I promised Dana a story for her birthday, but had company that week, so she gave me permission to be late with it. Well, I woke up before the alarm this morning and there it was, full- blown. She asked for Mable, so it's with/about Mable. Of course, it's also about Joel, naturally. Can't have one without the other, now, can we?

As always, the characters of The Sentinel do not belong to me, nor do I claim them as my own. I just borrow them for a bit of fun, every now and again. I mean no harm, and do not receive any monetary gain from their use. I am, as always, grateful for those of genius who came up with the premise and created these characters, and to the actors who portrayed them. Again, as always, I am also thankful that the owners of the intellectual property I borrow for their forbearance in suing me for their use. May many blessings fall upon all their heads.

Recurring Nightmare, Recurring Dreams


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He was having 'the' nightmare, again. He'd never told her what it was about, only that it was always the same one. Generally, it happened after a bad case, or a week without a solve on a case. Sometimes, though, it just happened. She suspected that the nightmare was due to some unresolved tension or anger in her husband's life; things he didn't/wouldn't/couldn't talk to her about. Sometimes, she thought he needed professional help, but he always declined, saying that if he couldn't talk to her about it, he couldn't talk to anyone else, either. Still, it bothered her.

"Joel. Wake up, sweetheart, you're having a nightmare." She pushed hard on his shoulder, jostling him from his usual comfortable position snuggled up beside her. He didn't wake up, so she pushed him again, harder. "Joel! Wake up, you're having a nightmare." This time, the movement did as intended and he startled awake.

"What? Oh, God. I'm sorry, baby. I did it again, didn't I?" He sat up and rubbed his face with both hands. He started to slide out of bed when his wife's hand on his arm stopped him.

"Tell me." She tugged at his arm, trying to get him to come back to her, so she could comfort him. He shivered, once, and pulled away, shaking his head.

"It's the same old thing, baby. I'm fine." He stood and headed for the bathroom.

She lay there for a moment, then hoisted herself into a sitting position and leaned over to turn on her bedside lamp. "You are not 'fine'," she called after him. "You've been having this same nightmare almost every night this past week. What is it? What's bothering you?" She heard the toilet flush and the sound of water running in the sink. A minute later, her husband came back to bed. She looked at him closely, noting the bloodshot eyes and the puffy area beneath them. "Joel?" she said softly. He looked at her, guiltily.

"I know, I've been waking you up or keeping you up. I'm sorry, baby, it's nothing, really."

"Joel Taggart, don't you try and snow me! After thirty years together, I think I can tell when there's something wrong. You only have that nightmare when things are really bad. So, what is it? Is it a case? Someone at work? What's wrong? Please tell me? I may not be able to help, but a burden shared is a burden cut in half."

He smiled at her, but shook his head. "If I knew what it was, I could do something about it. Since I don't know what it is, there isn't much I can do."

"Then tell me the dream."

"Mable..." his voice turned to coarse gravel. He obviously didn't want to talk about it.

"You've had what you say is the same nightmare ever since you got home from the war. But you say it's not memories of Viet Nam, so what is it?" She reached for him, pulling him to her and urging him to snuggle down beside her.

He slid his left arm behind her back and leaned against her, his head on her shoulder as his body curled around hers. "It's a stupid dream."

"Never. It may be peculiar or disturbing, but never stupid. Please, Joel. I'd think that after thirty years of marriage and twenty-five years of this same nightmare, you might finally trust me enough to tell me about it."

He pulled away and frowned at her. "Trust you? Baby, I trust you with my life, my love, my sanity..."

"You've never told me this nightmare," she reminded him, her chin lifting in challenge. "I assure you, nothing you could say would chase me off. Not now, not ever." She pulled him back down again, turning slightly to cradle him against her. "Joel, something's bothering you. You haven't had this nightmare in months, but this past week, you've had it every night, practically."

He sighed, nuzzling against her. He really didn't want to talk about this stupid dream, he could, in fact, think of lots of other things he'd rather do, including cuddling, but he also knew just how implacable his wife could be. "You know, I think you're even more stubborn than Ellison." He felt as Mable's breath caught for a moment, then the vibration as she chuckled.

"I'm going to take that as a compliment. Because that means you're going to start talking." She ran the fingers of one hand through his short, graying hair, gently massaging his scalp, then working her way down to his neck. He hummed in pleasure and she pinched his ear. "So, start talking."

With a sigh, Joel pulled away from her. He needed the space to be able to think, to gather his thoughts and to get the words right. She shifted towards him and used him to lever herself up to lean against his back, wrapping her arms around his chest.

"Tell me," she murmured, her fingers sliding through his chest hair.

"It's a stupid dream, I'm telling you," he insisted.

"But you're not telling me," she replied.

He sighed again. "I dreamed I murdered someone and was trying to hide the body," he finally admitted.

Her arms tightened around him. "Who did you kill?"

"I don't know. Some man, a stranger. I picked up my revolver and shot him square in the chest. He fell, and then I'm dragging him out to the car and getting him into the trunk. I'm driving around and trying to figure out where to dump the body. That's it. That and the awful feeling that I've murdered someone for no reason. It doesn't make a lot of sense, really."

"Do I help you hide the body?" she asked softly.

"No. I'm alone. All alone." He couldn't suppress a shiver. Her grip tightened around him.

"That's not a stupid dream. It's a frightening nightmare. All alone with a dead body and having to hide it. I can't begin to understand what it means, unless it's stress over something you have no control over, perhaps? You 'kill' the problem, but it only leads to more problems? What's going on at work, lately? Any bad cases? Any problems with the boys?" She slid her hands up his chest to his shoulders, her cheek pressed between his shoulder blades.

"Nothing unusual," he caught her hands and kissed them. "Just the usual stuff. Murder, mayhem, psychos, et cetera. The usual."

"Everyone getting along all right?" She pulled at his gentle grip on her hands, causing him to turn towards her and help her ease back down and following her, cradling his head on her breast, one hand curled under her shoulder, the other touching her.

"Pretty much. Ellison's been in court for the past two weeks, and the defense is raking him over the coals, trying to trip him up." He loved the way she held him, one hand stroking his face, the other massaging his scalp.

"Hmmm. Maybe that's it? Ellison's on a tear and you want to 'kill' whatever it is that's hassling him?" She hugged him to her. "Look back, how many other times were people you work with having trouble and you've had that nightmare, hmmmm?"

He lay there, thinking about it. "You mean, I'm wanting to 'kill' whatever or whoever is hurting other people?" He tried to remember what had been happening the last time he'd had the nightmare, and couldn't. "I don't know. I can't remember what was going on, last time."

"But that isn't to say that it isn't possible. Why don't you go with that? It does make sense, if you think about it. You want to help, but it's not really in your power to do so, therefore, if you 'kill' the problem, you'll have trouble either hiding it or disposing of it. Sounds to me like you're trying to take on everyone else's problems." They lay quietly together for several minutes, while Joel thought about what she had said. Finally, he nodded.

"You could very well be right." He shifted, straightening and turning onto his back, pulling her with him and cradling her against his chest. "How'd I get so lucky as to have you in my life?" he asked very softly.

"Luck had nothing to do with it, as you well know. God's grace was the only reason we found each other and why we've lasted."

"Yeah. You're right. So, think you can get back to sleep?"

"'Can'? Yes. Do I want to? No." Her hand drifted down his torso. He could feel her smiling.

"Oh? Really? Gee, me either." He turned again and he kissed his beloved wife. "Maybe nightmares aren't so bad after all..." he murmured, his hands roving. She giggled at his light touch along her ribs.

"Well, nightmares can be bad, but the aftermath..." He cut her off with a kiss.

He paid attention when he got to work. Sure enough, everyone was coiled like over wound clocks. He nodded to himself. Perhaps his nightmare was related to the stress at work. He knew for certain that it related to the stress of a difficult case, but he didn't have anything that qualified, at the moment. He carried the large, pink box into the bullpen and set it down on Ellison's desk. Court wasn't until ten, and they should be in soon. Simon had beaten him in, as usual, but came to his door to see what Joel was up to. Spying the large pink box, Simon's eyebrows raised in question.

"What's the occasion, Joel?" Simon asked, coming to check out the contents of the pink box.

Joel slapped the captain's hand away. "You have to wait until Jim gets in. He gets first choice."

Simon frowned, "But what's the occasion? It's not his birthday or anything, is it?"

"No. This is sort of a peace offering."

Simon was taken aback. "Peace offering? What for?"

Joel smiled ruefully up at his friend. "For all the crap he's been going through in court the past couple of weeks."

Simon scowled at that, "I don't get it," he said, shaking his head in confusion.

"Well, let's just say that I hope this might just sweeten his disposition, a little. He's upset and wound up, which makes everyone else testy and wound up. Maybe a little extra sugar will help him feel a little looser. Couldn't hurt, you know?"

Simon stared at his friend. "Maybe you should be the captain. I knew he was in a bad mood, and has been. I also know why, but it never occurred to me to try and change it."

Joel grinned. "Well, I do have a few years on you, Simon. Don't let it bother you, okay? Besides, we don't know if it's going to work, or not."

"Jim and donuts? You're joking, right?"

"Well, there are muffins, too, and some other stuff," Joel informed his friend.

"Oh? Like what?" Simon was looking with an inordinate amount of interest at the box, once more.

"Oh, like bagels and cream cheese, muffins and, of course, Danish and donuts." Joel grinned at the look on Simon's face.

"I hope they get here soon, then." Simon scowled when Joel chuckled.

"Hey, I just hope it brightens Jim's day. He could definitely use a bit of lightening up, if you know what I mean." Joel patted Simon on the shoulder and headed for his own desk. With one, last, longing look at the pink box, Simon sighed and returned to his office, determined to keep an eye out for his detective, unwilling to miss out on the goodies.

Rafe was the next one to arrive. He never even looked around; just headed for his desk and the reports he'd left the night before. Joel watched him and nodded to himself. Definitely. Jim Ellison was in a bad mood, so Rafe was trying to be inconspicuous. For a defense mechanism, it wasn't bad at all. When Brown came in, he was far from his normal, be-bopping self. He wasn't nearly as subdued as his partner, but he also wasn't quite 'normal', either. His penchant for Hawaiian shirts seemed to have disappeared. He knew that Henry loved 'Aloha Fridays', as he called them, almost always wearing one of his loudest shirts on them. Today, he was wearing a subdued dark olive t-shirt over faded blue jeans. Like his partner, he never even glanced over towards Ellison's desk.

When Megan came in a few minutes later, carrying a tray of cardboard coffee cups, Joel wondered what had made her decide to bring in so much coffee, the smell told him that it was coffee, and not tea. She paused by his desk to drop one off.

"What's the occasion, Megan?" Joel asked, softly.

"Lost the bet," she replied, just as quietly.

"Bet? What bet?"

"The one that said that if Jim didn't finish in court by yesterday, noon, that she'd buy everyone coffee... the good stuff, from Einstein's Bagel Factory. Since Jim has to be back in court today..." Brown shrugged and snagged two cups from the tray.

Simon came out of his office and accepted a cup of coffee, as well, just as Ellison and his partner arrived.

Everyone noticed right away that Jim wasn't as angry as he'd been for the past two weeks, he was quiet, almost depressed. His partner, Blair Sandburg, wasn't much better off. Megan intercepted them with the tray of coffee. Blair gratefully smiled at her as he took one, but Jim didn't even seem to notice her, or the coffee, as he made his way to his desk.

There was a big, pink box on top of his desk. Jim frowned. He didn't remember having a big pink box. His frown deepened, as his nose informed him of the contents of said box. His salivary glands indicated their pleasure by activating. Swallowing the sudden flood of saliva, he cautiously opened the box. He stared down at the contents in shock. His nose hadn't lied to him. He looked up and around at his colleagues, who were all watching him in concern.

"Uh, what's with the bakery stuff?" he asked, as Blair handed him one of the cups of coffee Megan had brought in. His gaze scanned over the puzzled faces and landed on Joel's, who was... blushing? "Joel?"

The big man shrugged. "I just thought you could do with a little sweetening up, Jim," Joel said innocently. There was a smothered snicker from Simon and a choked chortle from Sandburg. The other three simply gaped.

Jim frowned for a moment, then turned his attention once more to the contents of the box. "I gotta tell you, Joel, but this is an awful lot of stuff for just me. I hope you expected me to share it?" He reached for a buttermilk donut, but then was torn between his favorite donut and maybe a muffin, or a Danish, or, just maybe, the bagels and cream cheese.

"Of course, Jim," Joel agreed, smiling. Jim graced him with a brilliant smile in return.

"Hey, guys, dig in!" In a moment, everyone was swirling around Jim's desk, helping themselves to the treats. Blair was thrilled with the bagels and cream cheese, not to mention the cranberry muffins. Jim decided not to decide, taking both a buttermilk donut and his favorite prune Danish, to start with. Between the excellent coffee Megan had brought in and the bakery treats, everyone was soon in a good mood. Even when Jim had to head to court at nine, his mood hadn't darkened. Blair stayed behind to work on their current caseload. The entire office seemed happier and less tense. Joel simply smiled to himself and, with Megan acting as his partner, headed out to do a little research on one of their cases.

By two that afternoon, Jim was back in the bullpen, his tie crumpled and in his pocket, his suit jacket hung on the back of his chair, his collar open and his sleeves rolled up. He was sipping a cup of coffee and savoring an almond-chocolate chip muffin. Blair had gone out to interview a victim, and Jim had gotten back, first. The bullpen was empty and he was taking advantage of it. He was in an excellent mood, as the defense attorney had screwed up and blown his client's chances for an acquittal.

When the captain returned from his luncheon meeting with the Chief of Police and the Mayor, he was somewhat surprised to find a laid-back Ellison, contentedly munching away on a muffin. He paused a moment, letting his friend's good mood wash over him, easing the stress of his own hectic day. He paused by Jim on his way to his office. "I'm surprised that there were any left, after the vultures this morning."

Jim grinned up at him, "Wise words from the chief vulture, sir," he smiled as he spoke.

Simon laughed, "Well, considering the bounty, I felt no remorse whatsoever in eating my fill. Besides, you hate pineapple Danish."

Jim chuckled, contentedly. "All too true, Simon. All too true. Although, it sometimes surprises me just how much Joel knows and understands about everybody. You ever notice that when the tension gets too high, or whatever, he comes in with goodies, or Mable comes in with something?" He licked his fingers, getting the last of the sweetness from them.

Simon frowned for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah, he does, doesn't he? Hmmm. Interesting. Not that I think it's a bad thing."

"Or, how about how he knows everyone's birthday, and what kinds of goodies we all like? Or how he remembers anniversaries? The bad ones, as well as the good ones. I've never see him write anything down, either. Have you?"

Simon scowled, trying to remember, "Now that you mention it, no. I haven't. Maybe he's just a 'people' person?"

"Yeah. Maybe. He certainly cares enough for all of us," Jim mused. Simon nodded in agreement.

"So, how was court?" Simon asked, a bit tentatively.

"Court was fine. The defendant, however, is wishing he'd had a different attorney, since the man put his foot in it and our lovely assistant DA nailed him on it."

Simon's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Oh? Anything I need concern myself with?"

"Nope. Even the judge was tired of the defense's constant harping and repeating of questions. I think some of the jurors fell asleep. I certainly felt like it. Finally, he asked me a question I didn't know the answer to, which directly impacted his client. Seems our little suspect told his lawyer everything, and the guy screwed up and mentioned it, not realizing that it wasn't in the disclosure papers. Open mouth, insert foot to the hip, and then bite down. The defendant started screaming at him, telling him he wasn't supposed to say anything, and Ms Esposito jumped on it and called it into evidence or something. Upshot is, I'm finished, and they're working on a new plea bargain. The judge didn't seem to consider the mistake made by the defense a valid reason to call it a mistrial."

Simon chuckled. "Would that all our court appearances ended so well." He looked around the bullpen, "Well, your partner was going to follow up on a couple of things, then go to lunch. You might give him a call and maybe meet up with him." Simon turned towards his office, and then paused and looked back, "You know, maybe we should do something for Joel. He's always doing things for us; he deserves something, in return. Even if he doesn't think so. Think about it and let me know if you come up with any ideas. Share them with the rest of the gang, except Joel, of course, and get back with me, okay?"

Jim nodded, finishing up his coffee. "Will do, sir." He reached for his desk phone, just as it rang. Shaking his head in amusement, he picked it up. "Major Crime, Ellison." He was on his feet almost instantly, "Where are you? Okay, I'll be right there with backup. You stay out of the line of fire, you hear me?" The response apparently satisfactory, Jim hung up and called out, "Simon, Blair's at the Jewelry store over at the Pacific Mall. There are three visible gunmen, who are holding the storeowner and two customers hostage. He's already called for backup, and then called here. Joel and Megan have already arrived and they're holding the fort until we can get there."

Simon was out of his office and heading for the door, even as Jim explained. "We'll take my car," he insisted, much to Jim's disgust.

Simon could really drive fast, when it was warranted. Three of his people holding down a robbery in progress was reason enough for him to put his foot in it. Jim was left to hang on as they took a series of turns almost on two wheels. Jim's jaw clenched and he wondered for just a moment if this was how Blair felt when he was in pursuit. Could be. If he remembered... hell, if he survived, he might ask him.

Much to Jim's amazement, they made it safely to the mall and parked in the fire lane, with the rest of the patrol cars. Jim was out and following Simon, who barked out orders to the uniformed patrol officers to maintain the perimeter and snagged several others to join him in entering the mall and finding his officers.

Across from the jewelry store, they found them. Joel was trembling in rage and worry. Spotting them, Blair immediately approached, leaving Megan to keep a hold on Joel. Seeing his partner and captain staring at Taggart in concern, he quickly explained. "Mable's in there."

"Shit. What was she doing here?" Simon snapped, understanding his friend's agitation.

Blair shook his head. "Don't know. He spotted the van outside and called her on her cell phone. The robbers have it, now." His eyes returned to Joel, who was coldly under control, now, and watching the front of the jewelry store with narrowed eyes and a grim expression.

"There's no way to drag him out of here, Simon, so you might as well leave him be," Jim suggested. Glancing over at the jewelry store, he frowned, his head tilting. "The good news is, they're wearing masks and don't want to bother with Mable. The bad news is, they want to take the kid who works there... wait..." Jim frowned in concentration, and then began to smile rather grimly. "The 'kid' who works there is the girlfriend of one of the robbers. I think that maybe our best bet is to let them leave and nail them outside, away from all the innocent bystanders."

Blair grinned, "I like it. Do you think they'll go for it?"

Simon shrugged. "We can but try. Let's get them on the phone and ask, shall we?"

The robbers were obviously rank amateurs in this business, having learned everything they knew from late-night television. They fell for the offer Simon gave them, hook, line, sinker, and even rod. Had they been fish, they'd have jumped into the net. As it was, they walked out the back entrance to the jewelry store and right into the arms of the awaiting police. The door had closed and locked behind them automatically, leaving them no place to run or hide. The 'hostage' tried to pretend that she was just that, but no one believed her and her boyfriend quickly put an end to her charade when he called her by name, much to her disgust. It seemed that she had been the brains behind the entire plan. Not that it did her any good.

As soon as they received the information that the robbers had gone, Joel was running for the shop, thrusting the door open violently and racing straight for his wife, who smiled serenely up at him and tried to reassure him that she was fine, albeit a bit shaken. He gathered her up out of her wheelchair and just held her close to his chest. She laughed at him, joyful, as always, over his love for her.

"What were you doing here?" he whispered to her, still unwilling to set her back down.

"Cecilia's birthday is coming, and I was looking for something special," she informed him. "You never can find anything, so I thought I'd look."

He shook his head. "Well, this year, I did have an idea, but I'm not sure how appropriate it would be."

"Oh? What?" She could feel the heat of his blush as he looked away in embarrassment and set her back in her chair. She kept watching him, wondering what in the world he could be thinking.

Leaning down close, he whispered, "I thought maybe I could arrange to wrap up Blair, with a big, red bow, for her." He straightened back up. Still blushing furiously. She stared at him for a moment, jaw agape, then glanced over at the man in question. Her mouth closed and a speculative look came across her face.

"You know, that has some definite possibilities. Blair wrapped up in a ribbon with a big red bow... hmmm, would he be wearing anything else, do you think?" She glanced up mischievously at her flabbergasted husband. Jim's sudden bark of hysterical laughter drew every eye to him. Seeing that he'd 'overheard' their conversation, Joel looked like he wanted the floor to open up and swallow him, Mable didn't look much more sanguine than her husband did.

Jim's eyes met those of the Taggarts' and his hysteria grew, his face turning an interesting shade of plum, and his breathing was definitely impaired. Simon and Blair were looking worriedly at him, but he couldn't stop laughing. He finally turned his back on the cause of his incapacitation and eventually regained control. Joel and Mable did not continue their aborted discussion, not wanting to cause their friend to have apoplexy.

Blair kept trying to pry what had set Jim off out of him all the way back to the station. Jim wisely refused to explain. Saying that it was nothing, nothing at all. Blair, quite naturally, didn't believe him, but decided to bide his time. Eventually, he figured, he'd get the truth out of Jim. One way or another.

Joel rode with Megan back to the station, after Joel saw Mable off. Megan offered to follow Mable home, just to be sure she got there safely, but Joel nixed the idea, saying that it would only make Mable angry with him.

Once back at their desks, Captain Banks called Joel into his office. Joel had a good idea what his old friend wanted, but also knew that he wasn't about to tell him. Simon surprised him, though.

"Is Mable all right?"

"She's fine. A little shaken, but she's okay. She's a bit annoyed at herself for walking into that shop, she said she had a 'funny feeling' about it, but ignored it." Joel shrugged. "She's probably at home, right now, cooking like crazy. Maybe I ought to call her and see if I should invite everyone over for supper."

"Sounds good to me. I love it when your wife goes on a cooking spree, although I'm having a little more trouble working it off than I once did. With her cooking, how on earth did you manage to lose all that weight, anyway?" Simon asked, finally receiving the opening he'd been waiting more than a year for.

"Simple. She cooked 'light'. Lots of meat and vegetables, no pasta or rice, and hardly any bread. We cut out most of the carbs and it worked. She lost about thirty pounds, herself, not that she needed to lose any weight, mind you, but she's back down to her high school weight. Our thirty-fifth anniversary of graduation is coming up this year, and she wants to go and show off how great she looks." Joel smiled, "She's still the prettiest woman I've ever met."

"That's because her pretty exterior is enhanced by a truly beautiful interior," Simon mused. "I envy you, Joel. Your wife is not only beautiful and intelligent, but she's literally your soul mate. I wish..."

Joel smiled at his friend in understanding. "I know. That's what I'm hoping for my children. And my friends. Maybe some day, Simon. God willing, one of these days, you'll meet the woman of not only your dreams, but also your reality."

Simon grinned, albeit a bit disbelievingly. "From your mouth to God's ear, my friend. By the way, what were you and Mable talking about that sent Ellison off into hysterics?"

Joel blushed again, taken by surprise. "Uh, well. We were discussing Cecilia's birthday present. That was why she was at the mall and that shop, today."

"What, you thinking of giving her a naked Blair, wearing nothing but a bow?" Simon suggested with a grin.

"Actually, I was thinking of him in a tux, with a ribbon and a big red bow, to take her out to dinner and the theatre, but I never got to explain that part. Jim heard 'ribbon and big red bow' and cracked up."

Simon laughed. It was a big, hearty, 'from the toes' laugh. Not as hysterical as Jim had been, but the guffaws coming from the office had the other officers out in the bullpen looking their way, questioningly. Only Jim had a big grin on his face, having guessed what they were talking about. He debated joining them, but decided, after looking at the puzzlement on his partner's face, that that would not be kind. He'd have to remember to corner Joel and get the whole story from him, later. Meanwhile, he turned back to working on his reports.

Jim was typing away, wanting to get the report on the jewelry store robbery finished before going home that night, when he received notice of an email. Frowning, he hit the return, which brought up the message in Outlook. He was surprised to see it came from Joel. He frowned and turned to look at the older man, but Joel was pointedly looking away. Shrugging, Jim read the message.

Jim, I was thinking of asking Blair to take Cecilia out to dinner and to the theatre for her birthday, next weekend. What you heard was only part of it, him showing up in a TUX wearing a red ribbon and a big, red bow. Can you actually see ME ever contemplating what you thought? Jim read the message twice, and chuckled as he replied.

Joel, actually, I wasn't thinking at all. I was just picturing him all wrapped up in a ribbon, with a big, red bow covering... things. You're right, however. I can't honestly see you condoning such a thing. However, if you want to do that, you'd better let him in on it, and soon. He isn't aware that Cecilia will be coming home. I'm sure he'd love to be her gift... hey, maybe we should put him in a great, big box?

Joel read Jim's reply and nodded to himself. Excellent idea. Asking Blair, that is. The giant box idea was just too much, however. Standing, Joel headed over to Blair's desk, catching Jim's smirk and wink as he passed.

Blair, almost finished with his report, glanced up as a shadow fell across his desk. "Hey, Joel. What's up?" He leaned back in his chair, turning his attention to the older man.

"Can we talk in private for a minute, Blair?"

"Sure. Break room okay?"

"That's fine." Joel followed Blair down the hall to the break room, which was, fortunately, deserted. He closed the door behind them, and then turned to the curious younger man.

"What's wrong, Joel?"

"Nothing's wrong, Blair. You know that Cecilia's birthday is next weekend, right?"

Blair smiled, gently. "Yeah." He suddenly brightened. "Hey, is she going to be here? Is she coming home for her birthday?" he asked excitedly.

Joel smiled, pleased to see how Blair reacted to the idea. "Yes. I was hoping you might help me out with her gift."

"Hey, anything, man. You know that." Blair was practically vibrating with excitement at the idea of being able to spend some time with his lady. Of course, it wouldn't be very smart of him to tell her father that he thought of his daughter as his lady... or something like that.

"Well, I had this idea. You own a tux, right?"

"Yeah," Blair's voice was cautious.

"Well, I thought I might give you to her for her birthday." Seeing the shocked look on the younger man's face, he hurried on, explaining. "You in a tux, with a ribbon and a big, red bow, tickets to the theatre and dinner at 'le posh'."

Blair stared. "You want me to take her out for her birthday?" He was confused.

"Blair, how do you feel about Cecilia?" Joel's voice was very serious.

"I love her," Blair blurted out without thinking.

Joel smiled. "I know. Forever? Or just 'for now'?"

"Forever." Blair admitted, and then looked surprised.

"You weren't sure until I asked, were you?" Joel smiled.

"Uh... No. Well, yes, but not really. I... arggh. I don't know what I'm saying. Yes. I knew that I loved her. I think I knew it was the forever kind, but I'm not sure about how she feels about me, you know?"

Joel chuckled and patted the smaller man on the shoulder. "Well, I do. Every time she calls or writes, she asks how you're doing, what you're doing, who you might be seeing. I know that she's relieved every time we tell her that you aren't seeing anyone. I know my daughter, Blair, and I think the two of you could well be 'it' for each other."

Blair looked pole axed. "Really?" his voice squeaked, but he didn't seem to notice.

"Yeah. So, I thought, that by giving her 'you' for her birthday, it would let her know that I approve, of you, of her. Do you know what I'm trying to say, Blair?"

Blair's mouth hung open. Joel had befriended him from the very beginning, never judging him, never belittling him or been unkind to him, not once. Sure, Blair had helped him a few times, too, but this... this was something very special. His mouth closed and he smiled.

"Thank you, Joel I would be honored to be Cecilia's birthday gift." His voice told Joel much more than he could put into words and Joel nodded his acceptance.

"Good. So, she's coming in next Thursday. Her birthday is Saturday, so I'll pick up the tickets on my way home this evening. Be at my house next Saturday about four?"

"So early?"

"Yeah. Mable will be taking her out shopping for her birthday. When she gets back, that's when we'll give her her present."

Blair grinned and started to bounce in excitement. "I can hardly wait."

A week. An entire week, spent waiting. Joel had gotten them tickets to the local production of 'Man of La Mancha', and Blair was getting more excited by the hour as the time approached. Blair didn't even notice how melancholy Jim was getting, but everyone else had. By Thursday afternoon, Joel knew he needed to do something. Catching Blair in the elevator, Joel asked him, "Have you talked to Jim about you and Cecilia?"

Blair frowned. "No, why?"

Joel stared at him. "What are your plans, for you and Cecilia?"

Blair's frown deepened, "Plans? We're going out for dinner and the theater, why?"

Joel sighed, "From the way Jim's acting, I think he thinks you're going to ask her to marry you," he explained.

Blair gaped, open mouthed at the older man. "But... we're not ready! Why would he think that? Oh, man!"

Joel chuckled, relieved. "All Jim knows is that Cecilia's parents are giving you to her for her birthday, meaning that we approve of you both. How is Jim to know that you're not planning more, if you don't tell him?" Joel patted the younger man on the shoulder. "I think the two of you need to have a little talk, yes?"

"Oh, man! Yeah, I guess I should talk to him, tell him... oh, man," he groaned, "No wonder he's been so quiet this week." He shook his head, "Poor guy."

"Blair, you also need to talk to him about what your future plans are, you know. I mean, he and Ronnie seem pretty serious about each other, too, and eventually, both of you are going to have to go your separate ways. I doubt that it's very healthy for couples to share domiciles, if you know what I mean?" Joel watched as Blair nodded his understanding.

"Yeah. You're right. We do need to talk. Thanks. I guess I'd better do that now, huh?"

"Well, soon, anyway. He's pretty down, in case you haven't noticed." Joel patted him on the shoulder again and turned to exit the elevator as the doors slid open. "Good luck," was his parting comment as he turned away from the bullpen. Blair followed him out, but headed straight for his partner.

"Jim, we need to talk."

Jim looked up, a knowing sadness in his eyes. "Yeah, I know. Simon's out, so I guess we can use his office." He stood and quietly followed his partner to the glassed in office, closing the door behind them. They sat at the small conference table and Jim sat quietly, waiting.

"You know that I'm part of Cecilia's birthday present, right?" Jim nodded, watching him a bit warily. "Okay, well, what that means, is that Joel and Mable have given their approval for us, as a couple. However, Cecilia and I have talked about it, and we're not going to do anything until after she finishes college and gets her degree. In fact, I was sort of thinking of asking her to marry me when we go out to celebrate her graduation. That's not for another year, Jim. And I have no idea how long it will be before we actually get married; I just hope that we do." He finally turned to look at his partner and saw the concern and, yes, relief in his face. Blair smiled slightly, "Hopefully, that will give you enough time to get squared away with Ronnie. I got to tell you, Jim, I think you and she are perfect together, you know?"

Jim stared, wondering when his sidekick had become so wise. "You may be right, but I'm in no hurry. I don't want to go through what Carolyn and I went through. I need to be sure."

Fear based responses. Blair nodded. "I know. Hey, maybe by the time Cecilia and I are ready to settle down, you and Ronnie will be ready. I think a double wedding would be cool, don't you?" There was a mischievous glint in the younger man's eyes. "Besides, I would never suddenly run out on you, you know? That's just not me. Understand?"

Jim regarded his partner and best friend very solemnly. "Yeah. I understand."

Blair smiled and stood up, patting his still sitting partner on the shoulder. "Good. Now that we've got that straightened out, what say we go get some lunch? I'm starving."

"Sure, I could eat," Jim agreed, standing and following his partner from the office. "How about Dim Sum?"

"Oh, yeah. Great idea."

Contented again, the pair headed out the door, not noticing the bemused expression on Joel Taggart's face as they passed.

Late Saturday afternoon, Blair headed for the Taggart's house, his tux fresh back from the dry cleaners and carried in a suit bag. Jim had teased him about being careful not to get his good clothes dirty, and Blair had bantered back that he promised he'd be good, mommy. Once he had gone, and Jim had watched him drive away, he returned to the loft and made a phone call.

"Hello?" Her voice was low and sultry.

"Hey, lady. You busy tonight?"

"That depends. What did you have in mind?" Ronnie smiled, recognizing the voice.

"Well, how about dinner and a movie?" Jim suggested.

"Ooh, which movie?"

"Your choice."

She pondered, trying to decide. "You know, I have a couple of movies here I'd like to watch, why don't you come over and I'll cook?"

"Are you sure?" Jim loved quiet evenings with her, but didn't want to impose.

She knew what he was thinking. "Bring the wine, something light. I've some lovely fresh salmon. I'll make saffron rice and a salad to go with it. See you about six?" Her answer took it out of his hands, and she knew he was probably relieved.

"Wine, something light, got it. See you about six, then." He paused, thinking, "Thanks, Ronnie." I love you.

"You're welcome, Jim." I love you, too.

He asked the man at the wine store for advice. He'd picked up a sparkling wine from Australia, as well as a light desert wine from California. He also picked up a half-gallon of Breyer's French Vanilla ice cream, for desert.

At ten minutes to six, he was at her door. She had been waiting for him and had the door open before he had a chance to knock. Taking the bags from him, she accepted his kiss, and then turned and headed to the kitchen with Jim on her heels.

"What else did you get? Ooh, the good ice cream. Perfect." She looked at the wines and nodded. "These both look good. Thank you."

"You're welcome." He took the ice cream and put it away in her freezer, then settled at the bar that separated the kitchen from the dining room and watched her bustle around, checking that everything was on schedule. He found himself admiring her grace and suppleness as she moved around the kitchen, bending to check on the contents of the oven, stretching to reach up to a shelf to get out the dishes needed for their repast. She caught him watching her and smiled, handing him the dishes to set the table, which he quickly did; returning to watch her some more.

"Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes," Ronnie informed him, stepping close. He grinned and reached for her, pulling her against him.

"Good. Plenty of time to say 'hello' then, right?" He kissed her.

She kissed him back, and then pulled away slightly. "Oh, yeah, plenty of time to say 'hello'." She leaned back in for another kiss. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, while his encircled her waist. They barely came up for air, until the timer went off, indicating that their meal was done. Reluctantly, they parted. Jim grinned as Ronnie's eyes finally began to focus.

"Right, dinner is ready. Uh, give me a second. Put the trivets on the table, would you, Jim?"

"Yes, dear," Jim replied as he snagged the two cast iron trivets from their hooks on the wall and placed them on the table. Ronnie was right behind him with two hot casserole dishes, which she placed on the trivets as soon as Jim moved out of her way. Jim headed for the refrigerator to get the salad and dressing, as well as the wine. While Ronnie tossed the salad and served, Jim opened and poured the wine. When everything was ready, Jim gallantly held Ronnie's chair for her before taking his own. Ronnie knew he could be very sensitive about spices and seasonings, so was always careful to warn him of anything extremely spicy. The saffron rice was what she considered 'borderline', so she warned him.

"I hope the rice isn't too spicy for you, Jim. I used lemon, butter and dill on the salmon, so it should be all right, but there's just a bit of pepper in the rice, so I thought I should warn you."

Jim smiled. It was one of the things that endeared her to him. She simply accepted him, as is, weird senses, lousy attitude, mood swings, and all. He inhaled the fragrance of the rice and smiled. It wouldn't be too spicy at all. Particularly since she had warned him in advance. They ate quietly, discussing how their week had gone, the office scuttlebutt and how Jim hoped that Joel got pictures of Blair in his tux, all decked out in ribbons and bows. He hoped they also got a good shot of Cecilia's face when she saw her 'present'. Ronnie agreed that it would provide excellent blackmail material, if they could get Joel to share the pictures.

When they had finished eating, Jim insisted on helping clean the kitchen. Ronnie had long ago learned to let him do his 'Mr. Clean' act. Actually, it was a pleasure to have a man around who thought nothing of doing housework. It was, in fact, such a novelty that she mostly just watched him work.

He knew that she wasn't used to men willing to clean, but sometimes, he simply couldn't help himself. Sure, Ronnie kept a nice, clean house. She was an excellent housekeeper, but she had done all the cooking, and he felt that the least he could do was the dishes. They worked well together, never getting in each other's way and the only times they bumped into each other was generally deliberate on one or the other's part.

Once the kitchen was cleaned to his satisfaction, he and Ronnie settled down in her living room to watch the movies she'd chosen. Knowing that he liked action movies, she had Jackie Chan's 'Shanghai Noon', and for herself, 'The Princess Bride', one of her favorites. They sat together, holding hands, then making out through both movies. Finally, Jim sighed. "I should go home before I ask for something I shouldn't." He made no move to leave, however.

"We haven't had our ice cream, yet," Ronnie countered, kissing him.

"Ronnie, you know that's not what I meant."

She sighed. "I know. Sometimes, I wish you weren't quite so honorable, or I was a bit less... whatever it is that I am. I'd honestly love for you to spend the night, but I also know that that isn't what we need to be doing, yet. I wonder how Blair and Cecilia manage?"

"Well, I'm sure Cecilia has less trouble than Blair does. She's just sticking to the way her folks raised her. I know that Sandburg doesn't handle it with nearly the aplomb he pretends to. But he's taking his cues from her parents. Tonight's a big milestone for them. Joel and Mable have basically given their approval of the match." He pressed his cheek against the top of her head, where she leaned against his shoulder, his hand drifting up and down from her shoulder to her elbow.

"Is that what you need, or want? Someone to give us their blessing?" Ronnie asked very softly.

"Yeah, I guess. But not my father or your sister, that's for sure," Jim replied.

Ronnie chuckled. "I don't want or need my parents approval. But I think that I'd like to have someone tell me that you and I are a perfect match, you know? I mean, I feel it, but it would be nice to have that feeling confirmed."

"Yeah. I know what you mean. Oh, by the way, Blair says that it's going to be another year or so before he pops the question to Cecilia. He's thinking that he should do it on her graduation day."

"That's what, a year and a half from now?" Ronnie twisted to look up at him.

"Yeah. He, uh, also suggested a double wedding. You and me, him and Cecilia." He was barely breathing as he awaited her answer.

Ronnie wasn't surprised, in particular, but rather pleased. "Hmmm. That gives us another year or two to be sure that this is right for us." She lay quietly for several moments, soaking up his warmth. Then she patted his chest as she sat up. "I think that would be fun." She stood and headed for the kitchen and their dessert, leaving Jim behind, staring after her in shock.

Had he just asked her to marry him and she said yes? He scrambled to his feet and followed her.

"Uh, what just happened?" He asked diffidently, not quite sure.

She grinned. "I think we just discussed marriage, and the advisability of us having a double ceremony with Blair and Cecilia."

"That's sort of what I thought we did. So, you think it's a good idea?" He was still unsure. Yes, he loved her dearly. Yes, he would love to marry her and maybe have kids, which they hadn't ever discussed. Yes, she seemed to like the idea of them getting married, even if it wasn't for another year or two. What was he feeling? He realized he had a stupid grin on his face and then realized that he didn't care.

"We have until Blair asks Cecilia to marry him and set the date. She doesn't graduate for another year and a half, so that gives us plenty of time to be sure that this is right for us."

Jim suddenly realized what was bothering him. "I don't know that I want to wait that long."

It was Ronnie's turn to gape. "Jim?" she asked, barely above a whisper. He frowned and met her eyes.

"We still need to do a lot of talking about this, but I think I already know what I want. What about you?" There was such uncertainty in his eyes that Ronnie put down the spoon she'd been scooping ice cream with and went to him, into his arms and hugged him.

"You're right. We still need to talk about what we want, but I know that I don't want to lose you," Ronnie whispered. Jim held her tightly, closing his eyes and burying his face in her hair, relishing the warmth of her against him, the scent of her shampoo and her...

"So, let's talk," he whispered, lifting her face up to kiss her.

Cecilia and her mother got back from their shopping spree to find Joel kicked back in his recliner, watching golf on television. Cecilia frowned. "Daddy, you hate golf!"

Joel grimaced and changed the channel. "I was hoping it would bore me to sleep." He stood up and approached them, smiling. "How was the shopping?"

"Fun, as always," Cecilia grinned, watching as her father bent down to kiss her mother. They'd been together so long, yet they still kissed like a couple of newlyweds. She hoped her own marriage would be as long lasting and sound.

Joel stood up, winked at his wife and turned to his daughter. "I, uh, had this idea for your birthday present," he began.

Cecilia frowned, "Daddy, I thought the shopping spree was my present?"

"Well, yes, it was, part of it. I think, well, I hope you'll like the rest of it." Nervously, he opened the door to the parlor and motioned. Blair came in, wearing a tuxedo with a long, red ribbon draped around his body and a huge red bow over his heart. He was blushing furiously, but had a hopeful look on his face, as well.

Cecilia started to laugh, but stopped when she saw the expression her father wore. She sobered immediately and tried to decide what this particular 'gift' meant. Everyone stood silently by, waiting for her to do or say something, anything.

Blair was blushing and starting to look terribly embarrassed. Joel was looking like he felt like he'd been very foolish, but Mable just looked at her daughter, willing her to understand. Finally, Cecilia got the message and smiled. "Thank you, Daddy. I think this may be the best present of all." She stepped over to Blair and pulled at the bow, which easily came off, along with the ribbon. She smiled up at him, and kissed him.

The younger couple never heard the sighs of relief from the older Taggarts. When the kiss ended, Joel cleared his throat, "There's more," he said, handing her the tickets to the theater. Cecilia's eyes widened in pleased surprise.

"Oh! I need to get ready! Give me half an hour, Blair?" She hugged her father, giving him a kiss on the cheek, hugged her mother and kissed her as well. Passing Blair, she couldn't resist snatching another kiss before dashing out of the room and up the stairs.

"Uh, we have dinner reservations, too!" Blair called after the retreating figure.

"I think that went well," Mable sighed, grasping Joel's hand.

"Very well," Joel agreed. Blair just grinned at them, bouncing in place.

Cecilia had had to run away. The enormity of her father's unspoken gift rocked her to her core. He was giving them permission. He'd always been so critical of all her boyfriends, before. He'd always been right, but still... He approved of Blair. Totally approved. She could hardly function, she was so excited. She was in the shower when she thought about what it all meant. She still had three semesters before she got her degree, and she wasn't sure, now, that she really wanted to wait. She'd have to talk it over with Blair... and her parents. Of course, she suspected that she knew what her parents would say, but she was an adult, she'd just turned twenty-nine and she felt that she was old enough to make this decision on her own. But she'd hate to disappoint her parents. She'd talk to Blair, first. Maybe he didn't want to wait, either? Or, maybe he would feel that they needed more time to decide. She was afraid and confused. Obviously, she wasn't going to be able to make this decision on her own. First, though, she needed to finish her shower and get dressed. Blair was in a tux, and he looked absolutely wonderful. Her mother had helped her pick out a formal gown, and now she knew why.

Teal silk, almost the exact same color as Blair's eyes. She slipped the gown on. She'd already known that it fit as though it were custom made for her. The skirt was full and fell to mid-calf. She wore black pumps and carried a matching black purse, with a black, lightweight shawl. The weather was supposed to be fine, so she didn't worry too much about a coat. She looked at herself in the mirror as she applied her makeup. Her mother had taught her that she didn't need a great deal, and she'd learned to accent her face, rather than cover any of it. She knew that Blair liked the way she looked, and hoped he approved. Getting her lipstick just right, she backed away from the mirror and looked at herself. Her heart was still pounding in anticipation, so she tried to calm herself before going downstairs. She'd heard Blair say that they were going out for dinner, too, and wondered where? She hoped it would be someplace romantic, but then again, as far as she was concerned, Wonderburger was romantic, when she was with Blair.

Both Blair and Joel gasped when she reappeared in the parlor. Joel, in shock that his baby girl had grown up so very much; Blair, in amazement at the beautiful vision that approached. Standing side-by-side, they were a lovely couple. Mable had out the camera and insisted on taking pictures, just like they were going to the prom. Cecilia kissed each of her parents and then took Blair's arm. Blair didn't know what to say, so he simply nodded at the Taggarts and escorted his date from the room.

Once out in the car, Blair held the door for Cecilia to get in. Careful not to catch anything in the opening, he closed the door and circled around to the other side and got in. Once in the car, he glanced shyly at her, wondering what he should say, "You look wonderful," he finally settled on.

"So do you," she replied.

"We need to talk!" they chorused together. Surprised, they stared at each other in shock, and then began to laugh. Shaking his head, Blair started the car and drove off, both of them still giggling.

Dinner was, naturally, perfect. 'le posh' had the reputation of being one of the best in town, and the service showed why. Surprisingly, it wasn't nearly as expensive as one would have imagined. They thoroughly enjoyed their meal, and were finished with time to spare for getting to the theater.

The play was excellent and, not really very surprising, a favorite of both of them. During intermission, they chatted about the play, the music, the actors and their roles; just like the best of friends they were. When it was over, Blair suggested dessert and coffee. Cecilia agreed and they stopped off at a small coffee and dessert bar right across from the theater.

Once they were ensconced in a small booth and their order taken, both seemed at a loss for what to say. Finally, Blair grinned and shook his head. "Uh, it just occurred to me, tonight, that, um, your folks maybe, er, uh, approve of me and you. As a couple, that is."

Cecilia released her breath in a sigh of relief. "I know. It was something of a shock, you know? I can't remember ever dating anyone of whom they approved, before. So, this... tonight, well, it was really special, Blair, thank you."

"Hey, I was pretty shook when your dad asked me to take you out. It wasn't until tonight that I figured out what he was really saying. I have to admit that I'm scared out of my mind. I mean, I know I love you, but this... well, this was like a bolt of lightning from the sky. Your parents actually approve of me; of us, together, I mean." Blair shut up, when he realized that he was blithering.

Cecilia laughed. "Oh, I know! That's exactly what I was thinking. I mean, I love you, too, but I've still got three semesters to go, before I get my degree, and now, do we wait, do I quit school, where do we go from here?"

Blair was shaken. "First of all, you do NOT quit school. That is not an option, understand? Your folks told me, once, one of those times you were going back to California and I was missing you and feeling sorry for myself, that if a relationship is meant to be, then separation won't hurt it. Look at your folks, your dad was missing for over a year in 'Nam, and they certainly lasted."

Cecilia smiled, reassured. "You're right. It's only a year and a half, and we'll still have holidays and school breaks when we can be together. Besides, I guess we still have an awful lot of planning to do, as well."

"Right," Blair agreed, somewhat relieved to have more time to come to grips with the notion of settling down for good. The idea both thrilled and terrified him. Being his mother's son, 'detach with love' had been the mantra he'd been raised to, but he'd realized that her life wasn't his, and wasn't for him. The idea of settling down in one place, building a life-long relationship, raising a family, that had far more appeal to him than his mother's nomadic existence. Naomi was a migrating bird, he was a seed, wanting to put down roots and grow and flourish.

They looked at each other and realized that they were both relieved that there was still time before anything would really change. As one, they spoke.

"I'm glad we don't have to do anything right away."

For a moment they both froze in shock, then, their eyes locked on each other's, they began laughing.

Finally, Blair understood why Cecilia's parents talked about marrying your best friend. Without ever having been intimate, they were on the same wavelength, although not yet to the point of finishing one another's sentences. It felt great to be this close to someone and to know that what he felt for Cecilia was reciprocated. To know that she was as afraid and uncertain as he was helped him to firm his resolve to make this work, for at least as long as Cecilia's parent's had, maybe even longer...

They laughed and talked over their dessert and coffee, like the friends they were, leaving the future to tend to itself. When Blair took Cecilia home, they were laughing over something one of them had said, as he walked her to her door. Once on the porch, they paused to say goodnight. The kiss lasted for a long time, only ending when the door opened behind them and Joel suggested they come in.

Blushing, Blair smiled. "Uh, that's all right, I uh, need to be going. "Will you be in town long, Cecilia?"

"I have to fly back tomorrow evening. Would you like to go to church with us in the morning?" she invited.

Blair shifted, nervously. "Uh, I'm not... I'm, uh..." This was something they'd never discussed. He was Jewish, but not practicing very hard. She was Christian, and devout. Here, there could be a problem.

"It's all right, Blair," Joel said. "Going to church with us is not a prerequisite for a relationship."

Blair frowned at that. "I'd love to go to church with you, tomorrow. What time?" he blurted out. He was a bit surprised at his agreement. Sure, he'd studied various religions, but he'd always, more or less, stuck to his own, for the most part. Of course, Joel and Mable lived their beliefs, as did Cecilia. Surely it wouldn't be too bad... he hoped.

"Blair, it's all right. Only come if you really want to. There's no onus on you to change your faith, after all, we do worship the same God, it's just that we believe that Messiah has come, in the person of Christ. Don't feel pressured to mimic us." Joel was concerned that Blair might feel that if he didn't profess Christianity, their approval of him might vanish.

Blair grinned, understanding. "That's all right. I did a paper once, on comparative religion. Observing is a big part of my life. Besides, I'd like to learn about your religion. You live what you profess, and I find it interesting. Who knows? Maybe I'll end up believing what you do?"

Joel smiled, sending up a quick prayer that it could be so. He'd have to remember to introduce Blair to the small contingent of converted Jews in his church. But not right away. Let him choose on his own, with no pressure.

Cecilia grinned. "Sunday school is at nine-thirty, and church is at eleven. I teach the first graders, so how about you meet me out front just before eleven?"

Blair frowned a moment, then shook his head. "How about I go with you and watch you teach?"

Cecilia beamed. "I'd love it." She turned to her father, "Is that okay, Daddy?"

"Of course, sweetheart. Would you like us to pick you up, Blair?"

Surprised, he answered without thinking. "Sure, that'd be great!"

"Fine, we'll pick you up about nine, then." Joel watched, as Blair suddenly had nothing more to say, and fumbled his good-nights, getting one last kiss from Cecilia before he turned away to his car. Cecilia entered the house and stood by her father, who draped an arm around her shoulders, watching as Blair got in the car and drove away.

Back inside, Cecilia wasn't surprised to find that her mother had gone to bed. She waited expectantly for her father to start the inquisition. She tried to smother a smile, but the evening had been too good for her to be able to.

"So, how was the play?" Joel asked, playing out their age-old game.

"Wonderful, thank you. So were dinner, and dessert and coffee. She knew the rules as well as he did. She walked past him, heading for the stairs.

"Cecilia?" His tone was uncertain, worried.

She turned; the rules had suddenly changed. "We're going to wait until I finish school, Daddy. Once I have my Masters and have graduated, then, if we're still together, we'll consider getting married." She blushed and giggled nervously. "I think Blair is as scared as I am." She looked into her father's face with shining eyes. "We had so much fun. A couple of times, we both said the same thing at the same time. It is so great to be able to talk to him like that. We're so in tune with each other." Seeing the fond expression in her father's eyes, she asked, "Is that how it is with you and Mom?"

"Yes, it is. Isn't it wonderful? To be so in tune with someone that you don't have to talk, or you both say the same thing at the same time, or finish each other's sentences?" Joel had been married now for more than thirty years, and he loved his wife at least as much, if not more, than the day they were married. Looking at his daughter, his smiled softened, "It gets better, Cecilia. I realize that you might have trouble understanding this, but it gets better."

Cecilia laughed with joy. "It's pretty terrific now, Daddy." She ran to him and threw her arms around his neck. "And I want what you and Mom have. I want it all."

Joel hugged his daughter tightly. "You'll have it baby. Just take things slow and watch it grow. You'll know if and when you're ready."

"I know. Thank you, Daddy. You know," Cecilia pulled away, slightly. "If I took just two extra classes for the next two semesters, I could finish in a year, instead of a year and a half."

"Cecilia, you're carrying a full load already, six more units? On top of the twelve you already have? Don't you think that's pushing just a little too hard?"

"Well, I could try, and if it doesn't work, I can always drop them. What do you say?"

Joel chuckled. "I'd say my baby girl has grown up and is looking forward to the rest of her life. Anyway, for now, it's late, and if we're going to pick Blair up in the morning, we both need to get some sleep." He turned his daughter and gently pushed her towards the stairs. "Off to bed, with you. I'll lock up."

Cecilia laughed, sounding almost exactly like her mother and ran lightly up the stairs. Joel watched her, remembering... Turning away, he checked the deadbolt on the front door and turned off the lights, before making his way down the hall to his bedroom.

He paused in the doorway, watching his wife sleep. "We've done well, Baby. We've done very well." Still smiling, he changed into his pajamas and slid into bed beside his best friend, lover, and wife. Snuggling close, he took her into his arms, shifting her to cradle her body next to his. With a sigh, he closed his eyes and dreamed about weddings and grandchildren.

The end

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