[personal profile] starwatcher_fic
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Title: 'Tis the Season
Summary: Christmas is a time for gifts and... senses testing.
Style: Gen
Size: 4,420 words, about 9 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: Written December, 2003.
Feedback: Not necessary, but every comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





'Tis the Season

by StarWatcher





Thursday, October 30th

"Hey, Jim, got any plans for Saturday?" Blair asked, oh-so-casually.

Ellison immediately felt the mental warning flags go up. Tests. Sandburg wanted to rope him into more tests.

He looked up from the newspaper he was reading and fixed the younger man with his most fearsome scowl, the one that always made the perps quake in their boots. "Cleaning. Shopping. Relaxing. That's what a 'day off' is for, Sandburg, or haven't you learned the concept?"

Sandburg seemed to have quit grading papers for awhile. He wandered to the fridge and extracted a couple of bottles of beer. There was no sign of boot-quaking as he smiled sunnily at his friend and handed him one of the bottles. "Oh, great. If we really work at it, we could finish the cleaning early, then swing by the Arts-and-Crafts Fair before doing the regular shopping." If anything, the scowl facing him deepened. "Think about it man. Booths of gorditas and burritos, Alaskan king crab legs, mooshoo pork, pad thai, elephant ears, caramel apples with nuts... you can chow down and I won't say a word, I promise."

"I am thinking about it. Echoing barn-like buildings filled with strange smells and crowds of loud people. Why should I subject myself to that? You go if you want; you don't need to drag me along."

"But it's a great opportunity, Jim; a chance to practice controlling your senses -- hearing especially -- in a realistically adverse situation, but it's not life-or-death hanging on your success. If it gets to be too much we'll leave, I promise, but some day you might be grateful that you had that practice." The gaze he turned on his friend was earnest and hopeful, and wide-eyed as a child's.

Ellison felt his resolve crumbling. "Sandburg, why bother? Shoving through crowds, looking at booths filled with ticky-tacky junk..."

"Jim! Not ticky-tacky! Hand-crafted art, and items that someone has put time and effort into. Okay, okay," he hastened to forestall another objection, "some of it is less 'polished' than you or I might like. But there's some good stuff too, man, at reasonable prices. It's a chance to appreciate individual creativity, the best of small-town Americana, even if you don't buy anything."

Ellison's eyebrows rose. "Small-town, Chief? In Cascade?"

"Hey, man, 'small-town' is an attitude as much as a place, and hand-crafting goes with that attitude." Blair waved off the comment airily, and fixed his partner with a considering eye. "Why the negativity, man? Did a toy train bite you on the ankle when you were a kid?"

Jim sighed. He was losing this battle, but he wouldn't go down without one last effort. "Sandburg, you still haven't told me why. Why should I go with you -- you're a big boy, now, you can go alone -- but also, why do you want to go in the first place?"

"Well..." He eyed the big man uncertainly, half-afraid of being laughed at. "Like I said, it's a chance to appreciate individual creativity and ingenuity. And if I buy something, I'm supporting a local artist, and that's always good." Jim was still waiting. "And I like to get an early start on Christmas shopping. Sometimes you can find some really unique gifts that will be a lot more appreciated than the same old stuff from a department store." Jim still didn't look convinced. Blair sighed. "And I like to get stuff for the Christmas Wishing Tree, and this way I can get more stuff on the same budget, and spread it around to more kids."

Jim blinked. Apparently they'd just crossed into the Sandburg zone. "You lost me, Chief."

"You know the Wishing Tree they have in the mall every year, the one they put up the first weekend of November?"

Jim didn't, but he nodded encouragingly. As usual, Sandburg saw right through him.

"Ah, man, you mean you never noticed it? It's this big tree, decorated with paper stars. Each star has the gender and age of a kid whose family can't afford Christmas presents. You pick a star, buy a gift that you think would be appropriate, and pass the star and gift over to mall management. They pass it to the group that's in charge, and those people wrap and distribute the gifts to the right kids in time for Christmas."

Jim had to swallow a lump. It never ceased to amaze him how giving his friend could be. He couldn't help but wonder if Blair had ever been on the outside looking in, hoping for a Christmas present that didn't come.

"That sounds like a worthwhile endeavor, Chief, but why not just do it at the mall? The toys will be handy; in and out and you're done."

"Like I said, more bang for the buck. I can buy probably three toys at the Fair for the same price I could buy one at the mall -- give three kids a little bit of Christmas instead of just one." He shrugged. "It's something I've been doing for the past five years. I just thought you might like to join in." Once again his gaze turned hopeful and beseeching.

Jim should have known that his surrender was inevitable, but he could still bargain for terms. "Okay, Chief, it's a date." He raised a cautionary finger. "And I'll even practice dial-control with you; you made a good point. BUT, fair warning... if it gets to be too much, I'm out of there, and you'll have to take the bus home."

"Oh, man, that's great! You'll have a good time, Jim, I promise!" The smile on his face could have provided light for every apartment in the building.

Privately, Jim still had doubts. But as he returned to his newspaper, he supposed that it wouldn't be too traumatic; nothing he couldn't handle. He hoped.




Saturday, November 1st

Jim woke as Sandburg's alarm went off below him, and frowned as he glanced at his own clock. Saturday was a day that they both enjoyed sleeping in, if possible, and it was barely 6:45. Maybe Blair had forgotten to leave his alarm off last night, and would turn over and go back to sleep? Jim focused his hearing on the room below his. No, the rustling of clothing indicated that Sandburg was getting dressed. More sounds told of a quick stop in the bathroom -- flushing toilet, hands being washed -- and then the light went on in the kitchen. Cupboard door opened and shut, pan placed on the stove, fridge opening...

He heaved himself upright and passed a hand over his face, then looked over the railing into the room below. "Sandburg! What's up?"

The answer was indecently cheerful. "I'm up, Jim, and you should be, too. Early start on cleaning today, remember? Breakfast in fifteen, buddy; get a move on!" Jim heard the eggs crack on the side of the bowl, and the whisk starting to beat them.

Oh. Right. The Arts-and-Crafts Fair. Oh well, Sandburg certainly seemed determined to get started and get finished; might as well take advantage of it. He pulled on jeans and a T-shirt, slipped his feet into the soft moccasins he wore around the house, made his own stop in the bathroom, and joined his friend in the kitchen. He made and buttered the toast, poured the coffee that Sandburg already had brewing, and sat down just as Blair brought two plates of scrambled eggs to the table.




Three hours later, the loft was spotless, and they were on their way to the fairgrounds. Ellison was feeling slightly stunned. Sandburg never shirked helping to clean the loft, but he had never approached the job with the energy he had displayed today. Apparently, this Arts-and-Crafts thing meant more to him than he'd let on.

Jim parked the truck at the end of a sparsely-populated row that was a considerable distance from the entrance. He didn't mind the walk, and the truck was less likely to get 'dinged', as most of the patrons would be searching for spots closer to the main gate. He grinned as he remembered a quote he'd read years before: 'As a nation, Americans are dedicated to keeping physically fit -- and parking as close to the football stadium as possible.'

As they reached the midpoint of the parking lot, Jim hesitated. Even from here, the noise and the smells were noticeable. He looked askance at the three large, Quonset-hut-like buildings, apparently ideally designed to amplify sounds while splitting them into so many pieces that there seemed to be no source. He really didn't want to do this. Maybe he should just leave Sandburg here and head home now...

The guide was in tune with his sentinel. Blair paused with Jim, and laid a grounding hand on his arm. "I really think you can do this, man. Just dial your hearing and smell down about two points below normal. When you're comfortable with that, we'll experiment with raising one or the other -- just a notch -- to locate specific items, then down again. When that's good, we'll see if you can go two notches up, then down. It's all about control, Jim. If you can do it, you've gained experience for similar situations. If not, we'll quit and go home. I can come back alone tomorrow and find what I want. Okay?"

Okay. He was a sentinel, and Cascade was his territory. Sandburg made sense; he had to learn to cope with all of his territory. He gave a short nod, then adjusted the mental dials as his guide had suggested. A quick scan into the fairgrounds and... yes. It was better already. He could do this. As he relaxed, he felt Sandburg relax beside him as well. Together they walked through the gate and into Building A.




For awhile they wandered the aisles at whim -- Sandburg's whim. Apparently, anything could attract his attention, although Jim noticed that he seemed to spend more time on the actual hand-crafted items, rather than ones that were simply re-packaged from other sources. Those also became the booths that Blair expected him to be able to 'mark' and recognize. "Jim, listen to the tone of these wind-chimes. Doesn't that hand-beaten copper make a distinctive sound?" He had to agree that it did. "Come on, Jim, this is hand-spun wool yarn and natural dyes. It's got to smell different than the usual commercial stuff." A cautious loosening of the scent dial proved Sandburg right again. "Hey, Jim, take a whiff of these carved boxes. Aren't the exotic woods more recognizable than the usual lumber from Home Depot?" They were indeed. "Focus on the falling of the water as it passes from one level to another; does each fountain have a unique sound, or are they all the same?" Each one was different, a soothing murmur that he'd never consciously noted before. Maybe he should get one for the loft....

But, despite the distractions, Blair kept a close eye on his friend. As Jim followed quiet suggestions to 'filter out the smell, it doesn't have to affect you', or 'turn up your hearing just a notch, but let the echoes shift to the background', he was pleased to discover that Blair's impromptu training session seemed to be working. By noon, he was completely comfortable, able to relegate the myriad sounds and smells to a balanced, non-invasive sensory backdrop -- one that didn't hamper his efforts to focus on specific items. And right now, he had one specific item in mind -- lunch. Of course, even that became a training session.

They paused in a quiet, sheltered area between two of the buildings. Blair looked up with a light of challenge in his eyes and a wicked grin dancing on his lips. "Okay, Big Guy; we've seen some of the food stands, but not all. So, use that nose to discover what our options are. You decide what smells the best, and that's where we'll eat."

Jim answered with a grin of his own. "So you say, Chief. What happens if I discover that WonderBurger has a stand here?"

"Fine. You can have WonderBurger -- after you point me to the homemade gorditas and shrimp-fried rice." A punch on the arm became a grounding touch.

Jim closed his eyes and concentrated on smell. It took a few minutes, as he needed time to note and discard the countless scents -- glue, wood, paint, incense, dye, fabric, leather, and so many others -- of the various handicrafts. Sandburg's earlier coaching paid off; all of these were now known and recognized, and he was able to shunt them to a mental storage bin labeled 'non-food', and ignore them. Very soon, he was identifying the various foods and cataloguing the ingredients that would enhance or detract from the flavors, peripherally aware of Blair waiting patiently by his side.

"Got it. Okay, Chief, hope you brought your appetite and don't mind mixing cuisines. We'll be having barbequed ribs with honey-mustard sauce, baked salmon patties, and shrimp egg-rolls, along with..." he paused to confirm his information, "some really excellent homemade bread, and a dessert of real, honest-to-god, old-fashioned handmade strawberry ice cream."

"Oh, man, it sounds like the heart-attack will be worth it. Lead on!"




After a self-indulgent second helping of the ice cream, Sandburg's whole demeanor changed. Gone was the carefree wanderer, replaced by the focused gaze of a dedicated hunter. "Okay, Jim, I deliberately didn't make note of where the specific booths are. You're going to use your senses to lead me back to the things I want. First stop -- the booth with the hand-carved boxes of exotic woods. I think one would be great on Simon's desk to keep his cigars in. Follow your nose and lead on, MacDuff!"

In short order, Blair had chosen Simon's cigar box (after consulting with Jim to be sure that the scent of that particular wood wouldn't adversely affect the cigars), one of the beaten-copper wind-chimes for Rhonda, and a hand-dyed, hand-knitted scarf for Megan, in shades that would complement her coloring.

Sandburg's enthusiasm was contagious, and Jim had to admit (privately) that Blair had been right -- many of the crafts were well-done and would make good gifts. And since he was already here, gifts purchased now would save him having to spend so much time in other stores... For Simon, he selected a pen-set in the same wood as the cigar box. Megan would get a sort of beret-thingie that matched the scarf Blair had chosen, and Rhonda would get a miniature table-top fountain. She might like to keep it on top of her filing cabinet.

But enough was enough; a little shopping went a long way, even though his senses had long since adapted to the crowds and noises and smells. Jim stopped Blair as he headed toward another booth. "Sandburg, the experiment was a success; the dials are working." He grinned slightly at the restrained bounce that expressed his friend's satisfaction. "So finish up; I'll give you another half-hour, then I'm out of here."

"Great, man, no problem. Just need to get the toys for the kids, and I already know which ones. So -- you remember that booth with the animal marionettes, and one was attached to a revolving arm that made it dance? You said the motor had a really annoying squeak. Where is it from here?" His eyes were alight with expectation; it seemed that the testing wouldn't be over until they actually left the building.

Sandburg was good. In the requisite thirty minutes, he had purchased two of the marionettes -- ("Hey, man, interactive toys that promote imagination; they're great!"), a set of hand-carved, unpainted, wooden vehicles -- ("Classic, man. A three-year-old can bang these around as much as he wants without hurting them."), and matching bracelet-and-necklace made of small polished chunks of semi-precious stones, undoubtedly the 'leavings' from making the larger, more formal jewelry. ("It doesn't matter, man. Some little girl will just see that it's pretty and shiny and enjoy showing off to her friends.")

Maybe Sandburg's spirit was catching. As they passed a booth displaying rag-dolls and plush animals, Jim paused to examine them more closely. The dolls were hand-stitched, without any small pieces to be pulled off and stuffed into an inquisitive mouth; their painted-on features had an individuality that commercial dolls lacked. The animals were engagingly fuzzy and squishy, just right for a young child to cuddle with in bed.

He glanced uncertainly at his friend. Were these toys too simplistic -- or maybe ordinary -- to be gifts for a needy child? Blair's beaming smile and encouraging nod assured him otherwise. Jim selected a brown-haired rag-doll in an apple-green dress, and a rainbow-colored, floppy kitten. As the booth-attendant made change, he warned, "But I'm not going in the mall, Sandburg. You can choose the stars for the kids that get these toys."

"Sure, Jim, no problem," he declared. "No sense duplicating our efforts when one can take care of the job."

As they finally headed toward the main exit, Sandburg stopped at one last display. His face was almost wistful as he examined the display of tree ornaments. These were made from simple, solid-colored balls, each with a tiny teddy-bear head, arms, and legs glued on. The ball was, in effect, the tummy of a teddy-bear at the same time it was a toy that the bear was clutching. Some had children's names on them, and a sign proclaimed that any ornament would be personalized free. Kind of kitchy, Jim thought, but Blair touched one with a tender finger.

"Wouldn't this be great for kids? Give them a visible connection to the tree and the holiday, something that's just theirs, but shared by everyone."

"I guess." Jim was a little uncomfortable with the note of -- longing? -- in his friend's voice. Where was this coming from? "Not very practical for an anonymous gift though; you wouldn't know what name to put on it."

Sandburg quickly shook off the little mood. "No, of course not. And it's not really something they could use or play with all year." He headed swiftly for the door, smirking slightly as Jim was left half a beat behind.

As they settled into the truck, Blair looked over at his friend. "Thanks for coming, man; it's always more fun to share with somebody. I know it wasn't your ideal way to spend a Saturday, but... well, thanks. And 'specially for adding to the toy collection. They'll make some little kids awfully happy on Christmas morning."

"No problem, Sandburg; I've had worse times, and the cause seems worthwhile. And the practice really did help my control. Of course, if you really want to show your appreciation..." He glanced over to see Blair with an eyebrow raised, waiting for the punch-line, "... you'll declare a no-testing period for the next two weeks."

"Two weeks! Man, you can't let your skills get rusty; three days."

"Ten days."

"One week, and I'll bake a blueberry shortcake."

"Done!"

They grinned at each other in perfect harmony, sentinel to guide, friend to friend.




Sunday, November 2nd

Immediately after breakfast, Blair grabbed his backpack and the bags of toys they had bought. "I'm outta here, man. I'll swing by the mall to pick some Wishing Stars to match these toys, then drop them off with management. After that, I need to do some work in my office. Should be back around three. You need anything while I'm running around?"

"I'm good, Sandburg. I think I'll go to the gym later, but I should be here when you get back. Dinner at Luigi's?"

"After the way we pigged out yesterday? How about vegetable stir-fry and blueberry shortcake?" He fixed his friend with a stern look.

Jim's grin was unrepentant. "Had to try, Chief. Yeah, sounds good. You gonna use canned blueberries, or do you think the organic market might have some fresh?"

"Why don't you check it out, Jim? At this time of the year, they won't be local; you can tell better than I can if the ones at the market are good enough. Otherwise, I'll just use canned." He watched Jim settle back with the morning newspaper, and was out the door with a careless wave.




As soon as Blair's car turned the corner, Jim's relaxed pose disappeared. Even on Sunday, the gym would be less crowded before noon. Going now would give him time afterward to swing by the Arts-and-Crafts Fair again. With the senses practice he'd done yesterday, he should be able to spend a short time with no difficulty, even without his guide. There was something he wanted to pick up without Blair knowing... He grabbed his gym bag and locked the door behind him.




Blair left the Mall Office with a sense of accomplishment. Six toys, six stars -- and six children that would have at least one present to open on Christmas morning. Every time he did this, he realized all over again that giving, not receiving, really was the best part of the season.

He glanced at the wall clock as he headed toward the main exit. He had plenty of time to stop back at the fairgrounds again before heading toward the office. It wouldn't be much -- little more than a trinket -- but he hoped Jim would appreciate the gesture.




Saturday, December 20th

The small, but well-shaped, living tree was standing in front of the far balcony doors, waiting for its lights, tinsel and ornaments. This had been Blair's innovation. Jim had explained, the first year Blair was in the loft, that he didn't like to put up a Christmas tree because he could smell the cut trees dying. Blair had been intrigued, but quickly suggested a potted tree from a local nursery. The smell would remain fresh and clean to sentinel senses, there would be far fewer dropped needles to clean up, the rental fee was comparable to the cost of a cut tree, and it would be returned to the nursery after Christmas -- no need to worry about disposal of a discarded tree. Jim had counseled him to, "Breathe, Chief; you've convinced me," and joined his friend in evaluating the potential 'candidates'. Both men had been pleased with the experiment, and continued the custom the next year.

Blair had been waiting all week for this. Decorating the tree was a cultural tradition that he hadn't always had the opportunity to participate in. He enjoyed it whenever he could, and sharing with his friend made the experience even sweeter. He'd been up early, working in the kitchen; they'd have fresh apple pie and hot spiced cider after the tree-trimming.

Jim positioned the lights -- small, so the heat wouldn't harm the tree, and unblinking, so the sentinel wouldn't risk a zoneout -- to his exacting standards, while Blair unwrapped the ornaments from their protective tissue and lined them up on the couch. From there, it would be easy to choose the 'correct' color and shape of ornament needed to 'balance' all sides of the tree. Privately, Blair thought that tree-trimming in accordance with sentinel -- or maybe it was 'anal' -- sensibilities subdued some of the spontaneous fun. On the other hand, the previous years had demonstrated that the final effect would be beautifully harmonious. So, when Jim 'adjusted' half of the Blair-placed ornaments a quarter-inch forward or back, it didn't make a dent in his good mood. He simply enjoyed spending some down-time with his friend while instrumental carols played softly in the background and the air was redolent with the delicious smells wafting from the kitchen.

Finally, all the ornaments were placed, and they both stood back to evaluate the effect before hanging the tinsel.

"What d'ya think, Chief?"

"Actually, Jim, I think it needs one more thing. Hang on a sec; I'll be right back," and he hurried into his room.

Jim took the opportunity to cross the kitchen and reach into the dark corner of the far cabinet's upper shelf. He grabbed the tissue-wrapped package and turned just in time to see Blair emerging from his room with a similar bundle.

There was an awkward pause.

Blair moved first, thrusting his bundle toward Jim. "Um... maybe it's kind of silly, but I wanted you to have this."

"You took the words right out of my mouth, Chief. This one's for you."

Blair grinned, noticing the similarity of the packages. "Is this a case of 'great minds' Jim?" He carefully opened the tissue to reveal one of the teddy-bear ornaments in a creamy silver. Inscribed in deep blue lettering was,

Blair - a Friend for all Seasons


"Oh, man," he breathed. "This is... this is just so cool. Thanks Jim; this is just... great!" His smile was incandescent.

Jim was touched; it took so little to make his friend happy. "You're welcome, buddy. So, can I guess what this is?" He unwrapped the paper to discover a teddy-bear ornament of blue. The silver-lettered inscription read,

Jim - Brother of my Heart


Jim smiled a slow, sweet smile, and didn't even try to resist. He moved forward, to bestow and receive a heartfelt hug. His voice was husky as he murmured, "You got it, Chief. Friend and brother -- it doesn't get any better."

Together, they walked back to the tree to find prominent places for both ornaments before they added the tinsel.




They waited until darkness fell to turn on the lights. Blair sighed contentedly as the tree shone in splendor. He and Jim sat on the smaller couch, sipping cider and contemplating the sight before them. One might think that the Menorah -- placed several days previously on a table in front of the near balcony doors -- would be overpowered, especially with only two candles burning tonight. Not so; the two icons of the season seemed to lend strength and meaning to each other.

It was a perfect representation of his heartfelt wish every year at this season -- peace to all the peoples of the world, whatever their belief system might be. Realistically, he knew that worldwide peace would be a long time coming. Perhaps it couldn't happen until every person had found a secure, comfortable 'niche' for his or her personality. He didn't know. But he did know that he was fortunate to have found his niche, at the side of his sentinel and friend... and he was never letting go.



The End



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