn't stop. Just--couldn't--stop."

Megan stared at her fellow detective, eyes wide in wonder. "Dear Lord, you love him."

He lifted his head to stare at her. "Do I? Do I love him the way he loved Alex? Do I know him any better than he thought he knew her?"

"You love him, Jim. You love Blair because those letters represent all that he was and still, in the ways that count, is. But you're right. You are responsible and I think you'd better go before he returns because, God damn it, nothing good can come of this now. You know that, don't you?"

There was nothing harsh in her voice, only a soft truth. Her eyes were warm with sympathy and Jim was stunned to find something more--understanding. Wearily he pushed himself up. "You're right, I should go."

Megan nodded and walked him to the door. As he started to leave, she stopped him. "Jim, I believe things happen for a reason. I'm not sure how this will end, but Sandy is happy, believe that."

Jim nodded. He had no choice. He had to believe--or die.

The next few days were spent in a haze of work, alcohol and lonely evenings on his balcony. His mind constantly repeated precious words belonging to letters he'd responded to so many years ago, but now, the words had a voice - Sandy's voice. It was the only thing keeping Jim Ellison sane.

***

"I'm serious, Simon. I need some time off."

Simon Banks had to admit, as he gazed up at his detective, that the man looked like hell. Unfortunately, Jim's request was coming at a bad time.

"Jim, I can't spare anyone now, you know that. We're swamped assisting other departments while the city workers are on strike."

Jim sank into one of the chairs in front of Simon's desk. He rubbed a hand over his face as he said, "Simon, I think I'm going crazy here. I'm not safe on the streets, my senses are all over the map and to be truthful, if you can't give me the time -- I'll have to quit."

Simon was up instantly. "You can't be serious, Jim? Are things with your senses really so bad that you'd quit a job you love?"

Jim nodded glumly and Simon took a moment to really look at his detective. Now he could see the evidence in the form of fine pain lines around Jim's eyes and, in a much softer voice, asked, "Bad headache?"

Jim's painful nod told Simon all he needed to know. "Maybe it's time to try to find someone who can help?"

"What do I say and who do I see, Simon? Not to mention this isn't something I want others to know about."

"You have a point, Jim. Okay, five days."

Relief spreading over his features, Jim nodded, got up and walked out.

***

In spite of his misery, there was one saving grace in his day; he'd be going home to a clean loft. Mrs. Cubbins, his Wednesday-weekly housekeeper, had been hard at work cleaning and scrubbing when he'd left that morning. Now, turning the key in his lock, he barely registered that she'd left on one of the living room lights.

Jim shrugged out of his jacket and tossed it on one of the hooks by the door. Body on autopilot, he went straight into the kitchen and took a cold beer out of the fridge. He was just twisting off the cap when a voice, the voice, said, "I could use one of those."

Jim whirled around to find Sandy perched on the edge of the couch, one jean-clad leg swinging nervously.

"Wha--how--?"

"Sandy, remember? I took a bus and a nice lady named Mrs. Cubbins let me in because I told her that I was your brother. I faked it." Sandy smiled brilliantly, albeit a bit nervously. "I should be ashamed of myself, right?"

The complete lack of guile, combined with the beautiful smile, brought a delighted grin to Jim's face as he said, "Oh, I remember all right. And I may have to fire Mrs. Cubbins considering that there is absolutely no resemblance between us whatsoever."

"No resemblance? Hey, aren't we the exact same height? And our eyes, almost the same shade of blue, man."

The comment about their height caught Jim by surprise and his eyes widened, then crinkled up with laughter. "Right," he managed to gasp out, "same exact height."

Sandy joined him in the laugh, then as they calmed, said, "So you're not mad that I, well, that I --"

"Lied your way into my home?" Jim said with a grin.

"Yeah, that."

"No, not mad," Jim said softly.

Sandy gave him an unabashed grin followed by a little jerk of his head toward the beer in Jim's hand. Jim looked down and said, "Right. One beer coming up."

Jim opened the fridge, took out another bottle and tossed it to Sandy, who deftly caught it, opened it, and then gave Jim a mock salute before tipping it back and taking a swig.

Jim watched the lips close over the bottle, watched the younger man's throat as the liquid made its way down -- and suddenly Jim's headache was gone. As he watched, it seemed his senses were on fire, in the best way--yet he'd have sworn to anyone who asked--that he was drowning.

"Wow, that sure hit the spot," Sandy said, as he rested the now half-empty bottle on his thigh. Then a little guiltily, he asked again, "You're not angry at what I did, are you?"

With great effort, Jim pulled himself out of the swirling, delicious torment that was Blair Sandburg and refocused his attention.

"Huh?"

"Angry? At me? That I obfuscated my way into your home?"

"Obfuscated? Sandy, you lied."

"Oh, well," he waved one hand aimlessly through the air, "not a real lie, you know? And it was for a good cause."

With a small smile softening his words, Jim said, "It was a lie, not even a white one, but no, I'm not mad. And what good cause?"

"Okay, okay, it was a lie—" Sandy's eyes widened, "--you're not? Cool. And the good cause is Blair Sandburg."

The conversation had been gunfire rapid and it took a moment for Sandy's last two words to penetrate. When they did, Jim froze. Apparently, Sandy didn't notice because he continued speaking.

"I know how much he means to you, you talked about him all night, you know. At Megan's party, I mean. And I thought, well, I only work part-time so I have lots of time on my hands, you know? I could help you find him. If you wanted, I mean--" His voice trailed off as if he finally realized that his audience wasn't reacting.

Jim blinked, then blinked again. With deliberate slowness, he brought the beer up and finished it. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he said evenly, "There is no Blair Sandburg. He never existed so there's no one to find, understand?"

Jim's speech was slow and measured and Sandy got up and took a step back. "Sure, I understand. Sorry. I just thought--you see, I'm real good at research--and I just thought--"

"Your offer is appreciated, but I'm more interested in someone else--like--for instance, you." Jim put his beer down and started for television set as he said, "For instance, do you like basketball? The Jags play the Lakers tonight," he checked his watch, "in about thirty minutes. You interested?"

Sandy nodded enthusiastically, unable to hide his pleased grin. "I love the Jags."

"Great," Jim said, his eyes warm as he gazed down at his new friend.

"How does pizza sound?"

***

Jim sat in the corner of his couch, legs stretched out in front of him. At the opposite end sat a cross-legged Sandy. The game was three quarters of an hour into itself and on the coffee table sat a large pizza box--half empty. As Jim gazed around, he realized that he was in the middle of the best evening he could remember. He was calm, happy, his senses were at bay and his companion enthusiastic and charming. So much so that Jim was having trouble keeping his hands to himself.

Jim Ellison had long since come to terms with his sexuality, with the truth that he favored both men and women. As he sat watching the game, he had to admit that he'd never wanted anyone the way he wanted Sandy. But given the younger man's history, Jim had no reason to believe that Sandy (he'd forced himself to stop thinking of him as Blair Sandburg, a necessary decision, he knew) would welcome any advances made by a man.

The action of the screen was temporarily interrupted by a commercial -- and at the same time -- Jim's phone rang. As he unfolded himself, Sandy reached for another piece of pizza and said with a waggling eyebrow, "Bet it's Megan." Jim smiled as he picked up the phone. It was a pretty good bet.

"Ellison."

"Tell me he's there. Please just tell me that, Jim."

Jim glanced over his shoulder and gave Sandy a thumb's up. "He's here, Connor. We're watching the game and eating pizza."

"I guess that means that all my warnings were for nothing?"

"I'm afraid so, Megan."

"Then nothing I could say would make a difference, would it?"

"I'm afraid not."

"Jim, you have to know that you're playing with fire and, in the end, it's a fire that could destroy you?"

"I know, Megan," Jim turned away from the living room and dropped his voice, "But -- it's too late."

"I was afraid of that. I love him, Jim. Do you understand? And he's far more fragile than he appears."

"I would never--"

"I know, Jim. You'd rather risk yourself. Well, like I said before, everything happens for a reason, Jim. Take care of him, okay?

"I will. With everything I have."

"I guess that will have to be enough."

"I'll bring him home right after the game."

***

Jim clicked off the set and tossed the remote onto the coffee table. "We won."

"Yeah, but the Jags sure know how to keep us on the edge of our seats. Shit, for awhile there I was certain we were doomed."

"I know." Jim stood and gazed down at the handsome face below. "I should get you home, it's late."

Sandy nodded slowly as he rose. "I guess you're right, but you don't have to take me, I can catch the bus. I don't want to put you out--"

"Sandy, the buses stopped running half an hour ago. I'm afraid you're stuck with me."

"Oh. Oh, yeah, I forgot. Now I really feel bad."

Jim walked toward the door chuckling. "No you don't. We're both glad the buses have stopped."

Sandy glanced up in surprise and couldn't hide his own happiness at Jim's admission. "Are we, Jim?"

The man was standing at Jim's elbow now and all Jim had to do was turn and the man would be touching him--Jim turned.

Sandy didn't move, didn't flinch, didn't even blink. He just gazed up at Jim expectantly, a small grin hovering around his lips. Lips that Jim immediately fixated on. Voice husky with a barely suppressed need, Jim asked, "Do you know what you're getting into here?"

Sandy nodded slowly, then took another impossibly closer step, one hand dropping onto Jim's. "I know."

That was all Jim needed. He leaned down and pressed his lips almost achingly against Sandy's willing ones.

The room faded and lightness spiraled into a dark melting heat as the overwhelming urge to surround the body pressed against his, took over all thoughts and actions. Jim brought up his hand and let it sink into long hair as Sandy's lips parted and a tongue insisted that Jim's lips do the same. Who was Jim to refuse? As he welcomed the invasion, he felt Sandy's arm come around his waist and smiled into the kiss. The smile faded to hunger when Sandy tugged Jim into him -- and Jim gave in – happily.

Clothes were quickly discarded, but mouths refused to part. Even as Sandy was pushing Jim back against the door, as their tongues fought the happy battle for domination, and as skin slid against skin, Jim held fast, afraid to let go for fear that the man he'd loved for so many years would disappear—

For the first time in months, Jim thanked God for his crazy senses, because at the moment, they were allowing him to experience Sandy in ways that under normal circumstances would have been denied him.

The arresting scent of the younger man, his sweat giving out the natural odor of a man aroused, filled Jim and urged him to skim goose-bumped skin, to feel the tensing of muscles, the quiver of excitement. He loved the feel of Sandy's chest hair so he spent time fingering the wiry hair before finally releasing Sandy's mouth in order to latch onto a nipple. Jim let his teeth graze slightly and was rewarded with a surprised grunt. He smiled, then swirled his tongue around the tight flesh.

Somehow, and Jim would be hard pressed to say how, they'd ended up on the floor in front of the door and, as Jim played, Sandy bucked beneath him as urgent groans filled the space around them.

Jim felt he was in control – right up to the moment Sandy wrapped his legs around Jim's waist. When two heels dug into his back and pushed and pushed--Jim had no choice –he relinquished all semblance of control.

The change of position created by Sandy's legs around him brought their cocks into perfect alignment and, as each man strove to rub, feel and satisfy, Jim grabbed a hunk of the soft mass of hair. He tilted Sandy's head back until his neck was exposed, zeroed in on the beckoning pulse, and immediately nipped gently, then harder before licking and biting again. With the second bite, Sandy stiffened -- and came hard, his fingers digging into the flesh on Jim's shoulders. With a final thrust up, Sandy clenched his legs even tighter around Jim, sending the older man over the edge.

***

It wasn't so much a return to consciousness as a return to the real world for Jim. He'd been floating in time as Sandy gently stroked his back, unwilling to let the moment slip away, when Sandy whispered in his ear, "We should get up, the floor is cold."

Such normalcy brought a smile to Jim's lips. He lifted his head and peered down at the man sprawled half on and half off his body. "Cold? You can think of such mundane things as cold floors after--"

"After such mind blowing sex? Yes. Nothing more unromantic than the sound of creaking bones when two people try to get up," Sandy said with a chuckle.

The sound of Sandy's laugh rumbling so close to his skin sent shivers of renewed sexual interest and Jim found himself shaking his head in amazement. Just a laugh. That's all it took. Just this man's laugh—

Jim decided to swallow the laugh, to capture it. He took Sandy's mouth again and was rewarded by arms coming around his neck—

"Wait, wait," Sandy murmured as he pulled away. "How 'bout a real bed? Or the couch?"

With immediacy born of incredible need, Jim was up and dragging Sandy toward the stairs before Sandy could say his name. But evidently the younger man was suffering from the same need because he pulled away and, laughing, ran ahead, taunting Jim as he took the stairs two at a time.

"Bet I beat you and I sure as hell hope you have a big bed, man, cause I take up a whole lot of room."

Jim's eyes narrowed as he ducked his head and, with shoulders hunched, said, "Beat me? I think not, and yes, I have a big bed and you'd better like it, kid, cause it's all you're gonna see for days." Then he took off on the run. Sandy, already half way, turned on his heel and scrambled up, smiling as he felt Jim's feet hit the stairs.

"Beat me, my foot," he yelled back as he hit the top step. He spotted the bed and launched himself forward. When he landed, he bounced, then grabbed at the bedspread and was crawling under when Jim bounded up.

"HA! I beat you. And your penalty, Jim, is spending the next twelve hours right here." Sandy patted the spot next to him.

Jim skidded to a stop at the foot of the bed and, with a heaving chest and a grin, said, "I don't know, I think the penalty should be tougher."

But Sandy was no longer listening – but he was staring.

Jim frowned. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, nothing, it's just that -- it's just that you're so damn incredible, Jim."

Jim smiled gently. "Me?" he said, as he took in every visible inch of Sandy.

"I'd say you're the incredible one here."

Sandy snorted before saying, "Enough of this mutual admiration society, get that fantastic body in here and now!"

Jim grinned and dove. They wrestled a few minutes, laughing freely, both recognizing the rightness of their being together. But it didn't take long for the mood to change, to travel from fun to passion. They burrowed under the covers, arms and legs entwined as they explored, kissed, rubbed, licked and bit. For Jim, the past was forgotten -- and for Sandy, the past didn't matter. There was only now.

Sandy lifted the tea kettle and poured steaming water into the two mugs, set the kettle back on the burner and, lifting the mugs, he walked back out into the living room.

Wearing only sweat bottoms, Jim sat in his usual spot on the couch, legs propped up on the coffee table. As Sandy stood over him, Jim reached for the cup and the man. By some miracle, he managed not to spill a drop of his tea. Sipping the hot brew while enjoying the closeness of the man next to him, Jim wondered how this had happened. How, after all these years, he could be so happy, so fucking… complete?

Sandy shifted a bit and the terry cloth robe rubbed against Jim's bare skin. He grinned and said, "My robe looks good on you."

"Big," Sandy answered with a cheerful nod.

"Roomy."

Sandy grinned against the rim of the cup, his eyes dancing.

"Are you usually this--"

"Forward?" Sandy supplied helpfully. At Jim's nod, he shook his head. "Nope, never. But then, I've never wanted anything the way I wanted you. Nothing has ever hit me like this before." He glanced back at Jim and with a self-deprecating grin, added, "That I remember anyway. But certainly not in the last--few years."

"Same here," Jim added shyly.

Sandy turned away, suddenly finding a stray bit of thread on the robe fascinating. "So, what--now?"

"Um," Jim mused, completely aware of the fact that his guest was holding his breath, "I believe in slow and easy with a relationship. Maybe a few dates?"

"Oh. Yeah. Of course. Sure. Naturally."

Jim didn't let him finish his verbal ramblings, choosing to cut in immediately with, "Or you could--move in tonight. There's always that."

Sandy whipped his head back so fast, Jim immediately thought "whiplash".

"Move in with you?" Sandy asked, his tone incredulous.

Jim nodded, holding back his grin.

"Move in with you - here. Me," Sandy repeated in disbelief.

"You. Here. With me. Upstairs, sharing space - among other things."

The sense of wonder gave way to uncertainty as Sandy said quietly, "That's a big step, Jim. Especially considering we just met and you don't know anything about me. Hell, I don't know anything about me."

Letting a finger trace over the square jaw, Jim said softly, "Then we're even, aren't we? We'll not know anything about you together."

"Good point but not very practical. And humor aside--"

"Yes or no, Chief?"

"Chief?"

"That's what I said. Chief. Now, yes or no?"

"Oh. Well. Since you put it that way," Sandy waited a heartbeat, then said, "Yes."

***

All things considered, Megan took the news rather well. She even helped move Sandy's few belongings to the loft. If she had reservations, the look on Sandy's face was enough to silence her. In all the years she'd known him, she'd never seen him so happy. The shadow that had dogged his every step was, if not completely gone, at least forgotten in his current joy.

Watching the two men traipse up and down the stairs, sharing laughs and jokes, unpacking, folding, hanging clothes up and using every opportunity to touch, Megan felt at peace -- almost. And maybe a wee bit envious. Jim and Sandy were well and truly in love, so much so that they fairly glowed with it.

By late afternoon, everything was done and Sandy had been successfully moved. The three sat in the living room waiting for their dinner delivery from the neighborhood deli, beers in hand and looking very satisfied by their efforts.

"We done good, Chief."

Sandy gave an agreeable nod and held his bottle to Jim's, allowing them to clink together. Megan chuckled, leaned over and held out hers. Both men brought their bottles to hers, then Sandy, eyes warm and glowing, said, "I'm really gonna miss you, Megan."

Laughing to cover her emotion, she said, "Yeah, right. With Mr. Stud there? I don't think so, kid. And by the way, who gets custody of Skeeter?"

Sandy leaned forward and set his bottle on the table. "You should have custody. After all, who does he sleep with? And it's Blair --"

Jim's bottle slipped from his fingers to crash against the hardwood floor. Sandy turned immediately, a frown marring his handsome face. "Jim? You okay?"

Even as he spoke, he was up and attempting to clean the mess.

"Leave it, Sandy and I'm fine. Just got a bit -- clumsy, that's all."

Straightening, Sandy searched Jim's face – and frowned at what he saw. He headed for the kitchen and the broom closet. Grabbing the dustpan and broom, and ignoring Jim's request to "leave it", he began to sweep up the broken pieces. When he was done, he dumped the glass before returning with a mop.

Through it all, Jim watched silently while Megan chewed on her lower lip. Finally Jim stood and took the mop gently from Sandy's hands. As he wiped the floor, he said easily, "I think I'd like to have Blair here, if Megan can bear to part with the rascal."

Megan's eyes moved from one to the other before she finally said, "He really belongs to Sandy. And he only sleeps with me because Sandy closes his bedroom door."

Jim walked back to the kitchen, rinsed out the mop and nodded. "Guess it's decided then. Blair joins our little household."

Only Megan caught the worried look Sandy gave Jim's back.

***

Sandy turned over on his side and peered at his new--lover. In spite of the darkness, and thanks to the moonlight streaming in through the skylight, he had a fairly good view. Tentatively, he reached out with one finger and ran it lightly down one strong arm. Jim shifted but didn't wake. Sandy propped himself up, bracing his head on his hand and continued to stare.

Megan had left right after dinner, but with the promise of bringing the kitten over the following evening. The two men had finished straightening up, both unusually quiet. Sandy had continually shot covert looks and concerned glances toward his new roommate, but if Jim noticed, he gave no sign. They'd watch some television and had finally gone to bed. But--they hadn't made love. Their first night as roommates--and they hadn't made love.

Sandy felt his heart clench and his insides churn. Blair Sandburg was real, he knew that now thanks to the incident with the beer bottle. And he knew the man was out there --somewhere.

And finally -- for all his protestations -- Sandy knew that Jim still loved this Sandburg. Not that he didn't feel something for Sandy as well, but then, Sandy was there, human and alive, warm and willing. But--he'd seen Jim's face when he'd said the cat's new name, he'd seen the fleeting look of pain.

Sandy rolled over on his back and stared up at the moon. He loved Jim Ellison in a way that he could never explain to anyone. Not even Megan. The love was deep and so all encompassing that he doubted he'd survive losing the man. And yet--that same love was so unselfish, so pure, that he knew what he had to do.

He had to find Blair Sandburg for Jim.

Somehow, someway, he had to reunite them.

And when he did, he'd simply disappear, happy and content in the knowledge that Jim had who he wanted and needed.

But in the meantime, Sandy would enjoy the days of heaven allowed him.

***

Their first morning as an official couple started slow and easy with Jim waking before his new bedmate. Turning and finding the younger man beside him had brought a gentle smile to Jim's face.

Sandy had his back to Jim so the older man immediately spooned up behind the compact body. He pulled the sleeping man in close and buried his face in hair, grinning against the warm, morning-scented skin. Breathing easily, Jim slipped his hand under Sandy's tee shirt and began a slow luxurious stroking of warm flesh. He started low, then moved up to allow his fingers to play with the chest hair.

Sandy snuggled back, almost as if trying to bury himself in Jim. A barely-there huff of air escaped from between Sandy's lips as his butt came up against Jim's morning erection. Ellison closed his eyes and allowed the tingling feeling of nestling against Sandy to wash over him. The tingle escalated as Sandy shoved back again--harder. Jim grinned.

"Me thinks you're awake."

A soft chuckle was his answer.

"Me thinks you're awake and horny."

His answer this time was another shove backwards.

"Keep that up and you'll bump me right out of bed."

"Wouldn't want that," Sandy said sleepily.

"No you wouldn't. Then who would you have to bump into so deliciously?"

"Good point. And what the hell are you going to do about my bumping?"

"Umm, how 'bout this?" Jim slipped his hand down the front of Sandy's sweat bottoms, smoothed down through the pubic hair and finally closed his fingers around Sandy's erection. As he pumped slowly, he matched the rhythm with his own body, thrusting forward as Sandy thrust back. His own needy cock rubbed against the soft, well-worn sweats but that wasn't enough.

"Pull them down for me--" he managed to say, his hunger evident in his raspy voice.

Sandy gave a little wiggle as he slid the sweats down, Jim having to temporarily release Sandy's swollen cock. Once the material was out of his way, Jim went back to stroking, but now his own cock found something much better to nestle against. Maintaining that position, both men moved slowly, almost languidly, neither in any hurry to come to completion. Jim nuzzled Sandy's nape, licked and kissed, until the younger man half turned so that their lips could meet. Jim drank hungrily but not for long. His body needed to regain the earlier rhythm and they parted.

With a grunt, Sandy said, "You gonna do this right? You're driving me crazy." The words froze Jim in place. Was Sandy giving him this? Was he—

"Are you sure?" Jim asked, then holding his breath.

"Hell yes. But you damn well better have what we need because if you don't, I won't be responsible for my actions."

"Drawer, your side," Jim rasped out.

Sandy managed to get the drawer open and remove condoms and a tube of lubricant, all without really disturbing their current position.

"I've got to turn around, I want to do this--"

Jim let Sandy turn over, but it took everything he had to do it. A moment later, he was grateful. Watching Sandy open the condom and then slip it on Jim's dick was -- fucking incredible. Then he was spreading the lube while at the same time, raining small kisses up and down Jim's neck, jaw, and finally -- his lips. When he was done, he pulled away, took Jim's right hand and, placing the tube in it, said, "Now your turn." With that, Sandy turned around, did a quick wiggle in order to completely divest himself of his sweats, then moved back against Jim.

When nothing immediately happened, he chuckled and said, "Christmas is a long way off, man."

Uncertain, but feeling the urgency of his partner, Jim still had to ask-- "Sandy--have you, I mean, you seem to know--"

"I know, Jim. I know. I've been with a man, okay? Now hurry the fuck up. I'm dying here." Relieved, Jim grinned and saluted. "Aye, aye sir!"

The next few minutes were the most erotic of Jim's life as he lovingly prepared Sandy. The preparation turned into the most fantastic foreplay so that by the time Sandy was ready to accept him, both men were breathing hard, sweat rolling off their backs. Jim positioned himself and, as Sandy dropped his right leg across his left, Jim started to move in.

"God, Sandy--"

"That's it, Jim, more. Deeper, I'm ready--"

"God yes--" was all that Jim could get out as he moved in deeper, and deeper still.

They both started to move then, in-out, in-out, their pace slow and easy. So far, Jim hadn't pulled more than half-way out, but suddenly Sandy was shoving back hard and when he brought his hand back and gripped Jim's hip, it was as if a signal had been given.

Jim closed his eyes and increased his speed, coming almost all the way out now before slamming back in again. He'd hold a moment, bringing Sandy to the brink before he'd pull out and slam back in. They kept this up for what seemed like forever, but could only have been a few heat-filled minutes. Sandy had begun to stroke his own dick in time with Jim's moves and as Jim thrust in again, Sandy came hard, his warm semen coating his hand and chest.

The clenching movement of his orgasm surrounded Jim's cock and that was all he needed as he rasped out a low, throaty, "Fuck" before succumbing to his own orgasm a few moments later.

As the shuddering slowed and awareness crept back, Sandy gave a small laugh and said, "Yep. Fuck."

Catching his breath, Jim chuckled. "Hey, it seemed the appropriate thing to say at the time. Trust me, it was a compliment."

Sandy turned in Jim's arms and smeared himself against the smooth broad chest. "There, you deserve some of this, since I've got yours."

Jim's eyes widened, then he threw back his head and laughed. The laugh was free, relaxed, and real. And it came to a strangling halt when Sandy started to lick--Jim's chest.

"Dear--God--"

When Sandy was done, he stretched up and kissed Jim, a deep, thorough kiss. When they parted, his eyes dancing with mirth, Sandy said, "Take that, Detective."

Jim brought his hand up to Sandy's face and laying it against Sandy's cheek, he said, "I will--any and every--time."

***

"You're gonna be late, Jim."

"Uh-huh."

"The pancakes aren't that great."

"Yes they are. Now shut up and let me eat."

Sandy smiled, then sat down and stared at his own now-empty plate. Okay, the pancakes had been pretty good, considering he'd never cooked in any kitchen other than the one at Megan's. But he suspected Jim was stalling and he liked that idea. He liked it a whole lot.

"Is today one of your days at the museum?" Jim asked after he swallowed a huge forkful of pancake.

"Nope. Tomorrow. Today, I'm just going to get the lay of the land, check out the shops, restaurants, that kind of thing."

Jim nodded, then his gaze fell on the two prescription bottles that Megan had placed on the island in the kitchen. He jerked his head toward them and asked, "When do you take those?"

Sandy turned his head, spotted the bottles, then shrugged. "One at night, one in the morning."

One eyebrow rose. "Oh, really? I don't recall you taking anything last night, or for that matter, this morning."

Sandy scrunched up his face. "They don't always sit well, to be truthful. Now I take them when I feel the onset of--something."

"Of a headache?"

"Well, yeah. But they really don't come that often. Only when I try too hard--" Sandy let the sentence trail off, suddenly aware that he didn't want Jim to know too much because--he'd become, maybe, a burden.

"Try too hard at what, Chief?" Jim had put his fork down and was now glaring at him as if aware of his subterfuge.

"Nothing, really."

"Chief," Jim said, warning in his voice.

"Well, you know, trying to remember -- sometimes."

Understanding flooded him and Jim said, "I see. Do you--ever-remember anything?"

Sandy shook his head as he picked up his plate and carried it into the kitchen. He washed it and put it in the drainer as he said, "I don't try that often any more, Jim. But sometimes, I'll have this feeling, kind of like -- deja vu, you know? Only for me, it has significance and then I'll try, and bam, a headache."

Acting as normal as possible, Jim picked up his own plate and joined Sandy at the sink.

"Makes sense, Chief. Tell you what, the next time you get that feeling, share it with me and we'll work on it together, okay?"

Sandy looked up at him, eyes wide with surprise. "You mean it? That won't -- bother you?"

"Of course not, Chief. Why would it? It's like a case. And trust me, I'm a pretty damn good detective, if I do say so myself."

Grinning, Sandy observed, "And you just did."

"So I did. Look, why don't you meet me for lunch today?"

"Okay, where and what time?"

"Um, say about twelve thirty at Madigan's. It's a pub--"

"I know it. Some of us gofers at the museum eat there sometimes."

"Gofers?"

"Come on, you know. Go for this, go for that--"

"Ah. So that's what you do?"

"Among other things. I take some night classes at Rainier, well, actually, I audit them. It's kind of hard to enroll when you don't--well, you know what I mean. Anyway, I'm kind of into anthropology, and you're going to find this funny, but I have a really good memory."

"Is there where I should laugh?" Jim said with a disarming smile.

Grinning, Sandy nodded. "Hey, what can I say? Ask me who I am, and you get this," he then gave Jim his best blank look, then said, "But ask me who Sir Richard Burton is and I'm a whiz."

Jim struck a theatrical pose and in a deep voice with just the right Welsh accent, began to quote from Shakespeare. Sandy hit his arm and said with a chuckle, "Not that Burton, the explorer Burton."

"Ah, the anthropologist Burton. The gay Burton."

Laughing again, Sandy nodded his head, but then added, "Just don't let Mrs. Burton hear you say that."

"No sweat, Chief, she's dead too."

At Jim's words, the plate Sandy was drying slipped from his fingers and crashed to the floor.

"Oops. Boy," Jim said, not seeing the glazed look on Sandy's face, "we sure are clumsy. How many pieces of crockery is this between you, me and Megan?"

When Sandy didn't answer, Jim straightened from his task of picking up the large pieces. He put them on the sink, then touched Sandy's cold hand. "Chief? You okay?"

When he got no response, he quickly took the younger man by the arm and guided him to the sofa. He sat him down, then joined him and began to rub both hands between his own.

"Come on, Chief, look at me. I need you to see me, okay?"

Slowly Sandy turned his head and his eyes seemed to finally focus. "Hey, Jim." He glanced around and said, surprised, "How did we get--weren't we in the kitchen?"

"Yeah, yeah we were. How ya feeling?"

"Me? I'm fine. I just--I mean, oh fuck."

"I'll second that. Has this happened before?"

Sandy rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head. "I don't think so -- but then, I don't know exactly what happened."

"Well, you kind of -- blacked out, or maybe, blanked out would be a better description."

"Oh. That. Um, yeah, it's happened a couple of times. I -- um," he looked around, then squinted and held his hand up to shield his eyes. "Jim, could you lower the blinds?"

Jim leaned closer and could see the lines of tension and pain around Sandy's eyes. "You're getting a headache, right?"

"No, no, I'm fine, honest. I've always had this--light sensitivity, sort of, in the mornings, some mornings--"

Not believing him for a second, thanks to the fact that he could hear Sandy's heart rate skyrocket, he said easily, "I'll get your pills."

Jim rose, but a hand on his arm stopped him. "No, Jim, I'm fine. And you're going to be late to work. Now go."

"Chief, I can see--"

"Jim, go. Honest, I'm fine."

Jim stared down at his new roommate and realized that he'd do more harm than good if he insisted. "Okay, Chief, but don't forget lunch."

"I won't. I never forget anything, Jim. Madigan's, twelve thirty."

Jim gave him his best what? look and Sandy laughed. "Okay, I never forget anything important. Now go."

Jim shook his head in wonder. "God, Chief, I love you."

***

Sandy waited until he was certain Jim had gone, then he hightailed it into the kitchen for his pills. He shook one from each bottle, swallowed them, then filled a glass with water to wash them down. His head was pounding and his vision was full of jagged edges. He walked back into the living room, pulled down the shades, then went into the bathroom where he wet a washcloth in cool water. He carried it back out and sank down onto the sofa and placed the cloth over his eyes.

Fuck.

His first full day with Jim and he had to get a fucking migraine.

God, he was pathetic.

***

For Jim, the morning crawled by. Megan hit him up the moment he'd walked in, but he'd managed to misdirect her with a question about the Robertson case. Trouble was, he knew damn well that at the first slow-down, she'd be on him like a tick on a deer.

At twelve-fifteen, he got up and grabbed his jacket, thankful that Conner was out on a call. It looked like he'd make his escape without having to submit to her grilling. As he got into the elevator, he congratulated himself on not calling Sandy all morning in spite of his worry.

Madigan's was half-way between the station and the loft, and well within walking distance for both of them, which was why he'd chosen the place. That and the corned beef sandwiches.

When he hit the street, he breathed in the surprising warmth of the day, then headed east toward the restaurant. And Sandy.

***

"Aw, shit."

Sandy sat up, the wash cloth sliding down to land on his stomach. He squinted at his watch again and cursed himself. It was five after twelve. He'd slept the entire morning away. He jumped up, ignoring the plop of the wash cloth on the floor. He had twenty-five minutes to shower and hot foot it to Madigan's.

Sandy skidded to a stop in front of the green door that signified Madigan's. He put a hand against the side of the building and tried to catch his breath, then checked his watch. Twelve thirty on the dot.

Cool.

He straightened, adjusted his shirt and jacket, wiped the sweat from his brow, and with head high, stepped inside the restaurant.

***

Jim sat in the corner of the booth, a cold soda in front of him. He checked his watch. Just now twelve thirty. He cocked his head, smiled and stood. The door to the restaurant opened and Sandy stepped in. He knew that the man would need a moment for his eyes to adjust to the cool darkness of Madigan's, so he waited, then raised his hand. Sandy looked around, spotted him waving and with a smile, headed over.

"Hey," Jim said with a grin.

"Hey yourself."

Sandy slid in opposite and smiled, surprisingly glad to see Jim again - and it had only been a few hours. His grin widened.

Jim's eyes sparkled in the darkness as he said, "I know, I missed you too. We're terrible."

Sandy nodded and started fiddling with the fork on his napkin. "Not terrible - just - new. It's new for us."

"New lovers," Jim said softly.

"Yeah," Sandy said just as softly.

"Why do I think it will always be this way, though?"

Sandy's eyebrows rose as he said, "Because you're a romantic? And an optimist?"

Clutching his heart in feigned hurt, Jim said, "What, you don't think we'll always feel this way?"

Sandy was saved from answering by a cheerful waitress with a thick Irish brogue, asking if they were ready to order yet. Jim picked up his menu and while he perused it, Sandy ignored his and said, "I'll take an ice tea, please, and do you still have the seafood salad?"

"Well sure, see if we don't. And aren't you the lucky one. Today it features lobster and crab with a tangy artichoke dressing."

"I'll take it, thank you."

"Tis my pleasure. And you, sir?"

Jim knew darn well what he was going to have, but he enjoyed looking at the huge menu and reading the many and varied Irish-themed foods. He smiled up at her and said, "The corned beef on the beer bread, with mustard, and load it up with pickles."

"Would there be a better way of eating it, sir?" she said with a saucy grin. Jim chuckled and said, "Not to my way of thinking."

She collected the menus and with a wiggle of her hips, headed off to put in their order. Jim leaned back, content to simply look at his partner.

Sandy smiled, somewhat awkwardly, then said, "So how was your morning? Did Megan leave you alone?"

"I was lucky, she went out on a call with Henri Brown, one of the other detectives, so I was spared the second degree. But she was ready, believe me."

Grinning, Sandy shook his head helplessly. "You know, she's gonna bug you every day - if she can."

"Hey, I'm tough, I can handle it."

They lapsed into a comfortable silence which Jim finally broke a few minutes later. "So, you feeling all right now?"

"I told you, I was fine."

"Yes, that is what you told me, but you weren't being entirely honest. Your heart rate sped up and I could barely track it. Now, I'm asking again; you feeling all right?"

Sandy didn't answer, he just stared.

"Chief?"

Leaning forward and lowering his voice, Sandy asked, "What do you mean, my heart rate sped up? How the hell would you know--"

"Oops."

"Oops? Oops?"

"I would know the same way I knew you were about to enter the restaurant. I--well, I have really good hearing. Really--good."

***

Sandy sat back and regarded his partner with rounded eyes. Then he thought back to their lovemaking, to the way Jim had made love—

"How's your sense of touch, Jim?"

"Oh, um, well, that's pretty good--too."

"Uh-huh."

The waitress appeared with their food, but before she could set it down, Sandy said, "We've had a change in plans. We need to take all that to go, and fast."

"Oh, all right, that's not a bit of a problem. I'll have this packaged before you could be saying King Brian."

As she turned away, Sandy muttered under his breath, "King Brian," then grinned at Jim, who arched an eyebrow and said, "That wasn't nice, Chief."

"But you heard me."

"You going to tell me why we're packing up our lunch?"

"I want to show you something and it's important. Is that all right?" "Sure. I take it we're going home?"

Sandy nodded, then suddenly smiled brilliantly. "Home. Sounds good."

***

Jim set the table, per Sandy's instructions and, while unpacking the food, he could hear Sandy going through some of his stuff upstairs. A few minutes later Jim heard a triumphant "Yes!" followed by Sandy bounding down the stairs and waving a cassette in one hand, a tape recorder in the other.

With a thoroughly puzzled expression on his face, Jim watched as Sandy plugged in the recorder, slipped in the tape and punched play. A moment later a deep voice started talking about Sir Richard Burton and something called The Sentinels of Paraguay.

Sandy sat down next to Jim, his eyes wide with interest and appreciation. Jim stared back -- but listened.

***

"...were often accompanied by a fellow tribe member, a partner whose sole job was to assist the Sentinel with his senses, keeping him focused and grounded. A guide, if you will. It was believed that the Sentinel could become so focused on one sense that he would literally lose himself and required his partner to protect him until he was brought out of what I call the Zone-Out Factor...."

Sandy reached over and pushed stop. Then he picked up his fork and dug into his salad.

"Um, Chief?"

Sandy looked up innocently. "Yes?"

"You know damn well what. Now talk."

"Eat your sandwich, Jim."

"Sandy, I listened, I didn't interrupt, now talk to me."

"Well, you say you listened, right?"

"I did. Heard every word."

"Good. So you tell me. Are you?"

Jim sat back, feeling as though the wind had been knocked out of him. Because the answer was—

"Yes, I think so."

"So all five senses?"

Jim nodded.

That was all Sandy needed. He was up and fairly bouncing, arms waving as he spoke, spitting words out like a machine gun.

"Oh wow, I don't believe this, this is like, you just don't get it, Jim, this is so fucking incredible, and I could only dream of ever finding, let alone meeting, a real sentinel, and yet, here you are, and I don't even know where to start and do you have any idea how lucky you are, what a fucking fantastic gift you've been given?" Then he froze, which lasted all of five seconds before another barrage started.

"Ohmygod, Jim. Your job. Do you use them on the job? Have they helped? How have you been controlling them? Have you zoned? Does anyone know--"

"Whoa, Doctor Frankenstein. Whoa. Now sit down and let's discuss this calmly." Jim's voice, while quiet, nevertheless held a hint of steel that ran under the request. Sandy stopped moving and looked over at his chair, then at a suddenly very serious Jim.

"Oh man, I'm so sorry, I tend to just run off at the mouth and you probably never--"

"Chief? Sit."

"Sit. I can do sitting." Sandy sat. Then he took a deep breath. "Okay. I'm -- sitting."

That put a crack in the stern visage and Jim actually smiled. Sandy let out a breath, then said, "I'm sorry, Jim. I just--"

Jim held up one hand and said, "My turn, Chief."

"Oh. Right. Go ahead."

Jim rolled his eyes, then said, "Okay, so I'm apparently this sentinel thing, but I have a question. Just because I have five over-the-top--"

"Heightened--"

"Heightened--senses, why does that automatically make me this sentinel thing?"

That clearly stumped Sandy. He let out a whoosh of air and Jim sat back, arms crossed over his chest, a smug grin on his face. His smugness didn't last long. "Um, you do use them on your job, don't you, Jim?"

Suspicious, Jim nodded. "I do--when I can. They aren't very reliable, Chief."

"Well, no, I wouldn't think they would be. You don't really know-but that isn't the point right now. Okay, you use them. And what is your job, Jim?"

"You know perfectly well that I'm a cop."

"Right. A cop. Let me see--" he tapped his chin with one finger and pretended to look up at the ceiling as if deep in thought, then said, "A cop. So -- protect and serve. I do believe that's a policeman's motto, isn't it, Jim?" he asked innocently.

"Ye-es," Jim answered suspiciously.

"So why did you become a cop?"

"It was just kind of a natural extension to my military days--"

Sandy leaned forward excitedly. "Exactly. You were a Ranger, weren't you?"

"How do you--"

"You talked about it at Megan's party. In fact, you were the talk of the party. Your mission in Peru, the eighteen months spent with the Chopec--"

Suddenly he was up and at it again.

"OhmyGod, the Chopec! Jim, you had to have used your abilities with them. Did you, huh?"

"Look, Chief, I don't have a lot of memories from those months--"

Hands dancing in the air, Sandy said, "Well, sure, that makes sense." He started to pace. "Those were very traumatic times for you. The loss of your men, stuck there for eighteen months, holding the pass, not knowing when or even if any help would arrive--"

His words caught up to him and Sandy's face went deep red. He sank into his chair and the resulting silence was eerie.

"Chief?"

Eyes on the tape recorder, Sandy said, "We're not so very different, are we, Jim?"

"I don't know what--"

"Memory loss."

"Ah. I see. Well, maybe that's why we clicked so well, huh?"

"Oh, sure, that must be it," Sandy said sarcastically.

Jim leaned over and placed his hand over Sandy's. "Come on, Chief, it's okay. I--probably did use my senses in Peru. I do remember - hearing flocks of birds long before they came into view, and other--stuff-like that."

Worried blue eyes looked over at him and slowly, some excitement crept back into them. "Really?"

"Yep. But I'm still not sure how that makes me a sentinel, Chief."

"Well, I think you have an inherent need to protect, so you find ways to do that. The military first, then becoming a cop. Protect the tribe. The city of Cascade. Your tribe. See?"

Jim couldn't really argue with that, it happened to be true. "So you're saying that every individual with heightened senses is a sentinel?"

"That I don't know, you're the first one I've ever met." Sandy grinned, then added, "But Burton proposed that it was a genetic advantage designed for that express purpose."

"You mind telling me how you know so much about all this?"

Sandy's face heated up and his cheeks burned red. "Oh, well, see, remember those classes I audited?" At Jim's nod, he went on. "Well, this tape is from one of them. That's Professor Eli Stoddard talking. He was discussing Burton's work and reading from--"

"The Sentinels of Paraguay?"

Sandy ducked his head and nodded. "Yeah. Anyway, it really got to me and I even tried to find the monograph, but no luck."

"So do you know how to help me control them?"

His head shot up and, with eyes the size of basketballs, he nodded. "I think so, Jim. Yeah, I think so. There's a lot we could do to help you gain control."

"Good. Cause I gotta tell ya, they drive me crazy most of the time. Just when I think I can really use them, they go out on me."

"So you're okay with this?"

"I have a choice?"

Sandy frowned. "Yeah, Jim, you do."

Running his thumb over the top of Sandy's hand, Jim said, "I used them this morning, with you, and I never want to give that up. Never."

Sandy grinned shyly. "Oh, okay then."

"Yeah," Jim said with his own answering smile, "very okay then."

They stared at each other, both grinning like fools, then Sandy said, "Work, Jim?"

"Oh, shit! I'm supposed to meet with Simon," he looked at his watch, "in thirty minutes!"

"Well, we'd better get you out of here."

They both stood, but somehow, Jim managed to retain hold of Sandy's hand. "Walk me down?"

"I can do that."

***

Jim and Sandy stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby just as the mailman entered. He spotted Jim and lifted his hand in a wave. "Afternoon, Detective Ellison."

"Hey, Louis, how's the beat today?"

"Not bad, not bad at all. You want your mail now or shall I just put it in your box?"

"Box is fine, Louis."

"Sure thing, Detective."

Jim turned back to the elevator to grab Sandy's hand only to find him wide-eyed and pale as he stared at the postal carrier.

"Chief? You okay?"

"I--sure--"

"Detective? You've got a package here, won't fit into the box--"

As Louis spoke, he moved toward the two men, the hand with the package in it stretched out toward them. Sandy shrank away, his back hitting the wall. Jim stepped in front of Sandy, took the offered package and, with a hasty goodbye, he pulled his partner in with him. He hit the button for the third floor and, when the doors closed, he took the trembling man into his arms. "It's okay. Whatever it was, I've got you now."

He stroked his hand up and down Sandy's back and rested his chin on the top of Sandy's head.

"Sorry, sorry. I--have this--thing. For the mailman. I always made sure--I mean, back with Megan--you know?"

And Jim did know. Jim knew exactly.

The letters.

He closed his eyes and held Sandy tightly.

"Oh, man, I am way more than you bargained for, Jim." Sandy pushed himself away from the comfort of Jim's arms and leaned back against the side of the elevator. "You've got yourself this weird guy who doesn't know who the hell he is and to top it off, he's got this thing for mailmen."

"Funny," Jim said in attempt to lighten the mood, "I thought you had a thing for Cascade detectives."

"Them too."

Jim let one eyebrow rise in what he hoped gave him a sexy look. "Them?"

Sandy grinned as he shook his head. "Okay, I have a thing for one Cascade detective."

"Lucky him."

"No, lucky me."

Jim reached over and hit the down button, then snagged the edge of Sandy's jacket and pulled him back into his arms. "Having a thing about mailmen is AOK by me. I have a thing about guys at car washes."

Sandy wrapped his arms around Jim's waist and, after planting a quick kiss on Jim's chin, said, "Oh, sure. They run around in those cut-offs, no shirts, yeah, I just bet you have a thing for them."

"I was hoping you wouldn't pick up on that."

He dropped his right hand down to Jim's ass and squeezed. "Just remember, you can look but you can't touch."

"As if I'd want to - now."

"Sweet talker."

***

Jim walked into the bullpen whistling and even the sight of his boss standing in the doorway of his office couldn't dampen his mood.

"Sir."

"You're late, Detective."

"Oh, yes. Well, I do have an explanation."

"In my office, Ellison."

Jim sucked it in and followed his boss inside, closing the door behind him. He sat down and waited.

"Did we forget Assistant DA Sanchez and a certain trial that begins in three days?"

"Um, no sir, I didn't."

"For a man who thought he was going crazy--"

"Oh, actually, that's why I was late. And, well, I have a favor to ask, Simon." His expression showing Jim quite clearly what his chances were of getting that favor, Simon said, "You want a favor from me? You leave me hanging, force me to listen Sanchez and her diatribe about irresponsible detectives and you want a favor?"

"Um, yes sir. See, it's about my senses. I've found someone who knows how to help me."

Simon's mouth dropped open. He quickly closed it. "Excuse me?"

Jim leaned forward and repeated, "I've found - someone - to help me, sir. Did you catch it that time?"

Simon narrowed his eyes. "You're having fun with this, aren't you?"

Jim wiped the grin off his face and shook his head. "No, sir."

"Jim, we go back a long way and I've been very patient--"

"Yes, sir, you have. Very patient."

With a suspicious look, Simon muttered, "I know I'm going to regret this -- but -- go ahead, talk."

"You've met him, Simon. At Conner's. Her roommate. Well, her ex roommate. Now he's-- mine. Roommate, I mean," Jim said, knowing damn well his face just turned a nice shade of red.

"Now he's -- yours?"

"My roommate. And he's quite knowledgeable about sentinels and what they need and--"

"Sentinels? What's a sentinel?"

"Oh. I'm a sentinel. Five heightened senses," Jim waggled his head, "genetic advantage, guardian of the tribe, yadda-yadda. Anyway, I have to admit that since meeting him, well," then Jim's face took on a surprised expression, "hey, now that I think about it, I haven't had any problems with my senses--since meeting him."

"Huh-uh. I see. Like crystal." Simon rose and stretched his arms out to his side. "Help me out here, Jim. What the hell are you talking about?"

"Sir Richard Burton said it all, sir."

Disbelief written all over him, Simon said, "Elizabeth Taylor's husband said what all?"

"Ex-husband, sir. And that Richard Burton is dead. Well, actually, the right Richard Burton is also dead, but for quite a bit longer."

"What are you on?"

"Sir?"

"Jim?"

"Sorry. Sir Richard Burton, the anthropologist. He studied native sentinels, men with all five heightened senses who were the guardians of their tribe. Sandy believes that if they existed back then, that they exist now -- and judging by me -- he's right. Anyway, he thinks he can help me control them. And if--"

"Who's this Sandy?"

"Megan's roommate? Er, ex roommate."

"Oh, right. Only now he's yours. Roommate, I mean."

"You got it, sir."

"Wait, I remember now. Young kid, mid twenties--"

"He's twenty-five."

"Whatever. Long hair, earring. Cat. I liked him. He knew quite a bit about law enforcement, spouted off about the thin blue line thing--yeah, I liked him.

Quiet, had kind of an innocence about him--"

"That's him. Well, except for the quiet part. See," Jim leaned forward eagerly, "if we could get him an observer pass, he could ride along with me while he's helping me. Kind of an official observer."

Simon's mouth dropped open - again. He closed it - again. "Excuse me? You want me to get this kid an official observers pass? To ride with you? A civilian, riding with you? Lone Ranger Ellison?"

Jim glanced down at his fingernails, made a show of flicking something out from beneath one of them, then said, "Well--yeah." Then he glanced up, his expression suddenly very serious. "Simon, I think he can really help me. And let's face it, when these damn things--"

"Your heightened senses--"

"Yeah, them. When they're working, you know what I've been able to do. Imagine if they were working all the time? Hell, I'd be--I'd be--"

"A human crime lab?"

"Exactly. And we've had observers before, Simon."

"We have. Reporters, government officials, assistant DA's, but what possible excuse could I offer up for assigning a twenty-five year old kid to my best man?"

Jim had to admit, Simon had him stumped--until he remembered Detective Emerson in Burglary.

"Detective Emerson."

"No, I'm Captain Simon Banks. And you just damaged your case."

"Very funny, sir. Remember the Rainier student who rode with Emerson last summer? He was going for his Master's in Police Science?"

Simon frowned in thought, then snapped his fingers. "Got it. Right, students. That has happened a few times. So you're saying that this kid is a student?"

"Yes sir. Rainier." Jim carefully omitted the fact that Sandy only audited classes. Some classes. He felt guilty - for a split second.

"Okay, I'll give this a try, Jim. Get the paperwork from Vera in Personnel and tell her it's for 90 days. And that's it, Jim. 90 days."

Jim jumped to his feet. "That's no problem, Simon. 90 days should work fine. Thank you."

He started to leave, even had his hand on the door knob, when Simon added, "Jim? You have an appointment with Assistant District Attorney Sanchez -- at four this afternoon. Good luck."

Fuck.

***

Even the thought of meeting with an angry DA didn't dampen Jim's enthusiasm for getting the paperwork for Sandy. Of course, they'd have to do some clever obfuscating on the submission forms and he'd have to sign-off himself in order to avoid fingerprinting. Maybe he should tell Simon about Sandy's past? Yes, he should. But later. Much later. Like--in 90 days.

***

Sandy stood on the balcony forcing himself to watch another mailman on his rounds. His head was pounding, but he was stubborn. He could do this. There was no way Jim should have to put up with some idiot who couldn't even stomach watching a simple postal carrier. No way.

He felt the sweat trickle into his eyes and he blinked ferociously. Damn, he was about to have a panic attack—

Sandy turned on his heel and almost ran back inside.

***

Jim unlocked his Expedition and slid in, closing the door after him. For a moment he made no move to start the engine. His meeting with Beverly had not gone well. New wrinkle to being the sentinel for Cascade. How to give accurate testimony about witnessing something when in reality, you'd been almost half a mile away?

Slowly he started the car, backed out of the space and headed for the exit, his parking ticket in hand. There were several cars in line and in typical city fashion, only one open exit. As his engine idled, he thought back on the meeting and his attempts to explain how he'd seen what he could not possibly have seen.

Man, he'd screwed up royally. Then Jim smiled. Sandy would be able to figure something out. He knew it. Grinning, he passed his ticket to the guard and as the gate arm rose, he moved forward, then turned right and headed home.

Yep, Sandy would figure it out. Jim, eyes on the road, reached down a hand and patted the large envelope sitting on the seat beside him - Sandy's paperwork for applying for observer status. Jim stepped on the gas.

***

"Oh, honey, I'm home!" Jim quipped as he walked into the loft.

Sandy poked his head around the curtain that separated Jim's storage closet from the rest of the room and grinned. "Honey isn't here right now. Will I do?"

"Um, I'm not sure. What are your qualifications for replacing Honey?"

"That's a hard one," Sandy said playfully as he walked out and over to stand a few feet from Jim. "Let's see--I can assume she's one bodacious babe, so in a physical competition, I'm afraid I'd lose. On the other hand, I'm here and Honey isn't, so that puts me slightly ahead of her--"

"And just why are you assuming she's a she?"

"Well, mostly because us macho types go by the endearment of O Studly Wonder while eschewing such terms as honey, sweetie and gumdrop."

"Ah. I see. Well, since you are here and Honey isn't, I think I can make do."

Sandy sidled closer and started unbuckling Jim's belt. "I think you can make more than do, dear."

Jim gave out with a loud bark of laughter which turned quickly into a low groan as Sandy lowered the zipper and slipped his hand into Jim's boxers--

Plastering himself against the larger man, fingers wrapped around Jim's very interested dick, he crooned, "So, how was your day, dear?"

"My day -- is -- just beginning, dear."

***

Jim stroked his hand up and down the sweaty back of his human blanket and smiled. "You hungry?"

"Just ate," came the muffled reply.

"Chief, I don't think semen is part of the food pyramid."

"Should be."

"Undoubtedly, but until it is -- I'm thinking -- chicken stir-fry."

"Who cooks?"

"We cook."

Sandy lifted his head from Jim's chest and grinned. "I like your thinking, Detective Ellison."

Jim swatted Sandy's butt as he said, "So get up already and let's get cracking!"

***

"Hey, how 'bout some wine with dinner?"

Sandy turned from the stove where he was currently adding the Jim-chopped vegetables to the nicely browned chicken and said, "Sounds good. You doing the salad?"

"Yep. Anything you don't like in your greens?"

"Um, radishes. Don't like radishes in my salad."

"Good. We don't have any anyway."

They both laughed, then went companionably back to their duties. Jim set the table, opened the wine and set it out to breathe, then finished the salad and carried it, along with the dressing, to the table. As he walked back, his gaze fell on the envelope sitting on the small table by the door.

"Holy smokes, I can't believe I forgot--" he hurried over and picked it up, then set it down next to his plate.

"Whatcha forget?"

"I'll tell you when we sit down."

Sandy dumped the white rice onto a platter, then added the stir-fry and said, "Well, that's right now. Dinner is ready." He carried it to the table and set it in the middle, then took his seat and looked expectantly up at Jim.

Jim lowered himself into his chair and it hit them both at the exact same moment. They grinned like idiots, then at the same time, said, "Our first home-cooked meal -- done together."

They laughed, then Sandy nodded at the envelope and let one eyebrow rise.

"Oh. This," Jim said as he rested his hand on it.

"Yeah, that."

"Well, this, my wonderful stud--"

Sandy snorted at that, but Jim went on. "This is how you're going to be able to join me at work and help me with my senses."

He let that sink in and when he saw the slightly glazed look that he now associated with excitement in his roommate, he continued even as he started to pull out the sheets of paper that made up the application.

"I talked to Simon today, told him everything and got him to okay your joining me as an official observer. You just have to fill these out and yes, I know, we're going to have to be a bit creative, but I can sign off and thus avoid any finger printing--"

Jim stopped, realizing that something was wrong. Very wrong. He glanced up from the papers in his hand to look at Sandy, who was staring at the forms as if they were some kind of alien being bent on the total destruction of his world.

"Chief? Hey, really, this won't be a problem. We'll use Connor's name and --"

Sandy got up and walked into the living room. For a moment he stood uncertainly but when Jim followed him and put his hands on the younger man's shoulder, Sandy moved away, then turned to face Jim.

"Man, I don't know--how--"

"Sandy, whatever it is, don't worry about it. Just tell me."

Sandy gave him a crooked smile and said, "It seems you've got yourself this guy who not only doesn't know who he is and can't stand to look at a mailman, but see, you've also got this guy who has – forgotten -- how to -- write."

The effort to school his features, in order to hide his shock and dismay, felt a whole lot like it might feel trying to stop a freight train by simply holding onto the back car with his hands. But Jim did it. "Okay," he was finally able to say, his voice calm, his emotions in check. "I can see that kind of thing happening. A form of aphasia. But you can read, obviously?"

Sandy nodded, his body language telling Jim just how miserable the younger man truly was at that moment. He wanted to take Sandy into his arms, but he figured that keeping it light and normal was what Sandy needed. As a man who had his own issues about being different, thanks to his father, but who had overcome them, he could empathize with Sandy's need to appear normal, especially to his new -- lover.

"You're smiling, Jim. I wouldn't think finding out just how handicapped your new roommate was, would be cause for joy."

"I just called you my lover in my mind. What can I say? It made me smile. I realize now I should have mentally said , studly lover and I promise that in the future, when mentally referring to you as lover, I will insert the word studly."

Sandy frowned at him, the way one might frown at someone on the street who was talking to themselves and wearing foil on their head. "Um, Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"You seem to be taking all this rather--well."

Jim moved into Sandy's space and let his fingers wind their way around the fingers of Sandy's left hand. "How can I handle it any differently than you, Chief? This is something you've had to deal with for how many years?"

"Five," Sandy answered, his grip tightening around the strong hand.

"Five. It doesn't bother me, unless it bothers you. Does it?"

Sandy looked down at the floor a moment, then back up. "Writing. Not being able to even face the prospect of picking up a pen or pencil, staring at an empty piece of paper -- that -- bothers me. I can live with my reactions to mailmen."

He allowed a small grin to play at his lips. Then his expression went serious again as he added, "I can even live with no past, as long as it never hurts -- anyone -- I love."

Jim brushed the back of his left hand against the stubble on Sandy's cheek as he said softly, "I don't think I know anyone more courageous than you, Chief."

"Yeah, right, Jim. Right." He shook his head at the very idea, then said, "Dinner. Cold. Shall we try again?"

"Sounds like a plan. Let's eat, then figure out how to do the paperwork." As Sandy started toward the table, Jim pulled on his hand. "Wait. I guess I should have asked. Do you want to ride with me? Work with me out in the field?"

Eyes sparkling, Sandy nodded. "More than anything, Jim. More than anything."

Jim grinned almost shyly as he said, "All right then."

***

In the end, Jim filled out the paperwork and, after a call to Megan, decided that Sandy was now Sandy Connor, Megan's cousin. The only real problem during the process was answering questions about parents. Seeing the pain in the depths of Sandy's eyes encouraged Jim to write a hasty deceased before moving on.

When they got to birth date, Jim's pen paused again. He knew Sandy's age, but Sandy didn't. Neither of them knew his birth date and needless to say, asking Megan was out of the question. Jim finally decided to handle it with humor.

Turning to Sandy, Jim gave him a critical once over, then asked, "Okay, how old do you think you are? I'm thinking -- forty."

Managing to look as though he were honestly considering that assessment, Sandy slid his hand behind Jim, pulled out the decorative pillow and promptly swatted Jim in the face - gently, but still—

"What, you don't think I'm close to the mark with forty?" Jim asked while capturing the pillow and the man who'd swung it.

"For you, maybe, but I'm at least fifteen years younger than you, old man," Sandy teased.

Jim started to sputter as he said in mock horror, "Wha--FIFTEEN ?!"

Sandy silenced him with a kiss. A damn fine kiss too. When they finally parted, Sandy held Jim's face between his two hands and looking carefully at the older man, said, "Honestly, you're what, early thirties?"

"Thirty three."

"It doesn't show." He ran his finger under Jim's eyes, then leaned in and kissed the outer corner of each eye. Jim sighed happily, then said, "I'm thinking you're in your twenties and since I absolutely refuse to be more than ten years older, I'm decreeing that as of this moment, you're -- twenty-five. How does that sound?"

"I like it. Twenty five? So I still have five years before I hit the big 3-0? Cool. So when was I born?"

"When do you want to be born?"

A devilish look crept into Sandy's eyes as he mused, "Well, I'm thinking -- March 23, 1969."

Jim picked up the pen again and where it asked for the birth date, he wrote in: 03/23/69. Then he held it up and nodded in satisfaction, a huge grin on his face - a grin that lasted until Sandy asked innocently, "So, whatcha getting me for my birthday? And do I get to go anywhere I want on Saturday?"

"Uh?"

Sandy tapped the paper. "My birthday? This Saturday? March -- twenty-third?"

Realization dawned.

"You little shit," Jim said, laughing.

"Yep, that's me."

The task finished, Jim put the paperwork back in the envelope and settled down for a comfortable evening with Sandy in his arms and a college basketball game on television.

***

"Huh-oh."

Sandy lifted his head from Jim's lap. "Huh-oh?"

"We forgot. Megan. She just entered the lobby and she's carrying--"

Jim got no further as Sandy bounded up and headed for the door yelling, "Blair!"

He rushed into the hall and skidded to a stop in front of the elevator, bouncing on the balls of his feet in anticipation.

From his vantage point, namely lounging against the doorframe, Jim watched, a gentle smile on his lips. The elevator opened and Megan stood there, arms full of kitten and kitten supplies.

"Sandy!"

"Megs!"

Somehow, and Jim had no idea how, Sandy and Megan managed to hug and kiss, then Sandy had the kitten in his arms, rubbing his face against the soft fur. Megan grinned and the two ex-roommates looked at each other, their smiles soft, secret and loving. At that moment, Jim felt as though he were the interloper. And even worse, he suddenly felt as if he'd torn Sandy from the safe life he'd had with Megan.

Pushing himself away from the wood, hands stuffed in his pockets, Jim stepped aside to allow Sandy and Megan to enter, both chattering away as if it had been weeks instead of days since they'd seen each other.

Jim closed the door, and still feeling odd man out, watched as Sandy, kitten now perched on his shoulder, took the litter box and set it just inside the small storage room, then deposited the furball with the command, "Pee, Blair."

Jim heard the small shuffling movements of the kitten, followed by the sound of a nice stream, then the typical scratching that heralded a cat's desire to hide from the world their bodily excretions. This was followed immediately by Sandy's cooing voice.

"You are such a good baby, so pretty and smart and good. And I know you have a good memory, but a word of warning, baby, no climbing up the curtain, just crawl under it, okay?"

Megan, who'd finished unloading cat food, cat dishes and cat toys, turned and shared a grin with Jim, who said, "You're gonna miss him, aren't you?"

"I already do. It's so damn quiet around my place now."

Jim chuckled and said, "I meant -- the cat."

Megan rolled her eyes. "Sheesh, Ellison, confuse a gal, why don't you."

Sandy came back out at that moment, kitten back on his shoulder, and said, "Jim, don't worry about any odor. We use this natural--"

"It's okay, Chief. I don't smell a thing."

"And the fur? It won't bother you, will it?"

"Yours doesn't."

"Oh, ha-ha, Jim. Very funny."

Megan laughed outright as the two men stared at each other. "You are furry, Sandy. And sorry, but you shed far worse than Skee--"

"Blair."

Megan barely paused as she flicked a glance at Jim. "Right, Blair. Anyway, you--"

Sandy held up a hand. "I get it. I shed." Then he looked back up at Jim and said, "I understand they have mobile groomers now. They come right to your home and groom your -- shedders. Maybe you should call one?"

Jim walked over to him, took the kitten from his shoulder and after dropping a kiss on the kitten's nose, said, "Nah, I'm thinking any grooming of shedders in this house will be done by -- me."

"Sounds -- promising."

Megan stepped closer and said, "Guys? Not alone here."

Eyes locked on Sandy's, Jim said, "Do you hear something, Chief?"

"All right, in another minute, you're really going to make me feel unwelcome. Not that I'm leaving right away, cause I'm not, Ellison. I want to hear about this observer thing."

Eyes twinkling, Sandy said, "Busted, Jim."

"Curses, foiled again."

***

"So that's it."

Megan sat in the yellow chair, eyes wide, mouth open. "My God, Jim, that explains so much about you. And no, I never once fell for that lame, 'Yes, I'm psychic, Connor' excuse you tried out on me."

"Yes you did, hook, line and sinker and don't try to wiggle out of it."

Waving her hand in a dismissive manner, she said, "Sandy, this must be like a miracle for you, finding a real sentinel?"

"Icing, Megan, just icing," he said as he slipped his hand into Jim's.

"I can't believe Captain Banks is really going to allow Sandy to ride with you. Who knew you had such a silver tongue, Ellison?"

"Well, actually," Sandy said innocently, "I knew. Very silver, his tongue. Magical even."

Holding up her hands and laughing, Megan whined, "TMI, Sandy, TMI."

"Jim, show her your tongue."

"Chief, you are one sick puppy."

"And aren't you glad?"

Megan groaned.

***

"You really happy?"

"What do you think?"

It was after nine and Megan, after more discussions about Jim, his senses, and Sandy's soon to be issued observers pass, had finally stood up and announced her intention to "skiddadle". Now she and Sandy stood in front of the elevator, waiting for it to make its way up to the third floor.

"Well, if the gleam in your eye is any indication, yeah, you're deliriously happy."

"I am, Megs, I am. Happier than I ever thought I'd be allowed. And Megs, nothing bothers him. He accepts me as I am. Just as I am."

"Hey," she put a finger under his chin and tilted up his head, "just as you are is a pretty great thing. Jim is one lucky son of a gun."

"Yeah, well, you're prejudiced."

"And smart."

"And you love me."

"Terribly," she said softly.

They moved into each other's arms and held fast. For so long it had been the two of them against the world, but now Megan had to hand over the care of Sandy to someone else. As she hugged him fiercely, she prayed that she'd done the right thing.

***

"What's he doing?"

"Chasing a piece of lint."

"So talented. We have the most talented kitten in the universe, Chief."

"You schmuck."

Jim rolled over, reached out and grabbed at his partner. Sandy tumbled back and into Jim's arms. They wrestled a bit, laughing as they rolled across the bed, each trying to get the upper hand. Sandy, thanks to a pinch to Jim's butt, finally won. Legs straddling his partner, hands clamped down on Jim's arms, he looked down at his helpless partner and leering, said, "Looks like I have myself a prisoner."

Panting, Jim huffed out, "You can torture me, drug me, do with me as you will - but I shall never succumb."

"Ah, but I have my secret ways and trust me, you will succumb."

"Never."

Slowly Sandy stretched out, then lowered himself until his cock was pressed against Jim's. "Still believe that I can not bend you to my will, Detective Ellison?"

Biting his lower lip to hide his grin, Jim nodded. "I -- will - never -- surrender."

Sandy glanced down, one eyebrow rising. "Detective, looks as though at least a part of you is already succumbing. And have you ever noticed how -- suggestive -- that word is? Suc-cumb?"

Jim closed his eyes and groaned. The kid was gonna kill him yet.

Sandy craned his neck and with lips next to Jim's ear, whispered seductively, "succumb -- suc-cumb -- suck -- come--"

"You--cheat," Jim managed to hiss out.

Sandy nibbled at Jim's earlobe, then kissed a trail down to Jim's chin. He nipped at Jim's lips, then moved to the other side. As he rained more kisses, he kept up a gentle downward thrust against Jim's groin. At Jim's right ear, Sandy tickled him with lightning fast moves of his tongue, then flicked it in and out quickly and that was all it took --

Jim came hard, head thrust back and Sandy's name on his lips.

***

"I succumbed," Jim said drowsily.

"Damn straight, you did."

Sandy was tucked into Jim's side, his finger moving over Jim's belly and chest. Jim cracked open one eye. "You gonna play in that all night?"

"I'm thinking about it."

Jim caught the hand and stilled it. "How do you feel about a writing lesson right now?" He held up Sandy's hand. "You have the tool right here, and the paper," Jim said, as he dipped his own finger in the remnants of his orgasm.

"This I've got to see, Jim. Go for it."

Grinning, Jim gently took Sandy's finger and slowly traced a letter on his chest. "That's what it feels like to write an a." He then moved Blair's finger and traced a b, followed by a c. "You've just written a, b and c."

In spite of the fact that he'd just written in semen, or maybe because he'd written in semen, Sandy's excitement was a living thing. Eyes wide and dancing with joy, he said in an awestruck voice, "I did, I really did. I -- wrote -- I actually -- wrote something!"

"Yeah, Chief, you did."

It took three days for the authorization to come down for Sandy's observer pass. Three days of sensory tests (some of them kind of kinky), learning about something called dials (which proved to be a Godsend for Jim), watching Blair in his new home, and discovering that the kitten hated sleeping anywhere but on Sandy's head, buried in his hair.

There were more writing lessons for Sandy (utilizing more conventional methods) and by Thursday night, he was writing his name, their address and Megan's name. Friday afternoon, Simon came out of his office, a huge grin on his face. "Jim, you might want to get our observer down here for his photo shoot."

At Jim's blank look, Simon added, "ID badge, Jim? Ring a bell?"

Jim was up and out of his chair instantly, Megan following suit. "Sir, are you serious?" Jim asked, his heart in his throat.

"Most definitely. Tell him to get his butt to the station, pronto."

"Sir, do you mind if I get him? I haven't had my lunch break--"

Simon looked from Jim to Megan, then said, "Doesn't the kid have a car?"

Megan stepped forward before Jim could answer. "No sir. He doesn't. Never really needed one, to be honest."

"Oh, well. Go Jim. Pick the kid up."

With a relieved look, Jim nodded and grabbed his jacket as Simon went back into his office. Megan watched the excited man, then touched his shoulder gently.

"Jim?"

"Megan?"

"I wasn't entirely truthful with Simon just now. And what I omitted -- it might have made a difference in his decision allowing Sandy to ride with you."

Puzzled, Jim waited.

"He -- it's one of the other things he doesn't remember how to do. Drive. Like the whole writing thing, I never pushed it because of his medications and the migraines. I felt it was safer for him. But now, well, let's face it, he might have to -- you know, take the wheel?"

Glad his chair was nearby, Jim dropped into it. "Hell, I never gave his driving a thought." He glanced up at her and said, ticking off on his fingers, "Mailmen, writing, driving, is there anything else I need to know?"

Megan might have been pissed by the question, but Jim sounded so normal, not angry or impatient, just -- normal. Like trying to find out what else his lover might have forgotten was perfectly - normal. And she realized that it really didn't bother Jim, other than his being concerned for Sandy.

"No, Jim," she answered with a suddenly shy smile, "there's nothing else."

"Okay, so got any ideas on how to handle the driving thing?"

Grinning, she said, "You could teach him. I'm not sure what it is about you two, but he's already started to do things, like writing, that he'd never been able to even consider with me. Go ahead, give it a try this weekend. Teach him."

A gleam came into Jim's eyes as he nodded thoughtfully. "You know, we gave him a birthday in order to fill out the paperwork -- and he pulled a fast one by picking this Saturday. I've been wondering what to get him and now -- I think I know."

"Well, damn. I forgot about that. Of course you'd have to put down a birth date--"

Hearing the panic in her voice, Jim said, "Don't worry, Megan. He's Sandy Connor and his birth date is March 23, 1969. And that's all that matters."

She smiled softly. "You got the year right, Jim. And believe it or not, you're only two months off."

Jim rose, his face suddenly hard. "No, we're not two months off, Connor."

She understood his anger and acted quickly. "I'm sorry, Jim. I know. Sandy Connor. Born March 23, 1969."

His expression softened. "Thanks, Megan."

She nodded, then asked, amazed, "How did you avoid the fingerprinting?"

Face turning crimson, Jim said, "I signed off on him."

"You--you actually used your rank?"

He shrugged.

"I believe I may have seriously underestimated you, Detective Ellison."

"Remember that in the future, Connor."

"I will. And are you gonna tell me what his birthday present is?"

"Nope. I'll let him do it. But I will say -- stay home all day, Megan."

"You got it, Jim. Saturday, I'm at home."

***

The trip to the station, which only took fifteen minutes, seemed to take forever for Sandy, who couldn't sit still. If his legs weren't jiggling, his butt was.

"Aw, Jim, you could have gone through--"

"Chief? Red light? I know it's crazy but red means stop. It's an inconvenience, but--"

"Yellow. It was yellow. You coulda gone."

Jim just shook his head.

Ten minutes later he pulled into the underground garage and parked. He was just taking the key from the ignition when Sandy bounded out, jogged around to Jim's door, then while bouncing nervously, said, "Jiiim, come on."

"Chief, I just know you can hold it til we get upstairs and you can use the restroom. You're a big boy now."

"You're just a barrel of laughs, Jim. Ha-ha."

Smiling, Jim got out, pocketed the keys and tugging on a hank of Sandy's hair, said, "Come on, Observer, let's get your mug shot."

Sandy froze. His vision narrowed, grew dark, he swayed and would have fallen if Jim hadn't caught him.

***

Voices. Hands pushing him. Words he didn't understand—

"Stand facing your left. Hold it. Good. Now face front--good, hold it. Now face right--good, hold it--"

Light blinding him, another voice—

"Not a bad mug shot - as mug shots for murderers go--"

***

"Chief? Come on, listen to me--"

Sandy could hear Jim, but—

"J'im?"

"Yeah, buddy, it's me. Come on, look at me, focus those blues for me--"

Sandy lifted his head and blinked, then squinted. "Jim? Wha-what happened?" He gazed about him dazedly and noted that he was in the Expedition -- in the driver's seat, but facing Jim, who was squatting down in front of him.

"What--weren't we on our way to--"

Jim placed his hand on Sandy's knee and smiling at him, said, "Yeah we were, but you decided to take a little trip -- without me, I might add."

Sandy closed his eyes and shook his head. "God, I'm so sorry, Jim. I don't know what -- I mean, I was fine, I was, I swear it--"

"Ssh, it's all right." He reached up and placed a hand gently against the side of Sandy's face. "How you feeling now? Headache?"

"No, no, I'm fine--"

"Chief, my senses tell me differently."

Sandy pushed Jim's hand away and moved forward, indicating his desire to stand. Jim straightened and stepped back. Sandy pushed himself up, but the minute his foot hit the pavement, the world spun and daggers struck. And once again, Jim was there.

"I've got you, Chief. I've got you."

"I think--I'm going to throw up--"

Jim guided him to the front of the Expedition so that they were out of sight and Sandy doubled over and began to retch. Jim held him, his fingers around the loose hair, keeping it out of the younger man's face.

As Sandy tossed his breakfast and lunch, Jim talked softly, dialed down his sense of smell and rubbed gentle circles over the tense and now sweating back. After several minutes, Sandy's legs buckled and both sank down to their knees. Eyes closed, Sandy whispered, "home, need-to go--home--"

Jim helped him up, got him to the car, then into the front seat. He hurried around to his side of the vehicle, slid in, pulled Sandy down so that his head rested on Jim's thigh, started the car, backed out and proceeded to break land, air and sea records getting back to the loft.

***

"Ssh, it's okay, just a little further--"

"--too much trouble--"

"No way, Chief. Keep your eyes closed, we're almost in--"

Jim pushed the door open and with his arm around Sandy, he moved inside and got the door closed. He started toward the stairs, but Sandy whispered, "Bathroom, please?"

Jim changed direction and, once inside, held Sandy up at the sink as the younger man shakily and laboriously brushed his teeth. When he was done, Jim got his partner upstairs, sat him down and began to undress him.

"I'm going to get you down to your boxers, tuck you in, then I'll get your medication. One of each pill?"

Sandy nodded miserably as he let Jim strip him down, unable to assist in any real way. Jim's actions were so gentle and loving that Sandy began to feel even worse—

"Okay, I'm going to lift your legs now and slide you under the covers--"

Jim got him down, helped him roll over onto his side, then pulled the covers up to his neck. He hurried downstairs, got the pills, a glass of water and made the return trip as quickly as he could. He sat down on the edge of the bed, placed the pills to Sandy's lips and said, "Open wide, Chief."

Sandy's eyes fluttered open, he groaned, took the pills and water, then let his head drop back down. Jim reached up, pulled at the string attached to the blind that covered his skylight and the room darkened. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. Jim went back downstairs and pulled all the shades. That should do it.

Having some experience with blinding headaches, he knew that darkness was a pre-requisite for surviving. For just a moment, he remained standing in front of the shaded windows, his heart thudding in his chest. He was a detective but it didn't take a genius to figure out what had brought on this particular attack. Two words: Mug shot.

Had Blair Sandburg been arrested and taken to central? Dare Jim even allow Sandy to enter the station, let alone work with him? God damn it, why hadn't he used his head?

Jim listened -- and satisfied by the sound of deep even breathing coming from the bed upstairs -- he went to the phone and dialed the station, then Megan's extension.

"Connor."

"Megan, it's Jim. Listen, I can't believe I didn't think of this before, but -- when -- Blair -- was arrested, where--"

"Oh God. Did something happen when you two got here? Is that why—"

"Megan, relax. Just tell me--"

"Naomi's home is in Fallbrook, Jim. Not Cascade's jurisdiction. He spent less than two hours in the station at Fallbrook—"

"Mug shots, right?"

"Yes, then he -- collapsed and they took him back to the hospital."

"What about the trial?"

"The Jackson Courthouse."

"Well thank God for that."

"Jim, is he all right?"

"He's asleep. Migraine. He lost his lunch and breakfast in the parking garage."

"You gave him his medication?"

"Both. How long is he likely to sleep?"

"He won't wake until tomorrow, Jim. Should I stop by tonight? Or come over now?"

"No, not if he's going to sleep the night away. But maybe -- in the morning?"

"I'll be there. Around nine?"

"Thanks, Megan."

***

Jim found it impossible to remain downstairs while Sandy slept the sleep of the dead upstairs. After he'd finished with Megan, he called Simon and explained that his new observer had come down with the flu. Feeling only marginally bad about the lie as he hung up, he promised himself that he would tell Simon the whole truth -- Monday.

Jim climbed the stairs to his bedroom, stripped down to his boxers and climbed in next to Sandy. He knew better than to try to hold him, knowing that any movement could bring pain, even in his drugged sleep. Jim contented himself with resting on his side and watching him.

After a few moments, he was joined by the kitten, who clawed his way up to the bed. Blair, sensing his owner's discomfort, curled up into Jim and went to sleep.

***

Saturday morning was heralded by Jim's growling stomach. He rolled over carefully, not certain of Blair's position. As his senses righted themselves, he smiled. Purring directed his gaze to -- Sandy's hair.

Jim's smile broadened as he looked at Sandy. The younger man was sleeping easily and naturally, his face smooth, no sign of pain and looking all of fifteen. Jim got out of bed carefully, put on his robe and padded downstairs.

After a pit stop to relieve himself, he headed for the kitchen and food. It wasn't until he'd started up the coffee machine that he realized he'd been followed - by Blair. The kitten had made his own pit stop and now sat in the middle of the kitchen, head cocked and staring up at Jim.

"Right. So we're both hungry." Jim poured some kitten food into Blair's dish, then refilled the water dish. As the kitten munched happily, Jim opted for a toasted bagel smeared with cream cheese for his breakfast. As he and the kitten ate, a raggedy Sandy stumbled and mumbled his way downstairs. Jim grinned as he watched the mess that was his partner.

As Sandy headed unfailingly for the bathroom, Jim said, "How's the birthday boy feeling this morning?"

"Finefine, gotta go, gottago--"

Jim chuckled, partly due to his pleasure at seeing Sandy without the pain of the migraine and partly due to the odd humor of the situation. God, he loved the guy.

The bathroom door was shut and Jim could hear Sandy fumbling followed by the satisfied groan of a man emptying a very full bladder. Jim grinned again, put another bagel into the toaster and poured another cup of coffee. By the time he had the bagel buttered, Sandy came out and, with eyes still half closed, made his way to Jim, who was waving the bagel in the air.

"Keep coming, you're almost here. Can you smell it, Chief?"

"Umm, where-where?"

"Almost here--"

Sandy reached out his hand and Jim, still grinning, placed the bagel into it. He turned, picked up the mug and placed it into the other questing hand. He watched Sandy take his first sip, then the second.

Blue eyes widened in pleasure. "Ahh, life begins anew," Sandy said, his voice closer to normal.

"Come on, wonder kid, let's sit down." Jim gave Sandy a little nudge and they both walked over and took their seats. Sandy continued to chew and sip as Jim continued to watch. When the bagel was gone, he leaned over and kissed the buttery lips. "Happy birthday, Chief."

Sandy dove in for more of Jim. When they parted, Jim, after a lick of Sandy's bottom lip, said, "Guess you're feeling better, eh?"

"Yep. But I could eat a horse."

"Connor will be here any minute and. since I have a couple of errands to run this morning, maybe you can talk her into taking you out for breakfast?"

"Errands? But I want--"

"Birthday errands, doofus."

Sandy ducked his head and said, "Jim, you don't really have to--"

"It's your birthday, Sandy. And I think it's a perfect date."

Smiling self-consciously, Sandy nodded. "Okay. But what about--I mean, yesterday?"

"No problem. I told Simon you'd come down with the flu. We're set for another attempt on Monday."

"I'm sorry, Jim. And I'm sorry you had to lie to Simon. Maybe--maybe we should-"

"I think we should," Jim said, anticipating Sandy's suggestion.

"He might not let me--"

"He'll let you."

"Are we ever going to complete a--"

"Sentence? Nope."

Sandy laughed, then leaned in for more tonsil hockey.

***

"So how bad was it, kid?"

Sandy shook his head. "Not the worst ever, but, bad."

Megan reached across the booth and took her best friend's hand. "I'm sorry, honey."

Sandy shook his head. "I don't know--how--long, I mean, Jim--it's like there's always something, you know? How much is he supposed to put up with for me?"

"He loves you, Sandy. Loves you deeply. How much would you put up with for him?"

"Anything."

"There you go. Now eat those blueberry pancakes."

"I can do that."

Smiling, both went back to their breakfast.

***

"Jeff, this is--perfect."

"It's available, Ellison. Goes to the auction tomorrow. As one of Cascade's finest, you get first dibs. Eight hundred out the door. Everything included."

"Done. And that out the door part? That mean today? Now?"

"You got it, man. And trust me, she's in mint condition."

Jim slapped the man on the back and said, "Well, let's get the paperwork done, then we bargain."

Jeff Lehman, the man in charge of the police impound, hung back and said, "Bargain? Ellison, you're getting an unbelievable bargain. This is a 1966 convertible Corvair."

"Yep and I need it delivered. Hence - we bargain."

"Ah. All righty then, bargain is my middle name. Let's get to it, Ellison."

Jim couldn't help himself. He was whistling. In spite of the recent disaster with Sandy, in spite of the migraine the younger man had suffered, or maybe -- because of it -- Jim was inordinately pleased with himself. He patted the hood of the Corvair, then picked up the red ribbon and started inside.

As bad as yesterday had been for Sandy, Jim now hoped today would be that much better - thanks to the ribbon in his hand. He walked carefully through the back lobby, then upstairs, all the while allowing the ribbon to leave a trail as he carefully unraveled it. When he got to the third floor, he paused. This could be a problem. He didn't want Sandy to see the ribbon until the right moment and since the younger man wasn't back yet from his breakfast with Megan, well, Jim couldn't take it the rest of the way into the loft. Okay, what was the solution? Then he had it. For now, he'd tie it off on the stair railing, then when Sandy did something Jim would think of later to get him away from the door – Jim would rush out, bring it in and set up his gift.

And the something would be? Jim snapped his fingers. Of course. Bathroom. The kid would have to go sometime. Solution found. Jim tied it off, grateful that his only other third floor neighbor, John Stevens, was on vacation. No one would disturb the ribbon and none of the other occupants of 852 Prospect used the stairs. He and his ribbon were safe - for now.

Jim quickly ran back downstairs to his Expedition, opened it, grabbed the large, square white box and headed back. When he got inside his home, he put the box in the fridge -- all the way in the back - and with a satisfied kick, closed the refrigerator door.

He was ready. One birthday celebration, coming right up.

A small whimper caused him to look down and into Blair's sparkling cat-eyes. Jim picked him up, carried him to the couch and sat down. The purring made him smile and after the kitten made itself comfortable on his lap and settled down for a nap, Jim rested his head back and closed his eyes.

***

Megan pulled up next to the Expedition but didn't turn off the engine. "I won't go up, honey. I'm meeting Flori at the cinema."

"Whatcha seeing?" Sandy asked, his hand on the door handle.

"I'm not sure. You know her. Probably some art flick I won't understand."

"Don't you mean a flick you'll pretend not to understand?"

Megan shrugged disarmingly and said, "You know I have to keep up the cop facade that Flori expects."

"Megs, one of these days you're going to have to let her see the real you."

"I will, I will. When I'm -- sure."

Sandy cocked his head and regarded his friend from under dark lashes. "Megs, are you ever going to be sure? Sometimes -- sometimes I think there's someone you're trying to forget. And -- no one can measure up to that person."

Megan looked quickly down, then back up. "Well, if that's the case, it's my business, isn't it, Sandy?"

Sandy pushed open the door and stepped out. He shut it, then leaned in, arms resting on the door. "Yeah, it is. And I'm sorry. Forget I said anything. Have a great time and say hi to Flori for me."

Megan put out her hand and rested it on Sandy's. "I'm sorry, I know you're just trying to help. Didn't mean to bite your head off."

"That's okay, I understand. Have a good time and call me later and tell me all about it, all right?"

"I will. Now get upstairs to your new roommate."

***

Sandy gave an exaggerated salute and laughing, stepped onto the curb. As Megan pulled out into traffic, he waved again before heading inside to Jim.

Megan watched Sandy in her rearview mirror until he turned and walked inside the building. As she headed up Prospect, she acknowledged her guilt. Guilt for lying to Sandy. Megan wasn't seeing anyone at the cinema and there was no Flori. But she was going to visit someone who meant as much to her as Sandy did.

She was on her way to see - Naomi Sandburg.

***

Sandy took the elevator up to the third floor and practically jumped out of it and over to the door to number 307. He opened it, walked in and took off his jacket. As he was hanging it up, Jim said, "Hey, Chief, how was breakfast?"

Smiling, Sandy joined his partner in the living room. Pushing Jim's legs apart, he stepped into the space newly created and reached down for the kitten. As he scooped him up, he also managed to drop a kiss on Jim's upturned lips before answering, "It was fine."

"Mmm, blueberry pancakes?"

"Yep. Jealous?"

"Why would I be? All I need to do is this--" Jim pulled on Sandy's arm, forcing the man down again. Jim promptly kissed him. When he released him, he licked his lips. "Mmm, good," he said with a grin.

Cuddling the kitten to his face, Sandy said, "Cheater. My only consolation is that you're getting the very watered down version of breakfast."

"Watered down? Nope, don't think so." Jim pulled Sandy down again, kissed him again, and then said, "Orange juice and coffee, but no water. And sausage. Good sausage."

Laughing, Sandy sat down next to him and let Blair settle on his shoulder. As the kitten got comfortable under his long hair, Sandy said, "So - what about my birthday dinner?"

"Birthday dinner?" Jim said innocently.

"Don't try that innocent stuff on me, you already told me you were doing birthday errands this morning." Sandy sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm thinking -- fish. I'm thinking -- coastal drive. Maybe Sam's Sea Shanty?"

"I like your choice, Chief. A nice drive along the coast, a beautiful sunset, followed by dinner overlooking the ocean. Oh, yeah, I can get behind that." "Cool! In the meantime - I say we go upstairs."

Trying the innocent look again, Jim said, "Upstairs? What's upstairs?"

Sandy stood up slowly, untangled Blair from his hair, set him down on a cushion, then started to unzip his jeans. "You ask what's upstairs, Jim? Why - me. Naked. But hey, I hear there's a good game on in ten minutes. Your choice."

With that, he started toward the stairs, fingers unbuttoning--

Jim grinned, then reached for the remote and clicked the set on.

"Jim? If you think I'm falling for that, you're crazy. On the other hand, I could do this--by myself--"

Jim heard two tennis shoes tumble down the steps, followed by the swishing sound of a shirt floating down. A moment later, Sandy's jeans hit him on the back of the head. Jim waited and when nothing else joined the jeans, he shouted up, "What, no boxers?"

"Not wearing any, Jimbo," came the quiet reply. Jim felt behind his head and latched onto the jeans. He held them to his face a moment and inhaled, his eyes closing dreamily. Oh, yeah. Then he tossed them over his shoulder, shut off the set, kissed the top of Blair's furry head and bounded up the stairs.

***

"I'm here to see Naomi Sandburg."

"Of course. Just sign in here, Ms. Connor. And good to see you again."

As Megan signed, she asked, "Any changes?"

"I'm afraid not."

Putting the pen down, Megan nodded and walked through the swinging doors. At room 212, she paused, took a deep breath, then entered.

The nurse had been right - nothing had changed. But then, Megan had expected nothing else. Naomi's room was sunny, cheerful, and comfortable, thanks to Megan. She'd brought several of Naomi's own bedroom belongings, including the sheets, blankets and comforters. Flowers adorned the room, as did photographs of Blair. A comfortable reading chair that had once resided in Naomi's bedroom, now sat next to the hospital bed. It was there for Megan.

"Good morning, Naomi. I have a great deal to share with you today. So many changes, and honey, you should know--Blair is--happy. For the first time in years -- he's happy."

Megan sat down, picked up the small, pale hand and, holding it in her own, said, "I'll brush your hair later, like always. I think you'd like the length we have it. Short, bouncy, wavy, but easy to take care of for you." Megan brushed a lock from Naomi's forehead, then said, "I suppose I'd best tell you all about Blair -- and -- Jim."

***

"God, you're beautiful."

Sandy grimaced. "Beautiful? I don't think so, Jim."

"But you are. Or do you object to men being called beautiful?"

"Some men are beautiful, like -- you. Chiseled features, beautiful eyes, nose, mouth, Brad Pitt--"

"I have a Brad Pitt? Where?" Jim ran his hands over his face, "I don't feel a Brad Pitt anywhere--"

"Goofball. Who knew? The great Detective Ellison -- a goofball."

Jim flipped them both over so that Sandy was on top. He raised his hand and lovingly ran it down Sandy's cheek. "Here's hoping you really love goofballs."

"I do. Favorite kind of balls, in fact."

Sandy slipped his hand between Jim's legs, then added, "Well, maybe my second favorite."

Chuckling, Jim asked, "Not that I want to take you away from my -- balls, but I'm curious. If you don't see yourself as beautiful, how do you see yourself?"

Sandy frowned, then said, "Well, I guess - oddly attractive."

"Oddly?"

"Yeah, oddly. Weird nose, weird eyebrows, short -- odd. But attractive. In an-" "Odd sort of way?"

"Yep."

"Fool."

Grinning, Sandy rolled off of Jim, then off the bed. Standing, he said, "Bathroom. Want anything from the kitchen when I come back up?"

Jim shook his head lazily. "Nope, just -- you."

"You got me. Be right back."

Jim watched the delightful view as Sandy walked away and down the stairs. He put his hands behind his head -- then remembered.

Jim shot up, bounded out of bed, then ran downstairs, passing Blair as he did.

"Uh, Jim?"

Jim slowed. "Thirsty. I'm -- thirsty."

"Oh. Okay."

At the bottom, Jim headed for the kitchen while Sandy went into the bathroom. The minute the bathroom door closed, Jim leapt for the front door, swung it open and ran for the stairs. He quickly undid the ribbon, carried it back inside, then went to the bathroom door. Making sure that Sandy wouldn't open it too soon, he tied it to the end to the door knob. Grinning, he went to the kitchen and got himself a bottled water. He was drinking it when Sandy came out. Or -- sort of -- came out.

"Jim?"

Putting the bottle down, Jim pushed himself away from the counter and said, "Yeah?"

"What's this?"

"Chief? I may be a sentinel, but I don't see around corners."

Sandy poked his head around the corner and held up the ribbon.

"Whatcha holding?" Jim said, eyes wide.

"Jim? What does it look like?"

"A ribbon?"

"You are good. Where did it come from?"

"Um, Sandy? It's in your hand. Where did you find it?"

Sandy came all the way around the corner, rolling the ribbon as he walked. "I found it -- tied to the door handle. The door handle where it wasn't when I went into the bathroom."

Jim scratched the back of his head. "It would appear that we have a mystery." Sandy had reached the front door. He stopped. "Jim, it appears to -- continue on the other side."

"So it does. Well, aren't you going to open it and see what happens?"

Sandy opened it. The ribbon continued down the hall to the back stairs. Sandy started out, still rolling up the ribbon. Jim followed. Just as Sandy reached the stairs, he turned back to Jim.

Both men stopped.

"We're naked," they said in perfect unison.

***

"So that's about it. Blair is happy and living with him, but, well, I think Jim is walking a dangerous tightrope."

Megan brought Naomi's hand to her lips and kissed it gently. "I miss you, Naomi. Blair -- misses you. Well, he doesn't know he misses you, but trust me, he does."

She checked her watch and realized she was going to be late relieving Detective Brown. She got up, smoothed the blankets down and dropped a kiss on Naomi's forehead.

"I'll be back next Saturday, Naomi. Love you."

With reluctance, Megan let Naomi's hand go and walked out.

In the quiet room, Naomi's hand spasmed, then clenched into a fist.

The two men quickly ran back inside and, while Jim went upstairs and grabbed his robe, Sandy took his off the hook in the bathroom. Finally covered enough to continue his investigation into the mystery of the red ribbon, Sandy hurried back out, Jim not far behind. At the landing, he picked up the ribbon again and with an eager voice, said, "It goes down the stairs, Jim."

"So follow it, Sherlock."

Sandy didn't miss the mischievous glint in Jim's eyes and, grinning like a kid, he followed the ribbon down, rolling it as he went. Jim walked behind him, his own excitement barely contained. When they got to the first floor, Sandy stopped and scratched his head.

"It goes outside," he finally said in wonder. Then with his own mischievous grin, he said, "Aw, Jim, you got me a trash can for my birthday!"

Jim cuffed him on the side of the head and said, "Riiiight. And who says this ribbon has anything to do with your birthday? For all you know, it could lead to a space ship."

Mimicking Jim, Sandy said, "Riiiight. It's a well known fact that aliens use red ribbons tied to bathroom doors to lure their unsuspecting victims to the space ship."

"You gonna follow that thing or not? Cause I gotta tell you, I'm -- cold." Sandy huffed a little at that, but continued on his way and out the door. He walked through the car port that faced the alley, turned the corner and stopped dead.

There it was - the Corvair, the ribbon tied around the steering wheel.

Blue eyes wide and face flushed, Sandy turned to Jim. "This -- this is -- for -- me?"

His gaze softening, Jim nodded. "Yeah, it is," he said tenderly. "I know you haven't driven, that you don't remember how to drive, so I thought -- this -- might inspire you. I'll teach you -- if you want."

Sandy walked over to the car and ran his hand over the shiny surface all the way up to the driver's seat. He opened the door carefully and fingered the steering wheel, his eyes still wide and bright. "It's beautiful," he murmured. "And a convertible, Jim. And a classic!"

As quickly as the grin had appeared, it disappeared and Sandy frowned. He shut the door and stepped away, letting the ribbon drop from his hand. "Jim, I can't accept this, it's -- too -- much. And the birthday, it was just a gag, I don't need to have one, you know?"

Jim moved to Sandy's side and immediately wrapped his arms around him, then pulled him back against his chest. "Everyone needs a birthday, Chief," he whispered. "Everyone. But especially you. This is kind of - unique - because it doesn't matter who you were, only who you are. Sandy Connor, sometime student, soon to be police observer and always love toy to Jim Ellison. Isn't it fitting that today, we celebrate your new life?"

Sandy leaned back into the embrace and studied the car. "My new life?" he finally said.

Nuzzling just behind Sandy's ear, Jim nodded. "Yep. This is it, the beginning. We have minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years ahead of us, Chief. Me and you - together."

"That means a new life for you too."

"Oh yeah." Jim nibbled at an earlobe, then said softly, "And I'm looking forward to every minute of it -- as long as it's with you. Now, what say we go in and get dressed, then take this puppy for a spin? Sam's Sea Shanty is waiting."

"You got a deal, Jim."

***

The wind was delicious and Sandy ate it up like a starving man. He sat next to Jim in his new car, taking it all in. They hit the coast drive, grateful for the light Saturday traffic that allowed them to speed along, ocean on their left, rocky hills on their right.

Sandy was enjoying the view when suddenly Jim turned off and headed into the hills. Gazing around him and seeing nothing but empty road and rocks, Sandy said, "Hey, Jim--"

He got nothing else out as Jim pulled the car over and turned off the ignition. He took out the key and dangled in front of Sandy.

"Care to have your first lesson? We've got plenty of time before sunset..."

"Are you kidding, Jim?"

Smiling, Jim shook his head. "This road goes nowhere, we're not likely to have any traffic, and for the next five miles it's as straight as an arrow." He jiggled the key and added, "Well?"

Sandy snagged the shiny object and started sliding over.

"Whoa, let me get out first, Andretti." Laughing, Jim opened the door, got out and hurried around to the passenger side. As he climbed in, Sandy was already putting the key in the ignition. Seeing the sudden confidence in his partner, Jim decided to sit back and see how much Sandy did without thought—

Sandy turned the key, foot on the brake and let the engine purr to life. For a moment, he just listened, a soft, dreamy smile on his lips, then he turned to Jim and said, "God, she sounds beautiful."

"She's a dream, Chief. She was impounded and going out to auction. She was a real steal."

Sandy was hunched over the wheel, the seat too far back for his five feet, seven inches. Jim held his breath and watched with surprised delight as his partner started looking for a way to adjust the seat.

"Lever on your left, just push it forward," he said easily.

"Ah, got it." Sandy pushed and the seat slid forward. "Damn, but you have long legs," he laughed. He turned to the left mirror, adjusted it, then asked Jim to bring in the right one. Jim did as instructed, holding back his joy at what Sandy was doing. The kid was acting on pure instinct, his old knowledge, long buried, coming easily to the surface without any thought on Sandy's part or prompting on Jim's.

As Jim watched, it struck him that he was playing with that fire Megan had mentioned, but he also knew it was the right thing to do. He could have kept Sandy in the dark, kept him dependent, but too often he'd seen a flicker, something flaring up in the younger man's eyes, something that hinted at the man he should be. If Jim lost him because Sandy found Blair Sandburg again - well, it was a risk he was willing to take - for Sandy. And for Blair. Both men deserved to exist.

"Okay, mirrors set--I'm ready."

Sandy shifted into drive, let up on the brake and coasted forward a few feet. After a moment, it became clear that he was fast getting comfortable and he actually put his foot down on the accelerator. The car gave a little jump and Sandy chuckled self-consciously. When Jim made no comment, just smiled, Sandy grinned and gave it more gas.

Five minutes later, he was -- driving. Really driving.

They spent the next hour on the road, letting Sandy get used to the feel of the car, to making turns, u-turns, using the signals, and learning the dashboard. At four, Jim said, "I think you're ready for the main highway, Chief. Why don't you just keep driving and when you get to Coast Road, turn right and we'll head for Sam's. Sound good?"

"Sounds very good, however, it is your life you take into your hands, Jim. Not to mention -- your career. No license, you know?"

"Hey, I'm a cop. I promise not to give you a ticket for driving without a license. And I think I'm safe with you, Chief."

Sandy flicked his gaze to Jim and seeing the depth of feeling in the blue eyes staring back at him, he nodded. "Yes, Jim, you are. Always."

They hit the coast road and Sandy, without any hesitation, turned right.

The closer they got to Sam's, the more touristy their view. Small shops now dotted the landscape and signs that tried to lure the unsuspecting popped up every few yards. In spite of the increased traffic and the buildings that often blocked the ocean, Jim was enjoying his view. A view that consisted solely of Sandy. He was so enjoying said view that he missed the small, sedate sign that informed them they'd entered the Fallbrook city limits.

Sandy was in total control of the vehicle, his braking and acceleration smooth and effortless. Jim was relaxed and confident in Sandy's abilities -- until the man suddenly turned on his left blinker, pulled into the turning pocket and when traffic cleared, made the turn. Puzzled, Jim turned in his seat and immediately noticed his partner's demeanor.

Sandy was totally focused, hands tight on the wheel -- and Jim had the distinct feeling that Sandy didn't even know he was in the car with him. He quickly debated the wisdom of allowing whatever was happening -- to happen, but realized that stopping it could be even more dangerous for his partner. Jim gazed about him and tried to figure out what significance this area could have for Sandy when he spotted a white sign that said, Beach access - Blind Man's Bluff.

Fuck and double fuck. Sandy was driving up to the bluff, to the home, his home.

Heart in his throat, Jim sat forward slightly, hands on his legs, fingers digging in. Now he knew he didn't dare interrupt or intervene. He had no idea where this would lead, but for Sandy's sanity, he had to let it happen--

For almost ten minutes they drove the winding, picturesque road until once again, Sandy flipped on the left indicator. Almost mechanically, he made the turn and Jim could see that they were now on a private road. The road leading to the Sandburg home. He held his breath.

The house loomed ahead. White, shuttered, clearly unoccupied, yet beautiful in its aloneness. Sandy pulled over and stopped. He blinked, turned his head, spied Jim, and smiled brilliantly. Then he saw the house.

"Wow," was all he said.

Jim let out his breath and nodded. "Yeah, wow."

"Do you suppose anyone lives there?"

Trying for nonchalant and barely curious, Jim said, "Looks closed up to me. Maybe summer residents?"

"I wouldn't want to live there only in the summer, it's too beautiful."

He strained in his seat and finally undid his seat belt, then hefted himself up in order to get a better look. "Hey, they have a real gate house."

"Yeah, you're right. Whoever lives or lived, here, must be rich."

At that moment, a man appeared from the ocean side of the road. He had a walking stick and looked to be in his late fifties or early sixties. He spotted them and started to wave, but then his arm froze in mid-air.

"Um, Jim? What's wrong with him?"

"I don't know, Chief." But Jim was pretty sure that the man recognized -- Sandy. A moment later the man turned on his heel and hurried toward the large house.

"Wow, that was, like, weird."

Jim could only agree.

"Listen, Chief, I'm starved. What say we head for Sam's?"

"You got it, man."

Sandy made a U-turn and pointed the car in the opposite direction. With a glance back, he shook his head and then focused his attention on the road. They made it to Sam's without further incident.

***

Sandy chose an outside table and the waitress guided them out to the patio and seated them against the railing. Below them - the ocean. It was a spectacular restaurant with a beautiful view.

Jim had been quiet during the ride to Sam's and Sandy had been thoughtful. But now with the waves crashing below them and the odor of grilling fish surrounding them, both men relaxed.

"So, what'll it be, Chief?"

"Um, I'm going with the Orange Roughy."

Jim nodded, then said, "Then I'll go for the trout and we can share."

Smiling, Sandy said, "The best of both worlds."

Their eyes met and both men grinned.

***

The fish was a memory and both men were thoroughly satisfied. Hot coffee now sat before them and they were content to relax, let their food digest. Sunset was a memory and a full moon sparkled on the ocean.

As the waves broke below them, Sandy said, "Jim, thank you for today. It's been the best day ever."

"Birthday celebrations should always be the best day ever, Chief."

"Oh, yeah? So when's yours?"

Jim grinned and said, "June. You've got plenty of time to plan and buy."

Sandy laughed, then said, "You know, I could use a walk after all I ate. How 'bout you?"

"Sounds like a plan. I noticed a path behind where we parked. Looked interesting."

"Cool, pay the check, man, and let's go."

***

The path turned out to be easy, well lit, and obviously a common choice among the patrons of Sam's for after dinner walks. As they strolled along, Sandy's hand crept into Jim's. There were only a few others on the path and no one was paying any attention to anyone else. The path took a sudden downward turn and, for a moment, the ocean disappeared. Sandy, curious, slipped his hand from Jim's and jogged ahead and around the corner. Jim, smiling, followed at a slower pace.

Until he heard what no one would have heard - Sandy's low moan.

Jim ran.

As he bounded down the path and around the corner, the lighting went dim and the moon slipped behind a cloud. He paused, adjusted his sight, then continued on. He could now hear Sandy's breathing, the harsh sound of it driving him on at a breakneck speed. The path twisted back toward the ocean and a part of it veered right. It was this path Jim took, his partner's rapid heartbeat spurring him on. When it seemed as though he'd never find Sandy, he spotted him.

The path ended in a fenced semi-circle. Jim realized that it was, basically, a bluff. Sandy stood at the fence, frozen, hands on the railing, body tense and leaning over—

Jim caught him just as it seemed his body would push through the rickety fence. Arms around Sandy's waist, he hauled him back, turned him so he faced him, then hugged him hard.

At first, all he could hear was the thundering of Sandy's heart, but gradually as his own fear ebbed, he heard something else. Something that drove a knife into his heart—

"Alexalexalexalex--"

***

Somehow Jim managed to get Sandy back up the path and to the Corvair. At some point, Sandy had stopped saying -- her -- name, but he also seemed to be in another world. Jim was more frightened than he'd ever been.

He got Sandy into the passenger seat, belted him in, put the top up and latched it into place, then climbed into the driver's seat. He turned on the engine, the lights and kicked up the heater. As he backed out and onto the coast road, Sandy finally spoke.

"Jim? Who's Alex?"

***

By the time Jim pulled into a parking spot in front of their building, Sandy was in the middle of a full blown migraine. When Sandy had asked about Alex, Jim had shrugged and said that maybe it was someone from a television show or something. Sandy had given him an appropriately disbelieving look. As Jim drove, Sandy had grown more and more agitated, worried that Alex was someone who could hurt Jim. As if this person, and Sandy was referring to Alex as a he, was someone Sandy had known but now forgotten. Someone -- he'd cared about.

During the last miles, Sandy had tried to convince Jim that no one in his past could matter as much and Jim had tried to convince Sandy that he knew that - but it hadn't worked. The man had finally gone silent and depressed. As they entered the city limits, Jim hadn't failed to notice the pinched look to Sandy's face and he knew they were facing another headache, one that by the time they hit Prospect, had turned into the migraine.

Once again Jim got him upstairs, plied him with his medication and put him to bed. But this time, there was a difference. Sandy was inconsolable. No matter what Jim said, Sandy was certain that Jim had to be hurt, had to be worried about this Alex person. Jim stayed with him, holding his hand and murmuring assurances until Sandy finally drifted off.

As Jim walked slowly downstairs, he couldn't help but see the irony in the situation.

***

Sunday found Sandy strangely lethargic. He was quiet, did what Jim asked, but seemed more at ease when left alone on the couch, Blair on his lap. By Sunday evening, Jim knew he wouldn't be taking Sandy to the station, nor could he leave the younger man alone. He made a quiet call to Simon.

On Monday, Sandy seemed somewhat better, but remained quiet, content to sit while Jim watched television. Tuesday was a repeat of Monday. But by Tuesday evening, Sandy seemed to want to talk.

"Jim, I don't know why - I was saying that name - on Saturday, but I do know this: No one could mean as much to me -- as you. Do you believe me?"

"Of course, Chief. I told you that on Saturday. And for all you know, Alex could be -- your dentist."

Sandy grinned, a grin that heralded the return of the old Sandy. "Dentist. Of course. Now why didn't I think of that?"

"Or maybe -- your dance instructor. Or -- the milkman. Or -- your needle point instructor--"

"Or my knitting teacher?"

"There you go. I mean, let's face it, no one wants to forget their knitting teacher."

"Pearl one, pearl two--"

Jim leaned back and regarded his partner with one raised eyebrow. "Chief?"

Chuckling, Sandy said, "Megan. She tried it two years ago - gave it up after a couple of weeks."

"Ah."

"Jim, you need to go to work tomorrow."

"You feel up to it?"

Sandy looked away as he said, "I think - I'd better wait awhile longer." Then he turned back. "But you need to go."

Jim could see in Sandy's eyes how important it was that they return to what passed for normal as quickly as possible. He nodded. "Okay, off to work I go - tomorrow."

Later that night, Sandy asleep in his arms, Jim decided that he'd do something else tomorrow as well: It was time to visit Naomi Sandburg and for that, he'd have to tell Simon the truth and hope for the best.

"So, how was his birthday?"

Jim had been looking for an opportunity to talk to Simon, but Megan had cornered him first and now, as he looked at her eager face, he gave a jerk of his head indicating that she should follow him. Frowning, Megan got up from her desk and did just that. Jim led her into the break room, where he pulled out a chair for her, then sat down himself.

"Figured this would be better said in privacy."

"Something happened," she stated flatly as she leaned forward, eyes dark with worry.

Jim nodded. "A couple of good things. He - remembered how to drive."

Megan tilted her head. "Drive?"

"Yeah," he said with an almost shy smile. "His new Corvair."

A grin tugging at her lips, she gave him an Oh, really? look, then said, "You bought him a Corvair?"

"1966 convertible. A dream. He loved it. I wish you could have seen his face."

"Weren't you supposed to--"

"Bring him and his present by? Yeah, but that brings us to the - bad news. He drove to his home. He was on autopilot, Megan. I've never seen anything like it and I didn't dare stop him. But when we got there - he was fine. Curious, but fine."

Megan, face showing her puzzled state, said, "Well, George should have been around, but other than that, the place should have been closed up."

"George?"

"Yeah, he was kind of a butler, chauffer, you name it. He's been with Naomi for years. He lives in the gate cottage. Keeps the place up, that kind of thing."

"Late fifties, early sixties, walking stick?"

Megan nodded. "You saw him?"

"We saw him."

She leaned forward, arms on the table. "Tell me he didn't see Sandy?"

"Can't do that. He did. Turned tail and disappeared into the big house. But Sandy wasn't concerned and didn't recognize him."

Megan sat back greatly relieved. Then she looked hard at him. "You're not telling me everything. I can see it in your face."

Jim sighed, then related what happened after dinner, and Sandy's behavior for the rest of the weekend.

"Oh, God, Jim. That's why he isn't here with you now."

"'Fraid so. But he was much better this morning or I would never have left him.

I'm planning on telling Simon -- everything. Then -- I'm going to the sanitarium and try to see Naomi."

"Jim, that won't help. She's in a coma. She can't do anything for you." "I'm going to try anyway. I have to."

"I'll say this, Ellison. You have guts."

"No, I just -- love him."

***

"So that's everything, Simon." Jim sat back, drained. His boss had been quiet during the entire recitation but now that Jim was done, he stood and walked to the window, his back to Jim.

For several minutes, Simon said nothing, just gazed out the window, hands clasped behind his back. Jim wisely stayed quiet. Finally Simon turned.

"Jim, this is a great deal for me to -- digest. You being this sentinel thing, the kid helping you, and now you tell me that he's - Blair Sandburg -- a murderer."

"Sir, I know what I've done, but --"

Simon held up a hand and Jim stopped. "Listen. ever since you walked in here one afternoon and told me about your -- abilities -- I've had to accept that there are things in this life I will never understand, things that are, in a way, miracles. I thought then and I believe it now, that you're one of those miracles. But then I had to watch you struggle with your gift for months, I saw you in pain and frustrated and I hurt with you.

"For weeks now, I've prayed for another kind of miracle. I've prayed that somehow, someway, you'd be given guidance. Help. And last week, you got it. You've been a different man ever since. But now --"

"Now you're faced with the fact that the guidance comes in the guise of a convicted felon. And an amnesiac as well," Jim offered.

"That sums it up pretty well, Jim." Slowly Simon walked back but instead of sitting at his desk, he took the chair next to Jim. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, then clasped his hands together.

"You know, I'm trying to reconcile the young man I met at Megan's party with the man you're telling me he is and, Jim," he turned his head to look at his detective, "it isn't washing. I can't do it. That was a gentle man. Vulnerable, almost -- innocent. There is no way I can see him hurting anyone -- ever."

"I don't think he did, Simon. Oh, something happened on that bluff, we both know that, but Sandy, or Blair, didn't hurt his wife. I know it," he tapped his heart, "I know it here."

Simon looked away, then after a heartbeat, said, "As far as I'm concerned, we're going to have an observer named Sandy Connor riding with you for ninety days." He rose. "That's all I know. Well, that and you have the afternoon off to run -- your errand. But man, Jim, you're going to owe me big time."

***

Jim drove to the sanitarium, his thoughts jumbled up in his brain. He couldn't really say why he needed to see Naomi Sandburg, other than -- guilt, but something was driving him to this moment. Even if he did nothing else but tell a woman in a coma that he was very probably the reason for her condition, even if all he could say was, "Ms. Sandburg, I love your son," -- well, maybe it would be enough.

***

Sandy walked about the loft aimlessly, sometimes reaching out to touch something of Jim's, but mostly -- just -- looking. He felt as though his time with Jim was coming to an end and it was -- too soon. He was hurting the man and he also had to admit that so far, he'd done nothing to find Blair Sandburg for his partner. But what he had done was to bring grief and hardship to Jim.

Sandy turned from the stereo system and found himself staring at the front door.

The front door.

He could walk out, he could drive -- to Rainier.

He could walk up to the library and use their reference materials and -- find -- Blair Sandburg.

He could do all that today. Now.

He knew how to drive. The key sat in the basket. It would be so simple. Sandy moved forward, almost as if in a trance. He took down his jacket, pocketed the key to the Corvair, lifted Blair and set him on the couch, then kissed him.

"I'll be back soon. You be good and don't unravel another one of Jim's socks, okay?"

The kitten wiped a whisker with its paw, then curled up in the indentation left earlier by Sandy's body. Walking to the front door, Sandy opened it, stepped out into the hallway and closed the door behind him. He lifted his chin, took two deep breaths, and stepped over to the elevator. He could do this.

The elevator opened and, after reassuring himself that the key was still in his pocket, he stepped in, punched the L, and rode down. As he walked out of the elevator, the lobby door opened and – the mailman walked in.

Sandy froze.

The man walked to the boxes, took his key and opened them. Sandy took a few uneasy steps toward the uniformed man-- I can do this, he thought. He's just - a man. In a uniform. Nothing scary about him, nothing to be afraid of--right? Right. I mean, he's just a--mailman.

The mailman smiled at him. "Mr. Connor, isn't it? Detective Ellison's roommate?"

Sandy nodded but found that he couldn't speak.

The man held out a bundle and said, "Here you go, Detective Ellison's mail."

Sandy stared at the offering, then slowly--reached out--and took it. The postal worker smiled and went back to work. Sandy took a few steps away, his heart beating so hard, he was certain the mailman had to hear it. When nothing changed, when the man kept stuffing mail into the boxes, Sandy gazed down at what he held. As he stared, he started walking. He pushed his way out, walked to the curb, checked traffic, then went over to the Corvair.

He continued to stare at the mail.

"Okay, so I'm holding -- mail," he said - to no one. "Just - bills. Some junk. Nothing -- dangerous. Nothing that could hurt -- me."

Suddenly he laughed. Mail. Who would be afraid of mail? The whole fear was ridiculous. And to prove it to himself, he started to look at every piece--

A letter. One -- letter.

"My hand is shaking. It's just a letter, you doofus, it's just - a letter." He turned it over and smiled. It was addressed to Detective James Ellison. "Well, of course it is, you idiot. Who else would it be addressed to? He started to open the car door when the name in the top left corner of the letter caught his attention-- Naomi Sandburg.

He frowned. Tilted his head.

"Sandburg--"

His hands, moving almost of their own volition, put the bundle of mail on the roof of the car, then picked up the envelope and started to open it. Eyes staring off into an unknown world, he slipped the letter out and unfolded it. His gaze was drawn inexorably down-

Dear Detective Ellison,

Please meet with me about someone we have in common; Blair Sandburg. You know where I live. Please come. There are things you must know.

Naomi Sandburg

Moving almost in slow motion, he turned the envelope over and read the address beneath the name—

The letter dropped from his hand.

Sandy climbed into the car and started the engine.

***

"I'm here to see Naomi Sandburg. Detective Jim Ellison, Cascade Police Department."

The young woman looked up from her paperwork. "I'm sorry, Detective, but Ms. Sandburg is no longer with us."

Jim took in a harsh breath. "When--how--"

"She regained consciousness on Saturday and the doctor couldn't keep her from going home. She was released on Monday. We're all thrilled. We don't get that many miracles, Detective."

Jim was stunned. Naomi had -- awakened? But -- Connor would have known, wouldn't she?

"Was anyone -- any -- relatives, informed?"

"Well, that was kind of strange. Ms. Sandburg had a regular visitor, she came every weekend. But Ms. Sandburg wouldn't allow the doctor to phone Miss Connor. To my knowledge, she had no living relatives."

"Thank you. You've been very helpful."

Jim turned and walked out. Once outside, he paused at the top of stairs and stared out over the lush grounds.

Sandy's -- no, Blair's -- mother was awake. And at home.

Jim was torn. Go back to the loft? Or the station and tell Connor? Did he have the right to tell Connor? Or –

He could see Naomi Sandburg.

Jim started down the steps, still undecided. He was halfway back to Cascade before he made up his mind.

***

Sandy never saw the signs directing him to Fallbrook, he just drove. He made the same turns he'd made on Saturday, only this time -- when he found himself on the drive up to the big white house -- he kept going. The tires crunched the gravel and the sound caused him to blink. He braked and came to a stop in front of the home. Heart in his throat, he shut off the engine, got out and started forward. Except -- the house looked -- empty.

He paused on the large porch and turned to gaze around him. Smoke. Chimney smoke. From the gatehouse. Sandy walked back down the steps, crossed the driveway, stepped onto the lawn and made his way across the broad expanse of green to the small white and red cottage. As he drew close, the same man he'd seen on Saturday came around the corner of the building, a rake in his hand. When the man saw him, he froze.

"I'm looking for -- someone -- someone named Naomi - Sandburg. Is she here?"

The man's gaze was making Sandy feel uncomfortable and he almost turned back. But the thought of finding Blair Sandburg -- for Jim -- kept him where he was.

"I'm looking for Naomi Sandburg. Is she here?" he asked again, his voice more forceful.

The older man lifted his hand and pointed at the glossy red door. Then he turned around and walked away.

"Yes, well. Hello to you too," Sandy muttered. He stared at the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. Nothing.

He knocked again. Nothing. With some trepidation, he tried the knob and the door -- opened. He pushed it in and took one step inside. "Hello? Is anyone here?"

He pushed the door all the way open and stepped further inside. The cottage was clean, bright and cheery. A fire was blazing in the stone fireplace and the smell of meat cooking surrounded him. "Mrs. Sandburg? Are you here?"

A shadow disentangled itself from a corner between the fireplace and a set of stairs. The sound of wheels rolling over the hardwood floor and the smell of -- gardenias -- captured his attention. Then a soft voice said, "I'm Naomi Sandburg."

***

As Jim headed for the station, something told him to make a short detour - and check in on Sandy. He'd decided that Connor did have a right to know and he wanted to tell her before he headed to Fallbrook. But now -- something intangible was drawing him home.

Jim grinned at his reflection in the rearview mirror. Intangible? Sure. Since when was making love to Sandy -- an intangible? As he turned onto Prospect, his eyes narrowed. The street in front of their building was littered with papers.

What the hell?

He focused his vision and his mouth dropped open. The papers were all his mail. Jim pulled along the curb, put the vehicle into park, then jumped out and attempted to retrieve the mess. As he moved about collecting bills, flyers and magazines, he wondered how this could have happened. Then, in the middle of the street, as he straightened after picking up the WiseSaver, it hit him.

The Corvair was gone.

And his mail was strewn all over Prospect. His mail.

Mail.

A white piece of paper fluttered a few feet away and without thought, Jim zeroed in on it with his vision. Words swam -- Naomi Sandburg.

Blair Sandburg.

Please meet with me.

Jim ran back to the Expedition and peeled away from the curb.

Naomi Sandburg pushed the wheels and slid forward, out of the dark corner and into the light. She could see him standing in the doorway, back lit, a dark silhouette.

Her son. Blair.

She closed her eyes for the briefest of moments and prayed that he'd step further inside. A second later, her prayer was answered. It took all of her will power not to gasp.

His hair was longer now, just brushing his collar. He wore a black sweater tucked into jeans and a black leather jacket. His face was all angles and strength and youth. He looked not one whit different than he had all those years ago. Except - his eyes. She could see so much suffering in them, and yet, a wisdom and maturity beyond his years. She had to blink several times for it seemed as if -- two men - stood before her. Two Blairs. They shimmered next to each other, often merging, but never totally so. She realized with a start that she was looking at one man frozen in time, yet with the man he should have been, standing beside him, striving to be free.

Sandy. And Blair. Struggling to become one. Could she help? Or make matters worse for her beloved son? Dare she - help?

***

Sandy could see her clearly now. Pale features and so slender as to seem - transparent. Her shining red hair had recently been stylishly cut and she had wide, clear eyes, crinkled now with her smile. She seemed - frail and he moved closer.

"Mrs. Sand--"

"It's Miss Sandburg."

Sandy blushed, then said, "Sorry, ma'am. Miss Sandburg, my name is Sandy -- Connor. You don't know me, but, well, I think -- maybe -- you can help me."

"How can I help you, young man? As you say, I don't know you and I've only been home a short time. I've been -- ill."

"I'm sorry. Is there anything I can do for you - now? Perhaps some coffee or tea?"

"That's kind, but no." She rolled closer to him and looking up at him, asked again, "How is it that you think I could be of service to you?"

Here was the hard part - admitting he'd read her letter to Jim.

"I -- saw your note, to my partner? Detective Ellison? About - Blair Sandburg. I'm trying to find him."

"I'm confused. Why are you interested in -- my son?"

Sandy frowned as he struggled to find the right words—

"I -- you see -- Jim, well, Jim -- is in love with him. And I love Jim, so I need to find this Blair Sandburg--"

"I see. So that you can make sure your detective doesn't. Is that it?"

The accusation flustered him and was so contrary to his real purpose that Sandy found himself on his knees in front of her.

"No! I'm trying to find Blair Sandburg for Jim. He loves him and I can't make him happy but this Blair Sandburg -- he can."

Naomi cocked her head as her eyes narrowed. "You wish to find this Blair Sandburg and in doing so - you would lose the man you love?"

Sandy nodded miserably. "Yes. Please, can you help me? Do you know where he is?"

"Yes, I know. In a way." She touched him lightly, then said, "Would you mind helping me? It's become somewhat - stuffy - in here and it's so beautiful outside. And as we go, I will tell you about Blair. About my son."

Sandy rose quickly and moved behind the chair. With both hands on the bars, he rolled her out the door and onto the small path.

"Just follow the path away from the big house and I'll share."

"All right." He started pushing - and Naomi Sandburg began to speak—

"My Blair was a wonderful son. I loved him more than anything in the world and in that love, I failed to properly equip him for life. For people who would hurt him. When he was nineteen, he met a woman several years older. Her name was -- Alexis."

Sandy's hands tightened on the handlebars. "Alex-is?" he whispered.

"Yes, Alexis Barnes. She was very beautiful, very tall. She had blonde hair and pale blue eyes, but at first, she held no real attraction for him. She was in the Army and to my delight, eventually left for duty in Honduras. Blair went back to his studies and all was well in our world. Then he received a letter -- and -- it started."

The path had widened and Sandy could hear the ocean. They were going steadily uphill but he barely registered the strength it required to push. He listened.

"He wrote her and thanked her for the letter, for the information contained within, information a budding anthropologist would appreciate. He then shared with her his dreams of expeditions. The next letter arrived two weeks later--"

A faraway look came into Sandy's eyes at the word letter. He continued to push the chair, but the movement was without thought, his mind cloudy with words, visions—

"Letter," he said slowly.

"Yes. It was a beautiful letter. It astounded him. She'd seemed so--"

"Shallow," he supplied, his voice sounding as if it were coming from far away. Naomi nodded. "Yes, shallow. But her letter was filled with--"

"Hope."

"Hope," Naomi repeated, as if Sandy had said nothing. "He wrote back. He was still cautious, but her second letter astounded him as thoroughly as the first. Their communication began. They both poured out their--"

"Hearts and souls--"

"Their dreams and--"

"--aspirations."

"Their love. My son slowly fell in love with the writer of those letters. She captivated him. Two souls, miles apart, and yet, on the same plane. Her words were--"

"Magic--"

"Magic, yes."

The sea breeze ruffled Naomi's hair and moved through Sandy's. and with it, the strong scent of the ocean. Seagulls flew overhead, sending their messages to each other with high pitched sounds. To the left, three large oak trees stood tall against nature and, a few feet from their roots - Blind Man's Bluff.

"Could you stop a moment, please?"

Sandy stopped and set the brakes on the chair. "Is something wrong?"

"No, not at all. The path has become bumpier with age. Where was I?"

"The letters."

"Oh, yes. They wrote for over four months. Then she wrote that she'd be coming home, to Cascade. He was thrilled. I could see it in every move. He began to speak of marriage and my blood ran cold. I asked him to take it slow when she arrived. He promised that he would.

"But then -- she was here. All golden beauty, shining with youth and joy, so alive, and all thoughts of going slow disappeared. But I could see--I could see that she wasn't the woman of the letters. But my darling son, so young, was blinded. They set a date. I begged, pleaded and finally--"

"Threatened," Sandy said, once again his voice sounding hundreds of miles away. "Yes, threatened. It was the wrong thing to do, I know that now. It only served to force him to rebel. They eloped." Naomi turned her head and looked up at her son. "Could you move me over to that stand of oak trees? It's nice and shady there and we can watch the waves--"

Coming out of his reverie, Sandy nodded and released the brakes. As he went back to pushing, Naomi continued.

***

Jim turned onto Naomi Sandburg's private road and, ignoring the hairpin turns, kept the accelerator almost to the floor. When the house came into view, he spotted the Corvair. He was about to continue up, to park behind it, when he heard -- voices.

"...rebel. They eloped."

He pulled the Expedition over, turned off the engine and jumped out. He began to run.

***

"The short honeymoon and their first days as husband and wife were, I suspect, like any other couple just embarking on a life together. But then it was time for him to start to prepare for the trip to --"

Sandy cocked his head and said distantly, "Borneo--"

"Yes, to Borneo. He spent many hours at the university and Alex was quickly bored by her marriage. She wanted fun, dancing, and clubs. She wanted to get on a plane and go -- but her husband was working long, hard hours, and Alex got her first taste of what it's really like to be married to an anthropologist. She didn't like it. It wasn't what she--"

"--expected," Sandy finished for her.

Smiling, Naomi said, "No, it wasn't. They began to fight. The fights escalated. She screamed, railed, threw things -- and through it all, Blair would try to quiet her, try to reassure her -- but she would never--"

"--listen, never listen--"

"Never listen. She started going to clubs without him, staying out all night, coming home in the late afternoon - smelling of - men. And Blair would often sit and re-read the--"

"--the letters. Over and over again, trying not to lose her--"

Naomi nodded. "He kept one with him at all times. But she'd scream at him for reading them--"

"--and he'd say, "But these are you, sweetheart. These letters are you--"

"But," Naomi interrupted, "she would laugh and leave him alone for days. Then I did the -- unforgivable. I cut him off. He couldn't go on the expedition. He dropped out of school and he started to write short stories. It should have been enough to keep them happy and safe, but it wasn't enough for Alex. She wanted more. Alex wanted the life she thought she'd get when she married him."

"--but she didn't, did she? Your son failed her."

Naomi reached back with her hand and fingers locking around his wrist, said, "No! He didn't fail her, Blair never failed anyone. But - I failed him."

***

Jim could see and hear them now. And he slowed. He kept back, listening, uncertain how this would turn out-

***

They were at the trees now and a few feet away, the edge of the cliff--

"She came to me, here at my home. Told me Blair was desperate. She begged me to loan him money. I almost believed her, she was so convincing. Then Blair arrived. His anger was like - ice.

"In all his years, I'd never seen him so angry. But it was - all inside. Under control. He took her arm and pulled her away. I watched them from the front window - watched as he almost dragged her down the steps, but she wrenched away from him. I opened the window so that I could hear-

***

"You had NO right to come here, Alex. We don't need my mother's money to survive. We're doing fine."

Anger and disgust in every line of her body, Alex spat out, "YOU may be fine, but I most certainly am NOT!"

She started to stalk away, but Blair followed. He tried to grab her arm, but she yanked herself from his grasp. "DON'T YOU TOUCH ME!"

Alex kept walking, long, angry strides, toward the bluff. Blair followed, his anger ebbing, to be replaced by an infinite sorrow. When she reached the stand of oak trees, she stopped.

Coming up to her side, Blair said quietly, remorse in his tone, "What happened to us, Alex?"

"You're what happened," she said coldly, her gaze fixed on the ocean.

"We had such dreams, Alexis. Don't you remember? We shared them in our letters--"

He never got any further. She whirled around, blonde hair whipping in the wind, eyes wide and wild. "YOU AND THOSE GOD DAMNED LETTERS!"

Trying to soothe her, he put out a hand, only to have it struck down - hard. She advanced on him, eyes narrow and angry.

"I bet," she hissed out, "I bet you have one with you even now. You do, don't you?" Her tone was filled with a mixture of disgust and ridicule.

"Alex, I don't understand you--"

"You do have one, don't you? Those letters are more real to you than I am!"

"Those letters are you, Alex. The things you said, the dreams you shared--"

Before he could finish, her hands were reaching, digging into his pockets and, with a triumphant yell, she pulled one out.

"I KNEW IT!"

She waved it in front of him, the edge of it slicing his cheek. "You want to know something, Mr. Blair God Almighty Perfect Sandburg? I never wrote these."

At his startled expression, she grinned. "You heard me. I NEVER. WROTE. THEM."

"Alex. why would you--look, like I said," he took a step closer and reached for the letter, "let's just forget--"

Alex danced away from him, her eyes bright and brittle, suffused with a kind of madness. "I never wrote them, husband dear. Would you like to know who did?" She was close to the edge of the cliff now. "A man wrote them, Blair dear. A fucking MAN! It was a joke to him, sweetie pie. A. Big. Fat. Joke. He had a barrel of laughs reading your swill and he had bigger laughs writing you back! How do you like that? Huh?"

Her words spewed out like poison and Blair's mind was reeling. Someone - else had written - no, it wasn't possible - it wasn't....

"You know what I should do, my beautiful Blair? I should destroy every single one of these fucking letters! Starting with this one!"

"Alex NO!"

Blair reached for her, but she was too fast. As she whirled away and his finger nails raked down her arm, she took one page of the letter and started to tear into pieces. Then she opened her hand and let the wind take them from them both.

"Alex, stop this right now. Please. For us." Blair moved forward, trying to get her attention—

"You know," Alex said, as she held up another page, "I actually hate you now. I. HATE. YOU. You're my -- prison. And I want out."

He took another step forward, just as Alex bent down and picked up a large branch—

Behind him, he heard footsteps and smelled his mother's perfume -- gardenias. Then Alex swung-

***

"I couldn't stay in the house, I had to go out, to help my son, to apologize, to try to make things right. I ran out, tried to catch them, could hear her screaming at him. By the time I made it to the bluff, she had a huge thick stick in her hand and Blair was just standing there and then she swung it--"

Naomi's voice caught in a sob. She brought a hand up and brushed at the tears that were falling now.

"Blair blocked the first blow and struggled with her, here, on this very spot. There was so much wind, but they couldn't drown out her screams of insane rage. I ran to them, grabbed at her arm, but she pulled away. Blair tried to--"

"---protect you. I tried to protect you."

"Yes, and you turned your back on her, tried to tell me--"

"Go back, Mom. Go back to the house--"

But I didn't, couldn't. You turned back to Alex, started to say something, but she struck you."

"She -- hit me. I remember--thinking--she's going to hit me and I didn't care--" Naomi turned and looked up into the horribly stunned face of her son. His eyes were wide and sightless as he spoke and she felt the sharp edge of fear. Had she just pushed him over the edge into insanity? She went on, praying it was the right thing to do.

"You went down. I watched you fall and there was blood but you were conscious and the letter fell from Alex's other hand and you caught at it. I watched as your eyes closed and you were still."

Blair moved around to the front of the chair.

"I lost it then, Blair. I thought you were dead and I know I screamed, then I lunged at the person who had hurt you. We fought, right there," Naomi pointed to a rough spot of cliff and Blair's eyes followed. "We struggled, Blair, and then--she fell over. I heard her horrible scream until her body hit the rocks. I couldn't move, sweetheart. My head felt as though it were on fire. I tried so hard to reach you, to lift you, to hold you, to beg for forgiveness, but slowly my world faded and I stumbled back until I hit an oak, then I slid down and knew nothing else until last Saturday."

Slowly Blair sunk to his knees in front of her, his eyes wet with hot, stinging tears. He reached out and slid his arms around her, their tears mingling as they fell on warm flesh.

"I know they believed that you had killed her. The branch that she hit you with went down with her and out with the tide. And I could see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing. I couldn't protect you. Couldn't tell the truth. And you were convicted."

"Aw, God, Naomi. Mother." Blair pulled her to him, into his arms and mother and son held on, tears flowing freely, neither aware of the man who stood several feet away.

Finally Blair pulled away enough to see his mother's face and he smiled. He reached out and tenderly brushed the tears from her cheeks. "It's all right, Mom. It wasn't so bad. Honest."

Eyes glistening, Naomi touched her son's face, her fingers tracing over his chin, jaw, up his cheeks, to his eyes. "My beautiful son. I'm so sorry. So very sorry. Can you ever forgive me?"

"Mom, there's nothing to forgive. It was all a horrible mistake. And ultimately, Alex paid the highest price. Because of a few -- letters."

Holding him close to her breast, Naomi said, "I thought I hated Alex, but I realize now that it's the man who wrote those letters -- he's the one we should -- hate."

Blair lifted his face to her and said, "Hate? I don't think--"

"Blair?"

The voice, deep and rich, came from behind him. From behind a stand of aspens several feet away. He stood, puzzled.

"Yes?"

Blair moved a few feet away from his mother in an attempt to see where the voice was coming from, to see the person behind the voice.

"Blair."

The voice was so familiar - but he was so confused and all that he was -- seemed to be out of alignment. As if the two men, Sandy and Blair, were still - separate. He began to walk faster - toward the aspens.

Toward - what?

A shadow, a man, tall—

"Who are you?" Blair asked, shielding his eyes from the sun.

"Blair," the voice said again, so softly and with so much love.

Blair could hear the slight struggle of his mother as she pushed the wheels in her efforts to follow him. But all he could think of was that voice, and the man ahead—

The figure moved out from behind the protection of the trees and Blair's eyes widened.

"Jim?"

"Yes."

They moved toward each other, eyes locked.

"You heard?"

"Everything."

"Jim, I wanted to find - Blair - for you."

They stood only a few feet from each other now and Jim smiled tenderly. "And so you have."

"But -- I'm me again. Sandy, Blair, they're both me. And you and I - I mean, you and Blair - never met. Why did you want to find him? How could you --"

Jim paled slightly, then held out his hand. When Blair slipped his into it, Jim said, "Blair, would you hate the man who wrote those letters?"

Blair's hand squeezed Jim's as Blair frowned. "I honestly - don't know, Jim."

Stepping closer still and lowering his voice, Jim said, " 'A world of color, vibrant and alive. Voices full of life. Smooth, rough, patched, and ridged, so much to touch and feel. Complex spices, the simplicity of bursting saltiness on the tongue. The scent of our earth, dark, rich and mysterious. How can this world so fill our senses and yet one individual exist in darkness?' "

Blair closed his eyes and swayed, then the most beatific smile spread across his features. " 'A hand on your shoulder, a warm laugh breathed out against your skin and the world will once again be full of light and grace'," he intoned.

Jim's smile matched his partner's. "Blair, finding you was like turning on the biggest God damned light bulb in the universe. Your hand on my shoulder steadies me and grounds me and when I hear your laugh," his grin widened, "there is no greater sound. I fell in love with you through your words and meeting you only cemented that love, Chief. I can't lose you now."

"Jim, you even try to lose me and I'll kick your butt so far and so hard, you won't be able to sit down for a week."

Jim tugged at Blair's hand until the younger man was in his arms. Sliding his hand along Blair's stubbled cheek in a gesture that was now part of his love, Jim's smile softened as he drank his fill. "I'm so fucking lucky. But your mother is right - I am to blame for everything that happened to you, Blair. And I have no excuse, other than the fact that your first letter so captivated me, I couldn't not write you. I can't explain what those letters meant to me, Chief, but I swear to you, I'll spend the rest of my life - making it up to you."

"There's nothing to make up for, Jim. If going through it all again meant that I'd end up with you? I'd do it. In a New York minute. So quit your yapping and kiss me already."

"Such a romantic turn of phrase, Chief. But who am I to argue?" He captured Blair's head, buried his fingers in the thick hair and lowered his face until their lips touched. For Jim, it seemed as though the kiss was a coming together of four men; the Jim that he'd been all those years ago in Honduras and the Jim he was now; the youthful Blair Sandburg and the vulnerable Sandy. All four merged in a simple kiss.

When they parted, Blair turned to his mother and smiling, said, "Mom, this is Jim Ellison. Jim, my mother, Naomi."

***

EPILOGUE-

"You ready for tomorrow?"

Blair glanced up from the magazine he was reading and smiled. He took off his glasses and shifted in Jim's arms. "I'm ready. More than ready. Observer - Blair Sandburg - will report for duty tomorrow at precisely eight in the morning, prepared to ride with one, Detective Jim Ellison. Two weeks late, but you know what they say, better--"

"Late than never," Jim finished for him.

Eyes crinkling up with his smile, Blair said softly, "Yeah, better late -- than never."

"Simon was terrific. Got the paperwork changed, talked to the Commissioner, straightened everything out. We owe him big time, but then, he'll take every opportunity to remind us."

"I'm looking forward to it."

Jim stroked the back of Blair's neck as he asked, "Is the plan to turn your mother's home into a shelter for runaways still in the works?"

Blair slipped his hand under the sweater Jim was wearing and settled it over his heart. "Yeah, the project is a go. She loves the warehouse, loves living there with Megan -- kinda looks as though the Sandburgs are settled down at last."

"What about you and Rainier?"

Blair frowned and bit his lower lip. "I don't -- think I'm ready yet, Jim. My mind is so full compared to who I was just two weeks ago, I think I need time. But yeah, eventually, I'd like to go back, get my doctorate maybe -- or -- not. Right now, I just want to be with you."

At that moment, tiny sharp nails dug into Jim's pant leg and he yelped. "Hey!"

"Oops," Blair said, grinning as he picked up the kitten. Tapping the wet nose, he said, "Bad Sandy, very bad Sandy." Then he let the uncowed kitten curl up in the small space between his body and Jim's.

"You sure Megan and your mom wouldn't like Sandy?"

"Now Jim, you know damn well that you love this kitten, no matter what name he ends up with."

"Yeah, yeah. And how come we haven't tried Jimmy as a name?"

A light came into Blair's eyes and Jim said, "Oh no you don't. I was just kidding. This cat's name is Sandy. Period."

Blair was saved from responding by the ringing of the phone. Blair shifted over and with a grin, said, "You can get it."

Jim rolled his eyes, but got up and walked over to the phone. "Ellison."

"Jim? Oh, God, Jim, the warehouse, it's -- gone."

"Megan? What are you talking about?"

At the concerned tone in Jim's voice, Blair jumped up and joined him. Standing close, with Jim bending enough so that Blair could hear, he listened--

"Naomi and I were out to dinner and when we got home -- we had no home! There was a god damn fucking drug lab next door and I never even knew it! Can you -- could you -- aw, shit, Jim, we need a place to stay. Please? Her place is under construction and there's—"

"Connor, is Simon there? Captain Taggert?"

"Yes, both of them. And Simon says to get--what was that, Sir?"

Jim could hear his boss in the background and he shook his head helplessly, then kissed Blair on the temple. "Your mom is fine, Chief. You heard?"

"She has to be upset. This can't be good for her--"

He got no further as Megan's voice could be heard again.

"Yes, Sir. Got it, Sir. Uh, Jim? Simon says to get your butt down here, pronto. And to, quote, 'Bring the new observer with you,' unquote."

"Connor, tell him we're on our way. And don't worry, you both can stay here--"

"Only a week, Jim. That's it. That's all we'll need to find a place."

Blair took the phone from Jim and said, "Don't worry, Megs. Just take care of mom."

"Oh, don't worry about her. She's loving this. She's in the other building right now, with Simon! She's fascinated."

Jim took the phone back. "Tell Simon we're on our way."

"Will do. And Jim? Thanks."

Jim put the phone down. "Well, let's roll, partner."

As they grabbed their jackets and Jim tossed Blair his new observer badge, Blair asked, worried, "You sure you're okay with this? I mean, Megan and mom?"

"Hey, Chief, how bad could it be? We're talking one week -- tops. No problemo."

Blair wisely decided not to mention his mother's penchant for rearranging furniture - or her love for burning sage to cleanse a room. He also chose to forget mentioning Megan's - pink dingos.

The End

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Acknowledgments: Thank you to Peter and Amy for the lovely artwork.