DISCLAIMER: Pet Fly Production and UPN own all rights to everything Sentinel; I'm merely taking the boys out to play. I promise to clean them up and return them in as-good-as-new condition when I'm through. Also, lyrics and rights to "Circles in the Sand" belong to Belinda Carlisle.
WARNING: NC-17 for extremely graphic m/m sex and language. If you're under 18, a congressperson, or don't like this sort of thing, go away. Shoo!
right after "Feeding Frenzy" (which it would be good to read, along with "Hunger", before reading this one). Life got weird though, and Jim didn't feel like talking about *feelings*. (sigh) I can't do a thing if the boys don't talk to me. (g) Many, many thanks to Joanne for beta-ing on such a short notice (it's a much better story when she does), and to Free and Mercury for the inspiration in the first place. Feel free to share this with whomever you wish, just keep the headers and don't make any money off of it, since I can't.
by Kim Gasper
"Sleep with me again tonight?" The question was tossed over his shoulder as he headed for the bathroom, but Jim Ellison slowed his pace fractionally, waiting for his roommate's response. It took a moment--a long moment in which he carefully noted the slight change in heart rate and respiration.
"Are we making this a regular thing? You know what happens when I stay with you."
Ellison paused in the hallway. "It's better now."
"Well, I don't know if I'd say 'better'...but it seems to have calmed down some." There was a hint of laughter in that rich voice and Jim focused on the twinkling blue eyes that couldn't hide expression or emotion.
"Yes or no?" He tried to hide the impatience, the longing, in his voice. They were supposed to just be friends...who were sleeping together. A buddy-fuck thing. Yeah, right.
"Yeah, man. You're better than an electric blanket any time."
Was there longing in Sandburg's voice? Jim wished he could tell for sure. "Okay, then," he muttered gruffly, trying to contain his relief. Why it mattered so much if Blair spent the night with him he couldn't say. Didn't really want to know. Not yet, anyway.
They were one week into *this* now. One week of "exclusiveness," sleeping--fucking? making love?--with only each other. Blair had spent five of the last seven nights with him, with them ending up curled around each other come morning. And those mornings... God help him, he hadn't sex this often since...well, since never, probably. Things weren't *quite* as frantic as they'd been a week ago, but they rarely missed an opportunity to get naked and proceed to try and screw each other senseless.
Maybe it was just a buddy-fuck thing and he just liked to have a
warm body curled next to him afterward. It did make the mornings
nicer to have that soft, pliant body thrown over his. Jim shook
his head and turned into the bathroom, definitely not ready to
explore the *whys* of all of this yet.
"Hey, Blair--wanna get a cup of coffee later?"
Jim's head jerked up at the sound of Liz's voice. The blond had been circling his partner for weeks, like a predator moving in on its prey. His heart thudded to a stop for a moment before beginning again--this time beating in a rapid staccato beat. To his relief Blair shook his head no.
"Can't, Liz. Got a previous commitment."
The young woman gave him a smile. "Maybe next time, huh?"
He watched Sandburg push her off with a charming smile and a flash of blue eyes. *Is that how he does it? Charm 'em to death?* "What commitment?" he asked softly.
"You know perfectly well what commitment," Sandburg replied, just as softly.
"We don't have to do it this way, Chief. If it's--"
"I'm fine with it." Blair paused and Jim saw his friend's face tighten. "Unless you have a problem--?"
"No. I like things the way they are."
"Oh. Okay. Cool." Blair flashed him a smile, then licked his lips, tongue moving suggestively.
"Don't even start, Junior. Way I'm feeling right now, I'd toss you on your back right here and shove myself up your ass so hard you'd see stars." He watched Blair swallow convulsively, a slow flush rising up his neck and face. "Gotcha," he whispered, a tinge of satisfaction in his voice.
"Bastard," Sandburg replied, without heat. "You're gonna pay for that later, man," the younger man continued, gesturing discreetly to his jeans, which were beginning to tent.
"I'm looking forward to it," Jim responded, feeling a slow burn start through his own system. He preferred that over the *other* burn that had gone through him a few minutes ago. Jealousy? Over a woman asking Blair out for coffee? What the fuck was up with *that*?
They bent their heads back over the paperwork, trying to pretend
that nothing was out of the ordinary.
"Fuck me, Jim! Harder...yeah, oh, yeah...YEAH! Harder, shove it in me..."
Jim gripped the slim hips harder, his fingers digging into the soft skin as he pounded into his partner. Blair met his thrusts, shoving back against him harshly. He could feel the younger man's body tensing beneath him and pulled Blair's ass tighter against him, slamming into him. "You like it like this, don't you," he growled.
"Oh...yeah..." Blair panted, "Fuck, yeah. Harder, babe...oh, god...Jim, I'm gonna...I'm...c-coming...Shhi-i-iii-i-t! Oh, Jim...OHHHHHH!!!!!"
"That's it, baby...oh yeah, come on...come for me...that's it...Ah!" Jim grunted as Blair's body tightened around his, the muscles clenching around his cock and spasming repeatedly. His own seed was released in a flood, bathing the hot channel grasping him.
They lay together on the bed, still joined, until Blair wiggled beneath him.
"Sorry," he apologized, rolling off and flopping onto his back. Blair rolled over and stared at him, eyes still dilated. Jim propped himself up on one elbow, staring down at his friend. "You're beautiful," he commented, surprised he'd let it slip out. A long finger traced over Blair's lips, bruised from his kisses. "You should see yourself. Swollen lips, glazed eyes, a 'just fucked' look," Jim's eyes flickered to over to the teeth marks on Blair's neck and he rubbed a finger across them.
Blair snorted. "That's beautiful? Man, you're warped."
"I did that to you. You're like that because *I* did it."
Understanding flooded the younger man's eyes. "I see," he whispered softly.
"Do you? I wonder. I'm not sure if *I* see..." Jim continued tracing a line with his finger, trailing it down the flushed body. If he tried just a *little* bit he could lose himself in this...and that was a terrifying thought. He ran his finger through the cum that had sprayed over Blair's chest and stomach, then brought the finger to his mouth, sucked on it. He caught Blair's shudder out of the corner of his eye.
"Don't start it again," Blair warned in a hoarse voice.
"I'm not starting anything." Jim smiled at Sandburg's discomfiture. "Let's go to sleep." He lay back down, still on his side, pulling the younger man close to him.
"Good idea." Blair snuggled into the embrace and closed his eyes.
It was only a few minutes before his breathing evened out into
the slow, even respirations of sleep and he curled further into
Jim. The bigger man held him close, wondering about the
feelings this man stirred in him. Protectiveness, jealousy,
lust. Friendship. And a few others that skirted around his
brain, causing his natural defenses to spring to action. Trouble
was, he didn't think those defenses were going to be enough this
A little over two weeks into the new arrangement Jim started noticing some subtle changes in things--in how he and Blair acted toward and with each other.
The biggest and most obvious change was that it had become routine for Blair to go to bed with him at night. He no longer asked nightly and Blair no longer headed toward his own room. They just got ready for bed and climbed the stairs together.
Going to bed together no longer necessarily meant they were going to have sex. Not that they didn't *continue* to have sex on what Jim could only consider a Herculean scale, but not *every* *single* *night*, like they had been doing. Some nights they simply laid there, snuggling close to each other or spooning against each other, talking quietly about whatever they hadn't covered at dinner or in the hours before bed. They covered most every topic under the sun, with the exception of two: Where this arrangement was going...and what the future held for them.
There were other changes as well, Jim mused as he thought about it. Kisses, for example. Until just recently, kissing Blair was something he did when they were fucking, or perhaps as a prelude to sex. Now he found himself kissing the other man in the morning when they woke up--just a quick, 'good morning' kiss; sometimes kissing him hello in the evenings if they'd spent the day apart; sometimes just kissing him for the hell of it. And it felt good. He loved leisurely exploring his partner's mouth, with its subtle blend of flavors and textures... He sighed. He craved it just thinking about it.
And speaking of cravings... He'd come to *need* to touch Blair.
Cuddles, snuggles, hand-holding. Not all the time, but a lot.
Driving down the road, sitting on the couch, watching a movie.
It was becoming second nature to snuggle together, sharing a bowl
of popcorn and a beer, bodies touching, fingers entwined. He
found himself feeling very tender toward Blair on occasion and
wondering if the feeling was reciprocated. Based on Blair's
responses to his actions, and the younger man's own actions, he
suspected it was.
Jim rolled over, caught in that shadowy place between wakefulness and sleep, uncertain what had woken him. The man beside him sighed heavily in his sleep and snuggled deeper into the embrace holding him, and Jim came the rest of the way awake.
He'd had the dream again. This made the fourth night in a row. It wasn't exactly a bad dream--certainly not like some of the nightmares that had plagued him after being recovered from Peru; it wasn't a fantastic dream--like winning the lottery. It was just a dream. The fact that he'd had it so often now was beginning to bug him.
He'd tried describing it to Blair that first morning, but the images were already fading from his mind even as he spoke. Now they were clear, fresh--firmly imprinted on his brain (or was it the back of his eyelids?). He and Blair, walking down a road, holding hands. Nothing earth shattering about that--they'd held hands before. But this...this was different. They walked down the road until they came to a fork, then stood there, looking down the two different roads in front of them, almost frozen with indecision. Always, just as Jim was about to take a step toward one of the roads, he woke up. Just like tonight. At least his heart wasn't pounding so badly this time.
He made a small noise in the back of his throat, almost a whimper, as he realized what the dream must mean, what he--they-- were going to have to do.
'Am I ready for this? Is he? Where do we go from here? I need him...want him...can I admit to the other?'
It'd been a month since that explosive encounter at the Desert Oasis, and each time they had sex together it was just as intense as the first time.
There was something missing from the equation though, something his subconscious was obviously trying to tell him. What was sex without love? Well, what if you had strong affection? Lately he'd found himself gravitating more and more toward Blair, toward the stability his partner offered for him. He snorted slightly at that thought. Sandburg and stability? Who'd have ever thought he'd combine those two words in the same sentence? But it was *true*. Blair gave of himself, and had given Jim *back* himself.
And never mind the absolutely mind-blowing, fan-fucking-tastic sex that they shared together. He'd never had a lover before who was *so* in tune with him, so *right* for him. They fit together as if made solely for each other. 'And we fit ourselves together as often as we can possibly manage,' he thought ruefully, still feeling the sting from several bites Blair had placed on his shoulders earlier in the evening.
He could mark when the dreams, and his continuing introspection,
began; it'd been five days since his guide had narrowly missed
getting his head blown off when a stray bullet winged past him...
"Sandburg! Get your ass *down*!" he screamed at the top of his lungs, moving toward the smaller man at a dead run. "Get down, dammit! Drop!"
He'd been too far away--he thought. But a flying leap and an incredible amount of luck served him well. He grabbed Blair by the waist and threw his partner down under him onto the pavement. The bullets slammed harmlessly into the car behind them.
He'd managed not to lose it until they were back at the loft, excused from duty for the next 24 hours. Then he grabbed Blair, shoved him up against the door that had just swung shut behind them, and devoured him with his mouth. He held the younger man, felt him shaking, felt his own body shaking. It was a cathartic release, taking him that first time. Rough, hard, almost mindless possession, seeking to confirm through physical contact that Blair was okay.
It wasn't until after he'd assured himself that there were no marks hidden, and he'd left his own marks, that he eased his bruising grip on the smaller man, holding him against him rather than clutching him tightly.
"I'm okay, Jim," Blair had murmured over and over again, while his fingers stroked over the short hair, rubbing Jim's scalp. "I'm not hurt, nothing happened."
"I almost lost you. What would I do without you?" He tangled his fingers into rich, soft curls, his mind seeking the oblivion of a zone-out. They never occurred when he could have benefited from one.
"Jim..." Blair had grasped his head and tilted it back, began
brushing soft, gentle kisses across his face. "I'm fine, babe.
Just fine. Let me show *you* now..."
Lying in bed at 2:30 in the morning, woken by a strange dream that wouldn't go away, Jim groaned out loud with that particular memory. That had been the first, and so far, only, time he'd turned over for Blair, equalizing their physical relationship. He'd bottomed before, but not often...and Blair seemed perfectly happy to let him top. He really preferred it, though there was something to be said for submitting to someone else, giving up control and allowing yourself to be possessed, taken.
A soft exhalation interrupted his thoughts and he shifted his gaze to see Blair rolling over to face him, smokey-blue eyes vibrant even with the mist of sleep over them. "Wha's up? Jim?"
Jim dropped a kiss on Blair's head. "Shhh...go back to sleep, Chief. I didn't mean to wake you..."
Blair shook himself slightly. "Nah...c'mon, Jim. Something's wrong to wake you in the middle of the night." he squinted at the clock. "What time is it, anyway?"
"Just after 2:30."
"What is it, that dream again?"
"Yeah." Jim sighed and Blair moved deeper into his arms, lips nuzzling at his collarbone. The big man arched into the touch, ran his hands up and down the smooth skin of Blair's back, holding him close. "Ah, god, you feel so good, baby. I love how you make me feel..."
"I love making you feel that way," was the muttered reply as a warm tongue stroked across his skin.
Jim scooted down and rolled them over, pinning Blair beneath him, his lips already searching for his guide's. A warm mouth opened willingly for him, a soft, satiny tongue greeted him. He could still taste their pleasure from earlier--hints of semen from both of them, salt, sweat, a musk that must have come from him. The tastes rolled into each other until Jim couldn't tell where one stopped and the next started. He rested his weight on his elbows and tangled his fingers deep into the incredible sensuousness of Blair's curls, the silky strands tickling at his fingertips. His partner's head cupped firmly in his hands, Jim drew away from the kiss and began a gentle worship of Blair's face.
He heard the low gasp as he started sprinkling random kisses across Blair's face; first on his nose, moving to an eyelid, tracing down a cheekbone. He tasted with his lips and tongue, creating a mental map, following it to find the next spot of sweetness. A tongue brushed softly across eyelashes elicited a soft moan, as did the lips that nuzzled at sideburns.
Jim catalogued each sound, taste, texture, his mind transferring the raw data into a crystal-clear image of Blair. He traced around kiss-swollen lips with the tip of his tongue, then licked a path across Blair's jawbone, noting the roughness of morning whiskers. The texture of those whiskers changed the further down Blair's throat he went, smoothing out and disappearing as he reached the Adam's apple bobbing so temptingly in front of him. Blair groaned as he licked across the tender bump, then suckled it.
His own body was responding to the breathy moans, whispers and quiet pleas; he was hard and throbbing against his partner, his cock demanding release. Jim growled as Blair arched against him, brushing their erections together.
"Want you..." the younger man breathed into his ear, the warm, moist breath tickling his skin.
"I want you too, baby...to know that you're mine when you come...when I thrust in to you...when you call my name. I want you, body and soul..."
"I'm already yours, Jim," Blair whispered breathlessly.
It was a magical spell they were weaving around themselves, combining heat and friction, and coupling it with the emotions that were laid out in the open, if yet unnamed. Vulnerable from his dream and lulled by the quiet dark of early morning, Jim felt an ache building inside him that had nothing to do with the physical needs of his body. He buried his face in Blair's neck, sucking hard, biting down, seeking to mark him in some way. To show ownership and bind them together. Blair's arms encircled him, pulling them tightly together, the younger man nearly sobbing from the mix of pleasure and pain that Jim's mouth and teeth were creating.
As he drew back Jim could feel the heat emanating from the mark he'd left on Blair's neck. The blood had risen to the surface of the skin, causing a bright, stinging blush there. He licked it gently, hearing Blair's quiet moan.
"Mine," he stated again, before delving back into Blair's mouth, his ears picking up the quiet hiss of agreement before the rest of the response was muffled by his kiss.
He shifted so he was partially straddling the smaller man, removing some of his weight. His hands began a gentle exploration of the rest of the supple body beneath him, stroking gently down the throat and neck, moving on to shoulders and arms. He covered a nipple with one hand, felt the heat rising as it contracted beneath his touch, forming into a tight little bud. Blair groaned at the touch--Jim wasn't *doing* anything, just holding the palm of his hand over him.
"What's wrong, baby?" Jim left Blair's mouth, his own quirking with a slight smile as his partner wiggled beneath him. The smile turned to a groan of his own as the sensual movement stimulated his already over-sensitive penis.
"Touch me..." the younger man begged in a rough voice. "Do something...don't just stay there like that..."
"You mean like this?" Jim plucked lightly at the tender bud, feeling Blair's groan reverberate through his own body. "Or this?" he rolled the nipple between his fingers, felt it tighten even more. Blair moaned his agreement. "Or maybe this..." Jim breathed against the heated bit of flesh, his tongue darting out to flick across the hard little point. Blair arched toward him, drawing his head down.
"Yeah..." he panted, "like that..., god, please..."
The larger man covered Blair's breast with his mouth, sucking both nipple and areola fiercely. Blair arched upward again, groaning, his fingers brushing through Jim's hair as he searched for something to grab on to. Jim released him, running his tongue rapidly across the swollen bud, then kissing a path across to the other nipple where the gold ring glittered. This nipple was already stiff from excitement, the soft tissue engorged. Jim ran his tongue across it gently, knowing Blair was much more sensitive here. He felt his partner quiver as he suckled tenderly, tongue circling both the nipple and the ring.
His fingers continued their tactile exploration, brushing across the tight muscles of Blair's abdomen, stroking the soft skin and softer hair. He picked up on the subtle difference in texture between the hair on Blair's chest and the hair that arrowed downward beneath his navel--the change in heat and diffusion of that heat the lower he stroked. The skin stretched over Blair's swollen cock was hot and silky, thinner than anywhere else. He could feel the blood flowing under his fingers, pulse pounding as Blair arched into his hand. He stroked once down the hot shaft before letting go, his thumb rubbing tenderly over the tip that was wet from pre-cum.
"Jim..." It was more of a whimper than anything else, a rough, raw sound.
"You're killing me...I want to touch you..."
"Who's stopping you?" His tongue was tracing the path his fingers had just taken and the words were spoken against sensitive skin. Blair writhed under him, breath coming in short, sharp pants as Jim dipped his tongue into his belly button.
"God...I can't...p-please...oh, *yeah*!..."
The tongue that had circled Blair's navel moved on, following the line of hair to the pubic bush that framed the stiff, pulsating cock. He licked his way up the shaft, then lapped at the weeping tip, probing the tiny fissure there with his tongue. Blair moaned incoherently, head thrashing back and forth as Jim pulled back slightly, just enough to breath hot, moist air over the tip before drawing it into his mouth. He looked up to see Blair with his head thrown back, fingers scrabbling at the sheets. A deep breath and he opened his mouth, taking the entire hot length of Blair's dick into him.
Blair screamed and thrust upward, driving himself deeper into the waiting mouth, coming in hard pulses.
The hot creamy fluid flooded Jim's mouth and he drank it in greedily, swallowing several times to get it all. This was the pure essence of Blair--salty, sweet, bitter, and something that he craved like a junkie needing his next fix. Blair's moans as his throat muscles caressed the sensitive organ were like music to him and his own hard cock twitched again. It was only going to take one touch before he'd lose it--best to block those noises best he could.
He sucked and licked the soft penis, caressing it with light touches, felt it stir slightly against his tongue. The blood flow to the organ increased as he ran his tongue around the head, circling under it, stroking the glans, and Blair's heartbeat picked up speed, attesting to his rising arousal.
Blair was boneless beneath him except for his rapidly engorging cock, allowing himself to be rolled over onto his stomach. He roused a bit and pulled his knees up under himself, shivering under the gentle stroking as Jim smoothed his hands down the long back and over and around the soft asscheeks, kneading and caressing. He ran a finger down the shadowy cleft until he found the entrance to Blair's body, then rubbed gently back and forth over the small knot of muscle that was already relaxing under his touch. A quick grope under his pillow for the tube of lubricant and he was sliding a finger into the welcoming heat of Blair's passage. A second finger followed, moving slowly, stretching out the muscle. He withdrew his fingers and added more lube, rubbing some into the pucker itself then moving his fingers back in, watching with hot eyes as Blair began pushing back against him.
Jim rubbed his fingertips over the prostate, smiling when Blair's body jerked and his friend cried out in pleasure. He leaned down then, still fucking the fingers in and out slowly, rotating them, and began licking the tempting asscheeks. Blair moaned as Jim changed the licking to tiny nips, pushing back on the fingers that were still inside him.
"What do you want?"
"You," Blair moaned as the fingers picked up a little speed. "Inside me. C'mon, babe, don't make me beg..." He gave a ragged cry when Jim pulled his fingers out.
"Shhh--I'll be right back..." Jim leaned down and kissed the little rosebud before reaching for the lube again.
He smoothed the lube on his aching cock and spread Blair's cheeks wide, exposing the rosy pucker. His cock throbbed as he pressed up against the hot skin. Blair pushed back against him and Jim watched as his cock was swallowed by the hungry body.
"God...you feel so good..." he groaned as he sheathed himself completely.
Blair moaned a wordless reply and pushed his ass up. Jim stroked himself faster in and out, feeling his body hanging on the edge. It wasn't going to take much... Blair's body tightened around him and he opened his eyes, watched the muscles rippling under smooth skin as his partner stroked himself. He placed a hand on Blair's arm, stilling him.
"No--I want you to do me after this..."
"Oh, god--" Blair shuddered under him and he felt the internal muscles in the hot passage tighten once again.
"Shit, Blair...god, baby--"
His partner looked over his shoulder at him. "Let it go, Jim-- come in me...come on, babe..."
"Yes--" Jim grabbed Blair's hips in both hands and began slamming into him, Blair pushing back to meet each hard thrust with equal measure.
"C'mon, Jim...do it..."
"Yes! Yesyesyesyes...YES!!!!" He thrust in hard with each syllable, holding himself deep inside with the last one, waves of pleasure rising over him and swirling around him. He released his hot seed into Blair, satisfied whimpers escaping him as Blair continued to tighten and relax his muscles, milking him.
He withdrew and lay back on the bed, body still twitching from small aftershocks. Blair moved over him, mouth opening his, tongue searching. He felt a slick finger probing him and opened his legs, drawing them up. Blair fucked his mouth and his ass at the same time, arousing and readying him. By the time that hot mouth had left his and moved down to cover his nipples, his cock was beginning to stir again.
"Come on baby, fuck me," he groaned when a wet tongue slid across a sensitive nipple. "I wanna feel you in me."
"Have to get you ready," Blair muttered, a raw edge to his voice.
"I am ready--just do it. Stick it in...c'mon, Chief."
Blair moved in between Jim's legs, spreading them open further. A sudden heat pressed against him, then he felt the familiar ache as he was stretched and filled, the pulsing cock moving into him, invading him in the most intimate of ways. He groaned when Blair pulled out then thrust back in hard, his body stretching to accommodate, clenching around the hard dick. He could feel the blood pulsing through both their bodies, only a few layers of thin skin separating them. The tip of Blair's cock bumped against his prostate and he growled as the sensations rippled through his body.
"Not...much longer..." Blair panted, leaning down to nip at his lips. "Can't...wait..."
"Go on, baby," he encouraged, pushing upward. "I'm not gonna do much..." His body was loving the sensations and he was even hard, but he'd be very surprised if he managed to come. He stroked himself, moving faster to keep Blair's rhythm. "Come on, baby. Give it to me! Fuck me...harder, Blair...harder! Come on!" He thrust up against the other man, tightening, drawing him in. He heard the sudden shift in respiration and heart rate, heard the sudden rush of fluids through his partner's body. The cock filling him hardened imperceptibly, then spasmed. Liquid warmth bathed his passage and the rhythmic contractions of the cock inside him spread outward to his own straining dick. The familiar feeling moved over him as his balls tightened and his cock stood up more stiffly. He thrust upward against his hand once, twice, and several small spurts of liquid flowed over his hand.
Jim lay back on the pillow, panting, his body still spasmodically arching upward. Blair withdrew and fell to the side with a small moan, curling into him. He winced slightly as he shifted, moving his arm to gather the smaller man close, sighing in contentment.
A quiet chuckle caught him just about dozing off. "Man, we are gonna be *so* sore in the morning."
"It *is* morning, Chief."
"Later, morning. When we wake up again."
"What day is it, anyway?" He sighed again as Blair draped an arm over his chest, cuddling full against him.
"You mean today? This morning? Saturday."
"So we don't have to get up for work."
"No, we don't," Blair began. "Jim, what's wrong?"
"Nothing. But we need to talk."
"Can you tell me about the dream?"
"Not right now," Jim paused to yawn. Their nocturnal activities were catching up to him and he could barely keep his eyes open. "Later, though. Definitely. Maybe drive up to Eagle Pass? Camp out tonight?"
"I'd like that," Blair said slowly. "I--"
"It's okay, Chief. Nothing has to change. But we need to talk about it."
Jim felt Blair relax against him but knew from his breathing that he was still awake. He turned slightly, tilted the younger man's head back. Blue eyes gazed up at him, wide, trusting. Amazing how it only took a look from this man to turn him to jelly inside. Or to make him hot enough to spontaneously combust. "Trust me," he murmured, stroking his thumb across the full lower lip. He looked at Blair a moment longer then lowered his head and covered that delectable mouth with his own.
It was a gentle kiss--not meant to arouse, but rather to comfort, to soothe. He explored Blair's mouth slowly, tenderly, trying to convey all his feelings to his partner. He wasn't uncertain any longer--he needed this man...he loved him. Now he just needed to figure out how to tell him.
He drew back from his partner and placed soft kisses on each closed eyelid, then on his forehead. "Go to sleep, Chief. We'll talk tomorrow...but everything will be all right."
Blair relaxed fully into his embrace and they stroked each other
softly, easing back into sleep.
It was raining when he woke up to a dark gray sky, the room cast the in shadow. A quick glance at the clock showed that it was past ten a.m.--it seemed a lot earlier than that. Blair was curled up on his side, facing away from Jim, his head tucked down against his chest. Jim shook his head. No matter how many times he woke up and saw that position, it still amazed him simply because it looked too uncomfortable to permit sleeping. He shifted and the aches in his body pulled a groan out of him. Blair stirred next to him.
"Time to get up?" a sleepy voice questioned.
Jim turned and pressed a kiss to warm lips. "Only if you want to. It's raining, so we're not going out."
"Think I'll sleep a little more..."
"Okay, baby." He pressed another kiss to unresisting lips, running his tongue quickly across them. Blair always tasted good, even first thing in the morning. He couldn't get enough of him...
He drew up short at that--it fed right into his thoughts about the conversation they needed to have today. It was about time to start being honest with himself. He needed Blair. He *couldn't* get enough of him--*all* of him probably wouldn't be enough. But it would be a good place to start. He had Blair's body...he also wanted his heart.
Ellison made his way down the stairs and headed for the kitchen. He put a pot of coffee on to brew and snagged a large glass of orange juice before continuing on for the bathroom. 'A hot shower. A *very* hot shower.' Man, he smarted in places he didn't remember having. His ass hurt if he moved a certain way and just ached dully in general. He wondered idly how Blair felt--he'd been taking it *very* regularly for a month now. The bites on his shoulder itched and, god, he was thirsty. Still. He filled his empty juice glass with tap water and downed it, then adjusted the water temperature and spray on the shower and got in.
The hot water felt good, soothing his achy muscles. He soaped up, noticing he was ultrasensitive right now; he could feel each individual soap bubble as they glided across him. The slick feel of the bubbles as they moved over him, almost caressing him, was sensual enough to stir the ashes of arousal into a tiny flame. His body felt heavy, languid, and when he ran soap-slicked fingers down his cock, stroking slowly, he could feel the blood flow increasing, slowly engorging soft tissues. The texture of his skin and the pattern of heat diffusion changed as his cock stiffened. He closed his eyes to better feel the sensations.
"Need some help with that?" a husky voice asked.
Jim whirled around, eyes flying open. "Jesus, don't do that!"
"Hey, man, it's not often I can catch *you* off guard. What were you doing? Zoning?"
He shook his head. "Just--focusing inward."
"Yeah, right," Blair laughed. "Soooo...." he drawled. "The offer still stands. Need some help?"
"No," Jim smiled. "I wasn't really going anywhere with it--just kind of felt good. I'm too tender right now to do much."
"Yeah, me too." Blair grimaced as he stepped into the shower with his partner. "I think it finally happened. You fucked me raw."
Jim ran his eyes down the lean body in concern. "You're not hurt are you?"
Blair sighed. "No--I was kidding, Jim. Geez, man, lighten up. I'm sore, but that's all. I'll be fine by this afternoon." The smaller man stepped close to Jim and curved his arms up around the large body. "Morning, lover," he whispered, close against Jim's lips.
Ellison groaned as the warm, moist air flowed over his sensitive mouth. He could feel the different directions the currents moved the moisture, how the air hit his lips at different angles. "Morning," he managed before lightly pressing their mouths together.
The kiss deepened for a moment as they tasted each other fully, then both men pulled away, smiling at each other.
"I turned the radio on upstairs when I saw the rain," Blair began as he ducked under the spray to wet his hair. "They're predicting snow for later tonight. I guess the temp is as high as it's gonna get for today, and it's gonna start dropping steadily pretty soon."
"So much for driving up to Eagle Pass," Jim shifted around his partner and snagged the soap once more.
"Pass me my shampoo, would ya? Thanks. Yeah, that was kinda what I thought, too. Snowed in at home is one thing; snowed in up there is something else. 'Specially in a tent. Ick." Blair gave a theatrical shudder and Jim smiled.
"You should live in the Bahamas, Chief, not Washington."
"Tell that to my advisor."
They were quiet for a moment as they concentrated on washing, Jim finishing first. He moved the curtain aside. "We need to make our plans for the day anyway. You almost done?"
"Be out in a minute," the younger man promised.
It was actually closer to ten minutes before his partner appeared. He hadn't shaved, and as he walked past Jim to retrieve his jeans the older man grabbed him and rubbed several fingers across the stubble.
"Goin' for the rough-and-ready look, Chief?"
Blair relaxed, leaning into the light touch. "Nah--just didn't feel like shaving right now is all."
Jim's fingers continued their journey across Blair's face, rubbing the rough-soft whiskers. "I like it," he said in a low tone. "It suits you." A fine tremor ran through Blair's body and Jim felt the echo pass through him. He tilted Blair's face up toward his and lowered his head, brushing his lips lightly across his partner's. A tiny whimper came from Blair as his head turned, seeking the lips that were gone now. Jim brushed his lips over the other man's once again, then a third time. On the next pass he sealed their mouths together, pressing softly. Moist, warm lips opened for him and the sweetness within beckoned.
More soft whimpers from Blair--or were they his now?--as their arms twined about each other, drawing the other instinctively closer. The kiss stayed soft, easy. It was a lazy, thorough exploration that spoke of love and intimacy, not sex. An ache grew in Jim's chest, intensifying with each moment that he and Blair stayed entwined. He broke the kiss but pulled Blair closer to him, folding him into his arms, pressed against his chest--his heart.
They stood there for a long time, unaware of anything but each other. Jim closed his eyes to fully savor the moment--Blair warm against him, just holding him.
"Can you tell me about the dream now?"
Jim sighed and drew away from Blair. He smoothed still-damp curls back from the beautiful face and smiled. "How about we get some breakfast, and I'll tell you about it while we eat? I'm starved."
His partner reached for him, pulling him close again for another hug. "I didn't mean you had to let go...I'm just curious." Jim felt the arms around him tighten and he brought his own up to return the squeeze.
Both their stomachs chose that moment to rumble and the two men
"Okay, man, I've been patient. Talk to me." Blair watched as Jim finished a mouthful of waffles, pushing his own food around on his plate.
Jim arched an eyebrow at him. "Persistent little bugger, aren't you? I guess it's not that big a deal--it seems worse when I'm dreaming it. More intense, I suppose. Anyway, it's like this. We're walking down a road together and we reach a fork where there're two directions we can go. I take a step toward one road--and I always wake up at that point."
"Are we doing anything besides just walking?"
"What d'you mean?" Jim frowned as he considered the question.
"Are we talking, or gesturing, or anything that would give you an indication of another layer of meaning?"
"We're holding hands."
"Yeah. Holding hands. Like this." He picked up Blair's hand and twined their fingers together, his thumb stroking across the top of the smaller hand.
Jim leaned back in his chair but didn't release his hold on Sandburg's hand. "'Oh'? That's all you're gonna say?"
"I'm thinking," Blair's reply sounded a little defensive.
"Well, while you're thinking, Professor, I'm gonna start a fire. It's kind of chilly in here." He squeezed the hand before releasing it, then pushed his chair back and headed for the fireplace. "Hey," he added, looking over his shoulder, "Are we okay on groceries? In case we get snowed in?"
Blair looked over the counter. "Yeah, I picked some up the other night. Remember? You had a stakeout?"
"Yeah, yeah. Okay."
He set the logs and kindling, then added some newspaper. The match caught the first try and Jim leaned back on his heels to breathe in the strangely soothing smell of woodsmoke. What was he going to say? He'd been so close this morning--had nearly blurted out 'I love you' when he and Blair had been hugging. Was this where they were going? Were supposed to go? It felt so right to hold his partner in his arms, to kiss him and give him pleasure. It wasn't just about the sex--though that was great. He felt like he'd found the other half of himself--physically, emotionally...spiritually, in some ways. Being with Blair, regardless of the activity, made him feel whole, pure, loved.
"Jim?" A gentle touch on his shoulder brought him out of his reverie. "You okay, man?"
"Mmhmm. Just thinking."
"A lot of things, Chief. That dream...you...us."
"Let's go back to the dream, huh? I don't think you've told me everything about it."
"There wasn't much else to it. I wake up at the same point every time."
"C'mon, let's give it a try anyway." Blair stretched a hand out and Jim took it, allowing the younger man to provide support while he stood up. "Couch?"
"Yeah. Stay...next to me?"
"Hadn't planned on going far," Blair replied with an intense look. "I don't plan on ever going far."
Jim shivered at the fire burning in those incredible eyes, at the emotion surging through the rich, warm voice. "I think the reason I wake up at that same point is because I *know* what the choices are: we continue on like this--friends having sex, or we take that final step..." he trailed off. It was still hard to say it. He'd been hurt so badly in the past when he opened himself up, it was hard to *willingly*, *knowingly* make himself that vulnerable again.
"Take that final step and admit what we've known for weeks now?"
Jim closed his eyes and nodded. He opened them when Blair pushed him gently down onto the couch. The younger man seated himself, cuddling against Jim. Ellison sighed when he was surrounded by Blair's scent, heartbeat, breathing. These were sounds he now equated to love and security. Nothing felt as right as when Blair was in his arms, or at least snuggled close.
"You know, it's okay to be scared by this, Jim. God knows it's been scaring me to death for a while now."
"Why's it been scaring me that long, or why in general?"
Jim snorted in amusement. Trust Sandburg to complicate things. "Yes to both questions, I guess." 'Maybe if I let him talk, I'll be able to.'
"Well, it's a little more complicated than just a 'because...' answer." Blair smiled and turned a little to face Jim. "I went there that night because I was hurting, man. I wanted--you. Had wanted you for a while. Didn't have any reason to believe you swung both ways, so what was the use, right? So anyway, there I was, had just fended off this guy who wanted to dance-- horizontally, if you take my meaning--and I turn around and there you are. Up in my face, no less. 'Sandburg, what're you doing here', or something like that. Man, I can't *tell* you what a shock it was to see you there. To see you dressed like you were. I was ready to pounce on you and beg you to fuck me on the spot."
"So why didn't you?" Jim teased gently, smoothing curls back from Blair's forehead. His partner made a face at him.
"Yeah, right. Like I would try that? For all I knew you were on an undercover assignment and I'd be looking for a new apartment come morning." Blair paused and took a deep breath. "When you asked if I was hitting on you, then told me that you'd make it worth my while, man, you could've knocked me over then and there. And the sex... Jesus, Jim. I get hard just thinking about that night. And considering some of the nights--and days!--we've had since then, that's saying a lot. Then you tell me it's not just sex for you. Man, I'm like still freaking out over the *sex* at that point, and you go and say something like that..." Blair broke off, shaking his head.
"I wasn't trying to shock you--just let you know it meant something to me. Something more than *just* sex." Jim frowned briefly. "But the whole thing has always been more than just sex, hasn't it? I mean, we have this mind-blowing physical connection...like we can't get enough of each other. I see you, smell you, whatever, and have to have you. It's almost like instinctual behavior."
"See? Man, that freaks me out too. Do you have any idea how weird it is to want you *so* bad, *all* the time? Yeah, I guess you would," Blair added at Jim's wry look. "But it's *not* just a physical thing. I want *you*. I want all of you. I told you that first night that you're mine. I meant it, Jim. There's more than just a physical connection...it's like a soul-mate thing."
Jim started in surprise at that. "*You're* starting to scare me here, Chief. I was just thinking about how you make me feel whole...like you're the other piece that completes me."
Blair smiled at him then. "I've felt that way about you almost since I met you, Jim. I fell in love with you a long time ago...I just never thought I'd be able to have more than a friendship-based love. I started sublimating so long ago I can hardly remember when or what form it took." He paused again, eyes shifting toward the ceiling. "You asked me to sleep with you that first night, remember?" He waited for Jim's nod, then continued, "Did you ever wonder why I was so hesitant? Through that whole first week, it was almost like I was dragging my feet."
"I did wonder. You seemed to enjoy the sex..."
"Oh yeah. Oh, man, yes. No, dragging my feet on *sleeping* with you had more to do with wanting you--all of you--right then and there. I was afraid I'd say or do something that would push things, and totally mess up what we *did* have. I didn't want to do that. I wanted--needed--to take things as slow as you needed to, 'cause I didn't want to fuck things up. You mean too much to me...and I knew if we--if I--blew it, there wouldn't be a second chance."
Jim closed his eyes again, seeing the flickers from the fireplace on the backs of his eyelids. With them open, all he could see was Blair--the soft curls (now he knew how soft they really were), eyes so blue the ocean should feel inadequate, a body that was lean, trim and compact--and could send him to his knees begging, a mind so quick and facile that he sometimes felt slow and clumsy in comparison. He closed his eyes again, against the distractions. He needed to focus on what he wanted to say. Gathering his thoughts and his courage he opened his eyes to see pure love shining from the smokey-blue depths in front of him. He took Blair's hand in his own.
"I've been attracted to you for a while--it would be hard not to be," he added, enjoying the slow flush that moved up Blair's face. "You're beautiful enough to make angels jealous. But it's not just physical...you're beautiful here--" he tapped Blair's chest, "and in here," he tapped his head. "I've had feelings for you for some time...that's what that night was all about for me. I wanted you so bad... I had to find someone, get the itch out, I thought. I couldn't imagine *you* swinging both ways...anyway. Having you was a dream come true for me...but it went so deep. What I felt after we had sex was...I don't know. I don't know how to describe it. It wasn't love, I don't think. Not quite then. More like a deep caring. Affection." He looked away from Blair, noted the steady throb of his partner's pulse beneath his fingers. "I also knew I didn't want to wake up the next morning alone. So I asked you to sleep with me. And I enjoyed it. Just having you--your warmth--was good. And so it went. I started needing to have you there with me...in my arms, next to me, whatever. I had to have you."
"So you asked me every night to sleep with you."
"Until we got so used to it that it became second nature for you to join me for bed." Jim nodded his agreement. "Then I wanted more. I wanted to taste you--not just for sex...but for the pleasure of it. I wanted to hold you, give you a hug. Comfort you. Kissing you became something more than just a prelude to sex." Jim was quiet for a long moment, then he grabbed Blair's other hand, gripping both tightly. "I don't know when I fell in love with you, Blair, but I'm there right now. I love you so much sometimes it feels like something physical--it's that strong. I get an ache in my chest when I try to imagine life without you--because I *can't* imagine life without you. You are the missing piece that makes me whole...and I'm lost without you."
Blair smiled at him then, a tender light in his eyes. "I guess we're making a commitment here, aren't we?"
"I guess we are." His voice sounded a little hoarse. "I want you to know...no, I *need* you to know...I've never felt this for anyone before. I've been--it's never been this intense, this incredible..." Jim broke off, no longer sure he was even making sense. Blair gave a gentle chuckle and moved a little closer.
"I think this is where we're supposed to seal this pledge with a kiss," he whispered into Jim's ear.
"I think you're right," Jim breathed, turning his head to press his lips against Blair's, pulling him tight to him.
They lost themselves in the pleasure of the kiss, molding to each other, exploring with the added joy of love. It was soft, sweet and easy, and Jim wanted it to never end. He gave a low moan when Blair moved away from him, shifting himself off the couch.
"Just a minute, Jim. I have a song I want you to hear."
Jim watched in amusement and exasperation as Blair rooted through the CDs littering the bottom of the stereo cabinet. He was just about to open his mouth to tell him to forget the damn song, when the younger man exclaimed, "A-ha! Found it!" Another minute to get the CD settled and the song queued, then his lover was standing in front of him, stretching a hand out. "Dance with me?"
"I don't dance very well...you know that."
"Well, hold me and move to the music. I don't care, Jim."
He smiled and stood up, moving into Blair's arms, wrapping his
own around the slim waist. Blair hit the remote then tossed it
on the couch. Strains of music surrounded them and Jim closed
his eyes, leaning into Blair's warmth as the song washed over
Sundown all around
Walking thru the summer's end
Waves crash baby, don't look back
I won't walk away again
Oh, baby, anywhere you go,
We are bound together
I begin, baby, where you end
Some things are forever!
They moved as one, their heartbeats merging as their lips met again. Bodies swayed gently, beginning to keep time to the inner rhythm of their pulses. Jim kissed Blair's neck, moving slowly up to his ear, teasing the rings dangling there. He licked around the outer ear, chuckling as Blair squirmed in his embrace. "I love you," he breathed against the wet ear. Blair shuddered.
"I love you," he whispered back to Jim, tilting his head to allow
Circle in the sand
'Round and 'round
Never ending love is what we've found
And you complete the heart of me
Our love is all we need
Circle in the sand
Cold wind, tide move in
Shiver in the salty air
Day breaks, my heart aches
I will wait for you right here.
Oh, baby when you look for me
Can you see forever?
I begin baby, where you end
We belong together
Jim sucked the earlobe into his mouth, enjoying the feel of his lover's shivers vibrating through himself. He kissed his way back across Blair's jaw, noting the prickly feel of stubble against his lips, then claimed Blair's mouth again.
Waves of sensation began sweeping over him as the heat of their
bodies rose, mingling, creating a need within him that cried for
completion. He shuddered when warm hands dipped below his waist
to rest on his ass, pulling him closer to the smaller man in his
arms. His body throbbed as the song wove around them, combining
with the scents and tastes and other sounds that were building to
a crescendo within him.
Circle in the sand
'Round and 'round
Rising of the moon as the sun goes down
And you complete the heart of me
Our love is all we need
Circle in the sand
Circle in the sand
Baby can you hear me?
Can you hear me calling?
"Blair," he moaned as the hands cupping his ass began stroking him. "I can't help it...it's too much..."
"Tune it down, babe..." The hands on him stilled and the smaller man drew back slightly. "You okay?"
"Fine...now." Jim laughed shakily. "I want to...I want to make love to you. Not just have sex, or fuck, or whatever we've been doing. I want to do it right."
"It's been right all along, Jim...however it's been, it's been right for the time, for us at that time. Let's go now, and make it right for this moment."
Jim concentrated on breathing through his nose as Blair led him upstairs, trying to control himself. He wanted to pounce...take Blair...lay his claim. But he wanted to make it special, too. Add the emotion that went with the physical.
Blair sat down on the side of the bed, slowly unbuttoning his shirt. Jim stilled his hands, then kissed him. "Let me..." he breathed, kneeling next to the bed. Blair nodded, lowering his hands. The shirt came off quickly, with kisses down the center of Blair's chest, following the arrow of hair. He returned to the small nipples that were stiff from the chill air and excitement. As always, the gold ring drew him and he kissed the tip of the little bud, slipping his tongue through the ring. Blair shuddered under his touch, moaning quietly.
He pressed Blair back on the bed then and drew his jeans and boxers off, kissing each inch of skin as it was revealed. He kissed back up then, alternating with long licks, skirting around the cock that was now hard, bobbing toward him.
"Please," Blair whispered, a half-sob in his voice, pushing Jim's head toward his groin.
"Not yet, baby," the older man said, lips moving against Blair's skin. "I want us to come together, this time." He nibbled along the ribs that were standing out against the satiny skin, drawing a gasping laugh from his lover.
"Sorry." Jim moved upward, pausing to suck and nip at the tender nipples. Blair was writhing beneath him before he was satisfied that he'd paid enough attention to the tiny, straining peaks. He could feel the blood pounding through Blair under his fingertips as he gently pinched each one, continuing on his journey back to his lover's lips.
"Jim...babe, I want to touch you, too..."
"In time, Chief. This is for you, this time. I want to love you," (kiss), "worship you," (kiss), "adore you," (kiss). "I want to make you mine." Jim turned his head and gently bit the skin on the side of Blair's neck.
"I...am yours," the younger man panted. "Please..."
"Turn over, baby," Jim said as he shifted himself. He helped Blair full onto the bed, and onto his stomach. Sweeping the long curls aside he began paying homage to the sensual curve of Blair's neck where it flowed into his shoulders, long strokes of his tongue raising gooseflesh on the younger man. The tongue bath continued, flowing downward as Jim tasted all of Blair, the salt from sweat beginning to flow; a hint of bitter as the herbs he'd drank in his morning tea moved through the pores of his skin; soap and talcum powder, from their earlier shower.
Blair's back flowed into the slight indentation of his waist, becoming the seductive curve of his buttocks. Jim sat back, stroking up and down gently with the very tips of his fingers, feeling the drag and pull of the tiny, fine hair there. He started stroking with a firmer touch, pressing here and there, listening to the now constant moans from his very aroused lover.
He was on the edge as well, Blair's whimpers and moans only exciting him further. For just a moment he dialed up his hearing, listening to the gasping noises as Blair struggled to draw air in, the faint changes in the sounds as the younger man's motions stirred the air around them. He dialed back down and concentrated on the tactile sensations--the springy feel to Blair's ass; the difference in texture between the top of the cheeks and the full curve. The difference in heat between the outer cheeks and the edge of the cleft between them. He dipped his fingers in and began stroking up and down slowly.
"Jim! ...god, please..."
"One taste, Blair..."
Jim shifted to move between Blair's legs and groaned as he spread them wide for him. Blair shifted up onto his knees, gripping and spreading himself open for Jim. The older man groaned low, felt the vibration spread through him. He gently covered Blair's hands, felt the other's fingers grip him. The tender rose was exposed to him and he lowered his head to caress it with his tongue.
"....Oooohhhh....oh...." Blair sobbed beneath him as he opened him gently with his tongue, moving to insert one shaking finger when the muscle had relaxed a little.
"Shhh...easy, baby," he stroked the arching back with one hand, his other easing a second finger into his lover's now straining body.
"*Please*, Jim...I want you..."
"I want you too, love. Turn back over?" Jim removed his fingers and reached for the lube, still tucked under his pillow.
Blair turned over on his back and drew his legs up, body spread wide for the taking. Jim knelt between the wide-spread legs and slid one slick finger into him, and then a second. He trembled when Blair's hand wrapped around his cock, stroking in time to his own fingers thrusting into Blair. A thumb smoothed over the weeping tip of his penis and Jim shifted his gaze to see Blair put the digit into his mouth and suck on it. His body surged at the sight, cock throbbing at the memory of being buried in the heat of that body.
"Want you," Jim whispered as he leaned over the smaller man, pulling him close. "Need you...you're mine, baby. Mine."
Blair opened dilated eyes to stare into Jim's. "Say *my* name," he said in a harsh whisper. "I want to hear you say it as you come into me."
Jim pressed the head of his cock against the hot little hole and felt the body beneath him tremble with anticipation. He pushed forward, feeling the small bud open for him in welcome. He slid in, the heat of Blair's body surging around him as the muscles tightened about him. "Blair... Oh, god, Blair..." he buried his face into the other's shoulder, biting down on the skin there. He felt the quiver run through the other man, bit again, more gently this time. A little nip with his teeth. "Say it," he commanded hoarsely. "Tell me..."
"Jim...I'm yours...oh...god...you're mine..."
"I love you," he moaned as he slid again into the welcoming warmth, his thrusts picking up speed and intensity. Blair groaned and arched toward him, drawing his legs back a little further.
"You too....oh....oh, Jim...god, lover...."
He felt the tension begin in the younger man's body and angled himself so his thrusts would push against Blair's prostate. His lover began stroking himself in time with Jim's motions, pushing up into his own hand then against Jim's body.
Blair's body tightened and jerked, arching upward as his release spurted across his hand and stomach. Jim cried out as the muscles in Blair's anus clenched around his sensitive organ. He fell into the abyss of sensation as wave after wave of delicious pressure ran through him and he flooded Blair with his cream.
They lay together, panting, for long minutes afterward. Blair shifted under him and Jim moved, grimacing slightly. The younger man moved to curl onto his side, into Jim, and moaned at the motion.
"You okay, Chief?"
"Sore," Blair muttered, moving very slowly.
"God, I forgot...we should have waited. Are you all right?"
"No blood--I must be fine. Besides, we needed to do that."
Jim stared at him. "Are you crazy? We've hardly done anything else."
"Yeah, but this was our consummation. We made our commitment, then consummated it."
The big man looked at him thoughtfully. "Good point. But I think we'll lay off for a little while. Maybe 'til tomorrow?"
Blair grinned. "I'm feeling pretty sated right now...I think tomorrow will be fine."
"I love you."
"I love you too, big guy."
They curled into one another and drifted off to sleep, Jim no
longer disturbed by dreams about choices. Together, they had
chosen their path, and their future.
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