[personal profile] starwatcher_fic
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Title: It's About Friendship
Summary: Christmas + Friendship
Style: Gen
Size: 15,750 words, about 32 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Written for Secret Santa 06 -- "Would really like to see Jim do something nice for Blair, that surprises Blair, and pleases him. Happy ending, and possibly a little h/c."
I guessed the recipient -- Merry Christmas, Arianna!
Feedback: Not necessary, but every one is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





It's About Friendship

by StarWatcher





Mid-September

As soon as the after-dinner cleanup was finished, Blair pulled out his laptop and a notepad. In just a few minutes, he was busily surfing the 'Net, pausing occasionally to scribble notes on the yellow pad beside him.

Seems like the kid hits the ground running every semester, Jim thought, absurdly smug that he didn't have any 'homework' hanging over his head. All of his cases were going well, and he had only a handful unresolved; maybe all the criminals were still on summer vacation. He settled in for a quiet evening with the latest issue of Field and Stream.

An hour later, Blair closed the laptop with a quiet snap of the lid and leaned back in his chair, stretching his muscles with hands raised over his head. He rose and ambled toward the fridge. "Hey, Jim, you want a beer?"

"Sure, buddy; thanks."

Blair grabbed two bottles, tossed the caps in the trash, then snagged his notepad as he walked past the table. After handing Jim one of the beers, he settled on the opposite couch with poorly-concealed excitement.

Jim recognized the vibes; he'd seen them often enough. Blair was waiting for the 'right' moment to propose some new test or use of his senses. Might as well get it over with; otherwise, his guide might well explode from the internal pressure. "Okay, Chief, spill it. What scintillating senses assessment have you dreamed up for me now?"

"Oh, I don't want to bother you, man," Blair assured him. "It can wait until you've finished that article and you're relaxed."

"Sandburg, if you make me wait, I'll start getting unrelaxed. We have a system that works; don't knock it." Jim's eyes gleamed with amusement as he ticked off the points on his fingers. "You propose, I growl, you wheedle, I give in." He winked at the stunned expression on his friend's face. "Depending on the time or difficulty needed to implement said proposal, one of us makes concessions to the other one, and everything's hunky-dory. So propose, already, and let's get the show on the road."

Blair shook his head, his amusement matching Jim's. "Oh, man, I was going to give you extra points for 'scintillating senses assessment', but 'hunky-dory' takes them off again. I can't believe those two phrases were conceived by the same brain."

"You're stalling, Sandburg. It can't be that bad, just spit it out already."

"You're no fun," Blair griped. "Okay, short version. Would you come to the lumber store with me tomorrow, and tell me which of several types of wood is least objectionable to your enhanced senses? Shouldn't take more than half an hour or so."

Jim made a show of thoughtful consideration. "Tomorrow. Tomorrow. I was going to drive over to Olympia and pick up my winning lottery check. But I guess I can help you out. So what's the long story?"

"Seriously?"

"Seriously."

"Well, a friend of mine suffers from pretty bad chemical sensitivity. She's managing pretty well -- relocated out of the city proper, bought non-toxic furnishings and materials for the house, and works from home so she doesn't have to go out too much. She's a really great webpage designer, and her business is taking off. But finances are kinda tight -- that non-toxic stuff is a bit pricier than conventional furnishings -- and she's pregnant; the baby's due about the middle of January."

Jim raised an eyebrow. "And what does my checking out wood have to do with all of this?"

"She's going to need baby furniture -- crib and changing table as soon as the baby's born, and a highchair a little later. There are patterns on the 'Net for do-it-yourself furniture, but her husband's not much of a handyman. So I figure I'll do it; make everything myself with non-toxic materials. I can buy enough wood for one piece each month, and have it all ready for Christmas. And you -- you, my man, will be my insurance that I'm getting the least toxic possibility of the available woods."

"Sandburg, you're not turning the loft into a workshop," Jim objected. "Between the noise and the sawdust, I'd have to arrest myself for murder within a week."

"Hey, man, I wouldn't do that to you! Besides, neither one of us has the equipment for that kind of fine woodworking. I've arranged to use the woodshop at Hardesty High, after hours and weekends. Mr. Rosenbaum -- he's the shop teacher -- has even given me an extra key, so I don't have to track him down to get in. And I promise -- I'll brush myself off real well when I'm finished in the shop, and again down in the parking lot before I come up. I mean, it's hardly kosher to save one person from exposure to toxics while I'm inflicting it on another, is it?" Blair gazed earnestly at his friend. "I swear, Jim, it won't affect you one bit."

"Except for sniffing wood tomorrow," he pointed out.

"Well, yeah...."

Jim chuckled. "Don't sweat it, Chief. It's a worthwhile project you've set yourself, even though I think the sniff test is unnecessary. I've never had any side-effects from any kind of wood that I can think of."

"But imagine your sensitivity spiked and you can't dial it down," Blair suggested. "I mean, some woods are even toxic to non-sensitive people, like yew. And did you know that just standing in the shavings from black walnut can cause a horse to founder? It's not so far-fetched to think that some folks might be sensitive to things that most of us never even notice, is it?"

"Take it easy, Junior. Just because I think you may be going overboard doesn't mean I think you're crazy; that's already been established." He grinned at Blair's amused snort. "I'm sure your friend will be grateful that you care so much for her. I'll be happy to help you get started; it's not like I'll break out in big green spots by sniffing a bit of wood." He glanced at his watch. "So now that that's settled, turn on the TV. It's time for the news."




After a morning of housecleaning, they agreed to lunch at Big Cheese Pizza. Blair's noble proclamation that it was simply pre-payment for the favor Jim was doing him blithely ignored the fact that Canadian-bacon-and-pepperoni stromboli was one of his favorite dishes.

"What happened to 'healthy', Sandburg?" Jim teased. "At least mine has some veggies," he pointed out, digging into his Mexican taco pizza, piled high with lettuce and tomatoes.

"That's spicy taco meat under those veggies, not tofu," Blair retorted. "And it's my turn to cook tonight. I'm thinking of a nice alfalfa-sprout and bean-curd casserole; should clean the cholesterol right out of the old pipes."

"Aren't you overreacting a bit, Chief? The only ones who deserve the punishment of your sprout-and-curd casserole are convicted felons. My gut instinct is, if you want any wood-sniffing done, you need to come up with something a little less healthy for supper.

Blair heaved a martyred sigh. "Fine. Far be it from me to try to slow your headlong rush to a heart attack. Tuna-and-noodle casserole suit you?"

"Throw in garlic breadsticks and you've got a deal."

They shared a companionable grin, finished their meal, and headed to Bartlett Lumber. Both men preferred to support the local independents rather than big chain stores, and Jim could avoid the stress of the cavernous 'warehouse' stores on his senses.

Standing at the back of the store, they surveyed rows and stacks of lumber, of various widths, thicknesses, and lengths. "So, what's the plan, Chief?"

Blair pulled out a small notepad. "Well, according to my research, the best woods are oak, ash, maple, white pine, redwood, and mahogany. But any of them can be irritants for some people, and they're not ranked for relative severity. If you detect a difference, I'll go with the one you judge lowest. If not, I'll go with whichever has the most attractive grain."

"Won't a sealer take care of -- well, whatever comes off the wood that makes a person react?"

"Probably," Blair agreed. "And I've found a sealer that supposed to be non-toxic after it dries, with no fumes. But I might have to use oil instead of a sealer. Regardless, if I avoid as many irritants as possible, whatever slips through should be at low enough levels not to affect Bethany."

Jim shrugged. "Well, I guess all you can do is try. Which one is first?"

"In deference to my pocketbook, why don't we start with the cheapest and work up? White pine." He selected a straight, well-grained 1x6 and presented it for Jim's evaluation.

Jim turned up his mental dial for scent, put his nose close to the cut end, inhaled delicately -- and almost staggered at the surge of sensory input. Too many varieties of wood in too small a space; he was almost overwhelmed by the competing smells.

"I can't, Chief," he gasped. "There's too much here; I can't open far enough to get a true reading for you."

"Oh, man, I should've thought of that! Sorry, Jim; dial it back down for a minute." Blair laid a hand on his friend's arm to help ground him, while he chewed his lip in thought. "Okay, let's see if you can go out to the storage yard, out where they stack all the concrete blocks. If they'll let me bring the wood out to you, it should be easy enough to filter out the smell of concrete because it's so different, and let you concentrate on the wood."

A short discussion with one of the store personnel gained them permission. Jim sat outside on a convenient stack of concrete blocks, breathing deeply of the fresh air, while Blair selected a sample of each wood and loaded it onto a cart. He soon appeared, pushing the cart over the uneven ground.

"Here we go!" Blair announced. He waved a piece of sandpaper in the air. "I even got permission to sand an end -- lightly -- so you can really judge the effect of the fresh scents. White pine, comin' up!" He rubbed an end briefly with the sandpaper, then once again presented it to Jim.

The sentinel cautiously raised his dials, filtering out the scent of concrete as Sandburg had suggested. Yes, this was much easier. Feeling no effects, he raised the dials higher, and sniffed more deeply.

Hmm... was that a slight tickle in the back of his throat, and deeper in his lungs? Jim concentrated, trying to isolate and memorize the feeling. Yes, definite reaction there, although very minor -- to him, anyway; he wouldn't even notice if he weren't dialed up and looking for it. He didn't know about Blair's friend.

"Okay, Chief, I think you should write all this down or we'll lose track. For this one, my dial is on --" he checked it with his inner eye, "-- seven, and I'd peg the reaction at a four."

"Gotcha, gotcha," Blair murmured, scribbling the information into his notebook. "Okay, breathe deep, clean the scent and reaction out of your system." He waited while Jim obliged, then presented the piece of ash. "Now, what about this?"

After Jim had evaluated all the woods, the clear winner was maple; he'd given it a reaction level of one-point-five with his dial set on nine.

"But what if your friend has a reaction anyway?" Jim asked. "It'd be a helluva thing to build a bunch of furniture and then find she can't live with it."

"Got it covered," Blair asserted. "I buy one piece of wood, saw off each end -- that way I can use the middle for part of the crib, later -- then sand and finish each piece. One with something called 'acrylacq', and one with a mixture of tung oil, linseed oil, and something called 'varathane'. Then Bethany checks them out and tells me which one is best for her, or if they're both a wash."

"But then you lose all the element of surprise," Jim pointed out.

"Well, with Bethany's level of chemical sensitivities, she can't afford too many 'surprises'; a bad reaction can lay her up for three or four days, so I had to let her in on my plans -- kinda." Blair's eyes twinkled, highlighting his smug expression. "So I only told her I was building a crib; it'll officially be a 'baby present', and I'll give it to her as soon as it's finished. But the changing table and the highchair will be a complete surprise, and I'll give them both to her as Christmas presents." He grinned up at his friend. "Jim, you know how my mom gets into everything; by the time I was eight, I had master's-level training in how to keep surprises. After Naomi, everyone else is easy flyin'."

Jim raised an eyebrow. "Does this mean I need to be wary of 'master's-level surprises'?"

Blair winked. "That would be tellin'. C'mon, let me pay for this and we're outa here."



Mid-October

"Let's go, Jim! I told Bethany we'd be there at four; we need time to drive slow enough that the crib doesn't slide around and get damaged."

Amusement colored Jim's voice as he slipped into his jacket. "Sandburg, you've been working on that thing for a month; I don't think your friend will lock us out if we're five minutes late. And you have enough rope there to hogtie a couple of longhorns," he said, gesturing to the coils draped over Blair's shoulder. "I doubt that you'll let it move an inch."

"Yeah, but you'll let me drive, right? We're less likely to get into a car chase with me behind the wheel."

"In your dreams, Chief." Jim followed Blair into the elevator and pushed the button. "You should just be grateful that I give up my valuable time and the use of the truck to ferry your little woodworking project all over town."

Blair tossed the rope into the bed of the pickup and climbed into the passenger seat. "Yeah, yeah, like you have anything better to do on a Saturday afternoon. Like reruns of Bonanza are so stimulating."

"Better than the life habits of the Mumbo-Jumbo tribe at the back end of Nowhere," Jim retorted, pulling out into the traffic.

Secretly, Jim was pleased to be spending some time with Blair. The kid had been disappearing every Saturday and Sunday afternoon since he'd started the project, unless he had to help Jim with a case. In addition, Sandburg was teaching a Tuesday evening class from six to nine-thirty, and he frequently skipped out on Thursday evenings as well, to continue his woodworking. Jim felt a little disgruntled; much as he hated to admit it, even to himself, the loft felt -- flat -- without Sandburg's presence, oddly dissonant. It was ridiculous; he was a grown man, accustomed to being self-sufficient and alone, not a kindergartner who needed someone to hold his hand. But, almost unconsciously, Jim found himself counting the days until Christmas, when Blair would have completed his project and be 'his' again.

Jim followed Blair's directions to the far side of the High School campus, and parked outside the woodshop. Blair was out of the truck with a bound, almost vibrating with excitement as he quickly unlocked the shop door and pushed it open. "C'mon, man!" he called impatiently. "I want to see what you think."

Jim gave the crib, standing out of harm's way in a small room off the main shop, the consideration it deserved; Sandburg had put a lot of work into this. He ran a sensitive hand along the top railing and down the side-bars, noting that Blair had taken great care with the sanding, leaving no trace of roughness that might scratch a baby's delicate skin. The design was simple but attractive, with arched head- and foot-boards, and gracefully-tapered spindles for the side-bars; the wood gleamed softly with the wax that had been rubbed in to finish it. A discrete shake demonstrated that the crib was sturdy as well as beautiful; it would provide a safe sleeping place for any number of babies, and then be passed on as an heirloom to the next generation.

"I'm impressed, Sandburg," he finally said. "The craftsmanship is as fine as I've ever seen; your friend is very lucky to be getting something like this."

Blair grinned broadly. "Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I think you're right," he agreed, a trifle smugly. "Now, let's get this thing out to the truck."

As they lashed the crib into the bed of the pickup, Jim asked, "So, which one of Naomi's boyfriends taught you woodworking?"

"Jim, a lot of my growing-up years were spent in communes; you know, recycle, reuse, make your own? I learned and practiced with half-a-dozen men, over the years -- and Brother Marcus, of course."

"Of course," Jim agreed. "Didn't need to ask, did I?"

"Not really. Turn left up here on Vireo, then head straight out of town for about fifteen miles."

Once outside the city limits, with only intermittent traffic as a distraction, Jim gave in to his curiosity. "You said that Bethany is -- what? Hypersensitive? Is she someone you met when you were looking for sentinels?"

"No, she was one of the library-workers when I was an undergrad. She used to help me find the research I was looking for, and I told her a lot about sentinels; we got pretty friendly. And then one day she had an attack of acute appendicitis and needed emergency surgery. She had a bad reaction to the anesthesia -- almost died on the table. But when she was released and went home, she didn't get better, and then she started getting sicker -- unexplained rashes, difficulty breathing, shit like that. She finally talked to someone who knew someone with similar symptoms, and that clued her in; she started researching and finally figured out that the anesthesia had messed up her system so bad that she had developed major Chemical Intolerance. So now she's had to change her whole lifestyle to deal with it; her system is so sensitized that she can't even be around most of the stuff the rest of us take for granted."

Jim frowned in thought as he maneuvered around a slow-moving tractor. "You mean the heavy-duty stuff we all have to be careful with, right? Like pesticides and cleaning fluids; surely someone can avoid those without going to a lot of trouble."

"I wish it was that simple," Blair sighed, "but it's a big problem for a lot of people, and growing bigger. Some of the most sensitive people can be laid low by the chemicals left behind in new carpeting, or the varnish on new furniture, or a fresh coat of paint, or even a can of Pledge or a newspaper."

"So is that why you only rubbed the wood with bees' wax and didn't use that sealer stuff you were talking about?"

"Yeah, man, turns out that that stuff still affects a lot of people, even though they market it as something that won't trigger reactions. I knew I'd have to be careful for myself when I put it on, but I thought it'd be okay for Bethany once it dried, you know? But she said 'no', and you should've heard her tirade about deceptive marketing claims. I tell you, since it happened to her, Bethany's become a real activist; she says people've gotta be aware of this stuff, so they can protect themselves."

"I can see why," Jim agreed soberly, trying to squelch the niggling doubts. He was healthy, strong, kept himself fit; something like that couldn't happen to him. Could it?




Blair rang the doorbell of the modest bungalow, and waited for Bethany to come to the door.

He's as impatient as a kid waiting to see Santa, Jim thought, noting with amusement that Blair was literally rocking on his toes, unable to stand still. "Relax, Chief; I hear footsteps coming this way." A moment later, the door was pulled open.

"Burt! You made it!" the young woman exclaimed, giving him a fervent hug.

"Did you doubt it? I said I would, barring robberies, kidnappings, or acts of God; none of that happened, so here we are. Bethany, this is my friend, Jim Ellison. Jim, this is Bethany Roberts, who was very nice to me when I was just a 'little sprout'." He grinned at what seemed to be an old joke.

"Jim, nice to meet you," Bethany said, shaking his hand. "Burt has told us so much about you. Funny; you don't look like the bear he describes."

"I only show the bear-side to people who deserve it -- like certain hyperactive anthropologists," Jim replied, returning the handshake. He saw a woman who appeared to be a few years older than Blair, with swinging corn-row braids, a creamy café-au-lait complexion, good-humored brown eyes, and a wide smile. She was also quite obviously pregnant; Jim wondered if she might not deliver a few weeks before her mid-January due date.

Bethany mimed licking a finger and drawing a '1' in the air, winking at Blair. "I think he has you pegged, Burt. But since I'm not an anthropologist, and the baby has slowed down my hyperactivity, may I assume that I'll be spared your bear-like attributes?"

"Such a lovely lady may assume anything she wants, and a gentleman would never contradict her," Jim replied gallantly, while Blair elbowed him in the ribs and whispered urgently, "Cool it, man; she's married!"

"Which does not detract from her loveliness," Jim pointed out. "Or the fact that I won't act like a bear around her."

Blair stepped in. "Yeah, but you're wasting time. Are you ready for us to bring in the crib, Bethany?"

"Yes, I have the room all fixed up," she replied. "Head straight down the hall; I'll go open the door."

"So how did you turn into a 'Burt', Chief?" Jim asked as they unlashed the crib and carried it up the sidewalk.

"You're not the only one who tosses around nicknames, you know. Bethany was one of the few people who didn't mind me talking about Richard Burton's book, and about sentinels, so I guess I rambled on about the subject. Eventually, she started calling me 'Burton', and then shortened it to 'Burt'. At least it's better than 'guppy'," he chuckled.

They set the crib down in the small room at the end of the hall. Jim took note of the brightly-painted fantasy animals and characters on the walls; fine work, he decided, with a carefree attitude that was appealing.

"I have such good friends," Bethany said, following his gaze. "Jessie is in Rainier's commercial art program. Since I couldn't put up wallpaper, she bought non-toxic paints and called her work the baby's first present.

"But this... this is incredible," she continued, running a caressing hand over the crib. "You said you're a 'competent woodworker', Burt; I never dreamed you'd produce something so elegant. I can't tell you how grateful I am." She hugged Blair fiercely, seeming on the verge of happy tears.

"Aww, I'm just glad you like it," he said, gently patting her back. "But hey, I want to see the whole thing; where's that special mattress you were going to order?"

"It's out in the airing shed; Maurice hung it out there after it was delivered last month. Follow me."

Bethany led them into the back yard, toward a small, peculiar-looking building. It was about eight feet square, Jim judged, with very wide eaves. They'd be needed to keep the rain out, since the walls stopped a foot short of meeting the roof; the empty space was screened with a heavy, quarter-inch wire mesh, presumably to keep birds out. Lower on the walls, beyond the protection of the eaves, were numerous louvered vents; he counted eight on the wall he could see. It seemed that 'airing shed' was more than just a name; a free flow of air currents through this room was almost guaranteed.

"We put everything out here for at least a couple of weeks after we buy it, just to be on the safe side," Bethany said, opening the door. "Even if something claims to be non-toxic materials, I can't afford to take a chance -- unless it was made specifically for me by someone I know took great care to avoid exposing me to anything dangerous." She smiled at Blair, then waved at the small mattress hanging from ropes. "We ordered this from Non-Toxic dot com; it's guaranteed to be all-natural organic cotton over a filling of all-natural organic wool, but I'm leery -- better safe than sorry, you know?"

"I hear you," Blair said fervently, as he helped Jim untie the ropes. "It'd be outrageous if you couldn't even go into your baby's room without getting sick." Together, the men carried the mattress into the house, and placed it in the crib. It fit perfectly.

"And now," Bethany announced, "the workers deserve to be paid. I have some honey-nut bars fresh out of the oven, and Kona coffee in the pot." She led the way into the kitchen. "But just one, for now. Maurice will be home in an hour, and I expect you both to stay for supper. I've made a pot roast with vegetables. Burt mentioned that you have a few sensitivities of your own, Jim, so I went easy on the seasonings; he and Maurice can add more to their plate, if they need."

Their protests were perfunctory; the simmering roast smelled delicious, and it would be rude to refuse her, especially since she had already gone to the effort of preparation. They chatted over the snack and, after meeting Maurice when he came home, over dinner. The conversation ranged from politics to crime-fighting to living with chemical sensitivities.

Bethany was eloquent about the dangers of hidden toxics in common, household items. "The problem is, the manufacturers aren't required to list the chemicals they use, because they can claim it's part of their protected 'secret process'. So, even if the average consumer is trying to be careful, they can't avoid specific chemicals. Unfortunately, unless they're dealing with chemical sensitivity themselves, most people don't know the dangers; I certainly didn't. We expect to have to be careful around pesticides, for instance, but not furniture polish or dish soap; it's downright scary.

"Now I've learned that the PBDEs that are used to make children's bedding and clothing flame-retardant are every bit as dangerous as PCBs and DDT -- they accumulate in body cells and breast milk, and they can affect learning ability, memory, and behavior. PBDEs have been banned in Europe -- there are safer substances that can be used as flame retardants -- but the EPA, in its infinite wisdom, has chosen not to regulate them.

"And, dammit, it's affecting all of us! The schools are dealing with greater and greater numbers of 'special needs' children who have developmental disabilities, and a lot of it seems to be caused by the chemicals in their own homes, and parents don't even know; they'd never expose their babies to it if they had decent information. It just makes me want to line up the CEOs of all these companies that are using chemicals they know will have adverse effects on the human body, and bitch-slap every one of them until they agree to use safer methods!"

Bethany paused, struggling to control her irritation, and offered a strained smile. "Sorry," she said. "As you can see, I feel very passionately about this. But it makes me almost grateful that I did develop a chemical sensitivity; it's given me the knowledge I need to protect my baby from the day he's born."

"Or she," Maurice said with a fond smile. He gave his wife a hug, and gently patted her protruding belly. "I'm with you all the way, honey; this will be the healthiest baby in the entire state."

Jim was intrigued. He considered that being unable to tolerate certain substances was one of the 'cons' of being a sentinel, and sometimes chaffed under Blair's insistence that they not use various products. It had never occurred to him that ordinary people might have to live with the same restrictions, or even more stringent ones. At least he could 'dial it down' when necessary, and, unlike Bethany's experiences, seldom had to avoid going into a public place.

Thank God, he mused. I could hardly continue being a detective under such circumstances. He resolved to quit sniping whenever Blair declared that this or that item was unsuitable for sentinel use. He'd had no idea that ordinary household items could pose such dangers; the knowledge instilled a vague uneasiness. But Sandburg would be on the lookout; he really did have Jim's best interests at heart, and it was stupid to throw that back in his face.

The conversation moved on to other areas. Blair entertained them with improbable tales of his anthropological travels, and Maurice countered with stories of the vagaries of customers who called computer tech-support. Several pleasant hours later, Jim and Blair took their leave, amid assurances that they'd visit again, and would certainly make time to see the new baby after he -- or she -- had made his -- or her -- world debut.



Early November

Jim tapped his credit-card number into the computer and hit 'send'. He should have the plans for a build-it-yourself wooden rocking horse within the week. Every child needed a rocking horse, and he doubted that Blair would have time to build one. And it would give him something to do on Tuesday nights, when Blair was teaching his class. Assuming, of course, he could get access to the woodshop. What was the shop teacher's name? Oh, right. He looked up the number and reached for the phone.

"Hardesty High. May I help you?"

"My name is Jim Ellison, and I'm a friend of Blair Sandburg. I wonder if I might to speak to Mr. Rosenbaum?"

"Just a moment, please; I'll page him."

The 'moment' stretched to five, while Jim listened to Henri regale Rafe with the highly improbable details of his date the night before. Finally, he heard another voice on the line.

"Rosenbaum here."

Jim explained who he was and what he wanted, and heard the shop teacher's voice warm. It seemed that anyone who liked to do fine woodworking was part of a 'brotherhood', and a friend of Blair Sandburg was automatically raised in Mr. Rosenbaum's estimation.

After a short conversation, the plans were finalized. Nick Rosenbaum would let Jim Ellison into the woodshop every Tuesday evening at six-fifteen. Jim would be able to work till nine, clean up after himself, and be home before Sandburg.

Jim hung up with a glow of satisfied anticipation. He'd liked Blair's friend, and sympathized with her plight, but he was fully aware that he'd be building the rocking horse for Blair as much as for Bethany. Blair, more than anyone he knew, genuinely liked people and, when something good happened for his friends, was as happy as they were. It just seemed -- right -- to help his friend bring joy to other people.



Early December

Jim gazed at the clock above Simon's office door for what seemed like the hundredth time; Sandburg should have been here over two hours ago. Of course, he was most likely chatting with some gorgeous TA, or even helping a student with a problem, but telling himself that didn't ease Jim's concern. The streets were slick from last night's freezing rain and, even though Sandburg was a decent bad-weather driver, there was always some damn-fool idiot who drove as if snow and ice didn't exist. Jim had seen his share of multi-car pileups caused by careless drivers; he just hoped Blair hadn't been caught in one.

The phone rang, and he snatched it up, growling a curt, "Ellison."

"Jim?" Blair's voice sounded woebegone. "First -- I'm okay, man. Just two cracked ribs and a broken wrist --"

"What! Where are you?" Jim demanded.

"Cascade General; where else? But the car's at Rainier, and I shouldn't drive anyway because they pumped me full of painkillers, so could you come get me?"

Jim had been shutting down his computer as Blair spoke. "I'm on my way, Chief; you sit tight." He grabbed his coat and headed out of the bullpen.

Once on the street, Jim resisted the temptation to use the siren to clear the streets for faster travel. He wouldn't be much use to Blair if he arrived injured or unconscious from an accident; despite the weak afternoon sun, the streets were still dangerously slick in spots.

Jim strode past the bustling ER -- it looked like they were treating the victims of at least two traffic mishaps -- to the waiting room beyond. Blair had probably been stashed there to wait for his ride. He was right; as soon as Jim reached the doorway, his eyes located Blair. His friend was seated in the far corner from the doorway, perhaps to try to avoid the noise from the ER beyond. Blair's eyes were closed, with his head resting against the wall behind him.

Jim paused to observe and analyze Blair's condition. The kid's face looked pinched and drawn from pain, and he had the beginnings of what would undoubtedly be a stupendous shiner. His coat and flannel shirt had been removed from his left arm and draped over his shoulder; they wouldn't have fit over the cast that stretched from palm to elbow. Beneath his T-shirt, the bulk of the wrappings around his ribs was easily discernable. All in all, Blair looked like he had gone a few rounds with Muhammad Ali, and lost.

Jim crossed the room and laid a gentle hand on Blair's shoulder. "Your chariot awaits, Chief. Are you ready to blow this popsicle stand?"

Blair stirred and opened his eyes, casting a wan smile up toward his friend. "Oh, man, I am sooo ready; there's just something wrong about tongue-depressors and plastic syringes decorating a Christmas tree, you know?"

"Not to mention that Christmas pudding won't go through an IV tube; I hear ya', Chief. Upsy-daisy!" He placed a careful hand under Blair's right elbow and the other at the small of his back, to help him to an upright position, then quickly shed his own jacket and placed it around Blair's shoulders. He buttoned it closed over Blair's protests, encasing both arms in the warm cocoon. "You need it more than I do, Chief; you don't need any more shock to your system. The truck is warm, and I can dial down the cold if I need to."

Jim settled Blair in the truck and buckled his seatbelt, then pulled out of the parking lot and headed homeward. "So, what happened, Chief? If your car's still at Rainier, I'm guessing it wasn't a traffic accident."

"Slippery steps and bad timing, man; just one of those things." Blair shifted in his seat, and stifled a small groan. "I was coming down the steps from the Admin building, and a student a few steps above me slipped and fell. She slid into me and I couldn't hold on tight enough because the handrail was icy, too, and I went down with her; we slid right to the bottom of the steps." He shook his head wearily. "I can't even decide if it's good karma or bad. I'd rather have been somewhere else, of course, but at least my being there kept her from being injured too much; she got off with just a sprained knee."

"Sandburg, when are you going to learn that the ladies you run into are dangerous?" Jim's voice was gently teasing. "I swear, I'm going to lock you in a basement, where you'll be safe from all contact with the female of the species. That way, you might live to a ripe old age."

"Attic," Blair said faintly; he was starting to doze off as the painkillers took effect and the warmth of the truck soothed him. "Attics are always warmer than basements. And you better come with me; you've had your share of problems with dangerous females, you know."

Jim parked the truck and opened the passenger-side door to help Blair down, and support him across the icy sidewalk. "It's a deal, Chief. The next chance we get, we'll start looking for a comfortable attic." Blair sagged against him in the elevator, and Jim had to guide his faltering steps toward their front door. Once inside, he asked, "Okay, how does tomato soup and cheese sandwiches sound?"

"Works for me," Blair sighed as Jim unbuttoned the outer coat, and then pulled off the inner coat and hung both on the hooks. He wove his way unsteadily to the couch while Jim started supper preparations.

Blair barely managed to remain awake through supper. As soon as he finished eating, Jim helped him into a soft, oversized sweatshirt, and he settled into bed while Jim pulled up the covers. "Sorry, man," he mumbled, "don't know why a little fall should wipe me out so bad."

"You've had a shock to your system, Chief, and the painkillers are affecting you, too. No one expects you to be Superman; you'll feel better in the morning." With a last pat to Blair's shoulder, Jim turned off the light and closed the door behind him.




"Ow, ow, ow, dammit. C'mon, Sandburg, any three-year-old can get out of his own bed; surely you can manage it."

Jim was sipping coffee while he perused the morning paper when he heard Blair's muttered comments. He rose and stepped to the door of the small bedroom. "Need some help there, Chief?"

There was a silence from the other side of the door; Jim could almost picture the mulish set of Blair's jaw.

"Chief, you took a bad fall. Even without the cracked ribs, you're going to be stiff and sore. If you need help getting on your feet, just say so."

The silence continued for a moment, and then Blair capitulated. "Thanks, Jim. I'm stuck here like a bug on my back; I guess I could use a hand." As Jim entered the room, he continued, "Pathetic, huh? It's just that when I try to sit up, everything hurts and I can't keep going."

"You're not the first, Humpty Dumpty, and you won't be the last; don't sweat it," Jim said soothingly. As he spoke, his strong hands lifted Blair's torso off the bed, then turned him sideways so that his feet could meet the floor. "It'll just be a couple of days; then you'll be able to move more easily."

"Yeah, right," Blair muttered, shuffling into the kitchen behind Jim, and sinking gingerly into a chair. "In the meantime, I could be a stand-in for Walter Brennan -- the 'Will Sonnet' years."

Jim set a cup of coffee in front of Blair and moved to the stove. "You'll feel better with some food in your belly," he announced, reaching for the batter and the beaten eggs he had prepared earlier. "Pancakes and scrambled eggs, comin' up. Then after you eat, you can take another painkiller."

"Oh, joy; just what I need -- my brain on drugs."

"Scary as that thought is, Chief, you'll feel a lot better with 'em."

Blair dug into his breakfast with muted enthusiasm. The food eased his tension and lightened his mood considerably, which he was able to admit as he pushed his plate away. "Thanks, Jim; that really hit the spot. Sorry I'm such a grump this morning; it's just so damn frustrating!"

Jim poured them both more coffee and sat down across the table. "I don't see why. If you're not able to drive by Monday, I'll drop you off. You should be able to teach your classes."

Blair waved his cast angrily in the air. "Teach, yes, but I can't work on Bethany's present without full use of my hand."

"How much have you finished?"

"I got the changing table done, and the pieces are cut for the highchair. But they still need to be sanded, the chair put together, and then everything waxed. That kind of manipulation needs two hands, and the doc said I'd need to keep this cast on at least until the middle of January. Why couldn't I have waited another three weeks to do this?"

Jim snorted gently. "Sandburg, if you could pick your moments, they wouldn't be 'accidents'. Why don't you just give her the changing table for Christmas, then the chair for the baby's 'six week anniversary', or something like that? The baby won't even be able to sit up in it until it's something like four or six months old."

Blair sighed -- carefully, in deference to his ribs. "I s'pose I'll have to do it that way. It's just -- oh, I wanted it to be 'spectacular', giving Bethany both pieces at once. And I should probably tell her about the highchair when I take the changing table. Otherwise, she might buy one before I can get mine to her, but then that surprise is shot. It just sucks!" His tone was distinctly mournful.

Jim marveled. Blair was battered and bruised, but his biggest concern was that he couldn't finish a gift for a friend. "How about we do it together?" he suggested.

"Hunh?"

"I think we could make it work," Jim said, becoming enamored with his spur-of-the-moment idea; it would give him an opportunity to do something out-of-the-ordinary nice for Blair. "You've already done the complicated part -- cutting the wood to size, and making sure everything will go together properly. I could use the belt-sander on each piece, then we could rig a padded vice or something so that you can do some of the final hand-sanding. Then after I put the pieces together, you'd be able to rub in the bees' wax with just one hand. It'll still be your project, Chief; I'll just be giving you a little help with it."

Blair's expression lightened; Jim was reminded of sun peeking through clouds. "Wow, man, you won't mind? It'll take at least another couple of weekends. And what about the sawdust on your senses? I don't want to throw you into a bad reaction."

Jim leaned across the table, catching Blair's eyes firmly with his own. "Chief, 'mind' isn't even a factor; you do so much for me, I'm grateful to have a chance to give you a little back. As for the sawdust, I had to turn the dial up to nine to get even a minor reaction, remember? If I keep my senses at 'normal', I won't feel a thing. But if I do, I can always use a dust mask."

"Jim, I'm just..." Blair shook his head in slow wonderment. "I'm just stunned. It's a lot to offer; all I can say is 'thank you'."

"You said it yourself, Sandburg," Jim said, rising and starting to clear the table, "it's about friendship. Call it an early Christmas present, if you like.

"But not today," he continued, as he washed the dishes. "Today you need to let your body rest and recover from the shock. However, I've just realized that it's looking a little 'un-seasonal' around here. I think this afternoon, I should put up the tree and decorate the loft; you can sit on the couch and make sure I do it right."

Blair stared at Jim's back, then closed his mouth firmly. "Jim, what do you think a Jewish boy, who grew up with a Pagan mother, knows about Christmas decorations?" he teased. "And if you're putting up the Christmas tree, will there be room for a Menorah?"

"I think an anthropologist who knows the ceremonies of half the indigenous peoples of the earth can certainly recognize the traditions he's been exposed to from childhood, even if he didn't participate." Jim grinned as he dried his hands on a dishtowel, then tossed it over Blair's head. "And of course there'll be a place for your Menorah. We're a team; the loft reflects that, and there's no reason it should change just because we have a few more frou-frous around."

"Mature, Jim, very mature," replied Blair with an answering grin, as he wadded up the dishtowel and tossed it back, watching Jim catch it one-handed. "Just wait; I'm gonna run your ass ragged, putting up every Christmas decoration that you own."

"Only if you've got an army for backup, Sandburg, and I won't go down without a fight."

Blair's face was split by a sudden, enormous yawn. "Wow. Sorry, man; I guess I'm still feeling the effects. S'pose I take a little nap on the couch while you go get a tree and bring up all the Christmas stuff from the storage room?"

"Most sensible suggestion I've heard all day." Jim supported Blair as he lay down so that he wouldn't strain his ribs, then pulled the afghan down to cover him. "Night-night, Chief," he said with mock tenderness. "Don't let the bedbugs bite."

The answering snort sounded decidedly sleepy. "Like you'd let a bedbug get one tentacle inside the loft. Go 'way, man; the sick kid needs his rest."

Jim did just that, grabbing his coat and keys, and closing the door quietly behind him.




Blair was indeed more alert the next morning, and gazed around the loft with mingled wonder and delight. He'd been so woozy the previous afternoon that he'd hardly noticed what Jim was doing. The transformation now seemed almost magical; he felt about ten years old.

Blair stood in front of the Menorah, gleaming with a gentle patina of age and loving care, which had been placed on a small table in front of the French windows at one side of the balcony. Above it, Jim had hung a large Star of David, which reflected the light coming in the windows.

"I didn't know the right kind of candles to get," Jim explained. "I thought we could pick them up on our way to the high school this afternoon."

Blair just nodded, then wandered toward the tree to examine it more closely. Jim had selected a five-foot, well-shaped spruce in a large planter, and placed it at the other end of the French windows. After the holidays, they'd donate it to one of Cascade's schools. For now, it gleamed softly with lights and tinsel, ornaments and bows, and even --

"Hey!" Blair exclaimed. "You used some of the keepsakes out of my memory box."

"You did give me permission," Jim said mildly. "And I wanted it to be yours as much as mine."

Blair reached out to stroke the miniature Kikuyu shield, given to him by the children of the tribe he'd been studying in Kenya. "I don't know what to say," he murmured. "The Menorah, and my things decorating your tree, it's so awesome, it's just... well, thanks."

"Like I said, it's our tree, Chief. If the two of us can share a space, I don't see why our holidays can't. The whole idea is about sharing, isn't it, for both Christmas and Chanukah?"

"Yeah, but... well, I guess I'm just so used to 'making do', you know?" Blair's initial awed surprise was giving way to enthusiasm. "This is just majorly cool! And I get to put the first present under the tree." He disappeared into his room, and returned shortly with a small box, gaily wrapped in red and silver. He placed it on the floor in front of the tree, announcing dramatically, "Do not open till Christmas! And for any sentinels around," he pointed a stern finger, "no feeling, shaking, or smelling, either!"

"You wound me, Chief, you really do." The attempt at an injured expression was hardly believable, given the broad smile on his face. "But just to keep me out of trouble, what d'you say we have breakfast and head for the woodshop?"

"You're on, man. With three good hands between us, we should get a lot done today."

Together, they headed into the kitchen, where three good hands would be equally as effective at producing sausages and hash browns.



December 23rd

Jim and Blair stepped back to admire their handiwork. The highchair and changing table stood next to each other in silent glory, gleaming with two coats of bee's wax, lovingly applied and then rubbed into the wood with the finest grade of steel wool.

"Chief, if those were paintings, they'd be hanging in the Louvre; they're masterpieces. You can be mighty proud, and I know Bethany will love them."

"Couldn't have done it without you, Jim; that padded vise you rigged up really did the trick. I can't tell you how much I appreciate all your help."

"'Tis the season, Sandburg; I can't be a bear all year." He winked at Blair's small snort of amusement. "And, in honor of the season, I have a little something extra; wait here a minute."

He crossed to Mr. Rosenbaum's office and slipped inside. Though Blair strained to see through the window, Jim kept his body between the glass and whatever-it-was. He gathered the thing up in his arms and carried it into the workshop, but it was covered by a white cloth; even now, Blair didn't have a clue what his friend was up to.

Jim set the fairly bulky object down in front of the changing table, still with his body mostly shielding it from Blair's view. Then, with a dramatic flair, he whipped off the cloth and stepped aside. "Merry Christmas, Chief."

"Jim!" Other than that, Blair was speechless. He moved forward to set the little wooden horse into a gentle rocking as he examined it. It was really rather realistic-looking, with shaped legs instead of straight poles, a distinct saddle, and a soft mane and tail.

"I did everything non-toxic, just like you did, Chief. The saddle is redwood, which was equal to maple in the sniff-test, and the yarn for the mane and tail is made from pure virgin wool from one of the non-toxic outlets, and the only dressing on it is the bees' wax."

Blair walked around the little horse, caressing each part. "God, Jim, this is incredible! If my stuff should be in the Louvre, this would be right next to it, with the ribbon for 'Best in Show'. I don't know what to say."

Jim shrugged dismissively, though he had a broad grin on his face. He didn't even need to see Bethany's reaction to his gift; Blair's was everything he had hoped for. "I had to have something to do with my time on Tuesday evenings, and every kid needs a rocking horse. I'm supposing you won't mind giving it to Bethany along with the other stuff."

Blair shook his head in slow wonderment. "Jim, I've had some nice presents in my day, but nothing that compares to this. For the rest of my life, nothing will compare to this."

"Don't blow this all out of proportion, Sandburg. You're right, I built it for you more than Bethany, and I'm pleased that you like it, but it's just a few pieces of wood and a few hours of time. It doesn't begin to measure up to what you've given me -- control of my senses, and the ability to live with them without going stark, raving mad."

"And friendship," Blair said, regarding him steadily.

"And friendship," Jim confirmed. He stepped forward to enfold his friend in a swift hug, whispering huskily, "Thanks, buddy."

Blair fervently returned the hug. "It works both ways," he said softly. "Thanks, buddy."

"So," Jim said, finally releasing the hug, "you want to deliver these to Bethany tomorrow, right?"

"Yeah. Maurice's been out of town for a few days. He's due back tomorrow night, but I thought it would be nice to keep her company for a few hours. I figured you can do your own paperwork tomorrow." He chuckled at Jim's fierce glare. "We can deliver everything in the morning; I'll just stay with Bethany, and you can pick me up when you're finished for the day."

"Sounds like a plan," Jim agreed as he shrugged into his coat, while Blair did the same. "And here's another -- supper at the Sea Shanty." He watch as Blair locked the door behind them.

"Works for me," Blair declared. "Baked tilapia, here I come!"



December 24th

"Rise and shine, Chief," Jim called with a sharp rap on the bedroom door. "We need to get an early start. You can have the bathroom in five minutes." He returned to his shaving; it would be ten minutes at least before Blair was upright and ambulatory.

As if on cue, Blair appeared in the doorway ten minutes later, shoving tangled curls out of his eyes as he blinked drowsily in the bright lights. "Why? I thought you didn't have to be in till ten o'clock."

"Big ice storm last night. The salt trucks are already out, and the traffic seems to have kept the streets pretty clear, but it'll be bad once we get out of town. I'm going down to put the chains on the truck and scrape the ice off the windows; you can start breakfast after you finish shaving."

"Yeah, sure Jim," Blair replied vaguely as he watched Jim stride toward the front door. He shut the bathroom door firmly behind him. A few minutes in the shower would help him wake up and the extra time wouldn't hurt a thing. It might even give the sun time to melt a little more ice.




"You should probably turn down your hearing, Jim, maybe about halfway," Blair suggested as they got in the truck. "Otherwise, the chain-chatter will drive you crazy."

"Got it covered, Chief. And I'll bet you wish you could do the same."

"You'd win that bet," he grinned. "But I'll just chalk it up to the suffering that every true genius has to do for his art. It'll be worth it when Bethany sees what we're bringing."

Once they reached the woodshop, they carefully tied each piece separate from the others in the back of the truck, ensuring that nothing would shift or hit anything during the trip. Neither man wanted their careful work to be marred in transit.

Traffic was almost nonexistent after they left the city limits but, even with the chains on, Jim kept his speed slower than usual. Blair was able to observe the passing scenery at his leisure, and he marveled at the beauty as they drove through a virtual 'winter wonderland'. Each branch, late-hanging leaf, and sturdy weed standing at the side of the road was encased in a delicate sheath of ice. Now that the storm had passed, the sun shone from a cloudless sky, casting brilliant, coruscating flashes of light from every icy surface, tinged with all the colors of a rainbow. The sight was breath-taking; Blair could almost imagine a group of scintillating snow fairies dancing in the occasional open spaces among the trees. He didn't even try to resist.

"What d'you think, Jim? Would they be dancing a stately minuet, or a lively reel? Or would they put on their own version of the Nutcracker Suite?"

"Sandburg, I was taught never to admit defeat, but I've given up trying to understand your mental gymnastics. Before I can give an opinion on what kind of dance they would do, I have to know who or what 'they' are -- reindeer, snowmen, or cute little winter bunnies. Probably not Santa's elves, though; I imagine they're still finishing up the last of the toy-making."

Blair hid his satisfaction; Jim must be feeling the holiday spirit if he was willing to play along with such silliness. Now to provide the ammunition. "Snow fairies, man! Can't you just see them dancing in the groves? Although it would be gracious of them to invite the elves. Maybe a midnight celebration ball, once their job is finished and Santa's taken off on his trip around the world."

"Chief, just how long do you think my reputation would hold up if I saw fairies dancing in the woods? I'm not even going to try to see them. Besides, it's a new moon tonight; haven't you heard that fairies only dance on the night of the full moon, and one night before and after?"

Jim sounded so matter-of-fact that Blair was almost sucked in. "Really? In all the mythologies I've heard about, fairies never pass up an opportunity to dance." Then he noticed the quiver around Jim's lips and snorted. "Good one, Jim. You had me going there for a minute. But seriously, if fairies were real, isn't this just the kind of environment you'd expect to find them in?"

"If you're trying to point out that it's beautiful out there, I agree. But I'm a little busy driving right now; I promise I'll take a long, suitably admiring look around when we get out at Bethany's."

"I'm gonna hold you to that, man. Life's too short; we need to appreciate the good things when and where we can. And as you said, 'tis the season." Satisfied with Jim's answering chuckle, he went back to enjoying the pristine wonderland around him.




"Burt! I didn't think you'd make it with the ice on the road!" Bethany gave Blair a welcoming hug. "Come in, both of you; I have hot chocolate on the stove, and a batch of chocolate-chip cookies fresh out of the oven."

The men followed her in, opening their coats to the warmth of the house, drinking in the rich smells wafting through the air.

"Sit, sit!" Bethany urged, waving them toward the kitchen table as she grabbed a spatula and started moving cookies from the baking pan to a colorful Christmas platter. She placed the platter on the table, then poured three mugs of hot chocolate, dropping a handful of mini-marshmallows on top of each. She placed one in front of each man, then took her own seat. "So, is it as slick out there as it looks? It certainly is beautiful."

"Not too bad with chains," Jim answered, "But I wouldn't want to drive without them. Didn't Blair tell me you expect Maurice home this evening? You might want to call him and give him a heads-up."

"Already done," she assured him. "And he'll check the road reports before he heads out. I told him to hole up for another day if it's not safe. I'd rather celebrate Christmas late than have Maurice kill himself trying to get home."

"Wise woman," Jim declared, draining his chocolate. "I wish more drivers were as sensible. And in the interests of sensibility, I need to hit the road again, if I'm to be at work on time. But first--"

"But first, we have a Christmas gift that's too big to wrap," Blair hastened to jump in. "Will you wait here while we bring it into the living room? I'd like you to get the full effect, not seeing it in pieces as we carry it through the door."

Bethany cocked her head, her face lit by a wide smile. "What have you done now, Burt? You didn't think the crib was a grand enough present?"

Blair smiled back with a broad wink. "That was a baby present; this is a Christmas present. Besides, you know it's not polite to look a gift horse in the mouth."

"Okay, I'll be good. Call me when you're ready." Bethany settled back and started singing in a reedy, Chipmunks-like falsetto, "Christmas, Christmas time is here, time for toys and time for cheer."

Blair snickered and followed Jim out of the kitchen, listening as Bethany continued to sing, "We've been good but we can't last. Hurry, Christmas, hurry fast."

Once outside, they made short work of untying the furniture. Jim picked up the highchair, judging that the smaller rocking horse would be easier for Blair to handle with his arm in the cast.

Inside, they arranged both pieces facing the kitchen doorway. Blair called, "Hang on a couple more minutes, Bethany; we have a second trip to make."

"We can hardly stand to wait. Please Christmas, don't be late," she sang in answer.

Jim and Blair were still grinning as they set the changing table in a central position between the highchair and rocking horse, forming a semicircle of polished, gleaming craftsmanship. Both men took a stance behind the array, not wanting to obscure her first sight, and Blair called out, "Oh, Bethany! Allee, allee, incomefree!" Only Jim heard her soft snort and snicker as she pushed herself out of her chair.

As soon as Bethany reached the doorway, she stopped with an indrawn breath. "My God," she whispered prayerfully. She approached slowly, eyes drinking in every detail and, as Blair had done only the day before, reached out to caress the head of the little horse, and set it to rocking.

"Burt, I don't know what to say. 'Incredible' doesn't even come close, and 'stupendous' is only a fraction of what I'm feeling right now. I can't imagine anything nicer than these, even if I bought it from the classiest store the city." She moved around the display and grabbed Blair in a fierce hug. "Thank you sooo much!"

Blair smiled broadly as he returned the hug; Bethany's reaction was everything he'd hoped for. "I'm glad you like it," he admitted. "But it's not just from me. Jim made the rocking horse, and helped with the highchair after I got stuck with this thing." He waved his cast in demonstration. "It was very much a team effort, and we were happy to do it."

"Then Jim deserves a hug, too," Bethany declared, suiting action to words. "My baby will never have anything nicer than this; I can't tell you how much I appreciate it."

Jim cleared his throat, somewhat uncomfortable with so much emotion from someone he barely knew. "Well, like Sandburg said, it was a team effort and we enjoyed it. But, you're very welcome; use it in good health." He patted her shoulder gently, and extricated himself from the hug.

"But now I need to get going," Jim continued. "Since Sandburg insists he's on vacation today, I'm stuck with reports to write." He buttoned his coat as he spoke. "Pick you up about five-thirty, okay, Chief?"

"You got it, Jim," Blair answered, but Bethany shook her head.

"If you're going to be that late, you need to stay for supper again," she insisted. Seeing Jim hesitate, she pretended to pout. "If Maurice can't make it home, you wouldn't want me eating alone, would you? I'm planning baked chicken and scalloped potatoes," she coaxed.

Jim surrendered. "Well, we can't pass up that menu, can we, Chief? Bethany, do you drink?"

"Once in a while, for important occasions."

"I think we can classify Christmas, and the imminent arrival of a new baby, as 'important occasions'. I'll bring the wine." Before Bethany could protest, he closed the door behind him and headed toward the truck.

"Well!" Bethany turned to Blair. "Is Jim always so..."

"Dictatorial?" Blair laughed. "Oh, yeah. He was an eldest child, he was an officer in the military, and now he's a policeman. Three strikes; he really doesn't know any other way. But he means well," he assured her.

"Oh, I can tell that. I bet he's got a real soft spot for children, kittens, and puppies." Bethany headed back into the kitchen.

"And stray anthropologists," Blair agreed, following her. "I'm lucky to have him as a friend."

"I can believe it. But now that you're here, I'm going to put you to work. I'm planning to make two pumpkin pies, a mince pie, an apple-cranberry pie, and a pecan log roll. You game?"

Blair raised an eyebrow, but removed his outer shirt and started rolling up the sleeves of his second shirt. "Your wish is my command, milady. But should you be spending so much time on your feet? Isn't it hard on your back or the baby or something?"

"Burt, you told me you grew up in communes; how can you be such a fuddy-duddy? Here, chop these pecans," she said, placing nuts, knife, and chopping board in front of him. "Birthing a baby is a perfectly natural process, and it's good for the mother to get some exercise."

"I know, and I've heard other women say the same thing. I guess a man just can't help being concerned." He gazed worriedly at her very large abdomen.

"Don't be," she advised with mock severity. "It won't change a thing. Now, get to chopping while I make the piecrusts."




With two pies in the oven and two waiting their turn, Bethany and Blair sat down for another round of chocolate chip cookies, this time with coffee. Their conversation wandered down a number of intriguing byways as they renewed a friendship that had grown a little distant because of Blair's immersion in Jim's world and Bethany's seclusion from the city.

Blair didn't notice anything for awhile, but it finally occurred to him that Bethany wasn't really eating -- she had only nibbled at one of the cookies -- and she seemed uncharacteristically restless. Every ten minutes or so, she made an excuse to get up and do something, or just walk around the kitchen while she continued talking to her friend. "Are you okay?" he asked, again feeling that tinge of 'concern' that Bethany had earlier rejected.

"I'm fine," she assured him. "I'm just having some little contractions, and they're easier to ride out if I'm walking around."

"You mean you're having this baby now? We've got to call an ambulance, get you to the hospital!" Blair felt on the verge of panic, and much too far away from help, if it was needed. He jumped up and rushed toward the phone.

Bethany intercepted him, grabbed his shoulders, and forced him to look at her. "Burt, calm down!" she ordered.

Blair stared at her for a moment, then shook his head forcefully, took a deep breath, and visibly shoved aside his panicked reaction.

"That's better," Bethany said, approvingly. She led him back to the table, and they both sat down. "Now, in the first place, it's probably not true labor. Most women get Braxton-Hicks contractions -- sort of pre-labor pains -- that can last for several days before birth. It's very unlikely that I'll have the baby today. In the second place, I can't go to the hospital; can you imagine what exposure to all those chemicals would do to me? Maurice and I have been talking with a registered midwife to help when the baby's born."

"Then let's call her," Blair urged, half-rising to head toward the phone again. "She'll know if it's the real thing or not."

Bethany caught his hand and pulled him back down. "In the third place," she continued as if he hadn't spoken, "Marcella's in Seattle, visiting her folks for the holiday; she won't be back until the twenty-ninth."

"But... but she can't!" Blair exclaimed. "You need her!"

"We didn't expect this baby to arrive almost three weeks early; it's not her fault the little tyke is so eager to get out," Bethany pointed out. "But in the fourth place, if these are Braxton-Hicks, it's likely to be another four or five days before anything actually happens. Maurice will be home by then, and he knows how to help me. And finally, I know what to do, which is mostly to just let my body take care of the process. It's natural Burt, you know that; there's nothing to worry about."

"Yeah, yeah, I guess you're right," Blair replied, nervously combing his fingers through his hair. "But if you think either Jim or I will leave you here alone while you're in labor -- or even 'pre-labor' -- you're crazy. I'll call him later and have him pack a change of clothes for each of us before he comes out. If Maurice doesn't get in this evening, you're going to have two overnight guests."

"Truthfully? I'd appreciate it," Bethany admitted. "If the baby does come, I know I can do it alone, if need be, but a support system would be very welcome. Now, how about hamburgers and clam chowder for lunch?"




Blair noticed that, once again, Bethany was eating very little; she didn't make a hamburger for herself, and had only a few spoonfuls of the chowder. Although she continued to chat comfortably -- still interspersed with the walking episodes -- he wondered if maybe her instincts were telling her something that her conscious mind hadn't quite registered.

They had finished lunch and were clearing the table when Bethany stopped, appearing startled. "Oh my," she said softly.

"What? What? This is not a good time to hear 'oh my'," Blair insisted. "That's only one step better than 'uh-oh'."

"My water just broke. I guess I really am in labor. This baby's even more eager than I realized." Seeing a flash of panic cross his face, she ordered, "Burt, don't wimp out on me now!" Bethany continued more quietly, "It'll still be several hours, at least, so just relax. There's a mop in the utility room. If you'll clean the floor, I'll wash the dishes, and then you can help me get the birthing area ready."

Blair closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. "I am -- relaxed," he intoned. He opened his eyes again and looked at the puddle on the floor. "Okay, but first I'm calling Jim. They must've covered this in police training; he could help."

"If you want to," Bethany agreed, calmly filling the sink with water.

Blair dialed and waited impatiently. He felt pathetically relieved to hear the brusque, "Ellison!" on the other end of the line.

"Jim, Bethany's in labor and her water just broke, and she can't go to the hospital and her midwife is out of town and I don't want to do this alone. Ditch the paperwork and get over here, ASAP!"

"Take it easy, Chief. How's Bethany reacting?"

"Her? She's cool as a cucumber, says her body knows what to do, but," Blair's voice dropped to a strained whisper, "I'm scared, man!"

Jim's voice was amused. "Normally, I'd advise you to keep the mother calm, but it sounds like she's got a handle on that. So, you keep calm, and just follow her lead. I'll close up here and be out as soon as I can. But I'll be bringing home the rest of the paperwork; if I'm going to deliver a baby, you can do the scutwork."

"Yeah, man, whatever; just get here!" Blair hung up the phone a little more forcefully than necessary and stared again at the evidence of impending birth. "Mop, mop," he muttered, and headed for the utility room.

With the kitchen clean, Bethany folded several dishtowels and placed them in a large crockpot, then filled it with water and set the dial for the lowest temperature. "I may need hot compresses during the later stages of labor," she explained. "Take this out and plug it in near that big easy chair in the corner."

After Blair had done so, she waved at the baby furniture which had been left in the living room in expectation of Maurice's arrival. "Okay, let's clear the area, get this stuff in the baby's room. You grab the other end," she said, stepping to the changing table, then gasped and leaned on it to support herself as she rode out a strong contraction.

When it had passed, she looked up at Blair's concerned face with an approving smile. "Well, now I'm certain that it's good, sturdy construction; just what I needed." She winked. "Life lessons, Burt; deal with it. It's no biggie; we just have to do these things between contractions. So grab hold!"

Together, they carried the changing table into the other room. Then Blair moved the rocking horse and highchair by himself, while Bethany got out a thick, wool-stuffed pad as well as two pieces of plastic sheeting and an old bed-sheet, which she cut in half. She placed the wool pad on the floor in front of the easy chair, then covered it with one piece of the plastic, and half the bed-sheet. The other piece of plastic and the rest of the bed-sheet covered the chair, tucked in so they would remain tight. "Having a baby is messy, Burt," she said, in answer to Blair's enquiring look. "The plastic will keep the blood from getting on my good chair and my kneeling pad, but the bed-sheet over the plastic will be more comfortable for my skin. It's old; I'll just throw it away afterward, rather than try to clean it."

"But... won't you have the baby in bed? In fact, shouldn't you be in bed now?" Blair was nervous; the baby couldn't just -- drop out -- could it? It was improbable, but he wished Bethany would at least sit down.

Bethany chuckled and shook her head. "I guess the women don't let boys in on the secrets of birth even in communes, do they?" Blair mutely shrugged. "Come on; let's go back to the kitchen, and I'll tell you all about it." On her way past the bookshelves, she grabbed a Scrabble game.

While Blair set up the game on the table, Bethany placed a small pair of metal scissors and a length of dental floss in a pan of water and set it to boil. As she worked, she explained, "Burt, bed births have been foisted on women by the lazy medical community; they want the mothers in bed to make it easier for the doctors. But it actually makes it harder for the woman; her body is working against gravity, and she's not in a position to push effectively when she needs to. Hang on; here's another one. Go ahead and pull out your tiles." She walked briskly out into the living room, making a few circuits before she returned.

"I wish I could walk outside, but I'm too awkward right now. I can't chance falling on the ice," she said as she came back and sat down, then pulled her letter tiles out of the bag. "As I was saying, I'm going to make gravity work for me. When I reach the later stages of labor, I'll kneel on the pad in front of the easy chair, using the chair itself to support my upper body. If you're still here, you can help by putting the hot towels on my back during each contraction; it'll ease the pain." Bethany examined her tiles, then spelled out 'STORIES'. "That's -- seven times two is fourteen, plus fifty points for using all seven letters. Ha! Your turn."

Blair felt that the whole situation was -- surreal. Bethany was in labor -- was having a baby -- and she was playing a game and chattering like it was just an ordinary day. How could she do it? How could a first-time mother seem so confident, almost blasé? Was Bethany really that confident, or was it a form of denial of what she might be facing? Or maybe... maybe she was putting on a front, pretending to be self-assured in an attempt to generate confidence. Were the chattering and the game just a distraction from her own nervousness, maybe even fear? Okay. If that was it, he'd do his damnedest to help distract her.

He perused his letters, and placed 'WHEREAS' above Bethany's first 'S'. "Okay, that's -- ten times two is twenty points." He dug in the bag to grab more tiles, grinning at Bethany's delighted crow. "You just wait; I'll catch up."

And so the game continued, past 'MOLLY', 'FAIL', and 'ANGLE', past 'STRAP', 'PONDS', and 'ZONES'. Occasionally, Bethany rose to walk through another contraction; after one of those, she turned off the boiling water. "These will stay sterile in the water; when it's time to tie off the cord and cut it, they'll be cool enough to use." Another time, she gave Blair a large slice of apple-cranberry pie and a steaming cup of coffee. "Nothing for me until the baby's born; don't want to be upchucking all over the place," she replied to his inquiring look, and then snickered at the fleeting look of distaste that crossed his face. Bethany won the first game by thirty points, and they started on another.

Blair was increasingly uneasy. Bethany was getting up to walk around at more frequent intervals, and the contractions seemed stronger; she often stopped to lean over the back of the easy chair, clutching hard at the sides of the headrest until the wave passed. Where the hell was Jim? Blair really didn't want to do this, no matter how confident Bethany appeared.

When his cellphone rang, Blair grabbed it frantically. "Is that you, Jim? Where are you, man?"

"I'm on my way, Chief, about ten miles from the house. Unfortunately, there's a semi jack-knifed across the road and hung up in the ditch; no way around it. I can't get there until the equipment to pull it loose reaches us, and that's likely to take a couple of hours. How's Bethany doing?"

"Like I know?" he hissed. "She's still acting like it's no big deal, but the contractions are getting harder and the intervals are getting shorter. Jim, she's having a baby!" His voice rose and cracked on the last word.

"We've already established that, Chief." Jim chuckled, but his voice was soothing. "Remember, women have been having babies for millions of years. Just let nature take its course; I'm sure everything will be fine."

"That's easy for you to say," Blair muttered rebelliously. "Just get here as soon as you can, okay? Maybe the baby will wait for a few more hours."

He closed the cellphone and turned back to the living room. "Bethany!" he gasped, hurrying to her side. She was kneeling on the pad, resting her torso on the seat of the easy chair while she groaned through another contraction. Blair was afraid to even touch her. "What should I do?" he whispered.

Bethany smiled gently, although sweat beaded her brow. After blotting her forehead on the sheet-covered arm of the chair, she said, "First, turn up the thermostat about five degrees." Blair quickly crossed the room to do so, then returned for more instructions. "Now, help me get out of these clothes."

"All of them?" Blair squeaked.

"All of them; clothes are constrictive and they'll just get messy." When Blair still hesitated, she winked. "I won't tell if you won't."

Firming his jaw, Blair nodded jerkily and helped divest Bethany of -- everything. And then he took off his own second shirt, remaining in just his T-shirt. He was pretty certain that he'd be doing some sweating of his own, very shortly. After a moment of thought, he went into the kitchen and covered the end of his casted arm in plastic wrap.

He returned in time to see Bethany leaned over the seat of the chair with another groan; Blair could see the contraction ripple through the muscles of her lower back. "Burt -- hot towel, please," she gasped.

Quickly, Blair pulled one out of the crockpot, wrung out the water, and placed it on her back. Bethany sighed with relief, and he felt a flash of gratitude that he could do something to help her.

Blair lost track of time as Bethany panted and groaned, struggled and sweated. God, he'd heard women talk about 'labor', but he'd never realized it was so -- physical. He helped as best he could, exchanging cooled towels for hot ones, wiping the sweat from her forehead, and offering ice chips when she felt able to take them. Finally --

"Bethany, I see the head! It's coming!"

"I know," she gasped. "Be ready to catch it." She pushed through another contraction with a visibly mighty effort and a long, protracted groan. The baby slipped into Blair's waiting hands, along with copious amounts of blood and other bodily secretions that he didn't even want to think about.

"It's a girl!" Blair crowed. "You did it!" Then he examined the baby more closely, still attached to her mother by the umbilical cord. "Uh, now what do I do?"

"Hang onto her for just a little bit," Bethany panted. In a few minutes she eased herself upward and sat on the edge of the chair, leaning back in a half-lying position. "Now, give her to me; lay her right here."

Blair laid the infant on Bethany's chest. She used a finger to clear a wad of mucous from the baby's mouth, wiping it carelessly on the already-stained sheet. Blair continued to watch as Bethany kissed her daughter's head and stroked the wisps of hair, listened as she crooned a wordless welcome while the baby made her first attempts to suckle. Amazing that something so -- messy -- could be so beautiful. But they weren't finished, yet.

"Uh... you said I have to cut the cord?" Blair asked nervously.

"In a little while, after my body expels the placenta. Right now, she's still getting nutrients through it, and that's important. But go get my robe from the bathroom and put it over us; I don't want her to get chilled."

Blair quickly retrieved the robe and draped it over the baby; he was relieved that it covered most of Bethany, too. Yes, the human body was beautiful and natural and all that, but... seeing his friend lying there exposed was just a bit too... personal. Bethany continued cuddling and crooning to her daughter, pausing occasionally as ripples of residual contractions passed through her muscles.

Finally, after about thirty minutes, the placenta slipped out and fell to the floor with a moist squish. Blair swallowed nervously; it looked so -- raw. Natural, he told himself, it's completely natural. Following Bethany's instructions, Blair tied off the cord and cut it. The baby girl was now a separate entity, a new life welcomed into the world. Blair's throat thickened. Despite his earlier misgivings -- Face it, he told himself sternly, you were totally in a blue funk! -- he felt incredibly grateful to have participated in this small miracle.




Bethany recovered her energy incredibly quickly -- at least by Blair's estimation. Together they cleaned up the baby and wrapped her in a blanket, then Bethany took a shower while Blair kept an eye on the child as he rolled up the bloodied sheets and plastic, and carried them out to the trash. Barely two hours after the baby had taken her first breath they were back in the kitchen. Bethany nursed her daughter while eating a large -- very large -- slice of pumpkin pie. "Hey, that's hard work; I'm hungry! And could you bring me some milk? Marcella said I can't have coffee until the baby's no longer nursing; otherwise, I'll be dealing with a holy terror that never sleeps."

Since Bethany was busy, Blair started supper preparations. He dredged the chicken in flour, sprinkled it with seasoning, and put it in the oven to bake. He was layering the sliced potatoes in a baking dish, the white sauce bubbling gently on the stove, when a car horn blared outside. Wiping his fingers on a dishtowel, Blair strolled to the door, completely unable to wipe the broad smile from his face. He opened the door to find Jim, as he expected, hand raised to knock. Behind him, Maurice was just getting out of his own car.

Blair shook his head with mock severity. "If this had been a real emergency, fat lot of help you'd've been. You can go back and finish the paperwork; there's nothing here for you to do. On the other hand," he continued, raising his voice a little as he watched Maurice coming toward them as fast as the slippery conditions permitted, "I'll let Big Daddy come in. He'd probably like to meet his daughter."

"It's over?" "A daughter!" Blair stepped nimbly out of the way as the larger men all but stampeded toward the kitchen. Jim pulled up short at the kitchen door, allowing the proud father a few moments alone with his wife and child.

Blair closed the door and crossed the room to stand beside Jim. As they watched Maurice hug Bethany and kiss the baby's forehead, they wore identical sappy grins, though each would have been quick to deny it.

"You did good, Chief," Jim murmured.

Blair vigorously shook his head. "Not even, man! It was Bethany all the way; I was just the water carrier."

"Well, it looks like you have a little more 'water' to carry; your white sauce is going to start burning in a minute."

"Oh, man!" Blair hurried to the stove, grabbed the whisk and started stirring the sauce. "Make yourself useful," he said over his shoulder, "and start grating the cheese."

Working with their customary efficiency, Jim and Blair soon had the baking dish filled with sliced potatoes, white sauce, and cheddar cheese. Blair slid the pan into the oven, next to the chicken, and glanced at the clock. "Okay, supper in one hour. And since Jim was conspicuously absent during the excitement this afternoon, he can handle KP while we wait." He made a show of serving slices of pumpkin roll to Bethany and Maurice -- with milk for her and coffee for him -- then took coffee and pumpkin roll for himself and joined the others at the table. With his best military air, he ordered, "Get moving, Private, or you'll be put on report."

"Up yours, Sandburg," Jim retorted amiably as he procured his own share of coffee and pumpkin roll and joined the group. "We'll do it together -- after supper. Meanwhile -- how are you, Bethany? Any problems?"

"Not a one," Bethany replied sunnily. "And Burt was a real trouper. But I knew he'd come through; he's been a good friend for a long time. So Maury and I have decided," she glanced at her husband and received a confirming nod, "this little girl's name is officially Elaina Blair."



December 25th

They'd arrived home very late after an evening of dominoes and Scrabble and good conversation. Consequently, it was ten o'clock by the time Blair wandered into the kitchen to find that Jim had been up for only a few minutes himself; the coffee had just finished dripping into the pot. "Hey, Jim." He poured two mugs, set one in front of his friend, and sat at the other end of the table.

"Have a snack, Chief. It's even better now that the flavors have had time to set." Jim pushed the last pieces of apple-cranberry pie, which Bethany had insisted they bring with them, closer to Blair. But the younger man seemed oblivious, gazing vaguely at nothing. "Those are mighty deep thoughts if they're keeping you from digging into this pie, Einstein. What gives?"

"Oh, just thinking how it all ties together."

Jim's eyebrows rose. "And 'it' would be...?

"Little Elaina, and the baby Jesus, and the little babies born all over the world every day. Christians consider the birth of Christ a Christmas miracle, but after seeing what Bethany went through yesterday, the birth of her little girl is just as much a miracle. And people refer to it all the time exactly like that -- the 'miracle of birth' -- but they're so casual about it. I think they've forgotten that it really is a miracle. I know I did, until yesterday. But that showed me..." Blair shook his head in slow wonderment. "There are no words for it, I guess. I just sorta feel...." He trailed off.

"Humbled before the universe?" Jim suggested. "Yep; been there, done that. I helped deliver a baby on New Year's Eve once; their car was stuck in the snow, and the baby came too quickly for an ambulance to reach them. I walked around next day feeling like I should be passing out cigars. The birth of a baby really is a gift."

They sat for a few moments, drinking their coffee, and then Blair shrugged slightly and reached for the pie. "Well, I suppose we can't sit around all day contemplating life, the universe and everything; gotta get on with the 'life' part." He took a large bite of pie and chewed slowly, eyes closed blissfully. "You're right; it is better the second day."

Between them, they finished the pie, Blair nobly restraining himself from licking the plate. "Well, that should hold us until the big feast at Joel's. Shall we open presents before or after we wash the dishes?" Blair asked. He was rinsing his plate as he spoke; he already knew the answer.

"You've waited this long, Sandburg; I think you can wait a few more minutes. I'll wash, you dry."

Shortly thereafter, they were seated in front of the Christmas tree, Blair with mingled anticipation and nervousness. Would Jim think he had gone overboard? Of course, Jim always thought he went overboard, but maybe -- too deep this time?

"You first, Sandburg." Jim handed him a small box, very light, wrapped in green and silver striped paper. Inside was a gift certificate from Jim's mechanic, for a complete checkup and tune-up of the Volvo.

"Oh, wow! Jim, thank you; this is stupendous. But I think you're going to lose your bear image if you're not careful. I mean, smiley faces?" He waved the certificate as if to an assembled crowd. "Four of them, no less!"

"It's Christmas, Chief. I think my image can handle dispensing a few smiley faces once a year; enjoy them while you can." He ignored Blair's snort and reached for the large package with his name on it. "Shall I try to guess what's in here?"

"You can try, but opening the box would make more sense."

Jim carefully opened the box and pulled out a thick, heavy-knit sweater in a shade of muted smoky blue. He ran a judicious hand over it, appreciating the softness and the lush sensation. "Chief, I'll see your 'stupendous' and raise you an 'incredible'. I don't think I've ever felt anything so... comforting, even before putting it on."

"I had it made specifically for you. I got to thinking -- as much as I've tried to limit dangerous chemicals, Bethany made me realize that the effects of a lot of stuff can be cumulative, and we'd be smart to cut out even more. So this is a special yarn made of a combination of organic hemp and organic cotton, and the color is a natural, plant-based dye, and it was hand-knitted by one of the teachers at Rainier; no machine oils or anything." He shrugged in self-deprecation. "We don't need to toss everything out of our closets, but if we look for non-toxic clothing when we buy new stuff, eventually we'll have a higher proportion of safer stuff." He was babbling, but he couldn't seem to stop.

"Sandburg," Jim interrupted gently. "It's okay. I appreciate the thought, and when it gives me a present as nice as this, I'm certainly not going to complain." He reached for an even larger package and passed it to Blair. "Here. This is your other present."

Inside, Blair found a thigh-length leather jacket, soft as butter, with a curly sheepskin lining. "My God, Jim!" he breathed. "What comes after 'stupendous' and 'incredible'? This is awesome!" He immediately stood, dumping the box on the floor, and tried on the jacket. It fit as if it had been made for him.

"Just covering all my bases, Chief. If you turn into a popsicle on some cold, late-night stakeout, you won't be able to back me up if I need it." Jim's fond smile contradicted his disclaimer of mere practicality.

"Sure, Jim, I believe you," Blair said. "Not," he added, with a wink. "And this is your other present," he continued, passing him a much smaller package.

Inside, Jim found a notebook, filled with computer-printed pages. It seemed to be a homemade -- recipe book? -- with a different heading on each page. Disinfectant. Soft Scrubber. Anti-bacterial Spray. Furniture Polish. Window Cleaner. Oven Cleaner. He raised his eyes to Blair's with a questioning look.

Blair shrugged. "Same thing. I was raised using homemade products with natural ingredients, pretty much, but I've let the old habits lapse because it was more convenient to buy stuff from a store. But seeing what Bethany deals with, I'm reminded all over again about how important it can be. That 'think green' vibe that Naomi taught me protected me from a lot of hidden toxics; I just never realized how much.

"I guess it's not much of a present, but I thought we could start making our own cleaners and using them instead of the commercial stuff, start cutting down on those cumulative effects, make the loft a place where your senses can relax even more...." Blair trailed off. Why had he thought this idea would be any kind of a suitable present?

"Blair." Jim spoke softly, but with heartfelt emotion. "This is great. It shows me that you have my back in more ways than I ever expected. Don't apologize for showing that you care. You've told me a dozen times if you've told me once -- it's what friends do."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Blair wandered to the French windows and stared out at the glittery world below. "You know, despite everything, it's been a pretty good Christmas, hasn't it?"

Jim crossed the room to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Blair, staring out at the same transformed city. "Not quite, Chief. Because of everything, it's been a wonderful Christmas. And don't forget -- big fancy dinner at Joel's with the whole gang, just to put the icing on the cake, or the whipped cream on the pumpkin pie. I couldn't possibly ask for more." He slipped his arm around Blair's shoulders and gave him a heartfelt hug.

Blair returned the hug, basking in the warmth of friendship freely given and shared. "You're right; after all, 'tis the season to count our blessings. Merry Christmas, Jim."




Hand-made Wooden Rocking Horse




The End



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