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The Sweetest Kiss

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the sweetest kiss
is one i've never tasted
holding a breath
just because you're near
hanging by a moment
for the sound of your voice
i waste time
dreaming of what can be

Buried under the pile of blankets, Blair fought to stay asleep, but knew he couldn't; hearing Jim in the shower always woke him up better than any alarm thanks to the way the plumbing echoed through the loft. Reluctantly, Blair opened his eyes and contemplated the grayness he could see through his window, hating how it reminded him just how cold winter in Cascade had been this year, and how much he wanted to escape to someplace tropical.

Maybe it was just the fact that Valentine's Day was Saturday and he had no date. No prospects on the horizon, either, and wasn't that a crock for a guy who once had any number of friends and casual lovers he could call? Except for the fact that sometime in the last year, Blair had gotten tired of casual, tired of being the one to call and make plans, tired of being Mr. Right Now. He wanted more, something closer to the steady, solid friendship he shared with Jim. If Blair was completely honest, he knew it wasn't the sound of the water rushing through the pipes that kept him awake; it was the notion that he might one day surprise Jim by joining him in that shower.

With a sigh, Blair tried snuggling deeper in the covers. He had the day off; he didn't have to be anywhere. Five years after the mess with his dissertation, Blair now worked as a grant writer, writing proposals for a large charitable foundation based in Portland. It was, unfortunately for him, just a few hours short of a full-time position, which meant no benefits except paid time off and holidays, but the tradeoff was that it paid decently, allowed him to telecommute and he had Fridays off. Today was a holiday in honor of the day the company was founded, and by all rights, Blair should have been able to sleep in and enjoy his extended weekend.

That was, if he wasn't still living in the loft. Nothing short of a major renovation would change the sound of running water through pipes, and Jim had always taken a shower before going into work for as long as Blair had known him. Most mornings, Blair didn't mind, as it prompted him to get his own butt in gear and go down to the café six blocks away where he did most of his work. Getting out of the loft gave him the sense of going to work; it also meant that he was less prone to goofing off by watching TV…or masturbating after Jim had gone.

Blair held no illusions about his privacy with a sentinel in residence, but even without a sentinel, he knew from sharing space with other roommates that there were few ways anyone could hide the smell of spent semen or the inevitable mess, regardless of how well one tried to camouflage it. Garbage didn't lie, and neither did towels when such items were a shared laundry chore. They joked about it, but Blair still tried to be considerate.

Today, however, Blair just wanted to crawl under the covers and forget his life had come to this point. He heard the shower shut off and had nearly drifted off back into sleep when Jim knocked on his door once before stepping inside, sure as always of his welcome in this room. He was dressed in his usual work clothes; today, the sweater was a green cable knit worn over a white T-shirt, the pants tan Dockers. He carried a mug of coffee rich with the scent of cinnamon and smiled indulgently as he viewed Blair.

"You going to be a slug-a-bed all day, Chief? Or do you want some coffee to wake up?"

"Company holiday," Blair muttered. "Can't a guy sleep in?" Aware that Jim had doctored the cup with cinnamon specifically for Blair, who'd developed a craving for flavored coffee, Blair decided that being awake wasn't so bad and sat up.

Jim chuckled and handed Blair the mug. "Not if he wants a ride."

Blair sipped the coffee gratefully as Jim stepped back to lounge in the doorway. "Ride to where?"

"Bus service is suspended for most of the city; it's started to snow and it's been freezing rain all night. I have to go into work, but I thought you might want to get out before you started feeling claustrophobic."

"You just want someone to drop you off and brave the grocery store."

Jim grinned. "Can't hide anything from you, Chief." He paused, then added, "Actually, do you mind coming in? We can always use extra help at the station, and especially with the snow – from what the TV's been saying, it's a mess out there."

Blair drained the mug and handed it blindly to Jim, who took it easily. "How long do I have?"

"Fifteen minutes," Jim said. "You're usually up by the time I get out of the shower."

Blair shook his head and grabbed the pair of jeans he'd tossed on top of the desk. Too many years of shared spaces had left him comfortable just being in his boxers in Jim's presence.

"Not on my day off, man."

Jim shook his head. "Never thought I'd see the day when you'd wallow like this," he teased as he watched Blair dress.

"Hey, I burned the candle at both ends for years, remember? Gotta balance it out sometime," Blair shot back as he slipped on an undershirt, then put on a pair of thick wool socks. "Now where did I put that sweater?"

"Which sweater?"

"The brown alpaca wool one I got from that guy in Peru when we helped Simon and Daryl," Blair said as he pawed through the drawers of his dresser. "I haven't worn it since last winter because it hasn't been cold enough." He sighed as he realized it wasn't in his room. "I really hope I haven't lost it, or ruined it, because that was my warmest sweater, and that was like, a serious deal."

Jim chuckled. "Yeah, I remember. You made us late getting to the airport."

"Hey, we had plenty of time!" Blair argued, but the other man had already left the room. "And you were in awe of my haggling skills, as I recall," Blair called out to Jim as he began searching his room for his second-best sweater, hoping it wasn't at the bottom of the dirty laundry pile.

He'd just unearthed his second-best sweater and was smelling it to make sure it wasn't too dirty when Jim called him.

"Found it, Chief.”

Dropping the second-best sweater, Blair headed out of his room. He found Jim standing by the door, holding the alpaca wool sweater. "Awesome! Where was it?" Blair asked, taking possession of the sweater.

"Under your green jacket," Jim told him, gesturing to the pile of outerwear hanging from the coat hooks near the door. "And I wasn't in awe of your haggling skills. I was trying not to laugh at the poor guy who thought he could scam a tourist."

"You were in awe, and you were laughing," Blair argued, but Jim just shook his head, denying it.

"Now why in the world would my sweater be hanging there?" Blair wondered aloud as he pulled on the garment. "I haven't worn that jacket in a couple of years."

"House elves," Jim said with such a straight face, Blair couldn't help but burst out laughing.

"Right, like those could escape your notice," Blair retorted, chuckling as he leaned down to put on his hiking boots, which had sat by the door underneath the coats. "This is like, your sacred territory, man."

"Doesn't stop you from hoping they exist," Jim noted.

"Yeah, but that's like believing in the Tooth Fairy," Blair said, deliberately sliding into a lecture on how it was tradition to believe in certain fairy tale creations as they made their way to the ground floor of the building that housed the loft. For a moment, Blair could almost believe that he was going into work with Jim like he used to, before everything changed.

Jim shot him a look full of exasperation. "Come on, Professor, let's get moving before it gets any colder," he said, guiding Blair outside with a firm hand on Blair's back, as if afraid Blair would decide to run back upstairs for a book to use as supporting documentation. Blair knew better, and took the gesture for the affection it was.

*****

Despite the warm layers and the new, heavier winter coat Jim had given him for Christmas, the bitterness of the cold outside still came as a shock to Blair. Ice formed thick sheets on the pavement between the mixed-use building that housed the loft and the parking lot, and both men had to tread carefully. Jim's old truck had been totaled a few weeks before Christmas, hit by a distracted driver on her cell phone while it had been parked on a city street; its replacement was a newer-model four-wheel drive navy blue Ford Ranger. Unlike its predecessor, it was an anonymous-looking truck, save for the extra antenna for the police radio and the removable, magnetic emergency light Jim kept in the center console.

Blair watched Jim start up the truck, then crank up the heat and the defroster to help melt the ice and warm up the interior. "Sure you want to brave this?" he asked as Jim dug behind the driver's seat for an ice scraper.

"Someone's got to hold down the fort at the station. Not everyone's going to be able to make it in. The media's already announced that the mayor's urging all non-essential personnel to stay put in their homes. If you come in with me, you can have the truck while I'm at work, since your car's in the shop again." He flashed Blair a grin. "Besides, Simon's been asking about you; you should come in and reassure him I haven't hidden you away somewhere."

Blair didn't try to argue Jim into including himself in the category of "non-essential personnel"; even as cold as it was, Jim wouldn't abandon his duty unless otherwise ordered, and sometimes not even then. Instead, Blair focused in on the immediate problem: getting to the station.

"You sure we can get down Laredo? That's a pretty steep hill," Blair reminded him.

Jim flashed him a confident grin. "Morrissey Avenue's two blocks away and it's not as steep," he countered. "Sit tight, stay warm while I take care of this." He gestured to the ice sheeting the windows of the truck.

It took a good ten minutes to gain visibility outside the truck, another twenty to traverse what was normally a five-minute drive. Mindful of the ice, Jim drove cautiously, taking to flat streets when possible, shifting into four-wheel drive as needed.

"Talk to me, Chief," Jim requested as they found themselves inching down Morrissey. Traffic was nonexistent; apparently, people were waiting to drive or had heeded the call to stay home. He reached across the seat and grabbed Blair's hand, placing it on his thigh. A pang of longing shot through Blair as he wished Jim wanted his hand there for other reasons, but long accustomed to denying himself, the feeling didn't last long.

Understanding immediately that Jim needed something else to use as a focus to keep from zoning on the sheer whiteness before them, Blair began to talk, aware the topic didn't matter as much as the sound of his voice. It felt good to be needed this way; it felt like he had a vital purpose again. Being Jim's Guide still gave him a secret thrill, one that never failed to give his flagging spirits a boost.

It took nearly three times as long as it normally would to get through the nearly deserted, ice-covered roads to the central precinct. The usually busy station was a relative ghost town, as if the criminals had chosen to stay warm rather than commit crime.

Simon greeted them as soon as they entered, looking and sounding relieved. "Glad you made it in," he said, his gaze taking in Blair. "Glare off the roads that bad, Jim?"

"Couldn't leave Sandburg home alone," Jim joked. "Bad things happen."

Simon raised an eyebrow, then remembered just how often separating Blair from Jim had resulted in disaster. Shaking his head, he heaved a short sigh. "Well, if you're not headed elsewhere right away, Sandburg, we could use some help here," he said.

"I'd love to," Blair said, grateful for the chance to be with Jim on the job one more day. "What do you need us to do?"

Simon smiled, and began briefing them on their roles in the emergency. As Jim was now a lieutenant, he was Simon's second-in-command, and had the unenviable duty of coordinating the duty roster for the day. On a normal day, it meant Jim was tied up with more paperwork and managerial duties than he'd been while Blair was working on his dissertation. Blair knew Jim had only taken the promotion after a long discussion about whether Jim could handle his work without his guide; Blair had been confident Jim would. So far, they had only been proven wrong once in five years; Blair hoped that today wasn't going to be another example of failure. The holes in the duty roster were bigger than just Major Crime, and Blair quickly found himself assigned to document the decisions while Jim and Simon, along with several other people from other departments, hammered out how to fill in the gaps.

*****

Due to the weather, the entire police department had been short-staffed and running slower response times. Many of the hillier streets of the city had to be closed to traffic – a judgment call made street-by-street by the PD. Blair had found himself helping put chains on police cars down in the precinct garage before being reassigned to pitch in on the non-emergency police phone line. Major Crimes had been temporarily reassigned to help the shorter-staffed departments field critical calls. By the time Blair managed to break free of his volunteer duties, the weather had turned colder, and he'd decided to wait for Jim before heading out again.

There hadn't been much time to shop, so the two men made the trek to the small neighborhood grocery store not far from the loft just minutes before it closed.

"I was waiting for you," the owner/clerk declared in his Pakistani accent, passing over a small cooler. "Bad out there."

"Thanks, Saleem," Blair said gratefully. "Hope we didn't keep you too late."

"It's why I live upstairs," Saleem said with a smile. "So I can be open six am to eleven pm and not have to worry about driving anywhere."

"Do we owe you anything?" Jim interjected.

Saleem shook his head and passed over a receipt. "Blair called earlier, set this up. He put it on his Visa. Hold on one moment, please. Fatima! They are here!" he called to the back of the shop. "My wife insisted on making you dinner as well; all you have to do is heat it up."

"You didn't have to, Saleem," Jim protested. "I'll pay you. You know I can't accept gifts."

He waved off Jim's automatic protest as an older woman bustled down a set of stairs, carrying two foil-wrapped pans. "She did not make this for you, Lieutenant. We make this for your friend, who might be willing to share."

Blair chuckled as he accepted the pans of food. "Thank you, Fatima. Say thank you, Jim, and we'll get on home."

"Thank you, Fatima and Saleem," Jim said sincerely, taking the bags of groceries. "Stay warm."

Fifteen minutes later, Jim and Blair were home. Jim turned on the heat and started a fire while Blair made quick work of putting away their purchases. Blair appreciated he'd had the foresight to call ahead; Saleem's small store had looked as though the locals had descended like locusts in the emergency, devouring all the basics in stock and then some – no surprise, given that it was the only grocery store for a five-mile radius.

Soon, the smells of jasmine rice and chicken korma filled the loft, and both men dived into the food hungrily. Jim was grateful that Saleem's wife had chosen to err on the side of caution and had made the chicken korma only mildly spicy; though Jim had learned to eat spicy foods again, he'd discovered having to dial down his sense of taste often spoiled his enjoyment of the whole meal, a fact he'd expressed often enough to Blair.

"Hungry?" he teased Blair now, seeing how the aluminum pans of food were more than half-empty.

"You should talk," Blair teased back. "I wasn't the only one. Did you even get any lunch today?"

Jim shook his head. "Honestly can't remember," he said as he rose and began clearing the mess from their dinner.

"Which means you didn't," Blair summarized. "You think it's going to be this bad tomorrow?"

Jim frowned and stepped towards the balcony, clearly listening and looking with his senses. After a few moments, he stepped back into the kitchen as Blair busied himself with putting away the leftovers. "Worse. I'll still have to go in, but you don't have to come if you don't want to. If I go in tomorrow, I'll be sure to have the weekend off."

"You focus better when I'm there, even if I'm not right beside you," Blair argued as he placed their dinner dishes in the sink. "Guide proximity increases Sentinel response."

Jim shot him a crooked grin. "Guide proximity, huh?" he repeated as he began running the water for washing dishes and grabbed the soap-dispensing scrubber they used. "Don't you think that warrants further investigation, Chief?"

Blair shook his head. "Not like I don't know you anchor yourself to me when I'm around; that's old news. Something new I should know?"

Jim just continued to smile. "No, nothing new. You know I promised to tell you if there was something new with my senses or if I had some freaky visions. You gonna shower before going to bed?"

"Yeah. You need the bathroom before I go?"

"No, I'm good," Jim replied as he began washing the few dishes they'd dirtied.

Blair had the oddest sensation of Jim watching him the entire time he went to take his shower, but when he emerged from the bathroom, Jim had finished the dishes and had gone to bed. Blair shook off the weird feeling, putting it down to some quirk of Sentinel behavior Jim would never deign to explain if Blair started asking questions. If Jim was still behaving oddly tomorrow, Blair promised himself, he'd ask questions then; he'd give his friend twenty-four hours to come to terms with whatever it was that made him watch Blair so closely. Jim had asked him for that much space shortly after the dissertation disaster, when they'd spent a painful afternoon renegotiating their friendship, defining what they were to each other now that they'd said and done things that had exploded boundaries.

It hadn't been easy, Blair thought, but they were stronger friends as a result. They talked more, worked on fine-tuning Jim's senses with less reluctance from the Sentinel, and found more common ground than they'd bothered to discover in all the years previously. Yet even as they grew closer, Blair wished they were closer still, and tried to tell himself he was just wishing for the impossible, again.

Jim was gone by the time Blair woke up late the next morning. Surprised he hadn't been woken by Jim's usual morning shower and by the fact he'd managed to sleep in until almost noon, Blair nonetheless shrugged and went to check the weather. From the windows of his room, he could see snow had accumulated, but not how much, so he headed to the balcony, where he gasped at the sight that greeted him. At least half a foot of snow had fallen overnight, and the sky, while sunny and clear, didn't look like it was nearly enough to melt all of the accumulation. Remembering Jim's words about how he'd sensed it would be worse didn't lessen the shock.

Blair knew it meant the city would shut down even more than it had yesterday. Turning on the TV, he went to brew a cup of coffee and listened to the reporter's overly dramatic recital of, "Stay at home, folks, it's bad out here," complete with updates from said reporter's coworkers at various locations around the Cascade metro area.

Coffee brewed, he pulled out a mug, added in a dash of cinnamon before pouring the hot liquid and sat down to watch the news report while he sipped his drink. It quickly became apparent that the city was running on limited services; most government offices were closed, all of the schools were, and three of the city's largest employers had announced that their employees could either telecommute or take the day off, as long as they didn't attempt to drive.

Worried about Jim, Blair picked up the phone and dialed.

"Good morning, Cascade Police Department, this is Jill, may I help you?" a female voice greeted crisply.

Blair frowned; he'd placed the call directly to Jim's work number. "Hello, this is Blair Sandburg. I was trying to reach Lieutenant Jim Ellison in Major Crimes."

"I'm sorry, but – " she paused, then said, "Blair Sandburg, you said? Ellison's partner?"

"Yes?"

"He left a message for you saying he'd be home late. All calls are being screened right now due to emergency protocols. Was there something you wanted to pass on to him?"

"No, thanks. I just wanted to make sure he's okay."

Jill's voice warmed. "Yeah, I know how it goes; my husband made me promise to call him as soon as I got here. I'll pass on the message you called and checked in, how's that sound?"

Wishing that her assumption regarding the nature of his relationship was true, Blair let it pass without comment; he'd heard variations on the theme for years now. Protesting it only fueled the rumor mill.

"No need to worry him, Jill," Blair assured her. "I'm going to stay put and stay warm. Thanks for the information."

"Take care, Mr. Sandburg," Jill said, then hung up.

Blair hung up and stared at the phone, wondering how much more he could take of the assumptions and occasional condemnations of his relationship with Jim. It was one thing to be accused of something he'd done; quite another to be judged for something he hadn't… yet. The strangest part about it was that he had the suspicion that no one would bother him and Jim if they were lovers. They'd lived together for so long, and Jim had always introduced him as his partner, that no one really blinked anymore. Whatever hassles Jim had encountered – and Blair knew enough about the subculture within the PD to know there had to have been at least a few he didn't know about – they had been handled.

What am I afraid of? Blair asked himself. Jim wouldn't be his first male lover, though he had the sense that he just might be Jim's. Blair had seduced virgins before; that wasn't a problem. Was it their shared history? Blair wondered. Certainly, he knew Jim was capable of; knew how reluctantly Jim had opened up to him after Blair had turned down the offer of the badge, but they'd talked everything out and were stronger for it.

Blair had no answer for himself. With a sigh, he rose and started to get dressed. If he was lucky, the café he usually patronized would be open and he could ease some of his mood with some light-hearted flirtation with the baristas. It would be a long, cold walk, but fresh air and exercise was never a bad idea, regardless. If nothing else, it would get him out of the loft, and he really didn't want to stay inside all day.

"Oh, there you are," Jim greeted him later that day. I "was just about to call you and track you down; I'd figured you'd be curled up watching the National Geographic channel rather than out in this mess."

Blair grinned as he peeled out of the layers that had insulated him from the cold and wet. Jim was in the kitchen, slicing meat and vegetables; the big skillet they used in lieu of a wok waited on the stove. "Mindy from 101 caught me in the elevator and asked if I wanted to get out and have some fun; ended up going sledding down Rainier Point with her. Then we ran into some mutual friends and we spent the afternoon down at Prince Hardware."

Jim paused in his food preparation. For a moment, Blair thought he looked annoyed at something, but when he turned to face Blair, his face was friendly, his tone teasing. "That pub at the base of Rainier Point? So did you get enough food or was it more of a liquid lunch?"

"Hate to say this, since from the looks of it you're making stir fry, but I don't think I'll be eating much tonight. The pub was running a snow special on pizza and beer."

"It'll keep," Jim assured him, but not before Blair caught the flash of disappointment on his face.

"You should've called; I would've come home earlier," Blair admonished him.

"I left you a voicemail," Jim said. "When you didn't call me back, I figured you were busy. Thought maybe Rafe got in touch with you; he said he wanted to talk to you."

Blair shook his head, feeling like he'd missed something important. "No, I haven't talked to Rafe in weeks – he's been busy with his case load and his newest girlfriend – and there's something wrong with my cell phone. I'm not getting voicemails as fast as people leave them."

"Ever think about switching carriers? You know I wouldn't mind putting yours on my plan. Probably save us both some cash."

"No can do," Blair countered. "This phone's paid for by my employer, remember?"

"So why are you procrastinating on calling customer service?" Jim prodded.

Blair shrugged. "I was going to today, just haven't done it yet." At Jim's look, Blair dug into the pockets of his coat, retrieved his phone, and sat down to make the call.

Half an hour later, Jim had put away the remains of the stir-fry, settled in on the couch with a suspense thriller and Blair's problem with his voicemail – an apparent glitch in the cell phone provider's software – had been resolved.

Jim glanced up from the novel he was reading. "Everything fixed?" he asked.

"Yeah, though she warned me I probably should get a new phone," Blair replied, turning in his seat to face Jim more fully. "How's the book?"

"I've read better," Jim admitted, putting the book down on the side table. "Didn't feel like turning on the TV, though."

"Nothing on?"

"When is there?" Jim shot back with a smile. "Say, you got any plans for tomorrow night?"

"No, why? You have a date?"

Jim shrugged. "Just curious."

"Mindy said something about if I didn't have any other plans, we could figure out something." He grimaced. "I'd feel weird about dating our downstairs neighbor."

"Didn't stop you when Callie lived in Mindy's place."

"That's one of the reasons it would feel weird," Blair admitted. "Especially since Mindy didn't change the paint colors Callie left behind when she sold the place to Mindy, and the two of them could nearly pass for sisters. Besides, I like Mindy, but not… " He caught himself before he could finish with, "like you, Jim."

Jim nodded knowingly. "Not more than a friend, Chief? You've been staying home a lot lately. What happened to the guy who needed a PDA to keep his dates straight?"

Blair shook his head. "Not worth it anymore, and if you crack one joke about getting old —"

"Yeah, yeah, like you don't razz me about my age," the older man shot back. He rose to his feet. "Don't worry if you don't see me tomorrow until late in the afternoon – Steven wanted me to help with setting up a surprise for his girlfriend. Good night, Chief."

"Night, Jim." Automatically, Blair checked the time on his watch and abruptly realized it was later than he'd thought, though still relatively early for bed. For a moment, Blair wished he wasn't going to sleep alone, then sighed. If he stayed in the living room, he was likely to turn on the TV, and decided he'd rather not bother Jim with the noise. To Blair's surprise, once in bed, he quickly fell asleep.

*****

"Man, thanks for the invite," Blair said in Rafe's car late the next day. "I've wanted to go see that movie in IMAX, but Jim's not too fond of the format." Focused in on his friend, not in a hurry to end their time together, and trusting that Rafe was dropping him off at the loft, Blair didn't immediately notice where they were.

Rafe chuckled. "Yeah, well, and what was the first IMAX film you ever dragged him to?"

Blair winced. "The human anatomy one that they ran forever because they weren't doing too many regular movies in IMAX yet."

Rafe laughed again. "And you forgot that Ellison's a —"

"— guy who's seen way too much of the human body up close and personal, and not in a good way, either," Blair finished. "Yeah. But I thought he'd be okay with it."

Rafe shook his head, chuckling. "He's a regular guy, not Superman," he told him. "Even then, I think Superman wouldn't be able to deal with the human body blown up to IMAX size."

"I suppose. Hey, Rafe, thanks again, and sorry I didn't get your voicemail sooner."

"No problem, I'll just try the 'Ask Ellison' method again if I don't hear from you." Rafe grinned as he pulled the car to a stop. Using the switches on his side of the car, Rafe unlocked Blair's door. "Why don't you go ahead and get out of the car?"

Blair did a double take as he realized they weren't in the parking lot across from the loft, but in the parking lot of Tokai's, one of the city's best restaurants. Suddenly, Rafe's decision to ask him if he minded stopping off at Rafe's favorite menswear shop – and Rafe insisting on helping him pick out a new shirt and tie to wear out of the store — made sense.

“What are we doing here?” Blair asked, confused.

"You're on a date," Rafe replied, as if that was obvious.

A quick glance out the window showed an open parking space just a car-length ahead, which ruled out the "drop off in order to find an available spot" maneuver. "So the new shirt and tie are in case I get lucky, huh, Rafe?" Blair asked suspiciously.

His companion chuckled. "Hey, you walk in there dressed like you are, you just might." Laughter danced in his eyes as he added, "Didn't you say you'd try anything once?"

"So if I'm not your date, then who is?" Blair wondered.

"Not telling. Just get out of my car so I can get to my date," Rafe prodded. "Go on. Shoo."

"This better not be one of your many cousins," Blair said warningly. "You promised not to set me up with any more of them, remember?"

Ignoring the comment, Rafe leaned over and shoved open the passenger side door. "Out," he said in his best cop-in-command voice.

Not accustomed to hearing it from his laid-back friend, Blair reacted without thinking and got out of the car, automatically shutting the door. As soon as Blair had done so, Rafe proceeded to quickly exit the parking lot. Blinking, Blair shrugged his shoulders and decided to see who was waiting for him. It wouldn't be the first blind date he'd ever had in his life, after all, and it would be nice not to spend Valentine's Day alone.

He gave his name to the black-clad hostess, who smiled and proceeded to lead him to a secluded table in the rear of the restaurant. For a moment, his breath caught in his throat as he saw who waited for him. For a moment, he forgot they were friends and believed in the promise of the single red rose that lay across his place setting. Then reality set in.

"Jim? This isn't some gag for America's Funniest Home Videos, right?"

Chuckling, Jim rose and hugged him, lingering a bit longer in the embrace than usual before stepping back and pulling out Blair's chair for him. Unsure - how to take the gesture, Blair nonetheless took the cue to sit.

Jim reseated himself. "I'd pick a less public place for that sort of gag, Chief. Besides, I thought it might be nice for a change to take someone I really wanted to spend time with out to dinner here rather than some blind date."

Relaxing, Blair smiled, remembering the last time Jim had tried to date. Set up with a friend of a friend of Megan's, it had turned out to be an absolute disaster. "You could always try another restaurant," Blair suggested.

"And how many in this city have we figured are off-limits to me, hmm?" Jim returned. "Or did you forget the six weeks we spent figuring out what spices I can tolerate? Or that study on food allergies and eating out you got your friend Tracy to conduct, the one that narrowed the list of ‘nice places to eat' down to three?"

Blair winced. "Yeah, but you're much more comfortable with your dials now."

"Comfortable because I don't go risking myself unnecessarily with them," Jim returned, "and that's not something I'm willing to change. Besides, there aren't that many places like this. Where else can you get Indian and Asian fusion cuisine in one place?"

Before Blair could reply, their server arrived with a pot of steaming tea and two tea cups. "Evening, gentlemen, and welcome to Tokai. We have a special menu prepared for you as you requested —" she inclined her head towards Jim "— and we'll begin shortly. If you need anything else, please let me know." She poured tea into the cups, then departed.

"Pulling out all the stops, Jim? Or just making sure I don't miss anything you would show any other date?"

Jim scowled briefly. "You're not any other date," he said emphatically, leaning forward. As if realizing how intense he must've sounded, he deliberately relaxed back into his seat. "But if you want, we can certainly pretend this is a blind date. You game?"

Needing the liquid to soothe his suddenly dry throat, Blair picked up his tea and blew on it to cool it off before sipping it carefully. "Sure, why not? So, animal, vegetable, or mineral?"

Jim chuckled. "Animal, definitely. Panther." He paused, assessed his dinner companion. "Not job, pets, music, religion, current events, or places you'd love to travel, huh?"

Blair waved his hand carelessly. "It's the thirty-second response. You do it when you size up a suspect with the first question you ask someone. You know you'll never get a chance to ask that question again, so you have to be choosy with what you say. Me, if I get the deer in the headlights look, or my date doesn't laugh, or come up with a halfway intriguing reply, I don't want to know the rest. Chances are, they'll tell me anyway, to cover up for what they didn't say."

Looking intrigued, Jim leaned forward again. "I'd have thought you'd want to go for more of a slower method, talk about — oh, I don't know, some funny thing that happened to you, or some fascinating trivia you know. What happens if they seem to know your game? Or get turned off by the question?"

Blair shrugged. He wasn't entirely sure where Jim was going with this date, if this was really a date, and figured the faster he got an answer, the less time he'd spend disappointed. "Depends on what I'm after; there are things I'd tolerate in a short-term lover I might not in a friend. What would you put up with in a short-term lover?"

"How short are we talking?"

"Not more than a week."

"Morals and ethics," Jim offered with a rueful smile. "I'm a cop, but I try not to automatically suspect everyone of being a criminal. You?"

"Oh, it's a list," Blair countered, aware he was being harder on Jim than he would someone he'd met on a blind date. Too many things rode on this, and Blair wanted to be sure he understood what Jim wanted. "Easier to think of the things that would be deal breakers, either way. Lack of attention to personal hygiene, lack of respect, lack of responsibility."

"Those are too easy," Jim argued. "I can't think of anyone who'd put up with that for long, regardless. Didn't you go out with Julie down in Animal Control once? You said she reeked of her job, even off-duty. I was surprised to see you home so early on date night."

Blair grimaced at the memory. "One of the few times I wished I could dial down my sense of smell." He shuddered.

"What about friendship, knowing you can count on them to be there for you?"

Blair eyed him warily. "For a long-term relationship, I'd say that's critical, whether you're lovers or not. You have to trust in that person wholeheartedly, without reservations." He paused and took a sip of his drink. "I've always wanted to be with someone who could be my best friend and my lover."

Jim studied him. "You've mentioned that before."

"And if this was really a blind date, Jim, you wouldn't know any of that."

"If this really was a blind date, Chief," Jim replied quietly, "I'd be torn between thinking someone was having a grand joke at my expense and wondering if I had the guts to find out if you were worth my time. Better this way." He grinned suddenly. "This way, I got a friend to make sure you got here in one piece, and without suspecting anything."

"I can't imagine you asking Rafe for help with this. What did you tell him?"

Jim shrugged. "That I was worried you wouldn't be on time for a date here, that you hadn't yet replaced the Volvo with something more reliable. I said I was going to be busy with my brother, or I'd take care of it myself. He took it from there."

"When he pulled up in front of the restaurant, I thought he was going to be my dinner date."

Jim chuckled. "That was the idea."

"I thought he was straight."

"Aren't you the one who said sexuality's a continuum?"

Nerves fluttered in Blair's stomach and he swallowed. "Yes, but — You've dated men before?"

Jim's mouth curved in a faint half-smile. "Thought about it, especially after the divorce." His smile widened abruptly. "I already had the earring."

Blair's eyes widened. "No way, man. You had a piercing?"

"Simon made me get rid of it a condition of joining his department."

"And you did it?" Surprised, Blair leaned forward.

"It never occurred to me not to," Jim said honestly. "Major Crimes is the elite of the departments — the best of the PD; you know that as well as I do. We don't get the easy crimes; we get the terrorists, the serial criminals, the fugitives, the medical rip-offs and the stuff involving imminent danger to people. Back then, all I cared about was being part of the best, and if taking out an earring, changing my wardrobe, and being saddled with a partner was part of the deal, then I'd do it." Ruefully, he added, "Reluctantly, but if I didn't, Simon threatened to transfer me elsewhere."

"Wait, changing your wardrobe? What in the world did you dress like? You dress well at work now."

"At the time, not well enough to suit Jack or Simon. Speaking of dressing well — I like the shirt Rafe picked out for you," Jim said as their first course arrived.

Distracted by the food, Blair glanced down at the table to find the rose at his place setting had been whisked away to sit in a glass vase. His place setting now contained a small plate with a pair of miniature Thai spring rolls with an equally tiny bowl of plum sauce. Across the table, an identical plate had been placed in front of Jim.

"I hope you like what I chose for dinner," Jim said as he selected one of the small rolls. "I tried to remember what you liked."

"Oh, man, this looks and smells delicious!" Blair exclaimed. Experimentally, he ate one roll, finding it was indeed tasty. "Wait, how'd you know Rafe picked out what I'm wearing?"

"Because he promised me he would," Jim said simply. "He reminded me that while jeans were acceptable in the restaurant's dress code, flannel shirts weren't, and you've been living in flannel all winter."

"That's because it's been way too cold for anything else, and I don't have to dress up for work," Blair said defensively, then paused as their conversation sank in. "Damn, Jim, this really is a date."

"Something wrong with that?" Jim asked with deceptive gentleness. He reached across the table and stroked Blair's forearm reassuringly.

"Only in that —" Blair paused, abruptly aware that he'd been living with — and in love with — a Sentinel for years. How much of his love was secret in that context? Probably not nearly as much as he thought. Not if Jim had taken the time to also apply his skills as a detective, as a military-trained officer to the situation, and Blair had no doubt Jim had done precisely that. Jim would've noticed Blair had stopped dating and would've tried to figure out not only why, but any solutions or suggestions Jim could provide. Jim had leapt to conclusions, again — only this time, Blair couldn't find a single fault with the conclusion Jim had drawn.

Yet Blair knew moving forward meant more than anything else he'd ever done. Too much rode on this conclusion for Blair to take it lightly, as much as a part of him wanted to jump right in and damn the consequences.

He took a deep breath and let it out before meeting Jim's gaze across the table. "I don't want to lose my friend in the morning, Jim. You and I know we're both capable of some crazy things in the heat of a moment. Why do you want to change our relationship now? It's been years, and it was hard enough to rebuild our friendship after the disaster with my dissertation."

Jim's gaze didn't waver, though the hand stroking Blair's arm stilled a moment. "Would changing it be a bad thing?"

Suddenly the noise of the restaurant disappeared as Blair focused in on Jim. It seemed impossible that everything he'd come to want had crystallized into this moment, this decision. "Depends," he said warily, "on why."

Jim didn't seem overly surprised by the qualifier. "No Sentinel visions of doom," he answered honestly. "Just… realizing that I wake up thinking of you, get jealous when you're out on a date with someone else, feel protective of you in ways I know go beyond friendship, even one as complicated as ours." He took a deep breath then let it go. "Kinda thought you'd figured it out sooner, when you stopped dating other people, but you never made a move."

"I didn't think you were into guys," Blair said, realizing as he spoke how lame that sounded.

"There's a lot I've learned I'm into since I met you," Jim noted dryly. "Falling in love with you is the top of the list."

Stunned speechless, Blair could only stare at him. Never in his life had a single sentence meant so much. For a wild moment, Blair forgot to breathe. Hope, so long buried, rose to nearly choke him and he swallowed hard as his heart leapt in his chest. As normally as he could manage, Blair asked, "You love me?"

Jim nodded.

"Have you ever been with another guy?"

For a moment, Jim hesitated, almost withdrawing his hand, then shot Blair a look that was at once fierce and painfully vulnerable. "Looks like you get to do more research on me and test my abilities."

Desire shot through Blair, but he kept a lid on it as he watched Jim's nostrils flare as his sense of smell registered the increase in pheromones, watched Jim's eyes darken with knowledge…and a hint of something else. "Don't you dare think of it as a test," Blair shot back. "I'm not researching you anymore, remember?"

He watched Jim close his eyes briefly. "Maybe I wish you would," Jim said. "Just for us, because it's fun."

Blair's eyes widened. "Who are you and where's Jim?"

Jim laughed. "Still right here, Chief." He inhaled deeply, then let it out. "If you don't want this –"

"Want?" Blair couldn't believe that was even a question. "More than anything, Jim, but I don't want to lose what we have."

"Not even for a chance to find out if we can be more?" Jim coaxed. "Not even for that moment when we merged and knew what we felt? You invited me in then."

"You weren't ready."

"Now I am," Jim insisted. "Don't leave out here in deep water, Chief. I don't know if I can make it without you."

Blair studied him, seeing Jim open, nervous but confident in what he felt.

"You can make it, Jim, and if you zone on pleasure, I'll take it as a compliment – and bring you back so we can do it again, unless you said otherwise."

Triumphant joy and eagerness leapt across Jim's face. Seeing it, Blair felt desire shoot through him as surely as any arrow to his heart.

More urgently, aware of Jim's reaction to pheromones and his own wish to continue the rest of this conversation in private, Blair added, "Any chance you got the rest of this dinner to go?"

Now Jim's smile turned into anticipation. "I was hoping you'd say that," he said, signaling the server.

*****

The walk to Jim’s truck was unlike any other walk to his truck Blair had ever experienced. Jim had always walked closer to Blair than Blair allowed most people, even had his hand on Blair’s back before to guide him, maybe even ground himself on Blair, but tonight took on greater significance. How they managed not to trip over each other was nothing short of amazing. To Blair's surprise, Jim didn't kiss him in the parking lot like he'd half expected. Heading home, Jim took Blair’s hand in his, and didn’t let go, even glancing over at Blair at stop lights as if to reassure himself that Blair was still there. That simple act ratcheted Blair's desire even higher.

Once the door was shut, nerves took hold of Blair. For a moment, he forgot how to proceed, and fumbled with putting away the leftovers while Jim locked the door. Moving to the living room, Blair stopped, suddenly unsure of himself. Jim turned to face him and studied him as if seeing him for the first time. Blair couldn't breathe; couldn't think.

Then Jim stepped forward, took him into his arms, and kissed him. He had never been kissed with such thoroughness, such tenderness, such promise, such aching sweetness. He'd been seduced by virgins and experts, but the passion Jim roused in him left him feeling like he'd known only pale imitations of desire in the past. This was the real thing; this was what it was supposed to feel like when love was shown and exchanged.

When they were finally on the bed, the covers shoved out of the way, Blair realized that Jim's trembling wasn't completely in desire. Abruptly, he realized as confident Jim had been in the restaurant, Jim wasn’t as experienced as he’d seemed.

"It's okay," Blair soothed, matching his voice to his actions as he petted the muscular body in his arms. "We were doing just fine a moment ago. I'd like more of that. Anything beyond that, we'll talk, okay? Nothing you don't want to do, I promise."

Jim looked at him and let out a shaky breath. "And if I want everything?"

He knew he had to take things slow, but the offer Jim made sent blood rushing down to Blair's cock. "Not tonight," Blair said regretfully, ruthlessly shoving away the urge. "Not like you're some guy I just picked up for a fuck and we have to go all the way now. Just – kiss me. Touch me. Taste me. Show me how much you want me." He watched surprise and gratitude blossom across Jim's face before Jim pulled him closer and kissed him deeply.

Jim then broke the kiss and leaned back slightly, his eyes narrowing as he figured out what he wanted to do next. Pushing Blair to his back, Jim began exploring Blair's body with his hands. Experimentally, he tasted a patch of skin near Blair's collarbone, then skipped directly to the nipple with a piercing, tasting that instead.

Blair arched into the sensation. "Yes, more of that," he said breathlessly. Though a part of him wanted to give back as much as he was getting, another part simply wanted to enjoy this experience. He didn't want to scare Jim off – not now, not ever. Later, when Jim was more comfortable, they could do more… would do more, if Blair had anything to say about it. Aside from that, Blair wasn't sure how high Jim's dials were set and he didn't want to break the mood by asking. His thoughts scattered quickly when Jim moved to suck on Blair's unpierced nipple while rolling the other nipple between his fingers, lingering as if he wanted to compare the taste of one nipple against the other. Pleasure spiked through Blair and he cried out.

He felt Jim's smile against his skin before Jim released the nipple he was sucking on and blew on it gently.

Blair inhaled sharply at the unexpected sensation and Jim grinned wickedly before dipping his head and licking the now-dry nipple.

"God," Blair swore breathlessly, only to lose his breath again when Jim repeated the process with the other nipple.

Abruptly, Jim faltered.

Sensing it, Blair grabbed his hands, placing them on his hips. "Touch me some more," he urged. "Explore the rest of me, like you would any new lover."

Awkwardly, Jim petted Blair's stomach, then, more confidently, moved to brush Blair's hips. Avoiding Blair's cock for the moment, Jim moved downward, exploring Blair's legs, licking occasionally when it suited him. Blair kept up a running monologue of encouragement, even as he felt his breathing grow ragged as Jim discovered all the spots that cranked up Blair's arousal.

"Hmm," Jim said, considering, leaning back to admire the flush of desire that painted Blair's body. "I wonder if…. "

He didn't stop to let Blair wonder too long before moving lower to take Blair's cock in his mouth in one decisive motion that shocked Blair even as it ratcheted his passion higher. Jim took him in as if he was a popsicle he wanted to swallow whole, stopping just before he gagged.

"Oh, God, you don't have to —"

Jim eased back, looking at Blair with determination and passion in his eyes. "You like it, I like doing it," he said decisively.

Before Blair could protest, Jim put Blair's cock back in his mouth, taking it just slightly even further, then eased up, using his tongue against the underside as he carefully backed off the length of Blair's cock, licking in between each increment before finally pausing with just the head of Blair's cock in his mouth. Maddeningly, he seemed content to just hold it there, licking it occasionally, seemingly fascinated.

"God! Jim! Please! Don't stop there, take your hand and stroke it," Blair pleaded. "Feels so good."

"That's a yes?" Jim asked, in between quick licks.

"Yes! God, where'd you —?"

"You're not the only one who can research, Chief," came the amused reply. Then Jim took Blair's cock back in his mouth and Blair forgot everything but the way Jim's mouth felt. As if aware of his limitations, Jim didn't try to swallow Blair's cock whole again, but took him halfway and used his right hand to pump the lower shaft in a firm grip as he continued to suck the head.

Sensing how close Blair was, Jim released him, but before Blair could protest, Jim covered him with his body, positioning them so that their cocks rubbed together. Capturing Blair's mouth, Jim kissed him passionately before breaking off as the difference in their heights made kissing and thrusting at the same time too much of a neck strain. Jim continued to thrust against Blair a few times as Blair grabbed desperately at Jim's ass to pull him closer so Blair could thrust up against him. The sensations were too much for Blair and everything narrowed to just the feel of the fiery pleasure shooting through him and what he needed to do to make it last.

He fought the pulsation of his orgasm for as long as he could, only to hear Jim growl his name, shuddering as he, too, tried to hold back. Hearing it, Blair came, feeling as though every molecule of his body had gone flying in the process. A heartbeat later, Jim shook, grunting as he came.

For a several moments, neither man moved as their breathing eased back to a more normal rhythm. Then Blair leaned over to the nightstand to grab a few tissues before attempting to clean both of them up. Offhandedly, he tossed the used tissues aside, knowing even as he did so that he'd missed the trashcan entirely.

"I thought I was the clean freak," Jim teased, his voice sounding slightly ragged.

"Pre-emptive strike," Blair said tiredly, tossing the tissues aside. His heart was still beating fast, and he knew he wasn't thinking too clearly just yet. "In a minute, you'll leap up and grab a wet washcloth from downstairs."

"You wouldn't want that?" Jim asked carefully, turning so that they faced each other, without losing their embrace.

Blair considered it. "I've never had anyone do that for me," he admitted.

Jim thought about it a moment. Kissing Blair thoroughly, he said, "Don't go anywhere. I'll be right back."

Disposing of the tissues in the trashcan by the desk, Jim moved quickly down the stairs while Blair tried to get his brain re-engaged. It wasn't proving easy: aside from feeling boneless, Blair felt as though his notions of what an orgasm was supposed to feel like had just been redefined. The revelation that love made sex better was a new one to him; he'd known it in the abstract, but now he understood it for himself, and knew he didn't ever want to have sex without love again. Part of him wondered if Jim was using the excuse of the washcloth to deal with what had transpired.

"You're thinking too hard," Jim admonished him as he returned with a wet washcloth and a small plate. Setting the plate onto the nightstand, Jim climbed into the bed, washcloth in hand.

"Oh?"

"I can hear the wheels turning," Jim chided. "I'm not regretting this."

With tender strokes, Jim wiped Blair clean; Jim then dropped the washcloth onto the plate and pulled Blair close.

"You're not?"

"No," Jim said firmly. Pulling the covers over them, Jim seemed content just to hold Blair this way.

For several minutes, Blair let himself relish the feeling of being held — snuggled, really — in Jim's arms. Then his brain finally kicked into gear as he realized Jim wouldn't do this unless he was absolutely sure his love would be returned.

"Research, huh? Just what kind of research?"

Jim chuckled. "Enough to know what I wanted," he said. "I just thought you might —"

"Might want more than frottage, the first time?" Blair finished.

Jim shrugged. "You tend to throw yourself into everything," he noted. "How was I to expect you'd want any less?"

"Because I remember what it was like my first time with a guy," Blair said quietly. "And because you're…you. Not saying I didn't like what we just did, just — you surprised me."

His lover laughed softly. "All part of my plan."

Blair's eyes narrowed. The words made him review the day, made him realize — "At the restaurant, I thought you just meant getting me to dinner, but it was more than that. You made sure I wasn't busy with someone else."

Jim shrugged again. "Well, hoping I could seduce you after dinner last night didn't work, so I went to plan B."

"Last night?" Blair squeaked. "You didn't say anything!"

"Well, it didn't occur to me you'd have dinner out with someone," Jim said reasonably. "Figured I had to do something grand to get your attention."

Blair rolled his eyes, suddenly exasperated. "You could've said something."

Jim grinned and kissed him. "What, that no plan survives first contact?" he teased. More seriously, he added, "Besides, I had to be sure."

"Sure of what?" Blair wondered. "Surely your senses would have —"

"Tipped me off? Yeah, they did. But they're not the only evidence I needed." Still holding Blair, Jim shifted so that he could look at his new lover more comfortably.

For a moment, Blair read the expression on Jim's face and his heart stilled. "Evidence of what? Or for what?" he managed.

Jim kissed him, softly, sweetly, saying with actions what he couldn't put into words. "Love," he said finally.

"I see," Blair said, his heart swelling with hope. "What gave me away?"

"Rafe pointed it out to me," Jim admitted. "He said you lit up every time I walked in the room, or whenever you talked about me when I wasn't around. I started paying attention, figured out what scared me so much about the merge was the depth of our love for each other — and that it wasn't just a brotherly love any more. Then we started really talking, and I…I took a page out of your book and —"

"Did some observing of your own?"

Jim nodded.

"And the detective's assessment?"

"Looks like an open-and-shut case, but I think," he said with a smile, "I need more proof. Want to show me some more?"

"I might be persuaded," Blair agreed soberly. "But I'd hate to be accused of bribing a cop. I'm just a poor grant writer."

"Oh, I think I could provide more incentives, maybe some compensation," Jim said, clearly enjoying their game. "How's dinner sound? I don't know about you, but I hate eating alone."

"I could use a good meal," Blair said. "My dinner got interrupted."

"Pity," Jim agreed. "Want to lie here some more or do you want food first?"

"In a little while?" Blair asked, dropping the game for the moment. "I just want to…savor this." He was feeling a little overwhelmed, if he was honest. Later was soon enough to deal with the realities of living. "Love you, Jim."

That got him a swift kiss and a smile as Jim shifted to pull him closer. "I love you, too. Happy Valentine's Day, Blair."

"Happy Valentine's Day, Jim."

the sweetest kiss i've ever known
is the first one you gave me
holding a breath
just because it's you this time
hanging by this moment
where the dream becomes present
i waste no time
showing you your love is returned


Finis 8.5.10