[personal profile] starwatcher_fic

Title: Merry Christmas, Chief
Summary: Christmas = Friendship + Snow + Love
Style: Gen
Size: 14,190 words, about 25 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Secret Santa request -- Would really like to see: Blair discover his worth to Jim. And it's Christmas, so something in line to snow and such... please. Written September and October, 2007.
Feedback: Not necessary, but I certainly do like to get it!
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org

Merry Christmas, Chief   (gen)

by StarWatcher

Thursday, Dec. 17, 1998

Jim Ellison snatched up the phone before it had completed its first ring. "You're two minutes and thirty-seven seconds late, Chief. Keep this up, and Santa won't bring you anything but coal for Christmas." He let the broad smile -- deliberately pasted on -- infuse his voice, carrying clearly to the man on the other end of the line.

"Jim, Sequoia and Honeybee function according to hippie time; they have one clock in the house, and anything within thirty minutes of the stated time is 'on time'. You're just lucky I can actually call within sight of nine PM; it could just as easily be two in the morning." But under the humor of Blair's response, Jim could hear a tread of tension and weariness; his friend seemed to be withholding an exasperated snap.

"Sorry, Sandburg, didn't mean to push." Jim carried the phone across the room and settled on the couch, lying back against the cushions and lifting his feet to rest on the coffee table. "Call it my awkward way of saying 'wish you were here'. So, how is Naomi? And, for that matter, how are you?" And when are you coming home? he finished silently. He needed this daily contact with Blair, and intended to keep him on the line as long as possible, but it was a poor substitute for his guide's actual presence.

"Naomi's doing pretty good," Blair assured him. Jim could hear rustlings that spoke of a matching 'settling in', five hundred miles away; thank God for modern technology that allowed them to stay in touch. "I've been telling you that natural remedies are best, and they're really paying off for her. The cough is almost completely gone, but she's still feeling a bit weak -- and very restless. She needs me to sit on her when Sequoia and Honeybee are at work, or else she'll overdo and have a relapse. We're mostly just kicking back, reminiscing and catching up."

And running yourself ragged, looking after her, Jim suspected. But he could hardly quibble; this was a man who had jumped out of an airplane, determined to follow him and help find a friend. Taking care of a mother suffering from pneumonia wouldn't even be a blip on the radar. "Sounds good, Chief; very relaxing. How about we trade jobs for awhile? I had to chase a purse-snatcher three blocks today, and then the idiot tried to bean me with a brick while I was arresting him. He was innocent, naturally; he'd been jogging for his health, but got scared when I started chasing him -- strictly mistaken identity, of course -- and that's why he ran. And he didn't have the purse on him when I caught him, so obviously I had the wrong guy."

"Oh, man!" Blair's throaty chuckle warmed Jim more than a blazing fireplace ever could. "I know you found the evidence. What did he look like when you produced it?"

Jim matched Blair's chuckle. "Dumbfounded, Chief; absolutely couldn't believe it. It was a damn slick move; he didn't miss a step as he tossed it behind a dumpster, and he was far enough away that I wouldn't have seen it if I didn't have the senses. I heard him complaining that I was a witch doctor when they put him in the black-and-white."

"No way, man, that's my gig!" Jim relaxed more as he heard the stress fade from Blair's tone. For his part, the nagging headache that he'd carried since the arrest was beginning to fade; obviously, they were good for each other. "So, you're handling your senses okay?" Blair probed.

There was no reason to add to Blair's worries; Jim followed his frequent example and obfuscated like hell. "Not too bad; a few headaches is all." He couldn't claim no problems; Blair would be sure to grill Simon, Joel, and Megan when he got back, and probably Rhonda, too.

"No zones or spikes?" Blair's question was anxious, almost sharp. "Because Naomi really is better; I could head home tomorrow or the day after if you really need me."

"One little spike, and one almost-zone that Megan caught and pulled me right out of. She's still a pain in the ass to work with, and her guide abilities are only a so-so substitute for the real thing, but we manage. I'm a big boy, Chief; I'll be okay till next week. Trying to change your flight at this time of the year would be more trouble than it's worth, and probably cost you a penalty, besides. Wednesday's not that far away; it's no big deal."

"Six more days," Blair pointed out, his voice sounding dubious. "But you're right. You're going to want to kick me out and fly solo, eventually; I guess this is good practice. But you will call if you need me, right?"

"Will do, Chief," he promised. "But for now, there's a more important issue -- what do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?"

Blair's voice became playful, and Jim could hear the broad grin. "Oh, you've decided that I deserve something more than coal?"

"Not me, Chief; Santa!"

"Ri-iiight." Blair's drawl was a pretty good imitation of his, Jim noticed. "Well, tell Santa that I've been thinking I need something to wake up the faculty meetings, like a tie with pink and purple polka-dots. That, and a briefcase full of old money -- twenties and fifties -- will do me just fine."

"Sandburg, I'm supposed to catch the criminals, not become one. The tie might be doable, though. But wouldn't you rather settle for some popcorn and beer in front of the fire?"

"Throw in a quart of Dutch chocolate Haagen-Daaz, and make it hot chocolate instead of beer, and you've got a deal."

"Can do, Chief. Just be sure you're here to share it with me. Turns out, I kind of miss having you around; you've grown on me.

"I know, I know; like a fungus," Blair said cheerfully. "But I'll be there, Jim, twelve-thirty next Wednesday, I promise."

"I'll pick you up, Sandburg. I might even ignore the code of the macho-man and give you a hug right in the airport."

"Oooh, be still my heart!" Blair teased. "Of course, you realize that I'd have to hug you back, right there in plain sight."

"Counting on it, Chief, counting on it."

They spent another ten minutes trading quips and discussing inconsequentials, then said their goodbyes. Jim reluctantly hung up the phone. He sighed as he massaged his temples, where the dull throbbing had subsided to the merest whisper -- but it was still there, and guaranteed to be back full-force tomorrow as soon as his senses encountered something objectionable.

Damn! He'd honestly thought that he was getting a handle on this sentinel thing; he'd been using his senses easily and well for the past eight or ten months. But now, given the way his senses had started to act up within three days of Sandburg's leaving, it seemed a strong possibility that he was able to manage so well only because he had regular doses of 'Sandburg-exposure'.

Jim had been smugly satisfied to be using his senses capably, even when Blair wasn't around, and confident enough to urge him to go to Naomi when her friends had called. Despite the younger man's misgivings at leaving his sentinel for the planned two weeks, Jim hadn't hesitated to drive Sandburg to the airport and see him off on his flight, with sincere wishes for Blair to stay as long as he needed.

But the longer Blair was gone, the less control Jim seemed to have over his senses. It was a struggle to get them to cooperate at a crime scene, and he'd worked grimly through more spikes than he'd ever admit to anyone. Fortunately, he got some relief when he returned to the loft each evening, where the changes and additions that Sandburg had made over the past two years had created a 'sentinel-friendly' haven. The fact that his guide's scent was still present also helped, as did the nightly phone calls.

But what the hell will I do when Sandburg finishes that damned dissertation and leaves for good? Jim wondered grimly as he prepared for bed. It wasn't all that early, and bed provided a quiet relief for his jangling senses -- especially since he'd had the inspired notion, just yesterday, to put fresh linens on Blair's bed, and wrap one of the used sheets around his own pillow. He'd slept better than any night since Blair had left, despite the lack of heartbeat in the room below his.

So he was managing -- for now -- but it made the outlook of a future without Sandburg pretty damn bleak. Kick his guide out and fly solo? Not 'no', but 'hell, no'; he wanted to wrap his arms around that sturdy body and never let go. But how could Jim admit that he needed Blair in his life, if he hoped to have any kind of a decent life at all? And, even if he did admit it, how likely was it that the other man would agree to spend the next forty-odd years tagging along and helping out a sentinel with wonky senses?

About as likely as Hell freezing over, Jim concluded bleakly as he lay his head on his pillow and breathed in the comforting scent of his guide. Maybe I should ask Santa to put Blair in my Christmas stocking. Then he'd be mine forever. Clinging to that heartening, illogical idea, he slipped into a restorative sleep and dreamed about sitting across the table from a Blair whose face was deeply wrinkled and whose curls had become silver-gray, secure in a friendship that had lasted forty years.

Monday, Dec. 21, 1998

Jim hung up the phone after the nightly long-distance visit with his guide, and smiled softly as he stared at the tree, picturing Blair's pleased surprise when he walked in the door. He hadn't put up a tree since the divorce; there didn't seem much point to it when he lived alone and always worked Christmas day to allow more time off for the men and women who had families. The past two years, Sandburg -- flexible as always -- had gone along with Jim's agenda.

But just this year, Jim had listened with amusement as Sandburg spouted a truly inspired rant on how the meaning of Christmas was severely diluted when it had become so commercialized that the decorations and sales appeared in the store aisles the week before Halloween. In typical Sandburgian fashion, the rant had segued into a discourse on the various ways Christmas was celebrated in different countries and cultures around the world. Somewhere in there, Jim had realized that Blair, an anthropologist to his very core, had probably enjoyed participating in the various traditions.

He had primed the pump by sharing a story of him and Stevie helping Sally in the kitchen as she made her special Christmas cookies, and watched Blair's eyes light up as he shared stories of his own. It seemed that his friend did indeed treasure the times that he and Naomi had been in a situation to help decorate a tree, or bake Christmas cookies, or wrap presents -- especially, perhaps, because it didn't happen every year; it had depended on whether or not Blair and Naomi were with people who even celebrated Christmas. Apparently, Blair had also learned to celebrate Chanukah in the same hit-or-miss fashion, and now simply matched his expectations to how those around him celebrated.

Just thinking about it brought a lump to Jim's throat; it felt like Blair was settling for scraps from the table instead of enjoying the full feast. Not this year, he thought, fiercely -- and not as long as Blair continued to live and work with him. A few days ago, Jim had begun his mission with as much dedication as he'd ever used in Covert Ops. He'd rented a large, well-shaped, potted Christmas tree from a local nursery, suspecting that Blair's ecological soul would approve of a living tree instead of a cut one, and decorated it with symbols of both their beliefs, secular as well as religious -- angels and stars, Santas and reindeer, as well as dreidels and six-pointed stars of David, foil-wrapped chocolate 'gelt' and tiny, iconic menorahs.

The tree-topper had stumped him for three days; Jim didn't want to make the subtle proclamation that one belief-system was more important than the other by setting a five-pointed or six-pointed star at the top, and he hadn't found a multi-pointed starburst that he found esthetically pleasing. Then, just this afternoon, he'd stopped at the herbal store, to pick up a fresh supply of Blair's favorite teas. A display table featured small -- barely hand-sized -- teddy bears, each individually adorned in hand-sewn clothing suitable for the season. Among the Santas, Mrs. Clauses, elves, reindeer, and angels were several dressed in robes that depicted Biblical figures from the Old Testament.

About to pass by with an amused smile, Jim's eye had been caught by a flash of blue the exact shade of Blair's eyes. Reaching into the center of the pack, he plucked out what could only be Joseph in his coat of many colors. Variations of blue predominated, and Jim was reminded of the vibrant vest Blair had worn that first day in his crowded, basement office. This particular bear had crinkled brown/russet plush, blue eyes, and an amused smirk -- there was no other word for it -- on its face; Jim had the uncanny feeling that he was looking at Blair's alter ego. The sale was a foregone conclusion, and he added a hefty tip for Mrs. Chavira to pass on to the bear's creator -- apparently a friend of Mrs. C's who needed the extra income. Jim was only too happy to contribute; he could just hear Blair murmuring, 'good karma' as he watched the bear being put into the shopping bag on top of the tea.

He had pulled the Blair-bear out of the bag as soon as he reached the truck, to sit on the dashboard during the drive home. Now it was nestled at the top of the tree, gaily surveying the continuing Christmas preparations. It was ridiculous to feel comforted by the little bear's presence, but somehow it seemed as if he'd brought a piece of Blair into the loft. It might -- probably would -- wear off after a time, but that didn't matter; Blair himself would be home in less than forty-eight hours.

Jim grabbed another beer and returned to the kitchen table to continue the project that Blair's nightly phone call had interrupted. He was determined to make this the best present that Blair had ever received, for Christmas, Chanukah, Solstice, birthday, or whatever. At least -- he hoped Blair would see it that way.

Jim tapped his pen on the table in thought, then bent over the page and started writing.

Wednesday, Dec. 23, 1998

Jim waited impatiently to see Blair step off the gangway leading from the plane. He'd tried dialing up his hearing to locate Blair's voice or heartbeat but, with a wince, hurriedly shut it down to a notch below 'normal'. The cacophony of planes landing and taking off, loudspeakers announcing arrivals and departures, and hundreds of people calling their 'hello's or 'goodbye's was an almost overwhelming tidal surge of input. He focused intently on the doorway, waiting for the first glimpse of his friend.

The flood of deplaning passengers had subsided to a trickle when Blair finally appeared. He looked somewhat rumpled and frazzled, but good-humored as always. But, trust Sandburg to latch onto the opposite sex -- he was carrying a dark-haired cutie of approximately four years old. A young matron, presumably the girl's mother, walked beside him, trying to soothe the fussy baby in her arms.

Jim watched as the little girl whispered something in Blair's ear, after which he laughed and tickled her tummy, which was greeted with delighted squeals of laughter. An unexpected flash of jealously surged over him -- my guide, dammit! -- which he tried to bury. 'Twas the season, and all that, and Blair wouldn't approve of such a possessive reaction. After all, someone was probably waiting to greet the little family, and would soon take over Blair's temporary job. He could hang on just a few more minutes.

"Elizabeth! Amber!" A gray-haired man and woman were hurrying toward the group. The little girl twisted in Blair's arms. "G'amma! G'ampa!" Blair transferred her to 'G'ampa's arms, did the 'polite introduction thing', patted the little girl on the head, said goodbye to the young mother, and finally -- finally! -- turned to look for Jim.

A broad smile crossed his face as soon as he saw his friend, and Jim watched the minute lines of stress and tension fade away. "JIM!" he shouted happily, hurrying across the broad expanse of carpet.

Jim didn't even try to resist. As soon as Blair was within reach, he enfolded him in a fervent hug, and reveled in the sensation of the reciprocal, heartfelt hug. "Blair," he whispered, his voice ragged, and buried his nose in the curls atop Blair's head. Surrounded by sight, sound, scent and feel of his guide, his senses instantly -- almost magically -- snapped back into focus. His headache subsided to a tickle, and the evil torture chamber became an ordinary airport lounge; loud and smelly, but nothing he couldn't handle... as long as he had this man beside him.

Embarrassed -- this wasn't the time or place for such an emotional display -- Jim loosened his hold and stepped back. "Welcome home, Chief; have a nice trip?"

Blair's eyes twinkled, laughing up into his. "Oh yeah, man, stellar!" he chuckled. "Two hours goes by so fast when you can spend it playing patty-cake."

"I'm sure her mother appreciated it; you're a good man, Chief." Jim's voice was warm and deep, completely serious.

Blair hesitated; somehow, Jim's words seemed a bit -- disproportionate. He'd expected an answering quip, but maybe Jim just wasn't up to it; Blair easily recognized the signs of pain around his friend's eyes. "Headache bad?" he asked softly.

"Not anymore," Jim assured him. "But I'll be a whole lot better once we clear this pop-stand."

Blair's chuckle was understanding. "Oh, I hear that; I've enjoyed about as much of this as I can stand, myself. Home, James, and don't spare the horses!"

Blair settled into the truck with a heartfelt sigh. "So, what's on the agenda for the rest of the day? Do you need me at the PD this afternoon?"

"Actually, Chief, I wangled a few days off; barring the return of the Sunrise Patriots, I don't need to go in till Sunday. I thought I might talk you into helping me make cookies."

Blair turned and stared at his friend. "Cookies?" His tone was distinctly doubtful. "You make cookies?"

"Sally's secret recipe -- soft pumpkin cookies with pecans. And sugar cookies, of course; I thought we could drop them off at the PD tomorrow. And whatever you want to make -- you like anything special?"

"What's got into you, man?" Blair demanded. "I mean, you're good in the kitchen -- I know a couple of professional chefs who would kill to learn the secret of your shrimp polonaise -- but cookies?" The last word was uttered with a squeak of surprise.

Jim felt a thread of irritation; how could someone so intelligent be so clueless? "Sandburg, why must you always look a gift horse in the mouth? The proper response is to say 'thank you' and go with the flow. Which would be easier to do if your mouth wasn't hanging open."

Blair closed his mouth firmly, gave Jim a searching look, then uttered a pleasant, "Thank you, Jim." Unfortunately, he spoiled it a second later by asking, "But what's the gift?"

Fair enough; Blair wasn't a mind-reader, after all. Still, it wouldn't hurt to play with him. Jim shook his head in mock sorrow. "Chief, back around Halloween, did you or did you not spend three-quarters of an hour expounding on the cultural traditions of celebrating Christmas around the world?"

Had he? "I guess so," Blair ventured, cautiously. Amazing that Jim would remember a six-week old conversation; Blair certainly couldn't recall it.

"And did you or did you not admit to liking to make Christmas cookies?"

"Well, I do," Blair admitted. "But I don't remember telling you."

"You did," Jim assured him. "So I thought..." His voice trailed off as he stared at the road ahead. Blair was almost sure that he saw a hint of blush suffuse Jim's cheeks.

Blair was amused; what could be so terrible about baking cookies? "Thought what?"

"I wanted to..." Jim cleared his throat, "makeaniceChristmasforyou. So I thought we could make cookies. So what kind do you want to make?"

"Wow!" Blair blinked, feeling slightly adrift. Not that Jim couldn't be thoughtful and empathic, sometimes, but this was just... it didn't exactly feel like the Jim he knew and loved. On the other hand, how could he complain about a 'kinder, gentler' Jim? And wasn't he supposed to be the king of 'go with the flow'? So he needed to get with the program and just 'go', already.

Blair gave himself a mental shake. "That's... that really is special, man. Thank you. Okay... Gingerbread cookies! Do we have any molasses at home?"

"No, but we'll swing by Mercer's Market on the way."

Jim carried the grocery sacks -- which contained not only the jars of molasses, but extra supplies of flour, sugar, eggs and milk -- as a thinly-veiled reason for Sandburg to use his key to unlock the door, and enter first. Jim held back just enough not to interfere with Blair's first view of the transformed loft.

The reaction was everything he could have hoped for. Blair took two steps inside the door and stopped short. His backpack slipped unheeded from his shoulder and his suitcase hit the floor as he stared around the room. "Whoa!" he breathed. "Is it my imagination, or did Christmas kind of explode in here?" He moved slowly forward, taking in the decorated tree in front of the balcony windows, the garlands twined around the railings of the upper loft, the potted poinsettias in the middle of the dining table and on the coffee table, the gold and silver bells tied onto more garlands and looped gracefully across the upper tier of the balcony doors, and the carved wooden elves lounging atop the stereo speakers and peeking out from around the books and knickknacks on the shelves along the wall. It should've been too much, Blair thought absently as he surveyed each carefully-placed item, but -- somehow -- it all meshed into a charming 'whole'.

Jim grinned as he closed the door behind him and carried the groceries into the kitchen. "I thought you might get a kick out of it," he said, his voice conveying a mixture of pride and smugness. "Maybe I should have waited for you to help, but time was getting so short and..." he hid inside the refrigerator as he put away the eggs and milk, but kept his voice loud enough for Blair to hear, "...I wanted to surprise you. But we can make it a team effort next year."

'Next year'? Blair felt more at 'home' here than he'd ever felt in his life, and he certainly didn't want to leave. But he'd watched Jim's growing ease and competence in using his senses, and concluded it was just a matter of time until Jim decided he no longer needed Blair's help and told him -- politely, of course -- 'thanks, so long, and see you around'. Was this just a slip of the tongue, or was Jim actually anticipating that Blair would still be around 'next year'?

"Yeah, man, sounds like a plan," he murmured absently as he examined the tree more closely, noting all the six-pointed and five-pointed stars placed side-by-side. And where had the man found tree ornaments shaped like dreidels and menorahs? "But it's not like you needed my help," he said more strongly; "the tree looks great. In fact..." he stood back and considered the tree as he would a museum painting, noting the balance and cohesiveness. "I wonder if sentinels might also have an enhanced artistic sense. Or maybe it's the other way around -- people with enhanced perceptions of color, space and balance become artists."

"Or maybe it's just your friend's anal personality," Jim pointed out. "Believe me, Chief, I was just as particular before my senses ever came online."

"But you had them, even though they were hidden from your conscious mind," Blair argued.

Whoops! Wrong time for this; he could swear he felt Jim's attitude growing cooler, withdrawing. "But you know," he continued earnestly, "'tis the season, and all that. You've given me this great, unwrapped Christmas present, so now I'll give you one. No senses testing until after..." he did some rapid calculations, "January sixth; that's two full weeks. I won't even mention 'senses' unless you have a problem with them and need a bit of help." He grinned as he spread his arms and proclaimed grandly, "Merry Christmas, Jim!"

Jim's relaxation was palpable, even from across the room. "Thanks, Chief; I really appreciate it," he said, solemnly. Then, with a quick shift of mood, he continued, "And I'll see your 'Merry Christmas' and raise you a 'Happy Chanukah'. That table is for you."

"Huh?" Blair finally paid attention to the small, narrow table placed opposite the tree, in front of the other end of the balcony doors. It was draped with a white-on-white embroidered runner, and had a simple circle of pine boughs in the middle. "That? I thought maybe you planned to put party refreshments there, or something."

Jim was very busy pulling mixing bowls and cookie sheets out of the cupboards; it was easier to say sappy stuff if he wasn't looking at Blair. He meant every word, but it just wasn't easy to say. "I know you haven't, the past two years... but I thought you might have a Menorah to put there. If you want to," he finished hurriedly.

"You wouldn't mind?" Blair walked into the kitchen and planted himself in front of Jim, searching his eyes for the truth. Jim didn't try to avoid it, and smiled gently at his friend.

"Blair, if I minded, I wouldn't have offered. This is your home, too, for as long as you want to stay."

"Aw, man..." Blair wrapped his arms around Jim in a fierce hug, and felt it reciprocated. "You're the best! Thank you; that means so much." He stepped back, blinking the moisture from his eyes. "But Chanukah actually ended on Monday; Naomi and I lit the Menorah at Sequoia and Honeybee's place. But I really, really appreciate the offer. Next year, huh?"

"Next year," Jim agreed. "Now, what d'ya say we make some cookies? Toss your stuff in your room and let's get crackin'."

"Sounds like a plan." Blair hurried to scoop up his abandoned suitcase and backpack and carried them toward his room. As he approached the closed doors, he slowed. A banner hung across the doorframe.

I missed you.

Plain and unadorned, like Jim himself, but the sentiment settled in Blair's soul like a warm coat. He'd known Jim appreciated his help with the senses -- when he wasn't complaining about having to deal with them at all -- but Blair had long since realized that Jim very seldom said anything; he just expected Blair to know how he felt. And Blair did... but this unexpected acknowledgement was sweet indeed. "Aw, Jim," he all but whispered, knowing it was loud enough for his friend to hear, "the feeling is entirely mutual."

He ducked under the banner -- Jim had placed it high enough, and he wanted to savor it for awhile -- tossed his bags on the bed, and rejoined Jim in the kitchen. He rolled up his sleeves, donned an apron, washed his hands and was soon working beside his friend with almost choreographed movements. We really do work well together, he realized, as he measured the sugar and flour and watched Jim beat it with the butter, eggs, and pumpkin. Wonder how many years it would take to get bored with this?

He pondered that question as he placed spoonfuls of batter on the cookie sheet and pressed a pecan half neatly into the center of each. He'd spent over half his life traveling; it was as normal for him as mowing the lawn was for a typical suburbanite. Any time Naomi had been six months in one place, she'd found another goal for 'enlightenment', another star to follow, and headed for another rainbow -- usually with Blair in tow. Even when Blair had settled at Rainier, he'd spent most Christmas breaks on mini-expeditions, and headed out to something more substantial every summer.

But not lately; not since he'd met Jim. He realized now that he'd been half-expecting to feel the old wanderlust, vaguely hoping that it wouldn't hit until Jim no longer needed his help with the senses. Something had changed; he'd have to meditate to be sure, but it seemed like the wanderlust wasn't merely deferred. He was pretty sure it was completely defunct -- and it was all because of one James Joseph Ellison.

Fifty years, he decided, watching as Jim deftly slid the cookie sheets into the oven. I could see a friendship lasting fifty years with this man -- and how the hell did that happen? It's not like I've had any practice putting down roots.

But would Jim want him around for fifty years? Somehow, Blair doubted it, despite his friend's new, relaxed attitude... and 'detaching with love' would be damned difficult when Jim gave him his walking papers, whether it happened in one year or five. If he was smart, he'd start trying to distance himself, disentangle his heart so it wouldn't hurt so much when he had to leave.

Not gonna happen, Blair decided; he'd hang on to this friendship as long as he could, and store the memories for his later years.

Satisfied with his conclusions, Blair turned to measure the molasses for the gingerbread. He felt a vast sense of contentment to be making cookies with his best friend, simply because that friend had wanted to give him pleasure. He sniffed the delightful aroma of the pumpkin cookies in the oven, watched Jim as he used the whisk to beat the eggs into a fine froth, and smiled happily; life didn't get any better than this.

After twelve dozen cookies, four loaves of pumpkin bread, four loaves of banana nut bread, two pecan pies, two apple pies, and two pumpkin pies, the vote was unanimous -- no more time in the kitchen. Jim called in an order for pizza, with a side of garlic cheese sticks. They ate while watching one of the playoff games, then finished their meal with a selection of the cookies and pie.

By the middle of the fourth quarter, Blair was fading fast; he'd been up early to catch the plane, then had an eventful flight keeping his little seat-companion happily occupied, followed by a full afternoon with Jim. After the third jaw-cracking yawn, he muttered, "Sorry, Jim. It's not the company, it's just been a long day. Think I'll hit the sheets as soon as the game is finished."

"Sounds like a plan, Chief," Jim agreed easily. "But I've got another surprise for you tomorrow; you might want to hit the showers first, so you're ready to go in the morning."

"Oh, yeah? Go where?"

"Sandburg, what part of 'surprise' don't you understand? That information is on a 'need to know' basis, and until we get there, you don't need to know."

A broad wink signified that Jim was teasing, like I couldn't have figured that out for myself, Blair chuckled internally. But it was wonderful to see Jim having so much fun in making Christmas for his friend; Blair could see vestiges of the happy little boy he must once have been.

He played along; this lighthearted attitude was too precious to shoot down. "Does that mean I'm gonna be blindfolded as we get close to... wherever you have planned?"

"I hadn't thought of it... but I might consider a gag, if necessary." Jim gave Blair a playful shove. "Game's over. Go. Shower."

"And how much are you going to complain when I use all the hot water?"

"I'm feeling generous. No complaints; I'll just suffer in silence through my usual cold shower."

"Or you could wait fifteen minutes for the water heater to recharge."

Jim affected a look of astonishment. "Why did I never think of that? Thanks, Chief. At least now we know all that college education hasn't been wasted."

Blair allowed his chuckle to escape. "Man, you are so full of it. But this doesn't get me any closer to that nice, soft pillow; I'm going, I'm going!"

He ambled into his room to collect clean underwear and the old thermal shirt that was his winter sleepwear, then carried them to the bathroom, hanging them on the hook behind the door. Stripping, he tossed everything into the laundry hamper, then pulled back the shower curtain -- to be faced with an envelope hanging from the showerhead by a length of sewing thread, with 'BLAIR' written across the front in big, block letters.

Bemused, he broke the thread and opened the envelope. The front of the card showed a goofy-looking puppy with madly-wagging tail, and the caption, 'You make me so very happy'. Inside, the blank space had been filled by a hand-written note.
Blair, when I took a shower last night, I looked at the bar of soap in my hand -- hypo-allergenic, unscented, all-natural ingredients -- and I had a flashback to the week before you moved in here. My skin itched so much I couldn't sleep, could barely concentrate on my work, and I had rashes in places I don't even want to mention. You changed that, with a little intuition, empathy, and common sense. I know you'd say it's no big deal -- but I didn't think of changing my soap... or all the other personal and cleaning products in the house.

You've made an enormous difference in my life, as guide to a sentinel, but even more as friend to a man. I appreciate it more than I can say. I know I don't say it often enough -- okay, ever -- but I'm grateful every damn day that you're a part of my life. Thanks for being here, Chief. Thanks for being you.
The signature was a little smiley-face.

Blair stood for several minutes, rereading the message three times. Wow. Just... wow.

He ran his fingers across the words, as if they would become more real. He knew how reluctant Jim was to put his emotions into words. Blair could picture him, bent over the kitchen table, scowling at the paper as he tried to express his inner being. The fact that he'd go to so much trouble for this gift -- and Blair never doubted that it was a gift, one that was almost beyond price -- was exhilarating. And humbling. And deeply, deeply satisfying.

As he climbed into the shower, he murmured, "Thanks, Jim. And... you're welcome."

Out in the living room, Jim smiled with satisfaction, put his feet up on the coffee table, and changed the channel to the late news.

Thursday, Dec. 24, 1998

The delectable smell of bacon, eggs, fresh cinnamon rolls and coffee encouraged Blair out of his cozy nest to greet the day. He tied his robe, raked back his hair and, yawning, headed for the coffeepot.

"Morning, Chief!"

In Blair's pre-coffee opinion, Jim's voice was entirely too chipper. "If you say so. What time is it?"

"Eight-fifteen. Since it's a whole hour later than you get up when you have to go to school, I think that's enough sleeping in. Your 'surprise' is a bit -- I guess the best description is 'involved' -- and we really should be on the road by nine or so." Jim scooped the bacon and scrambled eggs onto two plates and placed them on the table. "Eat up!"

Blair reached for one of the crispy strips of bacon, slid it forward to pick up a lump of eggs, and bit off the end. It was every bit as good as it smelled, but -- "You do realize this is cholesterol city, don't you?" He took another bite, savoring the combination of salt and sweet.

"It's also sustained energy and internal warmth. Eat the cinnamon roll, too."

"What, you're planning on dog-sledding?" Blair deliberately looked out the balcony windows. "That'll be a little difficult, seeing as there's no snow."

"But it'll freeze tonight," Jim declared with certainty, "which falls right in with my plans. And quit fishing; you'll know when we get there." His smirk was decidedly devilish.

"Okay. But if I turn into a popsicle, you'll have to thaw me out."

"Actually, that's part of the plan. So finish eating and go get dressed -- several warm layers, plus boots, gloves, and that ridiculous Fargo hat." Jim rose to top off their coffee, then pulled a large thermos from the cupboard. He filled it with hot water and let it set for a few minutes, then dumped the water and poured the coffee into the thermos, capping it tightly.

Blair watched his partner making careful preparations. He wasn't sure he wanted to participate in anything that required extra layers of clothing. But Jim was having so much fun... and Blair knew that, if he truly didn't enjoy his 'surprise', Jim would cut it short and bring him home. He swallowed the last of his coffee and stood.

"Y'know, I'm beginning to understand why Naomi usually managed to be someplace warm during the winter months; you don't need half the amount of clothing. And may I ask what those are for?"

Jim was placing four of the cinnamon rolls in a plastic baggie. "Eating, of course. Hot coffee and cinnamon rolls go good together; we'll appreciate the snack, even if we don't need the energy. And why aren't you getting dressed?"

"I'm going, I'm going!" Blair watched Jim begin washing the dishes. "But consider this -- you've cooked breakfast, told me what to wear, and now you send me off to get dressed while you do the dishes. Have it ever occurred to you that you'd make some kid a great -- mother?" He snickered and ducked the threatened wet dishrag, then hightailed it to his room.

Jim headed east, toward the mountains; within forty-five minutes, they had reached an elevation where snow appeared by the side of the road. "Skiing?" Blair asked. "Gotta tell you, I've always thought it looked like fun, but I'm a complete novice -- never even tried it once."

Jim glanced at his friend. "That's too bad, Chief; it is a lot of fun. Maybe we can come up after New Year's and I'll give you some lessons. But no skiing today."

"Okay." Blair subsided, watching as Jim guided the truck higher, and the snow beside the road became deeper. Eventually they turned onto a smaller, less-traveled side road. When they reached a 'scenic outlook', Jim pulled into the parking area. "Wait here, Chief; I need to put on the chains."

He was efficient; in less than five minute they were moving again. Ten minutes later, Jim turned onto a narrow track that showed no signs of recent travel. "Good; I hoped no one had been up here lately."

"You sure we won't get stuck, even with the chains?" Blair didn't look forward to having to get out and push.

"No problem; it's not that deep here under the trees," Jim assured him.

The track continued to wind upward. Thirty minutes later it ended at a large clearing, covered by a pristine expanse of snow. Jim drove straight into the middle and shut off the engine.

Blair looked around. It was beautiful. The white snow blanketed the earth, and lay gently on the evergreen trees with the blue sky arching overhead; they'd left the cloudy gloom back in Cascade. But what kind of surprise was Jim expecting to produce? "Where are we?" he asked.

"This is the parking lot for a really great fishing spot... but you have to hike about two miles that way to get there," Jim explained, gesturing vaguely forward. "I really can't see anyone wanting to do that in this weather, and I was right; no visitors have been through, so we have perfect snow."

Blair looked again; there didn't seem to be anything special about the area, or the snow. "Perfect for what?"

"Making a snowman."

"Making a snowman?"

"Making a snowman."

"And we'll be making a snowman because...?"

"Because you said you had such a great time doing it with what's-his-name when you were eight, and I wanted to give you that again."

"Billy Thompson," Blair said absently. "So we're going to make a snowman and leave it out here in the middle of nowhere?"

"Well, we could. But I think it would be more fun to take it down and put it right beside the main door at home, don't you?"

Blair wasn't following Jim at all. "How?"

"Here's how I see it. We fill the truck-bed about one-third full of snow. Then we roll up a snowman bottom, torso, and head, and put them in the truck; the snow will cushion the ride so they won't fall apart. Then shovel more snow around them, and cover it all with the tarp so it won't blow out on the way home. When we get there, we make a base of the loose snow on the sidewalk -- against the building so it'll be out of the way -- and assemble the snowman there. And Prospect Avenue will have its own genuine, hand-built snowman."

Blair's excited enthusiasm was everything Jim had hoped for. "Man, that's a great idea! Weird -- whoever heard of driving seventy miles to make a snowman? -- but great! I'm kind of surprised you thought of it -- weird is supposed to be my gig -- but I am so down with that. Let's get crackin'." He buttoned the coat he had loosened in the warmth of the truck, tied his Fargo hat tightly, pulled on his gloves and hopped out, heading toward the truck-bed. "I suppose you brought shovels?"

Jim joined him, and threw back the tarp. "Sandburg, I've planned much harder missions than this. One for you and one for me." He handed both snow-shovels to Blair, and pulled the tarp off the truck, setting it to one side. "The easiest thing to do is to start right here by the truck and shovel in the snow. As we work farther away, we'll have a clear path to carry it back to the truck. Just don't scoop too deep; we don't want any of the gravel from the ground."

"Aye, aye, sir!" Blair chuckled, giving Jim a sloppy salute. Sometimes his friend's tendency to micro-manage everything could be irritating. Other times, like now, it was just -- cute. Not that I'll ever tell him that! He bent over his shovel and started scooping.

It took very little time to fill the truck-bed one-third full of snow. Jim propped his shovel against the side of the truck and rubbed his hands in anticipation. "Now the fun part, Chief. You make the head, I make the middle, and we work together on the base?"

"Sounds like a plan," Blair agreed, heading farther away from the truck, toward an untouched swath of snow. He scooped up a double handful and shaped it into a ball, patting it firmly to form the core of the snowman's head. Jim was working a short distance away, shaping a similar snowball. Blair paused, eyeing his friend's broad back.

"Don't even think it, Sandburg," Jim said. "Remember, I'm armed, too."

"Yeah, yeah; spoilsport!" But he dropped the snowball into the snow, and started it on a rolling path to gather more. He continued to pat it firmly as he went; he wanted a solid, tightly-packed globe that wouldn't fall apart on the trip home.

When he had what he thought was a good-sized head -- about eighteen inches in diameter -- he turned to see how Jim was progressing with the torso.

Jim noticed Blair straighten from his crouch, and angled his snowball toward Blair's. He stopped a few feet away, and also straightened. "What do you think about the relative sizes, Chief?"

Blair compared them visually, then decided, "Yours needs another layer or two," and bent to help Jim roll the larger ball on one more collection-circuit. The finished torso was about a foot wider than the head.

"Looks good," Jim decided. "Ready for the last one, Chief?"

"Yeah, but..." Blair regarded the torso-ball dubiously. "If we make the base proportionate to those two, it'll stick above the walls of the truck-bed. With the tarp beating on it, it'll get kind of flattened by the time we get home, don't you think?"

Jim shrugged. "I don't see that it'll hurt anything; a flattened side will just make a more stable support when we put the snowman together." He bent and started the third ball. As soon as it grew big enough, Blair joined him in the pushing, rolling, and patting. Jim kept an eye on the terrain, guiding the path so that, by the time the ball had grown to the correct size, it was very close to the other two. With matching groans of relief, both men straightened.

"Well, we can't carry them -- or at least, not the torso and base," Blair pointed out. "You gonna bring the truck over here?"

"I rather thought we would bring the truck over here. But first, there's cinnamon rolls and hot coffee calling our names, don't you think?"

"Man, you have the best ideas! Let's go."

Side-by-side they hiked the short distance back to the truck; the growing snowman-pieces had taken them farther than Blair thought. And, now that he wasn't physically active, he could feel the cold creeping in through all his layers; the hot coffee would warm him nicely.

After the break, they made short work of getting the snowman pieces into the truck-bed. Still following Jim's plan, they shoveled more snow around the round lumps, filling the truck-bed almost to the top of the sidewalls. It made sense, Blair decided; the extra snow would keep the round balls -- boulders, really -- from rolling and maybe breaking apart.

As Jim tied down the tarp that would protect everything on the trip home, Blair was planning ahead, seeing the put-together snowman standing in front of their home. But something was missing from the picture...

"Hey, Jim? I just realized; we're not finished."

"Of course not; it won't be until we assemble it back in Cascade."

"That's not it. A snowman is more than three big balls of snow; we need something for arms, and eyes and mouth, and buttons down the front. We don't have anything at home, except the carrot for the nose." He waved at the expanse of trees that encroached on one side of the clearing. "I'll bet we could find something in there -- especially if you use your senses for the search."

Jim chuckled. "I always knew you were a kid at heart, Sandburg -- or do you just want to win the snowman-judging contest?" He draped his arm around Blair's shoulders and started walking with him toward the trees. "It's a good idea, though, so lead on, MacDuff!"

As they walked through the beautiful, silent landscape, Jim didn't bother to remove his arm from Blair's shoulders. For his part, Blair reciprocated by slipping his arm around Jim's waist as he enjoyed this all-too-rare closeness; he hoped at least some of it would last past the Christmas season.

Once under the trees, Jim became the hunter, releasing Blair as he stalked forward on the trail of elusive pinecones and wily tree-branches. Blair also kept an eye out as he followed his sentinel, even though the likelihood of spotting something before Jim did was ridiculously small.

Jim's skills were as accurate as Blair had expected; in short order, they had collected almost three dozen pinecones in several shapes and sizes, and two branches from a fallen aspen. They broke the sticks to an even size, leaving the finger-like twigs at the end intact, and piled the pinecones into Blair's Fargo hat.

Blair had dropped a few steps behind so that Jim, with the snowman 'arms' over one shoulder and a few evergreen boughs under one arm, could maneuver through the forest growth. He eyed that enticing broad back and ran some calculations. His chances of winning were extremely slight, but the target was just too tempting.

He set his pinecone-filled hat behind the nearest tree, then stooped to form a snowball. But he'd seen his share of old-fashioned Westerns; he knew that only a lily-livered, cowardly dog attacked from behind. "Hey, Jim!" he called.

"Yeah, Chief?" As expected, Jim half turned to answer... to be met by Blair's snowball to the chest.

Trained warrior reflexes kicked in; Jim dropped his encumbrances and leaped into battle. "You are so going to get it, Sandburg!" he shouted, lobbing his own snowball toward the enemy.

With no lack of ammunition, and plenty of shielding tree-trunks, the fight ranged far a-field. Each man gave as good as he got, pitching snowballs, dodging return fire, ducking behind tree-trunks, and darting out to toss another snowball. Laughter danced through the air as they shouted threats and counter-threats, occasionally falling back on the old standby of, "Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah!"

Jim was getting too close; Blair turned to execute a strategic retreat and tripped over a root hidden in the snow.

"Got'cha!" Jim pounced on Blair's prone figure, expecting a swift end to the battle -- he had the actual combat training, after all -- but Blair demonstrated an unexpected command of wrestling skills. They rolled over and over in the snow until they ran into a tree-trunk, stopping their momentum. Blair struggled but, caught by a tree on one side and with Jim's weight pressing him into the snow, he couldn't escape; graceful surrender seemed his only option. "Uncle!" he gasped, letting his head fall back into the snow and laughing up into the face above him. "You win!"

"It was a foregone conclusion, Sandburg," Jim growled in his most threatening tones. He leaned closer, his breath puffing into Blair's face. "Remember that the next time; youth and sneakiness will always lose against age and experience."

"Well, you have the age anyway," Blair said easily.

Jim leaned even closer. "Those who doubt the experience may be doomed to have it demonstrated first-hand."

Blair just grinned. "Oh, yeah, I'm shaking in my boots, here. Do your worst, big guy; I can handle it." But his brave words lost their impact as he shivered; damn, it was cold, lying in the snow.

Jim felt it, of course. He quickly rose, and extended a hand to help Blair up. "Enough, Chief. We need to get going if we're going to get the snowman built before dark."

"Right. I think you're just trying to save face, don't want to admit that the lowly anthropologist held his own against the big, tough ranger."

"Dream on, Chief. It just doesn't seem kosher to freeze my best friend before we even get his snowman built."

Backtracking to recover the pinecones and dropped branches wasn't difficult; as Blair pointed out, "If all trails were like this, no one would need to develop tracking skills." Ten minutes later they had their 'snowman accessories' stashed behind the seats and were heading back down the mountain, with the heat turned high. They both appreciated the chance to warm up before another round of playing in the snow.

Enjoying the warmth, and the silent companionship of his best friend, Blair watched the snow-covered trees pass by without comment. Maybe he zoned a little; the next thing he knew, they were pulling into a parking lot in front of a long, low log building. The sign over the door read, 'Aspen Chalet'.

"What's this?" he asked. "And it's the wrong shape for a chalet."

"Don't be picky, Sandburg; it isn't the outside that counts, but what's inside."

"And inside we'll find...?"

"Lunch. They do mostly sandwiches, but they use real meat and vegetables, not the processed stuff, and they make the best damn hot German potato salad you'll ever taste. It wouldn't be much of a present if I let you faint from hunger before we finish making the snowman."

Blair hid his grin as he followed Jim into the restaurant. Mush; the man was pure mush beneath his frequently-gruff exterior, and Blair loved him for it.

This lunch would go into his stored memories as one of the best meals he'd ever shared with Jim, Blair decided. The food was hearty and delicious, and the room was quiet, with very few diners on this day before Christmas. And Jim... was there, actually engaging in conversation instead of just spouting macho bull about the Jags' latest game.

Not that they didn't discuss sports, but it didn't stop there. The conversation ranged seemingly across the world, from Jim's work to Blair's work, from exotic places Jim had visited to even more exotic places Blair had visited, from the vagaries of students to the quirks of cops. Under their outward differences, it was amazing how similar they were deep down, Blair decided. Or... not similar, exactly... but definitely simpatico. Their different lives had led them both to a deep respect for other peoples and cultures, and a basic acceptance of the oddities of humanity.

Not for the first time, Blair reflected how lucky he was. He'd gone searching for a sentinel, anticipating finding nothing more than some guy who was a walking collection of hyperactive senses. Instead he'd found a remarkable man, sometimes flawed, but with an extraordinary dedication to doing the best he could to make the world a better place. That such a man counted him as 'friend' was a treasure beyond price.

Jim pulled up across the street to allow Blair a good overview of the area. "Okay, Chief, it's your snowman; where do you want to put him?"

"There," Blair decided, pointing to a spot about fifteen feet to the left of the main doors of the bakery on the ground floor. "If we put it against the wall, it'll be out of the way of the pedestrian traffic, and it's halfway between the streetlamps, so it'll be sort of lit up all night. And it won't get much sun, there; it might stay frozen for a few extra days."

"Sounds good," Jim said as he maneuvered the truck to the right angle to back into a parking space close to the selected area. Working together, they soon had the tarp untied and pushed back, and were carrying shovels of snow to form a snow-platform; Blair was convinced that that would also help retard the melting.

The solidly-formed snowman parts had made the trip without crumpling or breaking apart. It took only a few minutes for Jim and Blair to assemble them properly, and just a little longer to use the leftover snow in the truck-bed for packing into the joins, to 'cement' everything together.

Then came the fun part. Blair examined his selection of pinecones, deciding how best to use them. Two of a medium size became the eyes, after he had cut off the top halves and pushed them into the head bottom-out. The tightly-whorled, barely-open scales of that part of the pinecones gave the snowman a wide-eyed, eager look, especially when combined with the broad smile underneath, formed of small round pinecones, each slightly larger than a grape.

Blair sent Jim upstairs for a carrot -- "No, we can't use a pinecone; carrot noses are traditional. But break one in half; we don't want the nose to overpower the rest of the face." -- while he pressed the slender, elongated pinecones down the snowman's torso. Stepping back to evaluate the effect, he decided that they really did look like fancy, high-class button-covers.

"Here you go, Chief," Jim said, handing over the carrot. "And I thought you might like these, for eyebrows." He held out two other carrot pieces, about two inches long, that had been sliced in half lengthwise.

"Perfect! Thanks, man." He placed nose and eyebrows with due care, and stepped back again to admire the result. "That is one fine-looking snowman."

"Absolutely; best one on Prospect Avenue." Jim grinned to see his friend so involved in his creative endeavor. "Just needs the arms, now. How do you want them -- angled up, or down, or one of each?"

"Hmmm... can you hold one angled forward, about forty-five degrees?" Jim complied, patiently following directions to shift the sample arm up, down, forward or backward. "That's it! We need to break about two feet off the end of each, then put them at a little upward angle and about halfway forward.

"Now he looks ready to hug the whole world," Blair said when the arms were in place, satisfaction coloring his tone. "Forget Prospect Avenue; I bet we have the best snowman in the whole city!"

"Not quite. We can't have a naked snowman standing around; he might get hauled in for indecent exposure." Jim slowly pulled a tie out of his pocket. "I thought you might like to put this around his neck."

Blair started laughing. "My god, it's perfect! But where did you get it?"

Jim grinned as he looped the tie -- garish yellow-green with rainbow-colored dolphins leaping on it -- around the snowman's neck. "It was a joke-gift from a surfing party a long time ago; I just never got around to tossing it. I thought it might give your snowman a certain... élan." He completed a neat four-in-hand knot.

"Well, we could call it that, though I'm not sure anyone else would agree. But who cares?" Blair stepped forward to slap Jim a high-five. "I know I said it already, but this was a great idea; you the man!"

Jim returned the high-five, then kept Blair's hand clasped within his own as he smiled gently. "It takes one to know one, Chief; you're 'the man' in my book." He saw -- and felt -- a minute shiver pass through Blair. "But I think 'the man' is getting cold. Seems like I promised you some popcorn and hot chocolate last week; tonight would be a good time to make good on it. Ready to go up?"

"That's what I really like about you, Jim; you come up with the best ideas. This combination of snowman-building and recovery from snowman-building should rank right up in the top ten."

"Oh, yeah?" Jim asked, ushering Blair through the door and across the lobby. "So what else do you think is in the top ten?"

"Well, actually, that's not as easy as you'd think," Blair admitted cheerfully. "It varies with recent events -- like cookie-making yesterday. But in general..." He paused, thinking while the elevator carried them upward. "Well, in general, any time you suggest a weekend fishing trip ranks right up there. And any time you decide to make your shrimp polonaise is a stellar idea. But simpler things, too, like when you suggest take-out pizza and cold beer after a hard day, or a round of pick-up basketball with just the two of us.

"Of course, there's the other end of the spectrum -- the ideas I could live without, like your inclination not to share the TV remote control, or weekly cleaning twice a week. But on balance, the good ideas are way more plentiful than the bad ones."

"Wow, Sandburg, you overwhelm me with praise," Jim said dryly, hanging his coat on the hooks beside the door and stepping out of his boots.

Blair chortled, shedding his own coat and boots. "And one of your good qualities is that you speak plainly. Just following your lead, man -- and being patient till we get to the popcorn and hot chocolate."

"And Haagen-Daaz chocolate ice cream," Jim reminded him as he walked into the kitchen and pulled open the freezer. "I didn't forget. But while you're exercising your patience, how about spaghetti and garlic bread for supper? We have a couple pints of sauce in here, and ground turkey for the meatballs."

"Add another one to the top ten!" Blair exclaimed, joining him in the kitchen. "Man, you're really batting a thousand." He gave Jim a friendly elbow-jab then, working in their customary harmony, they continued their supper preparations.

Great day -- no, two days! Blair mused, as he dried himself after his shower and slipped into his thermal undershirt and fresh boxers. Good thing I'm not sick, or I'd think Jim was representing the Make-a-Wish foundation. He snorted softly to himself. Of course, he'd have to be psychic to come up with everything he's done, since even I didn't know I was wishing for this stuff. On the other hand, he is a sentinel; maybe he's got enhancements he hasn't told me about.

He wore a contented smile as he carefully hung up his wet towels and pulled the loose hair from the drain, wrapping it neatly in toilet paper and tossing it in the trash; Jim deserved some kind of tangible 'thank you' for the incredible, open-hearted generosity he'd been demonstrating. On the other hand, I've always known he was pretty much a gooey marshmallow inside, Blair pondered as he tied the belt of his robe and stepped out into the hall. I just never expected him to be so obvious about it.

He stopped for a second at the doors to his room, lifting a hand casually. "It's all yours, man; I even left you some hot water. See you in the morning."

"Thanks, Chief; goodnight," Jim said absently. Blair grinned; if Jim was at the 'unmasking the killer' part of his current book, he'd finish that chapter before he put it down -- and then think up arguments for and against while he showered. Sometimes it still surprised him that a detective actually liked to read mystery novels.

He tossed his robe on the foot of the bed and pulled down the blankets without bothering to turn on the lights. But, when he laid his head on the pillow, his cheek hit something stiff, and it -- crinkled. Huh? Sitting up, Blair turned on the bedside lamp and discovered an envelope on his pillow.

Fingers trembling slightly -- Jim, this is, like... unreal! -- he pulled out a card that showed a picture of a vibrant rainbow waving proudly above snow-capped mountains. Blair stared at it for a few moments; this was like... well, he wasn't sure what it was like, but it sure didn't feel like the Jim he knew. Finally, carefully, he opened it to see what Jim had written.
Blair -- I told you that I appreciate your friendship and your 'guide'-ship. What I didn't tell you is that you've permeated my entire life... and I like it. Your voice is an anchor when my senses are kicking up a storm. When you walk into a room, you bring a vibrant energy that fills up the whole place which, somehow, smoothes out all the rough edges of the sensory input. You don't even have to do anything; just having you within eyesight or hearing range -- or even the scent imprint that you've left behind when you put your coffee cup on my desk before you go haring off to enlighten someone about your latest interest -- is enough to keep my senses stable. Hearing your heartbeat in the room below me is the lullaby that allows me to fall asleep peacefully -- I had a hell of a time sleeping while you were gone -- and hearing that same heartbeat when I wake in the morning immediately orients me for the day.

You could be right -- maybe one day I won't need you to keep my senses stable, and I'll be ready to fly solo... but I suspect it will take a few more years. At least.

God knows you have your own life to live. I'm just saying, you don't have to move out as soon as you have enough information for your dissertation, or even when the dissertation is finished. I wouldn't mind sharing the loft with a PhD -- it might even give the joint a little class, huh? This is an official invitation -- you can stay as long as you want, as long as it's what you want.

And now I'm getting real close to being mushy; I do have my standards to uphold.  
:-)   So I'll just say, welcome back, buddy. Listening to your heartbeat, I'll sleep well tonight; I hope you do, too.
This time, it was signed with a simple, 'Jim'.

Almost dazed, Blair rose and stepped to the door but, when he opened it, he heard the shower running. Even Jim wouldn't hear him through that natural white noise, unless he shouted. Deliberate? Maybe, maybe not, and absolutely no way to know.

Slowly, Blair closed the door, turned out the light, laid down and pulled the covers up. He lay, staring into the darkness, thinking. The idea of this kind of connection was -- again -- overwhelming. And scary. And downright cool.

But -- could he really do it? It was fine to decide 'fifty years' when it was only a fantasy, but he had no experience with long-term friendships in close quarters. The occasional postcard from a distant expedition, sure. A drink every two years when an old friend passed through, no problem. But... some kind of permanent relationship? Did he really have it in him? What about if one of them -- or both of them -- got married?

But surely tribal sentinels and guides must've lived like that -- always close, even if they had wives and children. The male friendship bonds are even stronger, and more common, than in 'civilization'. It's been done. Question is, can I do it?

When Blair heard the bathroom door open, he whispered, "Thanks, Jim." There was no answer, and the thinking continued for a long time before sleep claimed him.

Friday, Dec. 25, 1998

Again, Jim was midway through breakfast preparations when Blair woke; he smelled sausage and coffee, and heard the sound of the beater as Jim mixed batter for pancakes or waffles. Shelving last night's perplexing questions, he tossed aside the blankets and reached for his robe.

"Just in time, Chief!" Jim called from the kitchen. "I'm ready to put the pancakes on the griddle right now; shake a leg!"

"Nag, nag, nag," Blair teased, heading toward the bathroom. "If you're not careful, I'll just keep your present and get my money back." Closing the bathroom door only muffled Jim's hearty chuckle.

Interesting how Jim can time breakfast to just when I wake up, Blair mused, washing his hands. Wonder if he can sense a change in my body temperature or heartbeat or something. I'll have to ask... after the two-week moratorium is up. He snickered softly to himself, remembering his promise.

"'Morning, Jim; merry Christmas," Blair said as he crossed toward the coffeepot. He filled two mugs and carried them toward the table.

"Right back at'cha, Chief. How does blueberry pancakes and sausage sound?" Jim asked rhetorically; he'd already put a plate in front of Blair and was sitting down with his own.

"Pretty close to heaven," Blair said, reaching for the blueberry jam he liked to spread on top; in his opinion, blueberry pancakes should be really blueberry. As he picked up the knife beside his plate, he noticed an edge of paper all-but-hidden under his napkin. Pulling it out, he read:

One of the perks of having you in my life is sharing meals.
When you're sitting across the table, my day starts out right.

Jaw dropping, Blair read it again. Somehow, the sentiments seemed more 'real' in daylight, and even less like his emotion-avoiding friend. "Jim?"

"You're always on me to be more open. Merry Christmas, Chief. Of course, if you talk about it outside the loft, I'll have to kill you."

"Of course," Blair agreed gravely. He mimed turning a key at his lips, then tossing it over his shoulder.

The meal continued in silence for a few minutes, but Blair couldn't maintain it for long. "So, we gonna open the presents before the big game, or after?" He turned speculative eyes toward the tree. The very small present from Jim was driving him crazy. He firmly believed in the old adage that 'good things come in small packages', but he couldn't even guess what was in it.

"Like I could keep you away from them without using my handcuffs." Jim's voice showed his amusement. "As soon as the dishes are washed; I wouldn't want my guide to self-combust."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah -- it's not like you haven't been trying to figure out what's in yours!"

"Gotta admit, Sandburg, whatever you got, I can't get any information even with my senses turned up high. You might be taking this 'know-the-sentinel' gig a little far.

"Now that's just sour grapes," Blair said. "All I've done is put you on the same level with the rest of us mortals."

"Well, it worked," Jim admitted cheerfully. "Pumpkin pie for dessert?"

"It's breakfast-time; how about apple pie, instead?"

"Of course, it wouldn't hurt to have both," Jim pointed out.

"I like the way you think; bring it on!"

While Jim cut the pies, Blair grabbed the coffeepot and refilled both mugs. Each man took a section of the morning paper, which Jim had brought in earlier, and they ate in companionable silence. Afterward, working together as usual, they made short work of washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen.

"All right!" Blair exclaimed, landing on the couch with a decided bounce. "One at a time, or each open one simultaneously?"

"There aren't that many," Jim said. "I think we can wait to see what the other got. I'll even let you go first; here's one from Joel." He handed Blair a small box wrapped in silver-and-red striped paper. Blair ripped into the package without any urging.

"Oh, wow!" he laughed, letting three pair of soft Argyle socks spill through his fingers. "I'll have warm feet all winter. I wonder what little bird tipped him off?"

"Guilty, Chief." Jim picked up a larger box wrapped in matching paper. "And I wonder if a counterpart little bird helped him choose this one."

"Joel's a good friend," Blair said comfortably. "And he wants to give good presents." He watched as Jim examined the selection of organic, exotic honeys and jams. "I predict you'll have some pretty tasty breakfasts in the very near future."

"I predict you're right," Jim said, opening the lid of the boysenberry-peach jam to savor the aroma.

By unspoken consent, they saved their presents to each other for last; they opened and exclaimed over -- or laughed over -- gifts from all their friends in Major Crime. Then, with just two presents left, Jim handed Blair a square, slender box wrapped in delicately-embossed, silver paper. "This is from me, Chief; hope you like it."

Blair made a show of shaking the box next to his ear. "Well, it's not ticking, and it's not thick enough to hold a lump of coal." When Jim answered his quip with only the barest smile, Blair quietly opened the package with more care than he had shown the others. He couldn't imagine what Jim was concerned about; Blair was certain he'd love anything his friend had chosen.

He lifted the lid of the simple cardboard box, pulled aside the square of cotton padding, and gasped. The pendant inside was exquisite. A silver oval enclosed a wolf head and a panther head, side-by-side, each with turquoise eyes. The band of the oval was inset with -- Blair counted -- five pairs of brown/gold stones in various shades; he recognized amber, tigereye, and petrified wood, but not the other two. The whole thing hung from a leather thong, which was strung with stone beads that matched the gems of the amulet.

"Jim!" Blair's voice was barely audible, even to the sentinel. "This is... this is just..." Words failed him. He lifted his ankh over his head with trembling fingers, and replaced it with the panther and wolf. It settled beneath his throat as if it had come home, and he stroked each head with a delicate finger.

Jim cleared his throat. "I commissioned it from an Indian silversmith. After I explained what I wanted, he asked me to look through this big display case with different stones in each section, and told me to keep the essence of you in my mind. I had to choose five different stones that seemed as if they would 'enhance your being'." He shrugged self-deprecatingly. "Turns out they mean things like strength and protection and insight. I wrote it all down for you, 'cause I knew I'd never remember it all."

"It's incredible!" Blair breathed. "Every best present in my life, rolled up into one gigantic ball of good-ness, can't hold a candle to this. I expected something like a gift certificate to my favorite bookstore or something. This... I'm just blown away."

Jim relaxed and smiled happily. "I wanted to... sort of celebrate the sentinel-guide thing we share. Something to let you know I appreciate it, even when I'm being -- cantankerous." His smile widened, and he winked at Blair's stunned expression.

Blair quickly rallied. "Crabby."





"Now, I resent that, Chief! I've never been sulky!"

"Not macho enough for you?"

"Got it in one." They laughed together, then Blair sobered. He lifted the pendant to look at it again, and shook his head in awe. "This is almost spooky, Jim." He crossed to the Christmas tree and grabbed the final package; he wanted it to pass directly from his hands to Jim's. "Merry Christmas... and I hope you like it half as much as I like mine." Rather than returning to his previous place, he sat next to Jim, holding his breath with anticipation.

Jim accepted the package almost solemnly. It was somewhat larger than the one he'd given Blair, wrapped in shiny blue paper with a pattern of silver bells.

He pulled the top off the cardboard box to discover -- a plastic food-saver, with the lid on tight. He snorted softly, and pulled up the lid to be confronted with a mass of styrofoam peanuts. He looked up, to see Blair watching intently. "There is a present in here, right, Chief?"

"Like you said earlier -- I wrapped it good!"

Jim reached into the packing material, and his fingers touched a band of metal, which he carefully pulled out.

As Jim examined the watch, he understood why Blair had termed his amulet 'spooky'. Although the watch was heavy and definitely masculine, the rim around the face was inset with alternating pieces of turquoise and tigereye. The flanges on each side of the face, where the band connected, were engraved -- one with the head of a panther, the other with the head of a wolf -- and the eyes of each animal were tiny chips of turquoise. Without being as ostentatious as the pendant he had designed for Blair, it was obvious that they'd been thinking along the same lines when they bought their present for the other.

"The watch already had the turquoise and tigereye on it -- those stand for strength and protection, by the way -- but the sides were plain. I took it to an Indian silversmith -- wonder if it was the same man? -- and had him do the engraving."

"It was the same man," Jim said absently. "I recognize his scent on the eye-stones." He unbuckled his old watch and slipped the new one in its place, after setting the time and pressing the stem to activate the battery. "This is amazing, Blair -- absolutely beautiful -- and just as uncanny as you said."

"You know, we've never really examined the spiritual side of this sentinel-guide connection. Do you think this is just coincidence, or more than that?"

Jim sighed deeply. "It's too much to be coincidence... but how can we analyze or measure a spiritual connection? And... God, Chief, it just feels like 'too much'. I mean... I'm happy where we are now, the way we are now. I'd rather ignore it most of the time, and just deal with the spirit plane when we have to. Can't we leave it like this?" His eyes begged Blair to understand.

Blair settled back into the couch, trying to relieve the tension by watching the tree instead of Jim, but edging closer so that his shoulder brushed Jim's. "Sure we can. I've got no beef with how things are going. You're handling your senses well, we make a great team, and I plan to take you up on your offer to keep living here -- well, for a few years, anyway. I think these --" he reached out to cover Jim's watch with one hand, while he clasped his amulet with the other, "are proof positive that we're in the groove.

"This has been absolutely, positively, the best Christmas I've ever had, and I can't imagine anything that can ever top it." Blair shifted sideways to make his point, holding Jim's eyes with his own. "But it wasn't the cookie-making, or the snowman-building, or even this," he fingered the pendant again, "that did it. It's the fact that you put so much thought into making me feel special, and the way you showed yourself in those notes you've been letting me find." He gave a half-shrug / half-hand-wave, a vulnerable, almost lost expression on his face. "You're this fantabulous combination of best friend, Blessed Protector," he gave a quick grin at Jim's small snort, "heroic champion and big brother. To have the friendship of a man like that... well, my cup is full. We don't have to add anything or do anything different."

Jim cleared his throat uneasily, his eyes shifting away. "Chief, I..."

Blair punched him gently on the shoulder. "Don't strain yourself, big guy; you already said it in your notes. It's more than enough, and --" he deliberately lightened his voice, "I think we'll both be happier if we get off this emotional roller coaster. Do you have anything planned for lunch?"

Patting Blair's knee, Jim said, "I've got a turkey breast marinating; it's just about time to put it in the oven. But while I do, there is one more thing." Jim rose and reached into the middle of the Christmas tree, pulling out an envelope that Blair hadn't noticed hiding among the branches. Almost reluctantly, but with a determined look on his face, he thrust it into Blair's hands. "You give me so much, Chief, every day -- things that are worth so much more than any money I could spend. This... is just a fraction of that, but I mean every word."

"Jim... what...?"

"Just read it." Hurrying into the kitchen, Jim ostentatiously -- and loudly -- busied himself with luncheon preparations.

Blair stared at the envelope for a few minutes; what could Jim have possibly written that had him so nervous? Only one way to find out. Very deliberately, he pulled the card from the envelope.

The front showed a large black cat and a small, brown, curly-haired terrier puppy lying next to each other, with the cat's head resting on the puppy's. It was so appropriate for the two of them that Blair suspected Jim had gone to one of those 'design-your-own' places. He opened the card and began to read.
Blair -- you mean so much to me. I don't want to take for granted that you 'know' how I feel -- maybe by osmosis? -- but you know I can never say this stuff. So here it is in writing, and you'll be able to hold it over my head for the next ten years. <g>

You're my best friend. You're the guide I depend on to keep my senses working properly. You're the best thing that ever happened in my life. In fact, I really should stop complaining about the senses -- if it wasn't for them, you and I would probably never have met, and my life would be far poorer. But that doesn't say enough.

I love you, Blair. You're my best friend. You're the partner I trust to always have my back. You're my beloved younger brother, far closer to me than Steven ever was or ever could be.

Are you wondering why? So many reasons. You're strong -- strong enough that you don't let me push you around, and you give back as good as you get. You're smart; you never make a big deal of it, but we both know you leave me and everyone else in the dust. The fact that you bring all of that brilliance to bear on helping me with the senses leaves me... humble. And grateful; so very grateful. You say the senses make me special, but it's the way you treat me that makes me feel special.

I think you don't realize it, but you're the one who's really special. You have the courage to follow me into the hairiest situations, compassion that overflows to share with anyone in need, and a sense of humor that never fails to lighten my day just when I need it. It's like... you fill up a hole inside me I didn't even know was there, and make me feel safe. I can't imagine my life without you in it. I don't want to. As long as I can be your best friend and partner, my life will be good; I hope you'll be part of my life for a long, long time.
Wow. Blair stared blindly at the Christmas tree, absorbing the words. He'd known that Jim tended to hide and repress things, but this was ridiculous; he'd had no idea that the man felt this deeply about their friendship. He reflected that Jim was right. The pendant was a spectacular gift, one Blair would treasure for the rest of his life -- but this simple card, with its heartfelt sentiments, meant far more. He felt deeply warmed by the outpouring of love, and profoundly grateful that Jim had worked so hard to convey his beautiful message.

Turning his attention outward, he realized that Jim was still making an inordinate amount of noise in the kitchen. Could the man really be worried about Blair's reaction to his final present? Time to set his mind at ease; Blair rose and joined him in the kitchen.

"Need any help?"

"Sure; you want to peel the sweet potatoes?"

"I'm on it." Blair washed his hands then, midway through peeling the first potato, he said casually, "Thanks, Jim. It really means a lot to me."

Jim shrugged a shoulder dismissively. "I hoped it would. You're welcome."

The rest of the day passed in quiet companionship -- watching the big game on TV, eating lunch at halftime, discussing plans for the rest of their time off, followed by college football with large pieces of pie.

It was almost perfect -- but Blair felt that something was still missing. It irritated him. He was still bowled over by the pendant and the letter; what more could he possibly want? But as Jim switched off the TV and stood to make his nightly check of doors and windows, he finally pinned it down. When Jim turned to head upstairs, he found Blair standing in front of him, a small smile playing around his mouth.

"You know, Jim, I'm a verbal guy. Actions speak louder than words -- but I like to hear the words, too. Despite the fact that these have been the best three days of my life, I think you should finish it with three little words."

"What's that, Chief?"

"No, not those, you doofus." Blair moved forward to hug Jim tightly, feeling the strong arms clasp him in response. "Merry Christmas, Jim."

Jim smiled down into Blair's dancing eyes. "Well, you know how it is -- all that college education gives you a glib tongue, compared to the rest of us mere mortals. But I'll give it a try." He tightened the hug, soaking in the sound, scent, and feel of his guide, wishing he might never have to let go. "Merry Christmas, Chief."

The End

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