Well, I'm about half way through my episode for Black Panther Productions, but it's been so long since I wrote anything just for the fun of it, that I'm long overdue. Well, since Otter asked so nicely, I guess I'll do something light (I heard that! I'm perfectly aware that I tend toward the lighter side. I like being in the light. That way, I can see what's coming. ;])

Otter asked for another Joel and Mable story. So, I guess that's where I'll go, muses allowing. Be warned, Cecilia and Ronnie are also in this. Those of you who hate OFCs can just go ahead and skip this one. There's kissing involved and I didn't kill off any of the ladies, thank you very much.



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It wasn't supposed to get this hot in the Pacific Northwest. Nor was it supposed to continue on for three weeks. Even the criminals were taking off for cooler realms (good riddance) and the men and women of Major Crime had even run out of paperwork to do. In fact, they would have even looked forward to court, except that they somehow were all between court dates at the moment.

It was Thursday morning, the sun was already sending heat-shimmers up from the blacktopped streets, and the fans were working overtime in the bullpen. One disadvantage to living in a place noted for its temperate climate was that air conditioners were a rarity. This week, they all wished for them. Not even nine in the morning and already the temperatures were pushing ninety degrees. To top it all off, there was no breeze to move the stagnant, polluted air.

The bullpen was unnaturally quiet. Every single person there already wilting in the heat, the humidity only at about fifty percent, but still... There was a soft squeak at the door, and Detective James Ellison lifted his eyes to see who was coming in, the odd noise having attracted his attention, even over all the white noise of the fans. Recognizing their visitor, he smiled as he stood to welcome her.

"Mable! What brings you down? Joel's down in records, trying to find a lost report. I can call down for him, if you'd like." He offered. Pleased with the interruption of his lackluster thoughts.

"Well, if you'd be so kind, could you get the bag from the back of my chair, please?" She swiveled her wheelchair around so he could access the specially designed carryall on the back of her chair. Jim reached into the canvas bag and carefully removed a large paper grocery sack.

"Got it. Where do you want it?" Jim asked.

Spinning her chair back around, Mable smiled and said, "How about on Joel's desk?" She followed the tall detective to her husband's desk, where they emptied out the grocery bag and set the contents on the desk blotter.

"What's the occasion?" Jim asked, with a longing look at the container of obviously homemade ice cream and the bowl of sliced fruit and tray of sliced homemade pound cake.

"It's hot." Mable replied.

"I know. But what's the occasion? I know it isn't his birthday." The other members of the squad gathered around, nearly drooling at the sight of the food.

"Your anniversary?" Megan asked.

"Nah, that's not it." Brown disagreed. "Uh, Simon's birthday?" He guessed.

"Nope. Not my birthday." Simon denied. "Jim?"

"Not mine, or Sandburg's, sir. So, Mable?"

She shook her head in amusement, "I told you. The occasion is that it's hot. Still. Very hot." She had a faint smile on her face as she waited for them to get it.

Just then, Joel returned with an animated Blair, who was talking his usual mile-a- minute, hands flying about as he made his point, he stopped talking when he noticed that Joel was no longer listening to him. Looking up, he saw the crowd at Joel's desk, and the woman in the wheelchair at the center of the group. With a quick grin at this companion, he hurried toward them.

"Hey, Mable. What brings you down, today? If you're looking for somewhere cool, I suggest a movie theatre, or maybe the mall. It's..." his eyes shifted from the older woman to the food spread out on her husband's desk. His eyes widened in pleased surprise. "Oh, wow. Shortcake. Homemade shortcake. What's the occasion?" he asked, blinking and looking around as the rest of his colleagues started chuckling. "Uh, I guess that's been asked?" Exchanging a rueful smile with Mable, he continued, "So, what was the answer?"

"It's hot." Mable replied for the third time. Still waiting for someone to get it. Her husband smiled as he leaned down to kiss her, their eyes communicating their joy at seeing one another in the middle of the workday, like this.

"That's a great reason." Blair enthused with a smile. "I can handle that." He looked up at the others, his focus settling on Joel. "So, Joel. You gonna share?"

Six pair of eyes focused on the burly detective. If he had been anyone outside of this group, he'd have felt terribly intimidated. As it was, he simply smiled and said, "Of course." With a wink for his wife, he shifted through the crowd and pulled paper plates and utensils from the bag. "So, you want me to serve?" He asked, passing out the plates to the eagerly waiting group. "I'll take that as a 'yes'." He chuckled, handing his wife a plate.

The slices of homemade pound cake were placed in the center of each plate, then covered with the nearly frozen fruit mix, consisting of peaches, mangoes, nectarines, strawberries, and blueberries. On top of the fruit, Mable placed generous scoops of homemade peach ice cream, the sweetness of the ice cream providing the perfect match for the unsweetened fruit medley. Soon, the only thing to be heard were the sounds of people enjoying their treat and the murmured thanks and comments on how good it tasted.

As the Major Crime unit chilled out with their cool, unexpected treat, Mable announced that the poker game would be at the Taggart house, along with a barbecue, as no one should have to cook indoors when the weather was so hot.

"You realize that planning a barbecue is a sure way to make it rain, don't you?" Blair asked, as he lifted another spoonful of ice cream to his mouth, delicately licking the cool, creamy concoction from the spoon.

"Well, that may happen when you plan a barbecue, but Saturday will be perfect. Besides, I think we all deserve a party, just because. It's hot, you're not busy, for a change. Perfect excuse, don't you think?" She waited for them to exchange looks, the grins slowly spreading across the bored, stressed, overheated faces.

Simon spoke for them all, "Thank you. We'd love to come."

"Henry, you bring your wife and little girl, and Rhonda, you bring that husband of yours. Simon, if Daryl's available, drag him along, as well. Jim? I already spoke to Ronnie, and she said she'd come." And with that, Mable started cleaning up from the midmorning snack, her husband joining her in the cleanup.

The rest of Thursday passed quietly, but with the men and women of Major Crime in much better moods as they began to look forward to the weekend and the party on Saturday. Asked what they should bring, Joel smiled and handed out assignments to each of them, spreading the costs out among them all.

Friday dawned even hotter than the day before, the lows had only dropped down into the mid-seventies, and by nine, the temperature had already topped one hundred. The attitude in Major Crime, however, was cheerful, if not enthusiastic. At ten, however, a silent alarm went off at the main branch of the Pacific Northwest Bank. All the members of Major Crime as well as the SWAT team headed out to surround the bank and evacuate the adjacent buildings. From what they could determine, several men in ski masks had entered the bank, shot the guard, and demanded that the vault be emptied. Unfortunately for the would-be robbers, there was a silent alarm attached to the vault door and automatically activated if a code wasn't input before opening, even when the vault was unlocked. Of course, the robbers were unaware of this little fact; so, when they attempted to leave with their haul, they discovered that, somehow, the police had surrounded the building and they were trapped. They had locked the bank employees and customers in the vault to keep them from calling the cops, so they had no hostages to negotiate with.

"Jim, can you hear them?" Captain Banks asked, speaking softly enough to not draw attention to them, although only their own people were nearby.

The Sentinel cocked his head, closing his eyes and trying to filter out the superfluous sounds around him and focus his abilities on the bank. His partner, Blair Sandburg, sidled up beside the two larger men and placed a hand on his partner's shoulder, providing the needed distraction to ground him and prevent him from 'zoning out'. Several minutes passed as they waited for their Sentinel to sort through the input.

"There's at least six of them. They've locked the employees and customers in the vault. No hostages and nothing to negotiate with." Jim announced.

"Good. I'll signal the SWAT team to go ahead and hit them with tear gas." Simon announced as he rose, slapping his detective on the shoulder.

Unfortunately, just because they didn't have any hostages, didn't mean that they weren't well armed and willing to fight. Even more unfortunately, Simon seemed to forget that little fact as he stood... and Simon Banks, at six feet, four inches tall, was a very big target.

As the glass broke from the bullets erupting from the inside of the bank, Blair Sandburg launched his five-foot-eight-inch, hundred and fifty pound body in a full-body tackle of his friend and captain, knocking the much larger man to the ground and rolling them both behind a squad car.

"Simon?" He hissed, ducking involuntarily from the sound of bullets striking the car beside them and ricocheting off the pavement around them, searching the larger man for injuries; he was surprised to discover that neither of them had been hit... yet.

"I'm OK, Sandburg. Thanks. Where's Jim?" They looked around to find Jim crouched behind the front fender of Simon's car, using the marginally safer engine end for cover.

"You two all right? Blair? Simon?" Jim called out, looking over at them anxiously before taking a deep breath and popping up over the hood of the car to fire off several rounds towards the bank, then ducking back behind his cover.

"We're OK, Jim." Blair called back, scrambling up into a crouch and making room for the Captain to rise from his prone position on the sidewalk.

"Thanks, Sandburg. How'd you know?" The bigger man asked, pulling his gun from his shoulder holster as he peered over the trunk of the squad car, grateful that he had insisted that everyone put on kevlar earlier.

"I saw the glass breaking and just reacted, is all." The shorter man stayed down, flinching with the sound of every bullet that struck nearby. He was due to start at the academy in another two weeks and, although he'd decided that was what he really wanted, if only to remain as Guide to his Sentinel, the idea of being shot at was still pretty low on his list of things to do.

"Good job, Chief." Jim called over to them, then popped up to fire off a few more rounds. Simon followed suit, emptying his revolver at the broken out windows of the bank, just hoping that by some miracle he might actually hit one of the robbers.

Dropping back down behind the car, Simon took out his two-way radio and called for the SWAT team to shoot tear-gas into the building. As hot and as still as it was, the CS gas would hover like a miasma in the building and would hopefully drive the robbers into giving up before anyone was killed or seriously injured.

Blair risked a look around the front of the car he and Simon were hiding behind and spotted an injured man just a few yards away, in the street. Apparently, when the shooting started, he had been crossing between two of the barricading cars and been unlucky enough to catch a bullet. Blair could see blood seeping out from under the man's body. He called out to his friends as he charged out to drag the injured man back behind the cars.

"Cover me!" Sandburg shouted, Jim automatically jumped up and lay down a withering fire at the bank, quickly joined by Simon and several other officers. Between the tear-gas and the covering fire, Blair managed to get to the injured officer and grab him by the ankles and haul him back to cover. As he pulled him behind the car, Simon ducked back to assist him in getting the injured man the rest of the way out of the line of fire and turn him over to access his injuries.

Appropriately at that moment there was a shout from the bank building, as the remaining mobile robbers shouted that they wanted to give up and threw their weapons out through the front of the bank. Of the original eight men, three were dead, and two more were injured. Among the dead was the ringleader, a man who was wanted in several states and Canada for bank robbery.

While the majority of officers swarmed the bank to take the robbers into custody, the members of Major Crime focused on the injured officer that Blair had pulled from the street. While Simon called for paramedics and an ambulance, Jim joined his partner to assess the wounded man's injuries.

"Captain, tell them it's a single gunshot wound to the lower abdomen, entry on the right side, just above the hip. Man, what an unlucky shot. He must have moved in just the wrong way to cause a gap in his kevlar... I've applied pressure to try and stop the bleeding." Jim called out and Simon passed the information on to the dispatcher.

While Jim worked on stanching the flow of blood from the wound, Blair worked at loosening the kevlar vest and elevating the injured officer's feet. The injured officer's partner hovered in the background, worrying. Joel Taggart went to him to provide some emotional support while they awaited the paramedics.

The debriefing later that afternoon was a quiet affair, the injured officer was still in surgery, the bullet having ripped through the officer's abdomen, wreaking havoc with his internal organs. There was still no word, even after four hours, only that he was still in surgery and that nothing would be known until after he came out of the OR and the doctors had a chance to pass on any information. The young officer's wife was at the hospital with her two small children, waiting.

First, they went over everything that went right in the operation. The way the two groups worked together to make the most effective use of the available cover, the positioning of manpower and resources, the communications overlap and delay. Then they went over what went wrong. Everyone was reminded to keep to cover as much as possible and not make a target of themselves and that kevlar was not perfect protection and proof against bullets. Then they mentioned Sandburg's outstanding bravery in not only braving the gunfire from the bank to run out and pull the injured officer to cover, but his quick reaction that prevented Captain Banks from becoming a casualty, as well.

Being the center of attention wasn't what the soon-to-be-cadet's aim had been. He'd simply seen what needed to be done and done it. As the captain in charge of the SWAT Team commended his bravery, he sank lower in his chair, trying to hide behind the much larger men sitting in front of him. After the debriefing, he was congratulated by his friends in Major Crime, as well as several members of the SWAT Team, since it had been one of their men he had risked his life to go after. He simply smiled and tried to blend into the background, albeit without success. Those who didn't like him (who knew him to be a former observer assigned as Ellison's partner, but wondered why he was still around; not to mention their annoyance at his going to the academy and straight into Major Crime, while bypassing the street patrols most of them had had to go through), simply left. Which left those who liked/respected/appreciated the longhaired little man to try to swell his head with their accolades. Not that Blair Sandburg felt that he deserved their praise. He'd learned a great many things from the man he'd been tagging along after for the past three plus years. One of the most prominent being the responsibility to do what needed to be done as to the best of his ability. The only reward that mattered to him, was the respect and friendship with those he worked with: primarily, Jim. Followed by Simon's and the rest of the folks in Major Crime.

Of course, the fact that his colleagues started to tease him as soon as they got back to the Major Crime's bullpen guaranteed that his head wouldn't be swelling with pride any time soon. Although, seeing the expression of pride reflected in the faces of Jim, Simon, and Joel even as they teased him simply served to make him feel that he belonged. And that was what was most important to him.

Then again, his new 'hero' status didn't help one whit when it came time to write up the reports.

Saturday dawned clear and hot once more. As the sun rose along with the temperature, the loft at 852 Prospect remained oddly silent. The residents of the condo didn't have to be up early, so they took advantage of the cooler morning temperatures to sleep, hoping to catch up on some of the rest they'd lost the previous week due to late nights, overtime, and nights too hot to sleep well.

It was nearly eleven by the time either resident stirred. For one of the rare times in their association, Blair Sandburg awoke first. Stretching languorously, he sniffed, hoping to smell coffee brewing. A little surprised to find that it wasn't, he lazily slid out of bed and headed out of his room and toward the bathroom, scratching his stomach as he glanced sleepy-eyed up at the loft bedroom, wondering if his roommate was awake, yet.

Finishing with his morning routine, Blair went to the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. More awake, now, he opened the refrigerator. Seeing that it was well stocked, he wondered when Jim had squeezed in the time to shop. Shrugging, he pawed through the contents, picking out the ingredients for one of Jim's favorites, a Joe's Omelet. Turning to the stove, he pulled a frying pan from the overhead rack and broke up some ground beef into it, before setting it on the stove and turning on the burner. While the hamburger browned, he set about chopping the onions, celery, spinach, mushrooms, and peppers. When the meat was browned, he carefully drained it into a colander and then rinsed it under the tap with hot water. Placing the meat into the bowl with the chopped vegetables, he pulled out half a dozen eggs and cracked them into the bowl, beating them vigorously. Wiping out the skillet, he then poured the mixture into the pan and turned the burner back on low to allow the eggs to cook slowly. While that was happening, he took out some longhorn cheese and shredded some carefully down the middle of the eggs. Lifting the set edge of the eggs, he allowed the still liquid eggs to run under the cooked portion so he wouldn't have to stir them. Satisfied with the slow cooking of breakfast, he finally had time to pour himself a cup of coffee. Going to the refrigerator, he pulled out the pint carton of one percent low-fat milk, still surprised that Jim didn't seem to mind the difference in taste from regular milk... but then again, he only used it on cereal or in his coffee, and at that, only occasionally. If he'd been a big milk drinker to begin with, he probably would have cared; as it was, Blair was just grateful to cut fat from his friend's diet whenever and wherever he could. He still couldn't figure out how Jim, 'Junk-Food- Junky Extraordinaire' could stay as fit as he did.

"Is that coffee?" Jim's gravelly, early morning, still barely awake, voice asked, rather obviously.

Blair jumped, startled. Turning to his friend, he nearly snarled, "Don't do that, man. I almost spilled the coffee."

"Sorry, Chief. I guess I'm not quite awake, yet." Jim yawned prodigiously, stretching until even Blair could hear his spinal joints pop.

Shaking his head, he handed a filled cup to his friend. "I was kinda surprised to wake up before you. That doesn't happen often. You slept through my shower, making coffee and most of making breakfast. Are you OK?" He looked up at his friend in concern.

"Yeah. Just having some good dreams, Chief." He smiled at the concern of the younger man. "No, it was nothing we need to talk about, although, I'd advise you to take it easy on the bike riding... oh, and I wouldn't take up skateboarding or roller-blading just now. His smile was impish as he brought his cup to his lips and took a sip. "Smells good, Chief. What's cooking?" He ignored Blair's blank, puzzled stare.

"Uh, yeah. Uh, I'm making a nice, big, Joe's Omelet for breakfast." He turned back to his frying pan to check the progress of their meal. "By the way, when did you find time to go shopping? I was kind of surprised to find the refrigerator so well stocked."

"Night before last, after the stakeout. You fell asleep, remember? I stopped off at the all-night market and bought what we were out of. Hell, I even got the truck unloaded and the groceries put away before I went out to wake you up to come in and go to bed." He chuckled, remembering how sleepy his partner had been, totally unaware of much of anything, let alone observant enough to realize that they had stopped for groceries.

Blair stared at him, surprised. "Man, I guess I was really out of it, wasn't I," he shook his head, bemused.

"Yeah, well you needed the rest, and I was still wired from catching Thompson, so I took advantage of it. It finally caught up with me last night." He looked toward the stove, "The eggs are starting to burn," he admonished. Blair stepped to the stove and gently lifted the edges of the omelet to allow the rest of the liquid to flow underneath, then folded it over to allow the center to finish cooking and the cheese to melt.

"So, what's on the agenda for today?" Blair asked, as he took two slices of bread and placed them in the elderly toaster. He'd learned to keep an eye on the toaster, as it was unpredictable and they still hadn't managed to find the time to replace it.

"I don't know about you, but I've got laundry to do. Then I thought I'd get the housework out of the way... of course, if you'd like to help?" He hinted, perfectly aware that Blair probably didn't even think the loft needed dusting, let alone, the bathroom scrubbed, the kitchen floor washed, and the rest of the loft swept and vacuumed. And the idea that Blair might actually deign to clean his room, Jim only shook his head.

Blair blinked, surprised that even with the current heat wave, Jim would still be worried about a little dust... But then, that was one of the things that made Jim Ellison who and what he was.

"Sure. I'll help. Want me to take on the bathroom?" Blair figured that way, he wouldn't hear about his long hair clogging the drain.

Jim smiled, "That'd be just fine with me. You have laundry?"

Blair popped up the toast, his timing perfect. Setting the first two on a plate and handing it to his roommate to butter, he placed two more slices of bread in the toaster. While he waited for them to brown, he crossed to the stove and turned the nearly finished omelet to finish cooking. "Yeah, a couple of loads, anyway. Why don't you go ahead and do yours first? I can do mine after a while." Taking two plates from the cupboard, he divided the omelet in two and slid one piece onto each plate. Turning back to the toaster, he was again, just in time to pop out two more perfect pieces of toast, which he placed on the plate with the smaller piece of the omelet on it. He would eat his toast dry, this morning. With one plate in each hand, he circled around Jim, who picked up the two cups of coffee and his own toast, and followed Blair to the table. Setting the plates in their usual places, Blair went back and brought back the cutlery needed.

"Don't forget the barbecue at Joel and Mable's tonight, Chief." Jim reminded.

Blair smacked himself on the forehead. "Oh, man, that's right. OK, I've got some clean clothes left. Or, maybe I should just go down to the laundromat?" he suggested, since Cecilia might be there, he didn't want to appear in anything too Grunge.

"No need for that. You can put your whites with mine. I never seem to have a full load, anyway. That should take care of at least one extra load. I know that my slacks will take up a full load, but my shirts won't, so we can combine there, as well... Just as long as I actually get all my shirts back, this time."

Blair looked up in surprise. "What do you mean? Get all your shirts back? I seem to recall my favorite dark red flannel shirt ending up on your back a few times."

"Yeah, and my brown flannel plaid shirt on yours, not to mention..."

Laughing, Blair held up his hands in surrender, "OK, OK, man. I get the message. We sort through the clean clothes together to make sure we each get the right shirts. OK? Now, eat your eggs before they get cold."

Satisfied with their plans, they bantered over breakfast. Settling back with a final cup of coffee, they discussed their contribution to the evening's planned festivities. "Joel wants us to bring the beer." Jim said, leaning back in his chair. "Did you want to make any of your weird dishes to go along with it?"

"I was thinking of putting together some baklava, to take. Unless you'd prefer something with chocolate?" Blair replied.

"How about something that doesn't involve the oven, Chief? It's going to be hot again, today. I'd just as soon keep it simple, if you don't mind. As it is, the heat from the laundry is going to steam up the place."

"But the laundry room is in the basement. Why...?" Blair began, only to be interrupted.

"Heat rises, remember? It'll come up the back stairs and warm the place right up. Why do you think I leave that door open in the winter, when we're doing the laundry?" Jim finished his coffee and stood up. "If you bring out your dirty clothes from your room, I'll get started on the laundry, then the kitchen, while you get the bathroom, OK?" Gathering up both his and Blair's breakfast dishes, he placed them in the sink and headed up to his bedroom.

"Fine with me, man." Blair agreed, finishing his own coffee and depositing the cup in the sink before heading for his own room to dig through it for any dirty clothes.

By four o'clock, they had not only finished their laundry, but the loft was clean enough to satisfy Jim, as well. They had decided to pick up beer and anything else that might strike their fancy on the way to Joel's. Teasing each other, Jim pulled his shirts from the last laundry basket and headed for his room and the ironing board.

"Hey, Heloise, those are supposed to be permanent press shirts, man." Blair called after his departing friend, laughing.

"Yeah, well, Permanent Press isn't good enough. I like them ironed. You may not care to show up before Cecilia looking like a waif, but I'd rather not have Ronnie notice that my clothes were wrinkled." Jim rejoined as he looked back down over the railing to his bedroom.

"Did you iron your pants, too?" Blair called up, curious.

"Of course," Jim called back, "Nice, straight, crisp creases. Give me half an hour and I'll be finished."

"Well, in that case, I'll jump in the shower now and by the time you finish your ironing, I'll be through and the hot water will have a chance to recharge, OK?"

"Fine by me, Chief." Jim noticed that Blair left his dark red shirt out to wear that evening, even though the temperatures were in the low one hundreds yet again. As soon as the bathroom door had closed behind the younger man, he trotted back down the stairs and snatched up the shirt, returning up the stairs to iron his friend's shirt before he started on his own. He returned the shirt, on a hanger, downstairs and then went back up to finish his own ironing, smiling and wondering if Blair would say anything, or even notice.

Thirty minutes later, Jim finished his ironing and headed down to the bathroom to take his own shower. Passing the immaculate Blair on his way, he grinned as he watched his friend adjusting his cuffs. Looking up, Blair caught his amused expression and returned with a smile of his own.

"Thanks, Jim." Blair murmured as the taller man passed, "You didn't have to do this, you know."

"Sure I did. I don't want anyone accusing me of making you go out looking like a ragamuffin, what would people think?" Jim teased, neatly dodging the playful swat that the smaller man aimed at him.

"Funny, Jim. Real funny," but he was chuckling, nonetheless.

They stopped at the grocery store on their way to the Taggart's house to pick up a couple of cases of cold beer. While they were there, Blair checked out the bakery and didn't find anything interesting to take along, however, he did find fruit platters in the fresh produce section. Grabbing a couple of them, he joined Jim in the checkout line.

"Looks good, Chief. Well, except for the pineapple, maybe." Jim said, looking at the fruit platters.

"Well, they're cool and didn't require any cooking, so I figured, 'why not'?" Blair agreed.

Jim insisted on writing a check for the entire amount, even over Blair's protests, simply telling him that he could repay him once he was getting a paycheck from the department, to which Blair finally conceded, albeit with little grace.

They arrived at the Taggart home shortly before six. For once, they weren't the first to arrive, but neither were they the last. They were greeted at the door by Joel, who offered to help them carry in their contributions to the evening's festivities.

"Perfect timing, guys. Simon and I were just arg... discussing the making of the barbecue sauce. We need a couple of guinea... volunteers to taste test them, and you two just volunteered." Joel was smiling, knowing that the two men would be more than willing to help out, and maybe even add some different ideas to the discussion.

"Is it sweet or tangy barbecue sauce?" Blair asked, excitement creeping into his voice at the party atmosphere. He was looking around, hoping to see Cecilia, Joel's daughter, but she wasn't in evidence. Swallowing his disappointment, he focused his attention on their host.

"Well, that's part of the discussion." Simon's voice boomed from across the patio. "I make my sauce sweet and hot, and Joel makes his not as sweet and not nearly hot enough."

"So, are you cooking chicken, pork, or beef?" Blair replied, crossing over to the table at which the two men were whipping up their sauces.

"All of the above." Joel said, sitting down and going back to his mixing.

"Well," Blair began, leaning over the table to look at and compare the two sauces visually, "I like sweet, and I like tangy. It kind of depends on the meat and what's being served with it."

"We've got both potato and macaroni salad, there's veggies and dip, we have your fruit platters, we have beer and soft drinks, we have corn on the cob, which we'll roast on the barbecue," Joel informed him.

"Well, in that case, may I taste?" Blair asked, looking curiously at the two bowls of sauce. Joel picked up a couple of teaspoons and offered them to the younger man. Blair dipped a small bit from Joel's bowl and tasted it, while both men looked on. Blair closed his eyes to savor the flavor of the sauce. Picking up a piece of carrot, he nibbled on a bit to clear his palate before trying Simon's version. "Hmmmm." Blair intoned, shaking his head.

"Well?" Both men chorused, waiting anxiously for the verdict.

"They're both great," Blair grinned at them. There was no way he was going to choose one over the other, no matter what. Both contestants groaned, then turned to Jim, expectantly.

"No way. You can't force me to choose between them," Jim held out his hands to wave them both off, but each man dipped a spoon in his sauce and approached him, determined expressions on their faces. Finally, giving up, Jim took a taste from Simon's brew. Fortunately, he'd turned down his taste dial before trying it, or he'd have fried his taste buds. Tasting Joel's was a relief. He shook his head.

"Sorry, Simon. I'll be eating Joel's. Yours is too hot for me."

"Hah!" Joel exclaimed, victoriously, as he went back to the table to continue mixing his sauce. Shaking his head in woe, Simon joined him, only to begin the bickering again, almost immediately. Smiling at each other, Jim and Blair shook their heads and turned away to join the others.

"So, did you get caught up in the great barbecue sauce debate?" Megan asked as the two new arrivals joined the group on the lawn.

"Yeah. I guess everyone probably has," Blair agreed. "So, who's winning?"

"What did you two say?" Rafe asked.

"Well, Blair said they were both great, but I couldn't help it, Simon's was too hot for me," Jim admitted.

"Ooh, that puts Joel up one. The rest of us did like Blair and refused to choose," Megan laughed.

"Oh, great. Just what I needed, Simon pissed off at me about barbecue sauce," Jim muttered, but then joined the others in laughter.

While the others were laughing about the great barbecue sauce debate, Blair was looking around for the feminine members of the Taggart family, but to no avail, until there were suddenly a pair of hands blocking his vision and a warm svelte body pressed up against his back. With an enormous grin, he said, "If I get three guesses, the first two don't count, Cecilia."

Her laughter rang in his ears like tinkling silver bells, as the hands were removed and he turned into the embrace of the youngest child of Joel Taggart. "No fair. Who else would want to sneak up behind you and grab you?"

"Oh, I can think of a few terrorists and psychos who might like to meet up with Sandburg again," Brown laughed.

"Oh, yeah," Rafe agreed. "Probably more than just a few."

"Well, they wouldn't dare show their faces here. Too many big, strong cops for anyone to be idiot enough to try anything," Cecilia insisted.

"Oh, I don't know. Kincaid took over the entire sports arena, cops and all," Jim mused, as Ronnie came up beside him and claimed a kiss, which Jim willing gave, his arms wrapping possessively around his lady.

"Well, they won't show up here, not if they know what's good for them," Cecilia insisted.

Mable, as usual, had come up with things for them to entertain themselves, which for the competitive group consisted of games like volleyball, which had everyone participating. By the time the food was ready, the group was winded and laughing, thoroughly relaxed and enjoying themselves. There were never any wallflowers or non- participants at a Taggart party. Even Henry's little girl was entertained, first by watching the 'big kids' play, and later, snuggled in Mable's lap being read stories.

The great barbecue sauce debate started up again, just as soon as they settled down to eat. Since no one except Jim had expressed any preference between the sauces, the various meats weren't kept separate, so that those eating had no idea which sauce they might be getting with their food. Except for Jim. Joel, knowing that Jim hadn't been joking about Simon's sauce being too strong for him, had made sure the entire platter he served to Jim was his own, milder sauce.

Jim grinned at the enormous platter of meat that Joel set in front of him. "Joel, just how much do you think I can eat, man?" Laughing at the huge stack of ribs, steaks and chicken.

"I just wanted to be sure you got what you wanted, is all, Jim," Joel grinned back at him. Ronnie and Cecilia both joined Jim to partake of the known milder sauce, while Megan and Brown went in search of the spicier fare, the rest, except for Brown's little girl, whose father chose her food for her, obviously didn't care which sauce they got.

The conversation around the table was light and pleasant, even though several discussions about work ensued. There was, for the most part, light conversations and gentle teasing. When they were all finished eating, everyone pitched in to help clean up, the leftovers placed in covered containers and put in the refrigerator, and numerous 'care' packages of leftovers made up for everyone to take home with them.

As the evening progressed and the sun dipped toward the horizon, the party moved itself partly indoors. The stereo was turned on, to a light rock station. Some of the group settled down to play cards, while others settled down to talk. Henry's little girl settled in her mother's lap, while Mable doted on her like she were her own grandchild, which did not go unnoticed by either her husband or her daughter.

"We're in trouble, Blair," Cecilia murmured in his ear.

"Why?" Blair whispered back.

"Mom's got that 'grandchildren' look in her eyes. Look at how she is with Mr. Brown's little girl. That's her 'I want a grandbaby to spoil rotten' look. I've seen it a few times, before. Usually, though, it was directed to JJ."

"Oh?" There was a strained quality in his voice, as he worriedly looked at his lady's mother.

"Don't worry. They won't ever push. When and if we're ever ready to take that step, it will be soon enough. Mom's just always liked babies."

"Oh." Blair swallowed, hard. Hoping that she was right. No matter how he felt about Cecilia, he was well aware that it was too soon to be talking about permanent commitment.

"Look at Mable." Ronnie whispered into Jim's ear as she sat on his lap on the porch swing, the gentle rocking relaxing them.

"You mean that 'I love babies' look on her face?" Jim murmured back, his hands cradling her against his chest.

"Mmmmhmmmm." Ronnie replied, seeking his lips with hers.

The kiss drove all thought of Mable and Henry Brown's little girl from their minds as all their attention focused in on each other. The rest of the world faded from their ken as they settled into quietly kissing and touching one another.

Joel nudged Simon, gesturing to the two couples outside. "Looks like things are progressing," he said softly. Simon smiled.

"Good. They deserve whatever happiness they can find."

"Why, Simon, who would have ever figured you for a romantic?" Joel chuckled.

"Careful, I resemble that remark," the taller man growled, playfully.

"I know. You're a lot like Jim, you know. All gruffness and bluster on the outside, but inside, my friend, you are all warm and gooey." Joel patted his friend on the back, "Well, I'd better go rescue Henry and family from my wife, or they're never going to get that little girl of theirs back," with which Joel went over to sit beside his wife, scooping up the young Miss Brown and continuing the spoiling, himself.

Simon couldn't keep the contented smile from his face. Daryl and Rafe were talking about the academy, Megan had joined the rest of the adults around Henry's little girl, and the two couples, well, they were otherwise engaged. It had been a good day, pleasant company, good food, even if more people preferred Joel's barbecue sauce to his. The best part, was that they were all together, not only in time and space, but in heart, as well.

Definitely the perfect end to a not so perfect week.

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