Sometimes we do things apart.
It's not because we get tired of being together. Even though we work together, we eat together, we sleep together (oh, boy, do we ever, although 'sleep' isn't necessarily the operating word here), we shower together (and 'shower' isn't necessarily the operating word here either). Even though we watch TV together, we read together, we go to movies together, we clean the loft together. Even though everybody at the station jokes that we're joined at the hip (close; rotate slightly on the horizontal axis).
But we don't get tired of being together. Yeah, we tease each other and grumble and gripe and growl, and sometimes we even have big yelling acrimonious fights. We get in each other's way in the kitchen and at the bathroom sink and squabble over the last bagel. But we don't get tired of each other's presence, not since we finally acknowledged how we felt about each other. Not since a long weekend at Jim's brother's cabin in the mountains, when I nearly froze to death. Since that day when we confessed our love for each other, since we became lovers, we can't seem to get close enough. Can't get enough of each other - in any sense.
That surprised the hell out of me at first. Not so much me, okay. I like a little peace and quiet for study and contemplation, but I'm essentially a social creature. Heck, I used to really enjoy having a big crowd of friends around me. It's funny that since I've been with Jim, my world seems to have narrowed. Once upon a time I would have chosen an evening with six or eight friends on campus, some of us guzzling juice and others beer while we debated everything from Freud to Fitzgerald, over just about anything but sex - and, hell, sometimes I would have chosen an evening like that over even sex. Now my evening of choice would definitely be snuggling on the couch with Jim, fire in the fireplace, CD playing low, while we talk about our cases or sports or politics or religion or, hell, I don't know, the latest lousy joke going around the station. Just snuggling and talking.
With sex to follow, of course.
The strange part for me is that I've never in my life spent so much time with one person. Not on any terms, much less so intimately. Not friend or lover or even Naomi. But Jim, man, I can't get enough of him, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, you name it. He's not a drug that I'm addicted to. He's my food, my water, my air.
Jim, though, Jim's always been the loner, the man who needs lots of privacy and personal space. But just as my world seemed to narrow, his seemed to expand - enough to include me, anyway. He let me into his career, which was way out of character for him. He let me into his house, which was almost unthinkable. He let me into his life, which astounded me. He let me into his bed, which floored us both. And he let me into his heart and soul, where no one, not even his ex-wife, had ever gone, and made us both complete.
Carolyn hates my guts.
But our lives fit together so damned well, like a pair of jeans worn and washed enough that they've become soft and form-fitting and as comfortable as your own skin, so natural that you forget you're wearing them. Jim and I are so much in tune that we can finish each other's sentences. We don't really need words to communicate, though, something that Jim is more comfortable with than me. I mean, we can be lying on the couch at opposite ends, feet comfortably tangled, him reading Police Monthly, me with my nose buried in Psychology Today. Then at the same moment we'll look up and meet each other's eyes. His eyes will ask, mine will answer, or maybe the other way around. An arch of the eyebrow, a jerk of the chin and we've decided between the bed or the rug in front of the fireplace. A shift of the shoulders, a tilt of the head and we've chosen who's on top, so to speak. Jim can smell right off my skin whether I want slow and tender, teasing and playful, hard and fast, pull-out-all-the-stops-and-hope-the-neighbors-have-earplugs - well, you get the idea. I've learned to read Jim, too. Beats me how. Probably empathy. Every time I try to run tests we end up in bed, or some alternate locale. I can't call those tests failures, but I wouldn't call them very scientific successes.
So we don't need time apart, we don't need time alone, we don't need a break from each other. So why was I at the Tibetan art exhibit at the art museum alone tonight? For the same reason that Jim went to the truck and trailer show with Simon instead of me last week. Because one man's utter ecstasy can, occasionally, be another man's utter boredom.
And that's why I'm walking up the stairs to the loft alone, bubbling over with what I've seen and heard that evening, eager to tell Jim all about it even though I know all he cares about is how much I enjoyed it. I'm happy and tired and hungry and a little horny, too, also a little guilty because I'm two hours later than I said I'd be. I wonder what Jim's been doing all evening, whether he's still awake despite the late hour, whether he's in the same mood I am, and whether he might be wearing that white muscle shirt that gets me so fucking hot.
I listen at the door but don't hear either the TV or the stereo, but that doesn't mean anything. Jim might have been looking over case files this evening, which bodes well for his chances of still being awake but poorly for his chances of being horny. Still, a few sniffs of my pheromones and the big guy will come around. So to speak.
But when I open the door the loft is dark. Absolutely dark, which surprises me. Generally when Jim goes to bed and I'm still out, he leaves the curtains open so I can at least see enough to make it to the bathroom and up the stairs without slaughtering my shins or breaking my neck. He knows I don't have Sentinel vision, and he knows I won't turn on the lights because of his Sentinel vision. He must have forgotten, or maybe it's his petty revenge for my lateness, because the curtains are closed, the loft is fucking dark, but what really disappoints me isn't the bumps and bruises I'm going to incur on the way to bed, it's the fact that it looks like I'm not getting any tonight.
I sigh and close and lock the door behind me, still as quietly as I can, and I don't turn on a light, either. I even toe off my shoes at the door, pretty much guaranteeing myself multiple stubbed toes in the darkness, so the heels won't click on the wooden floor. I mean, even if this is some petty payback from Jim, I won't repay him in kind. The dark, the minor injuries, okay, that's annoying. But a sudden flash of light on Sentinel eyes, an unexpected burst of sound into Sentinel ears, can really hurt Jim, and that's the one thing I will never, ever, ever do.
Besides, he may have just forgotten. It happens. Okay, okay, it's never happened before, Jim can be incredibly paranoid about protecting me from harm, even a stubbed toe, but it's not outside the realm of possibility.
So I'm cautiously making my way across the living room, sliding my feet, of course, arms outstretched, b-movie Frankenstein style. The back of the couch should be coming up in a few more steps, or is it a little more to the left? Shit. I've lived in this loft for over three years now, you'd think I'd know my way around the place.
And then, no sound, not even a whisper or a breath, two warm hands fasten on my shoulders from behind. I don't have time to feel fear or confusion - hell, I barely have enough time to feel surprised - before a familiar voice breathes in my ear, "Freeze, Chief."
I freeze. Oh, boy, do I EVER freeze. Instantly.
Just as I instantly come to a full rolling boil.
I know this mood. I WANT this mood.
Tonight I'm his.
"Don't move." A growling purr that reaches deep into my insides, grabs hold of my nerve endings and pulls.
I hold perfectly still. In fact, I barely breathe.
Damned good thing, too, because Jim's pulled the bottom of my shirt out of my pants, and suddenly I feel a coldness against my belly. Jim's army knife slides up through the silk of my shirt and I hold perfectly still. I'm trembling now, but not from fear. I don't even spare a second's thought to the fate of my nicest black silk shirt. Fuck the shirt.
Or better yet, fuck me.
The shirt's history. I never hear it hit the floor because Jim is busy divesting me of my pants. He pulls my belt loose with a single tug, button and zipper are open and down without the slightest fumbling. The pants drop, but I don't step out of them. I've been told not to move and by God, I'm not moving.
Once again, good thing, because almost immediately I feel the knife again, cold flat of the blade against my belly is the only warning I get before the blade slides under the waistband of my boxers. Kiss one pair of nice silk boxers goodbye. I don't flinch. I know Jim won't hurt me through carelessness or miscalculation.
If Jim hurts me, it will be because he wants to.
Because we want him to.
The boxers fall and the knife is withdrawn. One hand still on my shoulder but now it moves to the back of my head. Fingers tangle in my hair tightly, pulling my head back hard. Jim's breath in my ear again.
"Left foot up."
I obey and my foot's freed of my fallen pants. I keep my foot up with some difficulty; my balance sucks in the dark. Jim's hand in my hair is all that keeps me steady.
"Left foot down, right foot up. Good. Right foot down." The hand in my hair is withdrawn too. "Don't move."
Just like that, no touch, no breath, no sound. Jim could be a foot from me, ten feet, the other side of the loft, hell, out the door. But I know he's not out the door. He's looking at me. He's smelling me. He's listening to me. I'm wrong - he is touching me. He's touching me with his senses, and I can feel it all over my body like the most incredible, ethereal caress.
He doesn't wait long; if he's as hot as I am, and I'm sure he is, every second is an eternity. I don't have time to start wondering or worrying or, heaven forbid, cooling down, because that hand's back in my hair, even tighter than before. Even in this Jim's in control, because he's grabbed right in close against the scalp, maximum leverage, minimum pain. Precision. That's what my man is all about.
He pushes me forward and now I don't step hesitantly, don't slide my feet, don't grope ahead of me. I know Jim won't let me so much as stub a toe. Right now I can trust him to be the guide. A few more steps and he stops me. I guess we're somewhere in the vicinity of the sofa, but I don't reach out. Uh-uh, man. I know the rules. Then I feel the softness of the rug under my feet. We've gone completely around the sofa; now we're in front of it.
"Knees." Jim takes me down to the rug, but he doesn't stop when I'm on my knees. He bends me forward by his grip on my hair and I understand what he wants. I put my head down on the sofa cushions and spread my knees wide. Jim loves me like this. I love it like this.
Once I'm positioned to his satisfaction, Jim releases my hair. He grabs my wrists and guides them in front of me so I can brace myself against the back of the sofa. That means I'm going to be here a while, no rough quickie, or at least no quickie. I'm hard enough to punch holes in stainless steel and I'm definitely leaking. Oh, man, I'm in for it. I am SO in for it.
"Close your eyes." I obey just in time; even through my eyelids I can see that the lights just flipped on. I hope Jim got his sight dialled down in time. He must have, because he's back behind me. The light's not for me. I can't see a damned thing because my face is in the sofa cushions, plus my hair is all over the place, of course. The light's for Jim. Even he can't see much in near pitch darkness, and I guess he doesn't want to miss a single detail now.
Then I feel it again, oh, God, cold steel. It glides down the length of my spine, over the muscles of my back and shoulders. My entire skin turns to gooseflesh and my cock gains an impossible degree of hardness. I can imagine Jim running the flat of the blade over me, the shine of light on metal, bright steel against my sweaty skin. Knowing that every second he controls me, my pain, my pleasure, hell, even life and death.
And God, I'm loving every minute of it.
I'm already holding still, of course, but everything in me freezes, even my breath, when cold metal touches my right nipple, which of course immediately contracts into the hardest little point it can. Involuntary response, like my breath. This time it's not the flat of the blade touching me because the contact is way too narrow. I'm not afraid . . . exactly. But while I admit that we've played with his knife once or twice before, beyond cutting off clothes it's been limited so far to flat of the blade, non-sensitive areas only, and this is definitely way, way new.
Time stands still while Jim waits for my reaction.
I've got a safeword, for what it's worth. So does Jim. The difference is that Jim may one day actually get to use his. See, the thing is that 1) Jim can read my heartbeat and respirations and scent and, hell, maybe galvanic skin response, I don't know, like a two-inch front-page headline. If I'm getting too close to the edge, he knows it probably before I do. And then there's the fact that 2) If I ever said anything like "stop" or "don't" or "no," he'd stop instantly, probably involuntarily. Which is one reason I'm silent when we play this game. No rape-fantasy roleplaying with this guy, not my Blessed Overprotector. He can and will do just about anything under the sun to me as long as every single light on the board is reading green, but if there's the slightest flicker of red, even if it's a false alarm, man, the flight's over.
And now I start breathing again, carefully because, man, I've got a very sharp knife touching my nipple, and I'd prefer to leave the metal in the other one, thank you very much. I relax one muscle at a time. Behind me I hear Jim's low growl of pleasure.
I've just told Jim that all systems are go.
I hold perfectly still as I feel the metal slide over my chest, my abdomen, my belly. Jim's careful; it doesn't get tangled in my body hair. Sometimes I feel the edge, no pressure, just the sense of it. What can only be the very point circles my navel ever so slowly and I absolutely, absolutely refuse to let my stomach jump. My breath is coming in little hard pants, I could scratch tungsten steel with this erection, and I am so fucking alive at this moment, it's unbelievable.
Then a cold hard narrow line touches my cock just under the head and I freeze up again, of course. I mean, I'm already circumcised, okay? My cock is really leaking now, probably dripping on the rug, but boy, it is SO not twitching. I moan now, can't help myself, but there is no possible way that my Sentinel can possibly interpret that lust-laden helpless pitiful sound as any kind of "no" signal on my part.
"Don't move," Jim warns me needlessly.
Cold slides down the underside of my cock, flat side now, down, down, down (I am talking about the motion of the knife here, definitely, not the state of my cock, to which the words "flat" or "down" are totally inapplicable) all the way to my balls, which are so full and hot and tight that at the first narrow-edge touch I nearly scream, I'm so close to exploding.
Every nerve is singing, full orchestra, and I know the maestro behind me is pushing the limits of his control as far as he's pushing mine. I know he's holding back the beast by sheer willpower, hanging on by his fingernails. I feel the flat of the blade drift down the insides of my thighs like a goodbye kiss, and I think that's it, game over, but Jim has one trick left in the bag - I feel a touch of cold against my left nipple this time, he's slipped the point inside my nipple ring, and metal tugs against metal momentarily, enough to wring another pitiful moan out of me.
Then both warm hands, empty now, are on my ass, spreading me wide, and I know what's coming and whimper helplessly as the man with the miracle tongue goes for nuclear meltdown.
Jim loves rimming, much to my surprise. I mean, sure, I stay clean for him, but we're still talking Sentinel tongue here. Nonetheless, he goes for my ass the way he'd go for his first beer on a hot afternoon after jogging five miles. Maybe it's a kink on his part or maybe he just loves the ability to drive me totally gut-melting insane (that's my excuse when I do him). Either way, he loves it.
Do you hear me complaining?
I think not.
And he's so fucking good at it, which is also astonishing since he'd never done it before me. Well, okay, I'd never done it before either, and judging by Jim's reactions, I'm no slouch myself. I mean, I've always been damned good with my tongue, or so I've been told. But let's face it, going down on a woman bears little or no resemblance to rimming a man or giving a blowjob. Still, the basic principles remain the same - reading reactions, finding sensitive places, knowing how to pace the pleasure to my partner's needs and my own, learning what my partner loves the most. And Jim has the advantage of being able to read my nerve endings like a first-grade picture book.
And he knows his way around my ass as well as he knows the inside of the loft.
He can play me for hours this way, and once or twice he even has - little teasing cat-licks from my balls to the base of my spine, gentle nibbles and occasionally sharper nips all over my buttocks, slow loving laps, with pressure, over my perineum, never putting that fiendish tongue where I need it the most until I'm reduced to total lust-crazed insanity. I'd beg if I dared. I'd crawl, kiss his feet - did you know a Sentinel, at least my Sentinel, can come from having his toes sucked? - or, for that matter, any other body part. I'd clean the bathroom every night for a month. But I can't beg, crawl, kiss, suck or even bargain, and holding still and keeping quiet is even tougher than holding back my climax will be when Jim finally stops teasing and gets serious.
Which he does, thank God, with unusual rapidity; Jim must be as needy as I am. Without warning, I'm suddenly receiving the tongue-lashing of my life - outside, inside, everything in between. I go from desperate to insane in one stomach-dropping second. I'm not moving - at least I hope to God I'm not, because I know the rules, move and he'll stop - but my whole body's shaking and these pitiful little noises are coming out of my throat constantly now. In fact, thank God for the sofa cushion, which I'm biting.
Jim's six foot one inch tall. He has size 12 feet. His cock is just a shade over nine utterly lickable inches long (I measured). Imagine, if you will, the length of his tongue.
Lucky me, I don't have to imagine.
I know damned good and well that I'm not allowed to come until Jim does, but I'm about to spoil everything by doing so anyway, as has happened before when Blair Sandburg, far-from-immovable object, meets the irresistable force of Jim's tongue in his ass. Jim withdraws a split second before this catastrophe can occur, leaving me to struggle back from the edge in a series of moans, tremors, bodyquakes and gasps.
"Don't you dare come," Jim growls, and that tone alone nearly sends me over the edge, but I manage because I know what I'm in for if I obey. My balls are throbbing nuggets of fire, I came so close, but it'll all be worth it in the end. Hopefully in my end.
Fingers next. Only one at first, lavishly covered with lube despite the fact that his tongue has left me pretty damned wet and loosened up already. My Blessed Overprotector is always painstakingly careful when it comes to penetration, which I suppose is a good thing considering that he's shortly going to be inserting a cock that would make any stallion damned proud to possess.
His fingers are as magical as his tongue. I'm shuddering, whimpering, trying like hell to hold still while he takes my prostate on an introductory tour of heaven. Two fingers now, and I'm not holding still enough to suit him, so he whacks the left cheek of my ass hard with his free hand. I yelp and freeze and my cock damned near explodes because spanking is such a thing for me and for him too; once as a joke he wrestled me down and spanked me, and we both came, shocking the hell out of both of us.
Now he's got three fingers inside me, working them deep with lots and lots of lube, so much lube that I know I'm going to get it hard tonight and that suits me just fine. I'm begging now, no more keeping silent for me, I've reached the Blair Sandburg silence limit and then some, so a whole lot of "Oh, God, Jim, fuck me, gotta have it, please fuck me, split me wide open, please please pretty please fuck me, I'll do anything," is spilling out of my mouth between sounds that could be classified as language only by the broadest definition.
And Jim doesn't say a word, but I can hear him growling, a continuous low rumble, oh God am I in for it. And then the fingers are gone but I can feel him moving into place between my legs, and then oh YEAH his cock presses against me, just a second as fair warning, and then he shoves that monster into me with one smooth, steady push -
And we both freeze again, Jim to adjust to my tightness and my heat, me to adjust to the telephone pole that's just invaded my innermost recesses. And we both move from shock into pleasure at the same instant; I don't have to say a word and neither does he, we both feel it, not just body to body but soul to soul. One strong hand clasps my shoulder, the other twines into my hair, and I brace myself firmly against the back of the sofa; Jim withdraws slowly, slowly, almost completely from my body -
then he slams back in, all the way, and he growls and I cry out with incredulous pleasure, and the race is on, and by God, whoever reaches the finish line first, loses.
Jim throws control to the winds at times like this and so do I. He makes sounds I've never heard come from a human throat. I make sounds that never emerge from my vocal cords on any other occasion. He's going to leave bruises on my shoulder; I'm probably tearing the sofa cushion with my teeth and who the hell cares. He's giving it to me in deep hard slams, full throttle; I can't push back because of his grip in my hair, but my back is arching and my hips are writhing so hard I can hear my vertebrae crackle. We won't be able to keep up this pace for long, but we won't have to; I can feel both of us reaching critical mass here, the needle's way into the red and Jim's body is tensing up that way -
Then Jim cheats, he lets go of my shoulder and snakes his hand around under me, grabbing my cock and - oh my GOD that's the remains of my silk shirt in his hand, he's stroking my cock with fucking SILK, pumping away at it, not hard and rough like he's pumping my ass, but short intense little strokes right there just under the head where I can hardly stand the sensation of it, his thumb brushing the soft fabric over the very tip. And that's it, sorry folks, Blair Sandburg is gone, way gone, wave bye-bye, every muscle in my body spasms as the great-grandmother of all orgasms rolls through me from the tips of my toes to the ends of my hair and decimates everything in between. I'm screaming, oh boy am I ever screaming, but since my face is buried in the sofa cushion I'm only deafening the lint and straining my vocal cords. But the spasms still rolling through my body have done their work too, because I can feel that throbbing deep inside me that means that I've pulled Jim over the edge with me. He roars to the heavens as he comes, and the hot wet pulse of his come inside me and that sound are enough to pretty much start my climax over again, and folks, I'm here to tell you I'm pumping the last drops up from the bottom of the well, coming into Jim's hand and my ruined silk shirt, man, Woolite ain't gonna fix this one.
We collapse to the floor, both of us still shaking and shuddering out the last of our orgasms. As we fall, Jim still manages to take the brunt of the impact with the floor, cushioning my back against his chest. For a long moment we both just lay there on our sides, heaving big gasps of air, sweating like crazy, my hair in his face and his arm crushed under my rib cage. Then Jim lays the softest, most loving kiss between my shoulder blades and slowly, ever so carefully eases out of me. He's as gentle as he could possibly be, but I can't help a hiss of pain; he's big and we were rough tonight.
As always, Jim's got everything ready on the coffee table which he moved to the side earlier - warm water in a bowl, veeeerrrrrry soft cloths, etc. He tenderly wipes me clean and gently checks the merchandise for damage, which apparently there's none or he'd use some of the antibiotic ointment which I know is on the coffee table too. Instead he just smooths on a little soothing aloe cream and finishes cleaning me up, then gives himself a quick wipe-off too. He scoots me over slightly onto a soft blanket he's spread out. I let him roll me onto my stomach to give my rather-sore ass a rest; I know what comes next. My almost-favorite part. He stretches out beside me, head propped up on one hand. I open my eyes and find him gazing at me. There's such love in his eyes that I'm awed, I want to weep. I want to sing.
He still can't say the words, three months we've been together and they still just won't come out. It's okay. I know words aren't his medium of expression. But he tells me a hundred times a day how much he loves me. It's in his eyes, his smile, his posture. It's in the way he goes to three different grocery stores to find the granola I like best, the way he drives across town to pick up my favorite herbal tea when I've had a tough day. And most of all, it's in his hands.
His fingers touch me, slowly tracing my spine, and I smile. He can do that for hours, running his fingers over me, barely touching me, the lightest possible caress, like moonlight on my skin. Sometimes he does do it for hours; memorizing me, he says, the same way he can spend hours running nose or lips and tongue over me, cataloguing my taste, my scent. I have never felt so cherished in my life. I'm his partner, his best friend, his Guide, his soulmate, and I am loved. It doesn't matter that he can't say it. I have no doubts.
We're so one now, even more now than during sex. Perfectly synchronized even though we're barely touching. Our hearts beat together, our breaths sigh together in, out, in, out. When we get our breath back, he'll carry me upstairs to bed and curl up around me like a shield against the world. Tonight we'll share a dream, something vague and beautiful and mostly-forgotten in the morning, just a lasting aftertaste of togetherness that penetrates even into sleep. Tomorrow we'll wake at exactly the same instant, wake looking into each other's eyes, and we'll make love slowly, tenderly before the alarm goes off, me gently entering him because he won't so much as consider fucking me again for a few days after the riding he gave me tonight. Tomorrow we'll walk (me rather gingerly) into the station trying hard to hide the Jim-and-Blair-fucked-themselves-silly-last-night smiles, and that sense of togetherness, of perfect synchronicity, will stay with us for days. Suddenly, for no reason at all, we'll look up in the middle of doing something, and our eyes will meet, and we'll smile and think about tonight, and we'll have to carry our files low in front when we get up from the desk.
"How was the art show?" Jim whispers huskily after a few minutes of silent caresses, and I open my eyes again to savor the expression on his face: Drowsy, relaxed, contented, a little hazy. Probably the same expression I'm wearing.
"Great," I whisper back. I'll tell him about it in greater detail tomorrow, when I have the capability for organized thought. "Sorry I was late. Man, am I ever sorry I was late. If I'd known I had that waiting for me, I'd just have skipped the whole damned thing."
"Not too rough for you?" Jim's eyes hold just a hint of concern now, and I banish that real fast.
"It was perfect," I vow. I stretch - crackle of vertebrae again - and reach for one of the sports drinks Jim considerately had waiting on the floor within reach. As I turn, I glance at the couch to assess any possible spray damage, silk shirt notwithstanding. None. Smart Jim, he had a towel tucked under the sofa cushion and hanging down the front.
I also notice something else. There's a metal implement on the floor near the sofa, but it sure isn't Jim's army knife. It is, in fact, a spoon from our dinner set, one of the ones with a long straight metal handle.
The touch of which I thought was -
My jaw drops and I push myself quasi-upright. I see Jim's army knife now; it's sitting on the table just inside the door, where he used it to cut off my clothes.
Where he apparently left it before he pulled the bait-and-switch with the spoon.
I flop back down on the floor and roll into Jim's arms, trying to look outraged.
"You tricked me," I accuse. I spoil the effect by grinning.
Jim grins back.
"I should've hidden the evidence, I guess," he admits.
"Yeah, well, you'll never be able to use that trick again," I tell him.
The humorous sparkle in his eyes is instantly replaced by . . . wonder. Awe.
"I don't need to," he whispers, and I know what he means. I gave him a gift tonight, the gift of my absolute trust. I can see in his eyes just how precious that gift is.
For several minutes we ponder that one in silence, trading gentle caresses, soft kisses. Love. Trust. The shared beats of our hearts.
"That was . . . " Jim says softly.
"Yeah," I agree. "It sure was."
Then I grin.
"Hey, Jim? Aren't you going to that auto show with Joel next weekend?"
I reach over and give his short hair an experimental tug.
"Paybacks are a bitch, man," I say, and we both smile.
Sometimes we do things apart.
But we always come together again.