[personal profile] starwatcher_fic

Title: Eye of the Beholder
Summary: Friends and family aren't always an easy mix, but maybe that can be changed.
Style: Gen
Size: 14,570 words, about 30 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: Dec. 15, 2010, for Secret Santa. My thanks to Alyjude who helped me with some sticky points in the story, and to Ainm, who gave me a writing extension.
Feedback: Not necessary, but anything you want to give is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org

Eye of the Beholder

by StarWatcher

December 18, 1998

Blair bustled through the loft door late Friday afternoon, his arms full of grocery bags and his mind full of ideas. "I think I got everything I need for the baking, Jim; can't wait till you taste the Springerle, and I guarantee you'll swoon over the Rumkugeln." He shoved the door closed with his foot and carried his bags to the kitchen, still talking. "Do you think we'll have snow for Christmas? I know the weatherman said it's unlikely, but with so much snow in the mountains, it makes sense that some of it would come our way. Have you gotten a heads-up from your senses?" He continued talking as he sorted through the bags and put some of the ingredients into the refrigerator. "I know I'm the first to complain about cold, but I haven't seen many white Christmases, and I think it'd be kinda cool – no pun intended – if we... oh..."

As he closed the refrigerator and turned to locate Jim, Blair found two pair of eyes watching him from the living room, one with amusement, the other with a kind of surprised wariness. He had the feeling he'd interrupted an intense discussion, but it was too late to back out now. "Sorry, man; I didn't notice we had company. Steven, right? It's been awhile." Blair's grin was disarming as he quickly hung his coat and hat on one of the hooks, then approached the other two men. He extended a hand in greeting, pausing as he saw the cast encasing Steven's right arm, from his palm to the middle of his biceps. "Oh, man, it sucks to have a broken arm. How did it happen?"

"I've been wondering that, myself," Jim said. "It must be pretty embarrassing, 'cause he's not talking. Of course, you know that means we just have to pry it out of you, Little Brother. 'Fess up; did you fall out the window when her husband unexpectedly came home?"

"What?" Steven seemed caught between affront and laughter. "What kind of a dog do you think I am?"

"Whoops! Wrong question," Blair advised. "I asked him that once, and you really don't want to know the answer. I'm thinking... this is Cascade, the most dangerous city in America. You valiantly fought off two – no, three – muggers, and escaped with only a broken arm, right?" He settled on the corner of the coffee table, establishing a circle with both Jim and Steven, who were separated on the loveseat and sofa. Eyes sparkling, he glanced between them, inviting them to share the fun.

Jim readily took up the gauntlet. "Chief, he's gotta live up to the Ellison genes! He interrupted a mob hit on one of the horses at the track, but in all the confusion, the horse knocked him down and stepped on his arm. Next time, call me," he advised. "Mob activity is police business."

'Laughter' was evidently overcoming 'affront'. Steven's eyes twinkled as he told them, "Close, but no cigar. A busload of schoolkids were visiting the track when a couple of thugs tried to kidnap them for ransom. I grabbed a pitchfork from a wheelbarrow of manure and bravely engaged in battle to save the kids. But then..." He paused, seeming to search for a suitable ending. "Then a third guy showed up and knocked me down, and they all took off. It was my misfortune to fall against the edge of the wheelbarrow, and here I am."

"You tell almost as good a story as Blair does," Jim said, "but the ending was a little weak. So what really happened? It can't be that bad."

Steven sighed, apparently disinclined to continue putting up a façade. "It really is that bad... or at least that stupid. Remember those wild winds last week?"

"Oh, yeah, they were rough," Blair said. "When I drove in from Rainier, I swear the Volvo flew most of the way."

"You wouldn't be the first to run afoul of the weather; just spit it out," Jim advised.

Steven shrugged. "Okay, okay. You're still a bossy big brother, you know?" His half-hearted glare morphed into a rueful smile. "Anyway, I was walking down one of the outside staircases at the track when a particularly strong gust hit; felt like a runaway horse had slammed into me. I went down half a flight, and feel damned lucky to have only broken an arm."

In an instant, Jim's attitude went from teasing to intense. His gaze sharpened as he said, "Are you sure you didn't also hit your head? Even minor head injuries can have consequences, you know."

"Yes, I'm sure," Steven huffed. "The doctor checked everything, and then ordered an MRI just to be sure. Both Dad and I have donated generously in the past; I suppose they don't want to stint on treating an Ellison."

"Glad to hear it," Jim said. "You and Dad are supposed to leave the 'getting hurt' part of the game to me."

Steven gave him a thoughtful glance. "Because you're a cop? Surely your captain isn't that laid-back about injuries in the department?"

"Nah, because he thinks he's Superman," Blair explained, then winked at Jim. "But that's an idea; you should trade on your name next time. Maybe they'll let you out sooner."

"More likely keep me longer because of it. I'd rather be a grumpy cop than a rich patron's son; less hassle all around."

"You've got it nailed," Blair assured him. "When they start handing out 'grumpy cop awards', you'll be the first recipient. Oh, hey, hey, it's really not that bad!" Blair waved off the concern he saw on Steven's face. "It's kind of a cop-bonding and male-bonding thing combined; it doesn't mean anything other than business as usual. Everyone in Major Crimes really has each other's backs; you just have to get past the verbal camouflage."

Jim snorted. "And Sandburg is the master of verbal camouflage; he's dying to know why you're here, but anthropologically speaking, he figures the discussion should be between brothers. Right, Chief?"

"See, I knew you had a brain under that 'stoic cop' exterior; my influence is finally having a civilizing effect." He grinned at Steven as he stood, trying to alleviate the thread of discomfort he felt beneath the brothers' banter. "Don't pay any attention to me; I'll be in the kitchen making lots of noise with the pots and pans while I start dinner. Are you staying? I make a great penne and sausage, with garlic bread."

"Sit, Sandburg," Jim ordered. "There's no big secret, here. My dad has the idea he'd like to 'get away' for Christmas, and wants us all to go up to his lodge in the mountains."

Blair was delighted; he'd been urging Jim to spend more time with his father and brother. "Hey, that's great! Away from the stimulus of the city, bonding with your family... sounds like the perfect downtime for a sen- stressed-out cop."

"Stressed out?" Steven's gaze sharpened on Jim's face. "You look okay."

"Because I am okay; Sandburg has a frustrated mother-hen complex. And not just me, Chief; you're included in the invite, too." Jim cast a meaningful look at Steven, which Blair easily deciphered.

"Hey, I appreciate the thought, man, but it's totally unnecessary," he assured Jim. "The last thing a family get-together needs is a fifth-wheel sorta-partner that your dad and brother barely know."

Jim raised an eyebrow. "There's no 'sorta' about our partnership, Sandburg. And frankly, I have an ulterior motive; I'm hoping a fast-talking anthropologist can help keep us from snarling at each other from our separate corners." His shrug was self-deprecating, but Blair thought Jim's eyes held a sort of nervous entreaty.

As Blair hesitated, Jim abruptly stood. "Excuse us a moment, Steven." With a jerk of his head, he strode toward Blair's bedroom, closing the door behind them as soon as Blair stepped inside.

Blair spoke first. "Jim, Christmas is a family thing; they won't want me there."

"I want you there," Jim told him quietly. "You know things are still rocky between me and my dad, and not much better with Steven. I've never seen you at a loss for getting along with people; I really think you being there will make it easier all around."

"Well..." Blair was torn; he wanted to help Jim, but – "You need some alone time with your family, man. Putting me in the mix will just drag out the reconnection process."

"No. Allow me to know my family better than you do, Chief. And besides – as far as I'm concerned, you're family, too. It would be different if you were getting together with Naomi, but she's off in Timbuktu or somewhere..."

"Sri Lanka," Blair murmured, a bit dazed. Jim considered him as close as family?

"...and my downtime will be a lot more relaxing if you're with me."

How could he resist? He smiled up at his best friend. "Okay, man, I'm in. But be prepared; we are packing every ingredient I can think of. If necessary, I'll cook my way into their hearts."

"Since I'll reap the benefits of that plan, I support it wholeheartedly. And we can start winning over Steven now; need some help with the penne?"

"You and Steven both," Blair insisted. "Might as well get started on that family-bonding thing."

"You got it, Emeril," Jim said, following Blair back into the main room. "Just tell us what to do."

Steven noticed the difference as they were coming back into the living room. Judging by the smile on his face, Jim's irritation with the proposed gathering had disappeared. Steven didn't understand why his brother wanted to include Mr. Sandburg in their group, but if that was what it took to overcome the initial hostility, so be it.

With no more warning than the overheard, "You got it, Emeril," he was swept into the kitchen to 'help' with dinner preparations. Although he'd thought it a polite fiction to keep them all together in the kitchen, Mr. Sandburg actually put him to work stirring the crumbled sausage – mixed with ostrich meat, of all things – to ensure even cooking without burning. It didn't take much concentration, even working left-handed, and gave him an opportunity to watch the interaction between his brother and... partner? Roommate?

Oddly enough, Jim actually followed Mr. Sandburg's – Blair; he'd insisted that Steven call him 'Blair' – directions instead of trying to take over; Jim diced onions and minced garlic while Blair chopped tomatoes, then cut open a French loaf and slathered it with the garlic butter that was warming in another pan. They shared tasks and moved around each other – and him – without ever getting in each other's way, like a well-rehearsed dance pattern. Through it all, Blair talked – about the University, Jim's work, Steven's work, the police department, seasonal highlights and preparations, celebratory customs in other cultures and countries. He never seemed to stop talking... except that he managed to include both Steven and Jim in his ramblings, soliciting their input and riffing off their answers as he wove them into a circle of companionship.

Steven paused in his stirring. Where had that thought come from? But it seemed accurate; Blair managed to exhibit aspects of master chef and scout leader, combined with news commentator and overlaid with the mantle of a skilled raconteur; he could easily have been a bard in earlier times. It all meshed in an effortless, comfortable gestalt that made him feel like he was sharing a campfire with a best friend. Steven hadn't felt so at ease since... since his mother left, he realized.

Was that why Jim kept the guy around? It wasn't likely he needed the rent money, but if he did, he could certainly find a more conventional housemate – a former army buddy, maybe, or a fellow police officer. On the other hand, Jim had always had a protective big-brother vibe going on, with just about every kid who was smaller or weaker than him. Blair didn't seem to need it, but he was enough smaller than Jim that it might be an unconscious, automatic reaction on Jim's part. Although that 'campfire-friend' feeling was a heady sensation; he could understand why his brother wouldn't be in a hurry to encourage Blair to find his own place.

But during dinner – which, for the record, was every bit as tasty as Blair had promised – Steven decided there was something else, undercurrents he couldn't decipher. They weren't lovers, he was sure of it, but Jim and Blair definitely shared some sort of secret. A few half-spoken phrases had been stopped short, after which Blair offered the distraction of another anthropological observation or story, using fluent storytelling to hide the earlier words behind a mask of obscurity.

A few of those half-spoken phrases stirred a spark of niggling familiarity in Steven's mind, but he couldn't bring it into focus. He was pretty sure it was something important, but the flow of conversation buried the spark before it could grow, and then the evening was over and it was time for him to leave.

Just before he stepped into his car, Steven stared at the lighted windows above him. He felt torn between pushing to find out what the secret was – Jim was his brother, after all – or letting sleeping dogs lie. Some half-formed instinct told him the secret might be dangerous... but Jim was his brother. And certainly Jim deserved his privacy... but there was still the brother thing.

And besides, Steven admitted ruefully to himself, he was damned curious. Maybe Jim would relax while they were at the lodge, and he'd talk about it. If not... well, the time together would be an opportunity for them to reconnect, enough that Jim might tell him later.

Satisfied with his plans – vague as they were – Steven slid into the driver's seat. He had a lot to do, with barely a week to get ready for Christmas and the trip. Maybe it wasn't too late to get a reservation at Carino's; they could get a head start on the family reconnection, and Dad could start adjusting to Blair in neutral territory. Snickering, Steven pulled into traffic. Dad wouldn't know what hit him.

December 21, 1998

On Monday morning, Jim resolutely relegated the upcoming trip to the back of his mind. Thank God Sandburg had agreed to join them; his presence would likely help prevent a rift that would have him not talking to his father for another twenty years. But it would be business as usual through Wednesday.

After showering, shaving and dressing, he rapped on the French doors as he headed into the kitchen. "Up and at 'em, Sandburg! Crime detection waits for no man!"

Sandburg moaned inarticulately before Jim heard the covers pushed back. "It should – if not for Christmas, at least for my school break. Is the concept of 'sleeping in' like, some kind of foreign language to you?"

"You just had the weekend; what more do you want?" Jim snickered as the bleary-eyed figure stumbled toward the bathroom. "Will blueberry pancakes brighten your outlook?" He pulled out the ingredients and started measuring.

Blair turned in the doorway, his expression hopeful. "With pecans added?"

Jim grabbed the container from the fridge. "Can do, Chief. You have fifteen minutes; chop-chop!"

The door closed on Blair's mutters about what he'd like to chop. Jim grinned as he mixed the flour, milk, and eggs. He was looking forward to some time with Sandburg not having to maintain his university schedule. Everything – from paperwork to planning strategy to, of course, using his senses – seemed to go more smoothly when his partner was in the vicinity.

Blair ambled into the kitchen, poured himself some coffee, and set out the jelly, butter, and syrup as Jim ladled the batter onto the skillet. Leaning against the counter while Jim monitored the cooking process, Blair asked, "So, what did I miss before I got in yesterday? When are we doing this, and are you sure you want me along? And what's the best way to get on your dad's good side?"

"I'm using my seniority this year to take off both Christmas Eve and Christmas day. We figured to drive up on the twenty-fourth; counting the weekend, that gives us four days – long enough to 'reconnect', if we're going to, and short enough that we can probably avoid killing each other." Jim shrugged. "As for impressing Dad, I dunno; you got any connections to Big Business? Waving around a hefty stock portfolio would probably do the trick."

Blair frowned. "Hey, I get that your childhood wasn't the greatest, but none of us grew up in a Norman Rockwell world. You should cut him some slack; he's your father."

Jim didn't answer as he served the pancakes onto two plates and handed one to Blair. Still in silence, they carried the food to the table and began to eat. Finally, Jim answered. "Chief, you've been hanging around the PD for over two years, now; you know some of the things parents do to kids. That relationship doesn't give them a free pass."

"Oh, come on!" Blair protested. "There's a big difference between being remote and clueless, versus being actively abusive. Everyone I know wishes their parents had done things differently – including me, sometimes. But what we have to remember is that most of them did the best they knew at that time. Your dad is trying – he apologized to you, right? And if this trip isn't an attempt at reconciliation, I don't know what is. But you've gotta meet him halfway."

"You want some more?" Jim asked, crossing to the stove and ladling more batter onto the skillet.

Blair stared at the stiff, uncommunicative back. "Yeah, might as well," he muttered. There had to be some way to make a dent in the thick skull across the room.

"Your men," he said, as Jim put two more pancakes in front of him. "I'll bet some of them screwed up a time or two. What was your reaction?"

Jim stared at Blair through narrowed eyes. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Did you toss them out of the army and lock the door behind them?"

"Of course not. I gave them KP, or extra PT, and made sure they had the training not to do it again. Then I put them in their jammies and tucked them in bed," Jim finished, strongly sarcastic.

Blair nodded vigorously. "You gave them another chance. Some of them more than one, right?" Jim shrugged halfheartedly. "So doesn't your dad deserve at least that much? He's a fallible human being, Jim, not a monster."

Jim stared at his empty plate for a few moments, then took a deep breath and relaxed his shoulders. "You're right, Chief." He raised his eyes to meet Blair's. "But that's why you've got to join us. I keep seeing a monster, and I'm too much like my old man – stubborn as an old mule. With you along, we might actually make it work. Us three Ellisons, alone together... probably not."

"Anything I can do to help," Blair assured him. "But you've got to throw out some ideas, so we can smooth over the awkward spots."

"Just like preparing for a mission," Jim agreed. He glanced at the clock. "But save it till later; if we don't get a move on, we'll be late to the PD."

December 22, 1998

Steven noticed his father's frown as he checked his watch. "Jimmy's late. Are you sure he's coming?"

Just like Dad to expect Steven to know the unknowable. "He said he would. But remember, he's a cop; he's probably tying up loose ends or something. He'll call if he expects to be too late."

Steven reached for his menu, hoping his old man would take the hint and calm down. As much as William wanted to be part of his eldest son's life again – not that he'd said it in so many words, but Steven could tell – their father kept defaulting to the habits and behaviors that had led to Jim leaving home so long ago. Steven was quite certain that if Dad started telling Jim how he should live his life, or expressing disapproval of his career choice, Jim wouldn't put up with it. He was trying to think of a way to suggest that their father should ease up and mellow out – even though he was pretty sure the old man didn't even understand those concepts – when he saw the waiter leading Blair and Jim to the table. Too late.

As soon as they were seated and had ordered drinks, Blair started taking. "Hey, Mr. Ellison, Steven; thanks for inviting me. I've been looking forward to talking to both of you." He grinned as he cast a sly look at Jim. "According to this big lug, nothing at all happened when he was a kid; I'm looking forward to any stories you care to share."

Jim lowered his menu to raise an eyebrow at his friend. "Don't forget, Chief, Naomi told me about plenty of your childhood escapades; in the interests of my family getting to know you, I might just have to share."

Blair groaned, even as he chuckled. "Mr. Ellison, what is it about parents? I know Naomi – that's my mom – dredged up the most embarrassing stories she could remember; she thinks they're 'cute'. So in the interests of fair play, surely you should share some embarrassing stories about Jim. Steven... you're his little brother; what kind of trouble did he lead you into?"

"Well... there was that time we went treasure-hunting down in the mud-flats." Steven was quite sure that Jim would retaliate, but the story was too good to pass up.

Maybe the tale of a triumphant return home – both of them covered head-to-toe in sticky mud and dragging a broken bicycle that Jim had been sure he could fix – wasn't the most appropriate for a dinner, but Blair seemed to enjoy it. He retaliated with a side-splitting account of helping to build mud-and-wattle structures in West Africa. Even as he roared with laughter, Steven suspected that Blair was enhancing the story for effect – no one could be as inept as he claimed to be – but it was effective; even Dad chuckled, while Jim thwaped him on the head before starting a story about a mud-based incident from his time in the army.

As dinner progressed, Steven reflected that he couldn't remember a more comfortable family gathering; odd that it seemed to be the non-family member who was making it so. He was impressed all over again with the depth and scope of Blair's knowledge and experience – and with his ability to find the commonalities of human interactions, connecting his adventures and insights to the more ordinary lifestyle that Steven knew.

Really, Blair was simply fun to be around. His vibrant attitude and general joie de vivre pulled everyone into his orbit and... well, he just seemed to make everyone feel good. He remembered seeing Blair at the racetrack's Benefit party, flirting with Pat and other attractive women; the guy had seemed like an inconsequential lightweight at the time. It was kind of comforting to realize that he'd underestimated Blair, and that Jim had such a solid friend in his corner.

On the other hand, Dad didn't seem terribly impressed with Blair's conversational offerings – he was still using the formal 'Mr. Sandburg' when speaking to him – but Steven definitely noticed the lightness in Jim's attitude. He remembered a big brother who'd been closed-down and angry before he left home, then an ice-cold authoritarian who'd suspected him of murder last year. Now Jim seemed comfortable and relaxed, chuckling at quips and stories from Steven or Blair and sharing his own, and even remaining civil toward their old man. Maybe this Christmas get-together would actually work without Jim and Dad blowing up at each other again.

William Ellison prided himself on being a gentleman, as well as a practical man. Despite his resistance to including an outsider in their family dinner, this was neither the time nor place to express his opinion. Steven had warned him that Jimmy wouldn't consider a gathering at the lodge – or even a family dinner – without Mr. Sandburg being present so, even though he'd been appalled when he'd realized who the man actually was, he had acquiesced.

When Foster attacked him and Jimmy last spring, William had assumed that the scruffy, undersized stranger who helped him out of the woods was some lower-echelon officer who happened to be available to join in the manhunt; the man wasn't worth a second thought. The recent information that Jimmy actually housed the man was disgusting; Jimmy shouldn't even be associated with this unkempt, hyperactive... student. And didn't that tell him everything he needed to know, that the man wasn't even beginning to build a career at his age. He was little better than the riffraff that Jimmy had to deal with every day.

He talked a good game, but William would be willing to wager that more than ninety percent of his stories were either made up, remembered from books, or retelling someone else's experiences; no one so young could have seen or done so much himself. Why the hell Jimmy hadn't long ago kicked him out was a mystery; how could his home be the sanctuary it should be, with such a babbling fool around?

But worse than that... Mr. Sandburg was a danger to Jimmy. If he found out about Jimmy's so-called 'gift' – and how could he not, sharing an apartment with him – there was no doubt he'd sell it to the media; Jimmy would be hounded as a freak, just as William had always feared.

Not that he could fault the young man; everyone had to watch out for his own bottom line, and that little nugget about Jimmy would probably net him thousands from the right news source.

Wait; that was worthy of consideration. He could pay Mr. Sandburg to not go to the news. Ten thousand – no. He evaluated the long hair and general antsy attitude. Five thousand would probably be sufficient; it was undoubtedly more money than the student had ever seen at one time. He'd make the payment in small bills, so it would look more impressive.

On the other hand, that would leave him open to blackmail; didn't most people who were paid off come back for more? Not that he couldn't afford five thousand a year, or even ten, but it was the principle of the thing. He'd pay any amount of money to keep Jimmy safe, but he wasn't about to be bled dry.

But maybe a payoff wouldn't be necessary. A man like this – all book-learning and little real-world experience, despite his overblown stories – might be too dim to realize how different Jimmy was. The way he acted, fawning over Jimmy like he was some comic-book hero... maybe he'd think Jimmy's special abilities were just him doing his job well. There was no sense giving the little sycophant ideas if he didn't already suspect.

Yes, that was a better plan. Four days at the lodge should give him enough information to determine whether Mr. Sandburg was a real threat, or the negligible nonentity he seemed to be. After that, he could finalize a plan of action.

So, he'd forego his attempts to talk Jimmy out of including Mr. Sandburg in their get-together, and use the opportunity to get to know the enemy. If the threat wasn't neutralized by the end of that four days – either by bribing Mr. Sandburg or, even better, by convincing him that he could do better than hang on Jimmy's coattails – his name wasn't William Ellison.

As soon as Jim had pulled out of the parking lot, Blair turned and demanded, "Two shopping days left; what kind of present do I get for a man who hates me?"

"I wouldn't exactly say 'hate', Chief." Jim's obfuscation skills weren't as well-honed as Blair's but, in recent years, he had learned by observing a master. "He just... doesn't know how to fit a non-businessman into his worldview."

"You're a detective! Don't tell me you didn't notice the equations being run behind his eyes; he was planning where and how to hide my body."

"It's not like he'd succeed, Chief," Jim said gravely. It was too dark for Blair to notice the twinkle in his eye. "And if he did, I'd solve the case and haul him in. I'd make sure you got justice."

"A lot of good that'll do my decomposing corpse. I'm serious, man! I mean, it's not like anything will make him like me, but something he considers a 'suitable' gift could at least raise me above the level of cockroach."

Jim paused at a red light and turned to face Blair. "What's the fuss? Dad knows you don't know him; he won't be expecting a gift from you. For that matter – four adult males, half of whom haven't interacted with the other half for twenty years – I'll bet he doesn't expect any of us to exchange gifts. This trip is just an excuse to hang out with his sons." The light turned green, and he moved forward with the traffic.

"And I'm not one of his sons!" Blair's voice grew more intense. "It's all about the correct social interactions, man, especially for the elders of a tribe. Your dad has a level of status, and... well, it's probably not a conscious expectation. But if I follow the proper protocols, he'll be more comfortable with my presence than if I don't. And more comfort means 'hate' might be modified to... oh, something like 'grudging tolerance'. I can work with grudging tolerance; even Simon doesn't bellow in my direction as loud as he used to. But proper protocol dictates that junior members of a tribe who are requesting closer-than-public interactions with the elders – that's me, in case you're not following – enhance that request with some kind of tribute."

Jim snorted. "You mean a bribe."

"If you want to be crude about it, yes. But no. It's basic tribal protocol. You've dealt with tribes – the army, the Chopec, the cops – you know this stuff, even if you don't want to admit it. So give me some ideas; what kind of things does he like?"

Jim shook his head in irritation as he parked outside the loft. "Chief, I haven't dealt with the man in twenty years, and before that, I barely paid attention to his life; I was too busy bucking his orders and expectations." He followed Blair into the building. "Maybe... a good whisky. He was always real proud of offering the 'good stuff' to guests. Get a bottle of the best you can find, wrap it up fancy, that'll work."

"Excellent! Excellent; I can research that." Blair didn't even shrug out of his coat as he entered the loft and hurried to boot up his laptop. "And what about Steven? Not that he's like an 'elder' or anything, but it would be pretty shabby to have a gift for your dad but not your brother."

Jim sighed as he sat on the couch across from Blair and watched him clicking through various internet sites. "You not going to let this go, are you? I know even less about Steven than about Dad; he was still a kid when I left home. Maybe..." Memories old and new collided. "When he was a kid, his favorite candy was jelly beans – and did you notice the dish on his desk at the racetrack? A nice assortment of gourmet Jelly Bellies would probably do the trick."

"No time to order," Blair muttered. "Do we have a source here in Cascade?" He clicked a few more keys. "Yes! Okay, I'm good to go; thanks man!" His fingers rattled across the keyboard with increased energy.

Jim sighed and leaned back against the cushions, contemplating the upcoming trip. Sandburg was right; Dad didn't like his partner. But their lives were entwined for the foreseeable future; he wasn't about to hide Blair away like some shameful secret. At least Steven's reaction to Blair seemed favorable; maybe his attitude could help convert Dad. If the old man would unbend just half an inch, he couldn't help but see what a worthwhile person Blair was. It might be possible; Dad had seemed considerably less – stringent – during the Foster case than Jim had expected.

On the other hand, Sandburg had a point with his anthropological ramblings – it wouldn't hurt to go bearing gifts. But he needed something that wouldn't outshine Blair's offering; the point was for Blair's 'tribute' to be the most impressive, junior to senior. Maybe...

Jim moved to sit right next to Blair. Might as well take advantage of those skills; as soon as Blair was finished his search, he could start one for Jim. After all, he thought, I deserve some sort of payment for the good advice I shared.

December 24, 1998

"Simon, don't they understand the concept of 'time off'?" Jim argued into the phone. "It's not like they'll do anything with the information before next week."

"Sorry, Jim; the DA insists," Simon said. "Look, it won't take long; you can be out of here by noon."

Jim barely avoided snarling at his captain; it wasn't Simon's fault. "Alright, tell him I'll be there in..." he glanced at his watch, "an hour and a half. I'll need to check with my dad, adjust our plans."

"I'll let the DA's office know when to expect you. But the sooner you get in, the sooner you'll get out," Simon reminded him.

"Fat chance of that," Jim grunted to himself as he hung up the phone.

"What's up, man?" Blair asked as he settled a dufflebag next to the boxes packed with the food he wanted to take to Jim's dad's lodge. He'd ignored Jim's mild observation that William would have made sure the lodge was well-stocked as he packed pumpkin bread, three kinds of pie, and an assortment of cookies, as well as the promised Rumkugeln and Springerle. A variety of cheeses, vegetables and condiments filled another box – they'd stay cool enough in the trunk of the car – although Jim had convinced him that he didn't need to include meat, eggs, or butter.

"The DA has decided, in his infinite wisdom, that if he has to work today, so does everyone else. He absolutely has to go over my testimony about the Tipton case before I leave town," Jim growled.

"I thought you already gave him your deposition about that case."

"I did. Apparently he needs to be sure I didn't forget to tell him anything the first two times we went over the information."

"So... do we tell your dad and Steven to go on ahead and we'll come up later, or do we all just get a late start?"

Jim surveyed the boxes and bags waiting by the door, juggling the logistics of load-up and travel time. "I think a better idea is that you go up with Dad and Steven, and I'll follow. It's not like you can sit in on the deposition, but you can help get things unloaded at the lodge, get everything squared away before I get there."

"I dunno," Blair said, dubiously. "The way your dad looked at me the other night, he'll blame me for you not being there. I mean, a two-hour trip will give him plenty of time to build up a lot of resentment."

Jim shook his head, chuckling his amusement as he put on his jacket. "Chief, you're acting like a nervous boyfriend meeting his girl's parents for the first time; that's not like you." He picked up one of the boxes, and the bag he'd packed earlier.

"I kind of feel like it," Blair admitted, shrugging into his own jacket. He picked up his duffle and one of the other boxes, preceding Jim out the door and heading toward the elevator. "It's – uncomfortable – knowing that your dad is predisposed to think the worst of everything I do or say. This buffering thing works both ways, you know?"

"You mean you want to tag-team my dad? Not exactly sporting." Jim stowed his bag behind the seat, and the box in the bed of the truck as Blair did the same on his side. "You wait here and watch the stuff while I get the last box."

Blair climbed into the truck and buckled his seatbelt while he pondered. Jim was right; it was ridiculous to feel so uneasy about interacting with William Ellison. It didn't make sense; Blair had always figured that he could talk to anybody, anytime, about anything. And when it didn't work, he understood it was because the other person was reacting to their preconceptions about the man in front of them – unfair, perhaps, but a facet of human nature. But somehow, he couldn't be that unconcerned about Jim's dad. Intellectually, he knew that the senior Ellison couldn't break up his and Jim's partnership, but it sure felt like a sword hanging over his head.

Blair startled as Jim opened the other door and slid into his seat; he hadn't even noticed when the last box was dropped into the pickup bed.

"Relax, Chief," Jim suggested as he headed down the street. "Dad won't do anything overt – it would be beneath his dignity. Besides, you and Steven get along well enough; he can be your buffer until I get there. And I think your anthropologist brain has figured it out; you'll give Dad all the perks due him as a tribal elder, and it'll be such a change from my teenage hostility that he'll start to think you're a pretty good guy. What can go wrong?"

Blair groaned. "I wish you hadn't said that! With our luck, one of the reindeer will break a leg on your Dad's roof, and we'll have to find a replacement."

"I'm a sentinel, remember? I'll be able to find Bambi, and we'll draft him as a stand-in. It'll all work out; you'll see."

Blair heard the underlying reassurance; Jim meant much more than Santa's reindeer. "Yeah, okay," he said as Jim pulled to a stop in front of his father's house. "I'll make up a batch of eggnog this afternoon; just be sure you're there to drink it!"

"The scenery around here is awesome," Blair said. "I can see why you built a vacation home up here." Trite, he told himself, absolutely banal, but after an hour and a half, he was finding conversation drying up. It seemed like Mr. Ellison threw cold water over every idea that could have led to a decent discussion.

"At the time, it seemed like a good investment," William said.

Yeah, just like that.

Thankfully, Steven had been complicit in not letting everyone devolve into a frigid – Ha! Bad pun! – silence. He half-turned in the front passenger seat to engage Blair, riding in lonely splendor in the back.

"We had some good times up here when we were kids," Steven said, with a gentle, reminiscent smile on his face. "There's a small lake where we could swim and fish, and lots of hiking in the forest. And imaginary hunting. Well, the shooting was imaginary – we weren't allowed to have guns, of course – but we almost always found real game. Jimmy was a wiz at tracking down deer, elk, wild turkeys... we even saw bear cubs a couple of times, if there was a vantage point where the mother wouldn't notice us."

"Lots of snow," Blair observed, eyeing some crystalline walls standing on cliffs above the road. "Did you do much skiing? I noticed you're not bringing any, but maybe you have some at the cabin?"

"We didn't make it up very often in the winter," Steven explained. "Seems like our Christmas breaks were filled with fancy house-parties at our place or Dad's business associates'."

"Connections are important." William's tone suggested that should be understood by anyone with a modicum of intelligence. "Steven recognizes that, even if Jimmy doesn't."

Blair just couldn't resist. "Oh, Jim absolutely uses connections to do his job. Like, when he needs information, he goes straight to his best snitch, Sneaks." He launched into a story that had Steven chuckling heartily, and even William's expression softened a little. Maybe.

The 'connections' discussion – Steven highlighting the vagaries of the horse-racing world, and Blair drawing comparisons between corporate executives and indigenous tribal leaders – kept them occupied until William pulled his car to a stop in front of – Blair classified it as a Swiss chalet on steroids. Jim was right; it was plenty big enough that four people could avoid meeting each other if they were so inclined.

Well, Steven seemed on board with everyone getting along. Hopefully, Jim would show up soon and help with the family-and-partner gathering. In the meantime, he had promised to make the eggnog before Jim got here.

It was a surprise, although welcome, to find the lodge already warm; they were high enough into the mountains with enough snow on the ground that it was cold. "I have one of the groundskeepers at the resort outside Rockport on retainer; he keeps the place up and makes sure it's stocked with supplies before I come," William said casually as he struck a match to light the kindling under the logs waiting in the fireplace.

"I am down with that!" Blair grinned at William as he headed back out to bring in more of their bags and boxes.

As soon as Blair had dropped his dufflebag in his assigned bedroom, he headed into the kitchen. The coffee was already brewing; Steven's doing, he assumed. The tangy aroma of coffee added to the piney scent of the burning logs in the fireplace; it created a definitely welcome, holiday atmosphere. Blair crossed to one of the counters to set out the goodies he'd brought. "Mr. Ellison? Steven? I brought some traditional Christmas desserts; would you care to have any?"

Steven wandered over to examine the selection. "Looks good," he said. "What are those?" 'Those' were the size of ping-pong balls, covered in chocolate sprinkles and slivers of nuts.

"Rumkugeln; rum-and-walnut balls common in Austria. And these –" Blair pulled out a platter of thick, square cookies, with a snowflake design pressed into the top, "– are Springerle, made in Bavaria. The red snowflakes are anise-flavored, and the yellow are lemon-flavored. The anise is traditional, but not everyone likes it."

"I'm game for anything," Steven said. He poured himself some coffee, then put one of each on a plate, as well as a piece of blueberry pie. "Where did you find them?"

"I made them – well, all of this. The owner of the Natural Foods store made some Springerle for her customers; when I started discussing recipes with her – a couple of Naomi's friends grew up in the old country and taught me how to make a lot of their favorite dishes – she let me borrow her snowflake press. Baking for the holidays is a great tradition; people develop and forge basic connections through the sharing of food. Of course, I don't always have the space to get fancy, but Jim has a great kitchen. He goes more for the 'comfort food' entries in the hypothetical cookbook – I don't think I've ever seen him follow written directions – but anything he makes will knock your socks off."

Steven slid a piece of banana cream pie onto another plate, and placed a fresh cup of coffee on the plate itself. "Funny, I never thought of Jim cooking. Should have guessed, I suppose; anything Jim ever tried, he did well." He used his left hand to pick up the plate, and stabilized it on his arm-cast as he carried it into the living room and set it on the magazine table at his father's side. "Here you go, Dad. Eat, drink, and be merry – we might as well enjoy the fruits of Blair's hard labors."

"Thank you, Steven. And you, Mr. Sandburg," he called into the kitchen as an afterthought. He picked up the coffee to sip it as he continued reading The Wall Street Journal.

"Hope you like it," Blair called back. "Listen, I brought a bottle of cream, and it looks like your guy supplied the other stuff I'll need. Do you mind if I use your kitchen to make a batch of eggnog? There's a carton in the fridge, but homemade beats store-bought every time."

"Certainly, Mr. Sandburg; make yourself at home."

Steven moved back into the kitchen. "Need any help? I can at least handle any stirring to be done."

"You got a deal. Here you go." Blair set a pan of milk, cream and nutmeg on the stove. "Keep stirring while this heats until it's just about to boil." While Steven did that, Blair beat the egg yolks with sugar.

Conversation was minimal; the noise of the electric mixer drowned out anything less than a shout. But Steven enjoyed the process as he and Blair worked together. It reminded him of his childhood, watching Sally in the kitchen. He'd felt safe and warm then, as he did now, which was silly – as an adult, he hardly needed a feeling of 'safety'. Probably just the effect of the season, he decided; might as well relax and enjoy it.

Following Blair's instructions, Steven slowly added the hot milk to the egg yolks while Blair kept the mixer running. When that was finished, Steven stirred the mixture as it heated again, while Blair beat the egg whites. Steven had never realized how – not complicated, exactly, but detailed and time-consuming it was to make eggnog; no wonder most people bought it ready-made. But the smell already told him that the real thing would be worth the effort.

Newspapers had always been useful for keeping others at arm's length. William could hardly believe the gall of that young man, taking over the kitchen like he was the owner of the lodge. Of course, William had given permission – his duty as a host made it mandatory – but it rankled. He intended to convince Mr. Sandburg to move out of Jim's life, not allow him to entrench further. And the way he'd lured Steven into working with him in the kitchen – it seemed that Mr. Sandburg was trying to worm his way into both sons' lives, as if he were deliberately solidifying his position with Jim and Steven.

William had to give him credit; at least the little hippie knew better than to try to suck up to him. But he suspected that this making-nice to Steven was a way for Mr. Sandburg to entwine himself more thoroughly in Jim's life and – by extension – William's. Although Jim had never asked for a penny from his father, Mr. Sandburg must have found out that Jim came from money, and expected to cash in. What other reason could a fatuous college student have to associate with a police detective?

He would find his plans thwarted; William would make certain of that. To that end... he should at least pretend to be sociable with the young man. Arguments made by an uncommunicative stranger wouldn't be very convincing. And it was probably better that he begin before Jim arrived.

William rose and carried his empty plate into the kitchen. "The pie was very good, Mr. Sandburg. Where did you learn to cook so well?"

"Oh, thanks. But, hey, call me Blair, okay? I'm 'Mr. Sandburg' to my students." He didn't even have the courtesy to stop his preparation of the eggnog while he spoke to William. "Well, I've learned from pretty much every corner of the world..."

William's ability to feign interest had been honed by years of corporate social gatherings. It stood him in good stead now as he half-listened to the long, rambling, trumped-up tale.

Mr. Sandburg finally finished his story at the same time he put the eggnog in the fridge to chill. William gave him no credit for immediately filling the sink to wash the dishes he'd used; it was undoubtedly part of his plan to get on William's good side, even though it made sense – Steven couldn't put his cast in water, and William hadn't washed dishes in over forty years.

In the midst of washing, Mr. Sandburg paused and raised his head. "Is that thunder? The weather report said clear for the next few days."

William glanced out the window while Steven went to the door. It was sunny, but they all heard the rolling rumble, and felt the vibration beneath their feet.

Then the lights went out.

Jim made a conscious effort to stop grinding his teeth as he finally – finally! – satisfied all the DA's questions and walked out of the office. How many times could the same information be covered before it was deemed 'adequate'? He glanced at his watch; apparently as many times as it took to drag the meeting an hour past the promised 'out by noon'.

He made mental calculations as he headed the truck out of town. He'd still reach the lodge by mid-afternoon, still have three and a half days there. And by the time he got there, the eggnog should be ready for its taste-test. Sandburg swore his recipe outshone all others for flavor and texture; Jim intended to hold him to it.

As he took the turn off Interstate 5 to Route 20, Jim settled into a Zen-like state that was every bit as good as the meditation Sandburg was always trying to foist on him. The day was sunny, the road was clear, and he had Santana in the tape deck. He could relax and enjoy just being 'in the moment'. Sometimes Sandburg's new-age stuff wasn't such guff, although Jim didn't intend to let him know that.

An hour out of town, he narrowed his eyes at the flashing lights ahead. This wasn't a logical place for a DWI or Immigration checkpoint, but it looked like the Highway Patrol was stopping all cars. Some passed through the checkpoint, and some made a U-turn, heading back this way.

Jim took his place in line and waited. As the HP approached, he rolled down the window. "Is there a problem, Officer?"

"Depends on how far you're planning to travel. There's been an avalanche between Marblemount and Newhalem. The reports are, it's extensive – almost ten miles of road are inaccessible. You can get to Marblemount, but not far past it."

Jim cringed internally; how many vehicles had been caught in such a massive event? "I'm a police officer and former Ranger," he offered. "Do you need any help with search and rescue?"

"As far as we can tell, we were incredibly lucky, with no vehicles in the area at that time. We have helicopters flying over the lower edge, looking for signs, but it looks clear so far."

That was a relief; no injuries, and Dad's group should have reached the lodge long before the avalanche occurred. But, from the description, it could well affect the secondary road that led to Dad's lodge. "What caused it? Doesn't seem like there's enough of a snow-pack yet for avalanches to be triggered."

The officer – her nametag read 'Daley' – glanced down the road. As yet, no cars had stopped behind Jim's truck, so she was prepared to satisfy a citizen's bump of curiosity. "Damnedest thing. Seems like a wheel fell off a private plane as it flew over the area; it landed on a high slope and started a chain reaction. They've got snowplows working from both ends, but it likely won't be cleared till morning."

That was hardly encouraging; even when the main road was cleared, it would be some time longer before the road to the lodge could be plowed – assuming it had also been affected by the avalanche. The only way to know for sure was to get to Marblemount and check the situation for himself.

"Thank you, Officer. I'm heading to a lodge past Marblemount. I think I need to get some first-hand information; it's possible that the avalanche is past my turnoff. If not, I'll put up at a motel for the night, so I can move out as soon as it's allowed." Marblemount had only two motels, but they were unlikely to be fully-booked.

"Sounds sensible," Daley agreed. "Good luck to you, sir." She stepped back, and Jim proceeded past the checkpoint.

He was already considering possibilities. Had the avalanche affected the lodge? Might he be able to walk in from Marblemount? It was about fifteen miles, but doable; maybe he could rent some cross-country skis.

All of that could be worked out later. Right now, the worst was not knowing what was happening with Sandburg and his family. There was no cell signal out here; he'd have to stop at Concrete, and call from there. With luck, they were snug at the lodge, without an inkling that anything had happened. But it seemed like his luck – and Sandburg's – rarely ran that way.

"Whoa!" said Blair, as the hum of the refrigerator died, and the only light was that coming through the windows. "Do you often get power outages?"

"Anyone in this area should be prepared for all eventualities," William pointed out. "There's a propane-powered generator in the shed out back; all I need to do is turn on the gas-feed and flip the switch." He pulled his coat out of the front closet before heading outside.

"Oh, hey, I'll take care of that for you; be right back." Blair stepped out the back door of the kitchen and jogged across the yard, deliberately bounding through the snowdrifts and laughing aloud as he went.

Steven watched through the window. "Have you noticed how much fun Blair has with life? Being around him is kind of refreshing."

"Have you considered he's pulling the wool over Jimmy's eyes?" William countered. "I wonder when we'll see under the mask – or if he's good enough to keep it up."

Steven stared at his father. "Dad... didn't you listen to Jim? He and Blair are friends, that's all." William merely compressed his lips, signaling his disapproval. "Oh, come on! Jim's a detective; how long do you think Blair could keep some hidden agenda secret from him? Whatever you suspect, it doesn't make sense."

"I can't take that chance," William said. "Jimmy's important to me; you're important to me. Maybe I haven't shown it enough, but I don't want to see either of you hurt."

Steven swallowed. "Thanks, Dad. I... you're... important to me, too. But, don't you see, part of a parent wanting good things for their children is respecting the children's decisions. If you don't give Blair the benefit of the doubt, I think Jim will draw a line between you and him."

Blair was trudging back from the generator shed; why hadn't the electricity come back on? "You might have a point," William acknowledged as Blair stood on the porch, stamping the snow off his shoes.

"We have a problem," Blair announced as he walked through the door. "No propane."

"What!" William thundered. "I gave specific instructions that it be filled."

Blair shrugged as he toed out of his wet shoes. "Well, either your caretaker-guy forgot, or there's a leak in the system. All I know is, the gauge reads 'empty'. I turned on the gas-feed and flipped the switch, just in case the gauge was wrong, but nothing happened."

William strode into the living room. "Let's see if the Sheriff knows what happened to the power," he said as he picked up the phone. He huffed in irritation as he replaced the receiver. "No dial tone; whatever took out the power took out the phone lines, too."

"I left my cellphone in my pack; I'll go get it," Blair offered, heading toward the stairs.

"Don't bother," William said. "No service out here."

The three men exchanged glances. "So now what?" Steven asked. "We have food but no power. Do we hunker down and wait for it to come back on, or get the hell out of Dodge?"

"Living with Jim has taught me that information is necessary before you can plan an operation," Blair said. "I suggest we pack our bags and head down to that last town we passed – Marblemount? We can find someone there who knows how long the blackout will last. If it's not long, we can come back. Otherwise, we head home."

"We'll have to watch for Jim if we head home, flag him down so he won't pass us and start a manhunt when he finds the lodge empty," Steven said.

"Jim's got great eyesight; he'll see us first," Blair said casually.

William shot him a look. "Perhaps I can get a propane delivery from Marblemount, and we can come back here. But I think Mr. Sandburg – Blair – makes sense. If we leave right away, we can make it to town and back before dark. If we come back."

Blair grabbed his dufflebag, which he hadn't yet unpacked, then banked the fire while William and Steven threw their clothes into their suitcases. They were in the car and driving away from the lodge within ten minutes.

Within another fifteen minutes, they faced the probable cause of the power outage – a massive river of snow crossing the road. William stopped the car, and the group contemplated the sight in silence.

"Well, that puts paid to getting a propane delivery today. I could climb a tree," Blair offered. "If it's not too extensive, maybe we could climb over and walk to town."

"Too dangerous," William decided. "None of us have warm enough clothing, and it's over ten miles to town."

"And somehow, I don't think Jim will be joining us later today," Steven said. "Unless he hitches a ride with Santa." Blair snorted, but William sighed.

"Surely they'll get the road plowed tomorrow. They're used to snow-removal around here." Steven and Blair nodded agreement.

After some maneuvering in the narrow road, William was able to turn the car around. As soon as they were inside the lodge, Blair took charge.

"Okay, look, we've got a lot going for us – we have food, shelter, and warmth. But we're going to have to make the most of the warmth. I think we should hang blankets to block off the doorways to the other rooms, and plan to sleep in front of the fireplace tonight. I mean..." he faltered for a moment, noticing the way William and Steven were staring at him. "Sorry, Mr. Ellison. It's just that I've lived in so many different cultures around the world, I know a bunch of survival tricks – from hearsay, as well things I've experienced myself. They might not all be necessary, but it'll be easier to get rid of excess heat than it will be to build up more heat if we don't have enough."

William nodded; perhaps Jimmy and Steven were right, and this young man was more level-headed than he had given him credit for. "Thank you, Blair. We'll follow your lead; certainly neither of us have been in a situation like this."

"Right. Okay..." Blair surveyed the room, making plans. "We'll bring some mattresses down from the bedrooms later and put them in front of the fire. Steven, you collect every extra blanket and sheet available; pull them off the beds we won't be using, as well. Mr. Ellison, I hope you have a toolkit around here; we'll need a hammer and nails, and maybe rope and a staple-gun if you have them. And then you can rearrange the furniture – move the chairs closer to the fireplace; just leave enough room to put the mattresses on the floor. I'll bring in as much firewood as I can, and pile it in that corner." He waved toward the area farthest from the fireplace. "We'll lose heat every time we open the door; once we batten down the hatches, we want to avoid that."

"We can do that," William said. "And, Blair – you can call me William." The open smile he received surely couldn't be faked; perhaps he really had misjudged this young man.

"Thanks, William."

Blair headed outside toward the woodshed at the side of the lodge, while Steven and William split up to accomplish their tasks.

Ninety minutes later, the living room looked like a cross between a Gypsy caravan and a laundry-yard. A huge pile of firewood filled one corner, while blankets or quilts had been nailed in front of every door and window to help prevent heat loss. Blair had hung ropes from the ceiling to hang sheets – pinned together end-to-end to make them long enough – around the stairs to the upper story. Three mattress, each piled with several extra blankets, were fanned out in front of the fireplace – which now held a newly-blazing fire – with the most comfortable chairs pulled into a semi-circle just beyond them. The kitchen table and chairs had also been moved into the living room, taking a place behind the easy chairs. The non-perishable food was clustered at one end; they would be able to snack on cheese, crackers, pie and cookies without venturing into the kitchen, now growing increasingly chilly. Several hurricane lanterns, which William had unearthed from some hidden storage, provided wavering, but adequate, light.

"I'm impressed, Blair," Steven said as he leaned back in a chair and stretched his feet toward the fire. "Short of having the power restored, I don't think we could be any more comfortable. And imagine the stories we'll have to tell when we get home, right, Dad? 'We survived being snowbound by the avalanche of ninety-eight.' Should be good for a few rounds of drinks."

"It's quite an innovative plan," William agreed. "Thank you, Blair; left to our own devices, we wouldn't have thought of many of these... enhancements." He resolutely ignored how tacky it all looked; their survival might well be at stake.

"Well, I have one more trick up my sleeve," Blair declared. "We deserve a hot meal. I can't cook a turkey dinner over an open fire, but goulash is doable. I'll be right back." He grabbed one of the lanterns, ducked around the blanket that blocked the kitchen doorway and returned a few moments later, carrying a large cast-iron skillet. It was filled with the ingredients he'd need, but apparently not everything. "One more trip," he promised, heading again into the dark.

Blair was soon chopping carrots and onions, and measuring spices. He refused offers of help – "Thanks, but it's a one-man job," – but started a freewheeling discussion about recipe variations around the world and memorable meals both good and bad. While the goulash burbled gently on the fire, they shared cheese and crackers, then finished the meal with generous portions of pie.

"That was excellent, Blair," William said. "I just wish Jimmy had been able to get here before the road was blocked."

"Jim doesn't let much stand in his way," Steven said. "I bet he'll be here about ten minutes after the snowplows break through tomorrow."

"Or before," Blair added. "I wouldn't put it past him to commandeer a dogsled if the snowplows aren't getting the job done fast enough." That produced a general chuckle in the group.

Conversation languished for a while, until Steven slapped the arm of his chair. "We need to wake this party up; anyone ready for a game of poker?"

The rest of the evening passed with raises and calls, Springerle and Rumkugeln, copious quantities of eggnog, and tales – undoubtedly enhanced – of Jim's, Steven's, and Blair's childhoods. Blair stored the best of them in his memory; he might need the ammunition someday.

When Steven was up by thirteen thousand dollars – which translated to thirteen cents – they called a halt, added more wood to the fire, and settled into their nicely toasty beds.

December 25, 1998

Morning started with Blair's scrambling sprint to toss a couple of logs into the fireplace, a quick poke to stir the fire to renewed life, and a desperate dive into the warmth of his covers. "Give it about half an hour," he advised when Steven raised his head to see what was happening. "Then we'll be able to move around without getting frostbite."

William's voice came from beyond Steven. "I thought parents didn't have to get up early for Christmas once the kids were grown. You boys go back to sleep, or Santa will take your presents back!"

Blair snickered and shared a glance with Steven – by golly, he felt like a kid – and followed William's orders.

An hour later, while Blair mixed pancakes for breakfast, Steven and William stacked the mattresses on the far side of the room. Depending on circumstances, they could be carried upstairs later, or moved back in front of the fire if they had to spend another night. They removed the blanket that covered the east window, to let in some sunlight, but left the others covered; the extra light wouldn't be worth the loss of heat.

William watched Blair kneeling in front of the fire as he cooked pancakes. None of them had attempted to shave this morning, and Blair's extra heavy beard-growth – not to mention bed-head that resembled the tattered remnants of a windblown bird's nest, despite having been finger-combed and ponytailed – made him look particularly scruffy. But William also noticed the muscles evident in the forearms below the rolled-up shirt sleeves, and the strong, capable hands as they proficiently dealt with iron skillet and open flames.

"You seem very adept at cooking over an open fire," William remarked. "I suspect I'd burn everything to a crisp."

"It's a useful skill," Blair agreed. "Anthropologists need to adapt to the cultures they're studying; sometimes being able to demonstrate the skills they take for granted is the best proof that you're actually a human being. Although I must admit, Ben Franklin had the right idea when he invented the stove." Blair lifted the pancakes onto a plate, and set it in front of William. "Yours is coming right up," he told Steven as he ladled more batter onto the skillet.

They were lingering over pie and coffee when they heard a truck horn outside, followed by the sound of a slamming door.

"Roads must be open again," Steven said unnecessarily as he moved to hold the blanket aside so it wouldn't tangle the opening door.

"And he didn't even need a dogsled," Blair said as he put the skillet back in the fire and ladled more batter onto the surface. "I should have known he wouldn't miss breakfast."

Jim spent the night at the Buffalo Run Inn, right next to the highway that passed through Marblemount. It didn't make for a very restful sleep; there was far more traffic than usual in this tiny town, as relief crews rotated in and out to keep the heavy machinery working. On the other hand, this end of the snow removal was less than five miles away; he could easily follow the progress from both sides of the avalanche debris. He was up, checked out of the motel, and first one in line when the plows met and the road was opened. A few persuasive words and generous tip convinced a weary driver to tackle the road to the lodge immediately, instead of leaving it for another driver on a later shift. He followed directly behind, passed the plow with a wave of thanks as soon as it broke through the blockage, and pulled up in front of the lodge at 9:05 – not bad at all.

He felt a surge of relief when he saw Dad's car in the parking area, and smoke coming from the chimney. He'd known why he couldn't reach them on the phone yesterday; the avalanche undoubtedly pulled down the phone and power lines – thank God Dad had a backup generator – and there was no cell service this far into the mountains. Still, the 'what if' scenarios had tumbled through his mind, and it was comforting to have proof that they'd been baseless figments of his imagination. He honked the horn to let his family know he'd arrived, and strode through the front door...

...to stop, just inside, with his jaw dropping open. The place looked like a refugee camp – an impression that was reinforced by the unshaven faces smiling at him, and Sandburg hunched like a gnome in front of the fireplace.

"Hi, Jim," said the gnome. "Merry Christmas! Have a seat; your pancakes will be ready in just a couple of minutes."

"Merry Christmas, bro. 'Bout time you got here; you've been missing all the fun."

"Merry Christmas, Jimmy." William smiled his understanding of Jim's confusion. "There's coffee in the pot next to the fire."

"Coffee might help," Jim agreed. He filled a mug, then sat across from his father. "What happened here? Thanks, Chief," he added, as Blair set a plate of two golden-brown pancakes in front of him.

Steven seemed to be treating the situation as a big joke. "Funny thing," he quipped. "As soon as you lose electricity, you travel back in time about a hundred and fifty years. Who knew?"

"Blair knew. He organized all this to keep us warm overnight," William explained.

"And your dad didn't even flinch when we transformed this room into something that looks like a back-yard rummage sale." Blair grinned at William as he refilled his coffee mug. "You were a real trouper," he said as he set the mug in front of William.

"What happened to the generator? And is there any blueberry pie left?"

"I don't know; is there?" Blair ducked the crumpled napkin Jim tossed at him and slid the pie-pan across the table. "And either the propane tank is empty, or the generator is out of order, so we made alternate arrangements." He shrugged. "As your dad said, we handled it; no big deal." He reached for a Springerle, dunked a corner in his coffee, and started munching.

Jim raised an eyebrow. "You told your usual guy to get the place ready?" he asked William.

"Mark Hilliard," William replied. "He's always been reliable. But we won't be able to get a repairman or gas delivery today. Now that the road is clear, we should probably head back to Cascade."

That was Jim's cue to agree; he was still hesitant about enforced closeness with his family. But, under William's matter-of-fact tone, he caught a thread of disappointment. Dad did want this, and it looked like he'd tried hard to make it all come together... and it was Christmas.

"I'll go out and take a look," he said. "Maybe it'll work if I bang it a couple of times."

Blair sighed with mock sorrow. "William, I regret to inform you that your son – sorry, Steven, his eldest son – is a Neanderthal; he thinks every problem can be solved by hitting it with a bigger rock."

"That's because experience has demonstrated that eighty-seven point six-five percent of problems can be solved by using a bigger rock." Jim chuckled at the disbelieving expression on William's face. "Sorry, Dad; Blair brings out the worst in me." At the end of the table, Steven wasn't even trying to stifle his laughter.

Jim finished his pie and stood, reaching for his jacket. "You still keep a toolbox in the pantry, Dad?" At the affirmative nod, he tossed Blair's jacket into his hands. "C'mon, Chief; I'll show you how useful a rock can be."

"Then taking the toolbox is cheating, or overkill, or something against the man-code," Blair protested as he followed his partner out the back door.

"Didn't you know?" Jim's voice floated back to the men inside, watching through the window and shivering slightly in the cold air. "A wrench is just a specially-shaped rock."

Steven chuckled. "I can hardly imagine two more different people, but have you noticed how comfortable Jim is around Blair? I've haven't seen him so relaxed since we were kids; Blair is good for him."

"You may be right, Steven," William agreed. But Jimmy would be deeply hurt if Blair turned on him; as engaging as the young man was, he still could be a con artist. William had forgotten that, until Jimmy presence here had reminded him. He had to be careful, watchful – ready to support Jimmy if needed.

Jim rapped his knuckles against the propane tank, listening to the note it produced. "Well, the gauge must be defective, Chief; it's full. Let's see where the problem is." He ran his fingers along the exposed pipes and wires, then stopped. "I think this is it."

Blair couldn't see a thing; that section of wire looked no different from the rest. "What?"

"There's a dead zone right here; it breaks the power flow." Jim flipped off the circuit-breaker, then pulled a pair of wire-cutters out of the toolbox. Within minutes he had cut out the damaged section, spliced the wire back together, and wrapped it securely with electrical tape. When he flipped on the circuit-breaker, the generator hummed to life.

"All right!" Blair crowed. "But you realize you just blew your big chance."

"Chance to pay a repairman a hundred dollars for a ten-minute fix?"

"No, man; chance to bond with your family under extreme conditions."

Jim closed the toolbox and, together, they walked back to the house. "Your definitions are out of whack, Chief. Food, warmth, and soft beds don't qualify as 'extreme'. And personally, I want the oven working; it's time to put in the turkey."

Jim prepped the turkey and put it in the oven while the others began restoring the living room to its former status. It took less time to remove the hanging blankets than it had to put them up; they and the mattresses disappeared into the bedrooms upstairs. After a short discussion – Blair asked, and William agreed – the pile of wood remained in the corner; it was convenient and, over the next two days of keeping the fireplace supplied, the pile would be mostly depleted. The easy chairs were left in the semi-circle in front of the fireplace; the cozy grouping felt more comfortable than the previous arrangement.

Blair joined Jim to make the sweet potato casserole and the dressing while Steven kibitzed with unnecessary advice, claiming his broken arm as the reason he couldn't help.

"Actually, he managed pretty well last night," Blair told Jim. "I think your little brother is lazy."

"I know, but it's Christmas, and I should indulge him," Jim said. "I could break the other one for you, and then you'd have a good excuse to sit around and do nothing." Jim's tone toward Steven was oh-so-very-helpful.

"Not worth it," Blair pointed out. "I'd have to file a report for use of excessive force, and then you'd be dealing with the counter-paperwork till Valentine's Day. Just think how many trees that would kill."

"I approve of saving trees – and my other arm," Steven assured them through his laughter.

William sipped another cup of coffee and watched his sons and their friend. This Christmas trip had been a good idea; he hadn't seen the boys so relaxed since Jimmy was a teen. Blair was a big part of that, he acknowledged. If only he could be sure the young man didn't have an ulterior motive for staying so close to Jimmy.

With dinner in the oven, Jim and Blair made short work of washing the dishes. When they were finished, Jim put on a solemn expression as he spoke to the others. "You know, I think I'm being taken for granted. I fight my way here through adverse conditions, then immediately get put to work as a repairman, cook, and dishwasher. I deserve a little recompense – like pie and eggnog."

"And presents," Blair said. "It's not a big deal – and I don't expect anything in return – but I brought a few things I'd like to share."

"I brought some, too." Steven looked around the room, eyes narrowed in thought. "But if we're going to that, we need a tree.

William shifted uncomfortably. "I'm sorry, boys; I never thought of bringing a tree."

"If you had, it would be like coals to Newcastle," Blair chuckled. "Since Jim has been so overworked, I'll do the honors." He took the wire-cutters from the toolbox and headed outside, jogged to the nearest pine tree, and quickly returned with an eighteen-inch cutting from one of the branches. "A tree!" he proclaimed with a flourish.

"From the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Farm? Excellent choice, Chief, but it needs an appropriate tree-stand." Jim pulled a checkered dishtowel from a drawer, then gestured the others to follow him into the living room. He twisted the dishtowel into a rope and coiled it into a ring on top of the end-table next to the sofa. With a flourish, he waved Blair forward, and grinned as his friend stood the little branch up in the middle of the decorative towel.

It was cute. It was silly. "'It's not such a bad little tree'," Blair quipped, bringing smiles from Jim and Steven. But... they all felt it. Somehow, that small sprig of greenery made it feel more like Christmas.

Despite that, an uncomfortable silence fell.

"Well! This is awkward!" Steven said with forced heartiness. "I bet even Blair doesn't know of any traditions that cover gift-giving between estranged family members. So... anyone want to play Santa?"

Blair hadn't thought this far ahead. The last thing he wanted was for anyone – specifically, William – to feel embarrassment for not having given someone else – specifically, him – a gift. "How about we simply hand our presents to each other, and then we all just open them?"

"Works for me," Jim said.

In short order, everyone had pie and eggnog at hand, and a few boxes or envelopes on his chair. After a few exchanged glances, Steven took the lead. "Dad? We think you deserve to be first. Have at it."

"Thank you, Steven." As he opened the gifts, William seemed pleased by Steven's subscription to a new financial magazine, touched by Jim's gold and onyx cufflink and tiepin set, and... suspicious of Blair's Crown Royal. His 'thank you' was no more than correctly formal.

Blair thought he understood; William was trying to juggle two perceptions of Blair, and having difficulty maintaining a balance. Blair-the-man had proved himself capable in a difficult situation, and could be accepted. But as a friend of his son, Blair-the-anthropologist might be dangerous, and William's instinct was to protect Jim. It was perfectly natural; Blair just hoped that William didn't see the flash of irritation in Jim's eyes.

Steven tore into his presents next, as if he could hardly wait. When he opened Jim's package, Blair caught a glimpse of the young boy who had looked up to his big brother. Whatever was inside would have been acceptable, but the assortment of fancy coffee beans was a hit; Steven promised to share his "Organic Rainforest Blend" in the morning. He snickered when Blair's package of Jelly Bellies was revealed. "A little bird must've told you what I like," he said, popping one into his mouth.

"Something like that," Blair agreed, satisfied with this present, at least.

Jim's eyes gleamed at the Jags tickets that Steven gave him. "Nice to see you're suitably appreciative of your big brother." He spread fifteen tickets into a fan. "But do I need three tickets for each game? Me and Blair... and who else?" Steven tossed an orange Jelly Belly at him.

Blair held his breath as Jim tore the wrapping from the copy of Jack Kerouac's Big Sur that he'd found in the used bookstore. It was one of the few Kerouacs that Jim didn't own, but was that because he wasn't interested? When Jim smoothed his hand across the cover, Blair started to breathe again. "Thanks, Chief."

"I'm glad you like it."

Blair had two envelopes to open. He supposed Steven had asked Jim for gift suggestions, just as he had. But his jaw dropped when he saw the amount on the gift certificate to the Campus Bookstore. "Steven! This... I... Thanks, man! I mean, really."

Jim chuckled. "You turned Sandburg speechless; high praise, little brother."

The other envelope held two tickets to the Anthropology exhibit in Olympia next weekend. Blair felt an incredible rush at the indication that Jim had selected a gift so specifically to his tastes – and that he intended to accompany Blair to the exhibit.

"More high praise, man," he murmured. "I don't know what to say. 'Thanks' doesn't quite cover it."

"That's plenty, Chief. You're welcome."

"Well, that was nice," Steven said. He raised his eggnog. "I propose a toast: Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas!" everyone chorused, and drained their glasses.

"Now, that turkey smells mighty good," Steven added. "Shall we?"

Jim interrupted the suggested exodus. "Before we eat, I have one more present – for Blair. Something that's very important... and long overdue."

He waited a moment for the others to settle back into their chairs, and smiled at Blair's quizzical expression. "This one isn't wrapped, Chief; just listen.

"Dad, Steven... I know you've both wondered why Blair continues to live and work with me – why he would want to, and why I allow it, when it seems we have hardly anything in common. And I have to admit, in normal circumstances, I probably wouldn't have given him the time of day; he basically forced himself into my life, and wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. And for that, I'm incredibly grateful. I don't tell him very often..." Jim cast a wry look toward Blair, who was wide-eyed in surprise. "...more like, hardly ever, but I couldn't do it without him."

Steven's attention shifted between Blair and Jim, as if he might find a clue for understanding Jim's speech. "Do what? Blair's a nice enough guy, but he's not a cop. Sorry, Blair."

"Oh, I've heard it before." Blair dismissed the comment with a hand-wave. "It's nothing but the truth, after all."

William was also looking from Jim to Blair, his expression frankly dubious. "You mean your... 'gift', Jimmy?"

"Yeah, Dad, that's exactly what I mean." Jim focused his attention more fully on Steven; he might have to face Dad's disapproval later, but he was determined to do this. Blair deserved the recognition.

"About two and a half years ago, my senses went into overdrive – everything became fifty times more intense than normal. But when I can control them, it gives me a big boost in my work. That's where Blair comes in – he helps me refine that control, and figures out ways I can use my senses more effectively." Jim was relaxing now; it was a relief to let his family in on the secret. "Kind of like a combination athletic coach, piano tuner, and dog-trainer." That earned him a snort from said coach-tuner-trainer. "In fact, that's how I fixed the generator – I literally felt the short in the wires."

"That's amazing," Steven breathed. "Last year – is that how you knew where the weak spots were in the stadium?"

"That's it," Jim confirmed. "I could hear the weak areas in the concrete collapsing in on itself."

"And when we were kids? The animals we found when we were 'hunting' – that wasn't just luck, right?"

"Right. I had the enhanced senses back then; just didn't realize what I was doing with them. They kind of... disappeared when I was a teen, and when they came back, they hit hard, knocked me for a loop."

William spoke hesitantly. "How long before you finish your... training, Jimmy? Will you be able to control your – senses – by yourself?"

With a gesture, Jim passed the lecture over to Blair.

"We're not really sure, William; the information about people with Jim's abilities is very old, and not well documented. Theoretically, he should be able to manage the input easily – the same way we do with our average senses – but in reality, Jim finds it much easier to handle everything when I'm around. We're not exactly sure why, but we don't mess with a good partnership." Blair's eyes were shining; he had never expected to hear such validation from Jim.

"So..." William seemed to brace himself. "What's the bottom line, here? Jimmy's explained what he gets out of your partnership, but what about you?" Though unspoken, Blair read the next thought in William's expression: How long before you take off and leave my son to flounder for himself?

"I got a friend," Blair said simply. "Jim's right; under ordinary circumstances, we probably wouldn't have associated with each other. I basically called him a caveman the day we met. And at first, all I saw was the embodiment of a quest I'd been following for ten years – a sentinel, a tribal protector, someone who's genetically programmed to be better than the rest of us. But when I got the stars out of my eyes and looked at the man, I saw someone who's loyal, warm, trustworthy, and rock-solid. I... didn't have much of that when I was growing up; I want to hang on to it. But mostly, working with Jim just feels right. We've got a connection that..." Blair shrugged. He could try to explain, but suspected neither William nor Steven could truly understand.

A blazing smile crossed Blair's face as he turned from William to Jim. "That was the best present I've ever had, in my whole life. Thank you, Jim."

"Right back at'cha, Chief." Jim's return smile was as broad as Blair's. "Now, enough of this touchy-feely stuff. I don't need an enhanced sense of smell to know that dinner is ready; time to eat." He led the way to the kitchen, with Steven following, asking questions about Jim's use of his senses and Blair's contribution in dealing with them.

Blair hung behind for an opportunity to have a private word with William. "Mr. Ellison – William – I won't leave Jim high and dry; I'm in this for the long haul," he said softly. "I would never do anything to hurt him, and his secret is safe with me."

William regarded him silently for long moments. "I don't actually trust altruism, Mr. Sandburg. And although Jimmy has always had good judgment, people have been fooled before. But I'll accept that you're sincere. And... thank you for helping my son."

"It's my very great pleasure," Blair assured him. "Now, we better get to the table before those two leave us nothing but scraps."

As they stepped into the kitchen, Jim gave Blair a small nod, accompanied by a quiet smile. Of course he'd heard. William and Blair might never be fast friends, but cautious cordiality at least gave them something to build on.

Jim continued carving the turkey as his family – by birth and by heart – gathered around the table. Blair served the dressing while he traded quips with Steven, usually targeting Jim, and William poured a round of coffee for everyone. Although their get-together had been unconventional and haphazard, Christmas was working its magic of fellowship – forging new relationships, mending cracks in old ones, and encouraging people to see the joy in their lives.

"Dad? White meat or dark?"

"Both, please. ... Thank you."

Lively conversation highlighted the shared meal as afternoon settled into evening. It was shaping up to be a pretty good weekend, Jim realized. He really couldn't ask for more than that.

The End

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