Disclaimer: See home page.

Author's Notes: This story is based on the following challenge, posted on the Cascade Times Sentinel List: " Jim and Blair are stuck on a stakeout (single guys and all) and, bored out of their minds, they discuss their all-time best or worst Christmas. Story should have an owie and have warm fuzzy edges with a sweet center." I hope my small effort to meet her challenge meets with the Crowswork's approval. I also have to thank Izzy and Susn for their excellent beta jobs. Besides their great story-based suggestions, well, who would have ever thought there were so many places to put a comma <g>? Enjoy and remember, feedback makes a wonderful year-round gift.


Christmas Memories
by
Linda3

celticpryde1@insightbb.com

 

"Sandburg, can't you be still for even five minutes?"

The man in question sighed, for about the hundredth time. "But, Jiiim. I'm booored. I never thought I'd say this but I actually wish I had some papers to grade or something."

Jim looked over at his fidgety partner. It was the second week of December and Rainer University was on its winter holiday break. The campus was closed until after New Year's Day. Consequently this was now the first stakeout Sandburg had accompanied him on that he didn't have a stack of papers to grade or a lecture to plan or some type of school-related activity that he usually worked on while helping him use his senses to watch the subject de jour. Even though they had only been working together for a few months now and had only been on a few stakeouts, he found that he enjoyed the company. It made the time go faster to have someone to talk to. Until tonight. Tonight he was fast finding out that a bored Sandburg was not a joy to be with, especially stuck in an enclosed truck for several hours.

"Trust me, Sandburg, I'm not exactly having the time of my life here either, but one of the buildings in this area is most likely the arsonists' next target. I'm sure the other teams are having just as much fun as we are, but it's all part of police work. It's not all shootouts and car chases. Despite what you see on TV, routine police work is how most criminals are caught. Sorry it's not exciting enough for you." Truth be told he was pretty bored himself, not that he'd ever admit it to his whiney partner.

Blair turned from looking out the windshield. Even with an almost full moon and a few sporadic lights, most of the buildings the stakeout teams were watching were in shadows; he really couldn't see much. No one with normal sight could. But that's why he was here, to help Jim use his senses to locate the arsonists if they should turn up anywhere in the area. This was a run-down industrial park taking up several square blocks; the prevailing theory was that these buildings were being torched to devalue the property even more. That would clear the way to get the zoning codes changed, making it easier to sell the land to developers. So far no one had been hurt in the four fires already set but it was only a matter of time. The closer to town the buildings were, the more likely that some homeless people or temporary squatters would be living in them. The buildings being watched tonight were on the edge of the industrial park. "No, I'm sorry, Jim. I know this is important. I guess I'm just not used to having to sit in one place for so long without doing anything. Maybe next time I'll bring my laptop." He straightened up. "How about doing a sensory sweep? See if you see or hear anything out of place."

He sounded so hopeful Jim didn't have the heart to disappoint him. "Okay. Talk me through it."

Blair's mood immediately improved as he pumped his fist in front of his chest. "All right." Then he lowered his voice to the deeper, authoritative tone he used when he was directing Jim in the use of his senses. "Do hearing first. First listen to everything, then mentally discard anything that would be normal for this area. If you hear anything unusual then we'll piggyback sight onto hearing and see what we find."

It sounded simple enough but Jim had already learned how much easier these things were when Sandburg was there to talk to him. When he tried anything more than just basic sight or hearing by himself he usually either ended up zoning or with a headache for his trouble. Blair kept telling him it was just a matter of time before he could control his senses by himself, it would just take practice, but he was beginning to suspect that it was Sandburg himself that was actually making the difference. He hadn't mentioned his theory to Blair or his captain yet.

Confident, he reached out his hearing. Simon and Henri were discussing the Seahawks season so far. In the nearby patrol car, which was their additional backup, Murphy and his partner were wondering what to get their wives for Christmas. Other than those, it was quiet, no other sounds attracted his attention. Reining in his hearing he told Blair what he had heard.

"That's all right. It's early yet. That was a good practice sweep, though." Blair patted Jim on the shoulder. "You're getting really good, Jim. I can't wait to test you against your original baseline again. I'll bet your range is even farther now than last time." He sounded proud, as if he were the one with the enhanced senses.

Sandburg and his tests. He hated them but he had agreed to ongoing testing since Blair needed the info for the dissertation and had also said that doing them would help him in gaining better control. But that didn't mean he had to like them. "Yeah, sure. Whatever."

"Gee, Ellison. Could ya turn down your enthusiasm a little? It's hard to deal with all that excitement in here."

Jim turned his head, expecting to see a pissed off Sandburg but damned if the kid wasn't grinning at him. He couldn't help but shrug and grin back. "Sorry. Just not my favorite part of dealing with all this."

"Tell me about it."

After a few minutes of silence Blair was getting antsy again. Sitting still just wasn't in his nature. He needed something to occupy his mind before he did something to annoy Jim again. Looking around outside the truck he noticed that some of the still occupied warehouses had put up some Christmas decorations. They looked out of place among the dismal, depressed surroundings but it was a nice gesture anyway. A-ha! Christmas. Just the thing to kill time since they were stuck together anyway.

"Hey, Jim."

"Hey, what?"

"Very funny. I was thinking—"

"Uh-oh."

"You're just a laugh a minute here tonight, aren't you? Anyway, I was thinking. You've probably had a lot of Christmases, what with you being so much older than me and all." He ducked as a hand just missed the back of his head.

"Watch it, Junior. I'm not that much older. And I can still take you without breaking a sweat."

Blair just waved his hand. "Yeah, yeah. Whatever. As I was saying, you've had a lot of Christmases. So tell me, what are the best and worst Christmases that you've had so far?"

Jim stared at his younger partner. Did he really expect him to answer that? "That's getting rather personal, don't you think? What's that got to do with my being a sentinel? I don't want any personal stuff about me ending up in your dissertation."

"Jiim." The voice that replied sounded pained. "This has nothing to do with you being a sentinel. And I wouldn't put anything about you in the dissertation that wasn't somehow directly related to your senses. This is just me asking you about your past Christmases. You know, two fri— guys hanging out. Talking. Shooting the breeze. But if you don't want to tell me, that's all right, I understand. I guess I shouldn't have pried." Blair turned and looked out the passenger window so Jim wouldn't see how hurt he was that he had immediately thought that he was only interested in Jim the Sentinel. Besides killing some time, he was hoping to get a rare glimpse of Jim the Man. Good thing he had stopped himself before he implied that they were friends. That could have really been embarrassing. Even if he thought they were.

It didn't take sentinel senses to hear the hurt in Blair's voice or to see it in the face reflected in the window. Once again he had immediately jumped to conclusions and assumed the worst. And now he had Blair doubting if they were even friends. It startled him a bit to realize that seeing Blair hurt and not sure about their non-sentinel related relationship bothered him.

"Okay."

Blair turned back around. "Okay what?"

"Okay I'll tell you about my best and worst Christmas. Like you said, this is just two guys talking, killing time, right?"

The smile he got in return was hesitant but sincere. "Yeah. Sure. Cool. Umm, tell me your worst one. Let's do that one first."

Jim tilted his head back and tapped his finger against his lips. "Let's see. It was probably the one back when Carolyn and I were first married. She had invited all her relatives over to the loft for Christmas dinner. Went all out decorating the place. She really wanted everything to be perfect. You see, she came from money, her parents had a big, beautiful home and I think she was a bit embarrassed about her family seeing her living in such a small place. That may be why she overestimated the size of the loft. Imagine way too many dressed up people in way too small a space. There was barely room to move around and not enough places to sit. Then, to top it off, she burned dinner and ended up setting off the smoke alarm. Smoked us all right out of the place. Her father ended up using a few connections and finally got us in at his country club for dinner." Jim chuckled. "Knowing Carolyn's cooking skills as well as I do, we were probably better off there anyway. After dinner everyone else went home and she and I spent the rest of the night cleaning up the mess. It was the last time she suggested having anyone over for the holidays and a long time before we had anyone over at all." He turned towards Blair and lifted a warning finger. "I wouldn't ever mention that Christmas to Carolyn if I were you. I still don't ever bring it up."

Blair grinned. "Gotcha. Don't talk about disastrous Christmases with the ex. So, that was the worst?"

Jim looked pensive. "Uh, yeah." Actually his real worst Christmas was the one when he was eight years old. The first one after his mother left. His father had insisted that they put up the tree and decorations, same as every other year. Stevie was only four and so didn't fully understand where their mother had gone. The memories came flooding back. Dad coped by burying himself in his work, even when at home, and Sally had just recently been hired, so that left only him to make sure Stevie had a good Christmas. He took that responsibility very seriously, doing the best he could at such a young age. He helped Stevie write his letter to Santa. Talked Sally into taking them to the mall so his brother could talk to the 'real' Santa Claus. Let him put the star on the tree. Played in the snow with him. Let him watch whatever Christmas shows he wanted. Basically did whatever he could to make sure Stevie was happy. Of course that left no one to help get him through that first, awful Christmas season. No one to take care of him when he cried, all alone, late at night. Whenever he thought about that particular Christmas it was always with a mixture of pride and sadness. Pride for how he took care of his little brother and sadness for the young boy who desperately missed his mother but had no one to turn to for comfort.

Jim knew this was probably the type of story Sandburg really wanted to hear about, but since he hadn't told Blair anything about his family there was no way he could talk about that particular experience. Maybe someday.

Blair felt that he was missing something important but decided not to push it right now. "Okay then. If that was the worst then now it's time to hear about your best. Lay it on me, man." He sat back hoping to finally hear something about Jim's childhood and family. Probably the year he got what he really wanted, like a puppy or something.

"Well." Jim sat back too, looking thoughtful. "I'd say my best Christmas was soon after I joined the Army. Before the Rangers and Covert Ops. My unit was assigned to this really remote area in a third world country. We were all pretty bummed out about being stuck out there for Christmas. Most of us were fairly young—for some it was their first Christmas away from home. Anyway, there wasn't much going on at the time so some of the guys would get a jeep and go exploring, just to see what was around. There wasn't much. The nearest town to our base was almost an hour away and it wasn't very big. Boredom was a real problem. Then one day the guys came across an orphanage stuck out in the middle of nowhere. It was run by a few overworked priests and nuns. These were kids whose parents had been killed either by enemy bombs or, some, even by their own countrymen. Many of the kids themselves had been injured, some permanently. The building looked like an old bombed out military bunker that they had taken over. It was practically falling apart. There wasn't even any running water, they had to carry water in buckets from a nearby natural well."

He turned towards Blair with a small smile. "I guess you can figure out where this is going, can't you? It was just what a bunch of bored, homesick G.I.s needed. We basically adopted the place. Almost all of our free time was spent fixing it up. We didn't have much in the way of building supplies but we made do with what we could scrounge up from around the base. One of the guys, Sanchez, I think, even figured out how to rig up a crude plumbing system to get water from the well to the building. We let the kids help as much as they were able. Even with the language barrier they loved it. They became all the little brothers and sisters we'd left behind. Fortunately most of the priests and nuns spoke some English since they all had to get their religious training out of country, so it wasn't too bad."

Blair was relieved to see some of the tension Jim had been carrying around since they had been given the arsonist case start to ebb away as he remembered a happier time. "So what was Christmas like?"

Jim laughed. "Unorthodox, to say the least. We found this scrawny bush and brought it inside. The nuns had the kids make decorations out of whatever they could find. Of course we added a few G.I. touches ourselves. I don't think the kids ever really grasped the idea of why we wanted the bush inside the building and wanted to decorate it but they were having fun coming up with things to hang on it and that's what really mattered. It was a very..." Jim paused, looking for the right word, "a very multi-cultural tree by the time it was finished. Besides what the kids made, most of the guys were getting Christmas packages from home so we'd take the bows from the presents and cut out pictures from the wrapping paper and hang them on the tree. One guy was Jewish and got gifts wrapped in Chanukah paper so we had pictures of Stars of David and menorahs on it too. We shaped some wire into a star and covered it with tin foil from the Mess Hall to put on top. We were prouder of that mangy old bush than any 10 foot pine covered with fancy store bought ornaments.

"Everybody also made a point to hold back some of the goodies their families sent them so that by Christmas we had a good-sized stash to bring to the kids. We also talked the Mess Sergeant out of some powdered milk and fruit. On Christmas Day we arrived just after lunch. The nuns made up the milk and we passed out our surprises."

Jim's eyes got a faraway look as he reminisced. "We gave each child a piece of fruit, a few cookies and some candy—the rest we gave to the nuns to distribute later. It was hard for some of us to imagine that these kids had never tasted a cookie or a piece of candy before. I thought that some of their eyes were going to bug right out of their heads. We didn't think it was very much but the kids kept hugging us, the priests kept thanking us and I think most of the nuns were crying. We stayed there the rest of the day just playing with the kids. We ate dinner with them and even then they wouldn't let us leave until it was their bedtime. By the time we got back we'd missed Christmas dinner but none of us cared.

"The best part of all is when our C.O. found out why we had all missed dinner and what we'd been doing for the past few weeks, he contacted some other higher ups and arranged for a weekly delivery of food, milk, medical supplies and whatever else he thought they could use. More people joined us and with the new supplies we soon had the building looking almost as good as new. The kids were all wearing brand new Army green T-shirts, most were too big of course, but every one of them wore one."

The light blue eyes got a bit misty. "About a month or so later we were shipped out. Our last day out there everyone was pretty emotional. Someone brought a camera and was taking pictures. The kids cried and grabbed our legs. It wasn't so much the stuff we had brought them; I think that they were just so thrilled that we had spent so much time with them. Most of them had lost their entire family. Even though our replacements had promised to take up where we left off, it was still hard to leave. My last image of them is as we were driving away for the last time. Everyone, the nuns, priests and all the kids stood in front of the orphanage and waved until we couldn't see them anymore."

Jim scrubbed his face with his hand. "Wow. I haven't thought about that in years. No big tree or fancy food. No real presents. Just a bunch of homesick guys and some kids who didn't even speak the same language. But that was still the best Christmas I can remember. I used to wonder what happened to everyone there after we left." He turned towards his partner. "Thanks, Chief."

Blair looked puzzled. "For what?"

"For helping me remember that sometimes it doesn't take much to make a difference."

Looking a little embarrassed Blair suggested another sensory sweep of the area. After confirming that everything was still quiet Jim turned to Blair with a gleam in his eye.

"So, now that we have some more time, turnabout is fair play. What were your best and worst Christmases?" Having heard a bit from his partner about his unusual upbringing he figured that Blair's stories would be even better than his. When Blair seemed to hesitate he urged him on. "C'mon, Sandburg. I told you mine, you have to tell me yours."

Blair knew that if he reneged on this it would be a long time before Jim opened up to him again. He rubbed his hand over this mouth. "Yeah, you're right. Okay." Leaning his head back against the seat he clasped his hands in his lap. "My best Christmas was when I was around eight. Naomi and I were living in a room in one of those 'rent rooms by the week' places. Mom had a job waiting in another town but it didn't start until after New Year's, so we were kind of stuck there. She got a temporary job in a department store for the Christmas season. It wasn't too bad except for being alone while she was at work." He quickly looked over at Jim, knowing what the detective was thinking. "She somehow managed to get a strictly day shift schedule so I wasn't alone at night.

"Anyway, she made friends with one of her co-workers and somehow it came out where we were living. Annie was horrified. She and her husband Terry decided that Mom and I were going to stay with them and their two children until it was time for Mom to leave for her new job. They had a really nice house and we stayed in their guest room. It even had its own bathroom, no more sharing the one down the hall with everyone else on our floor." Blair smiled. "I think that was the main reason Mom agreed to stay with them—she really hated sharing that bathroom."

Settling back Blair continued. "Like I said, they had two kids. Tina was 13 and Todd was 15. School was out for the holidays so I stayed home with them while the grown-ups were at work. They treated me like a little brother. They even had a dog, a lab named Rusty. He was almost as big as I was so at first I was scared of him, but he was just a big baby. Sometimes I'd play with him or we'd watch TV, but what I really liked best was the big bookcase filled with books. I was allowed to read anything I wanted. At night we all ate dinner together. It was like being part of a regular family."

Jim couldn't help but frown a bit at the awe in Blair's voice at doing the everyday things that most people took for granted.

"Of course, they were really into Christmas. The house was decorated inside and out. And they had this big, beautiful tree. A real tree, too, not a fake. It was the tree that made me realize that I didn't have any way to get anyone any presents to put under it. I guess I got kind of depressed because Terry took me aside one day and asked me what was wrong. When I told him he said I could do odd jobs around the house for money—like feeding and walking Rusty, taking out the trash, things like that. He kept a tally of the money I earned and on the weekend before Christmas he took me shopping. It was just to Wal-Mart but the best part was that it was just him and me. I found this beautiful scarf for Naomi and got something for everyone, even a toy for Rusty, just from me. I know now that the amount of money I earned couldn't possibly have covered everything I had picked out but Terry never said a word, just told me that I had made good choices. I was so proud—buying presents with money I had earned myself. Afterwards we stopped at McDonalds to eat. For the first time I didn't envy the other kids I saw there with their Dads. When we got home I wrapped the presents myself, putting a really big 'From Blair' on each one, then put them under the tree. I couldn't wait till Christmas so everyone could open them and see what I got them."

Blair let out a deep breath, his eyes slightly glazed, obviously caught up in his own memories. Jim listened, suddenly getting a clearer understanding of what Blair's childhood must have been like.

"On Christmas Eve a new stocking with a big letter 'B' on it suddenly appeared on the mantle. Annie said since no one else's name started with a B it must be for me. I was shocked. I'd never had a Christmas stocking before. Just before bedtime, mine anyway, Terry read 'Twas The Night Before Christmas'. I was so excited about watching everyone open the presents I had bought I could hardly sleep.

"Finally, it was Christmas morning. I couldn't believe all the presents under the tree. Santa Claus really had come for the Cahills. When everyone was finally up and sitting around the living room I dug through the pile until I found the ones I had put there and carefully handed them out telling each person "This is from me!"

I thought I was going to burst from excitement as each person opened theirs. Naomi got tears in her eyes when she saw the scarf. I was nervous about that until she hugged me and told me she loved it. After all the appropriate oooing and aahing and thanks yous over the gifts I crawled into Naomi's lap to watch the others get the rest of the presents. As far as I was concerned, my part of Christmas was over."

Blair smiled and shook his head. "I should have known better. After handing out a few presents Annie picked one up and read the nametag, "Blair." Mom had to push me out her lap I was so stunned. Besides a full stocking I ended up with a nice pile of gifts. One from each of the Cahills and a few from Mom. Terry gave me my first backpack so I could carry all my special stuff around myself." Blair laughed. "And a tradition was born." Jim joined in as they both looked at the leather pack sitting at Blair's feet.

"After breakfast everyone, except Naomi, went to church. She didn't feel right going herself, but she never stopped me from experiencing new things. I loved it. The candles and decorations and the singing and everybody smiling and being nice to each other. It was really nice. That night we had a traditional Christmas dinner. A glazed ham with all the fixings. Like a lot of people they did turkey at Thanksgiving and ham at Christmas. For dessert we had apple and pecan pie with ice cream. I ate until I thought I would burst." Shaking his finger at his partner he said, "Don't say anything. I was only eight years old at the time. Besides, who was I to defy tradition?" Turning back towards the front again a soft sigh escaped. "I really wanted to stay with them. For the first time I really saw what being part of a family was like and I liked it."

Jim couldn't miss the wistful tone of voice. He found himself aching for the little boy who just wanted to be part of a family. "So what happened?"

"The usual. We moved on. We did stay with them until after New Year's. I remember staying up late and banging on a pot with a spoon at midnight and having a good time." Another sigh issued forth then Blair shrugged and sat up straight. "I guess as far as most people are concerned that wasn't much different than any other Christmas. Pretty typical really." He grinned at his partner. "Not like saving an orphanage or anything." Behind the grin Jim could see a hint of sadness in the shadowed blue eyes.

Another sensory sweep showed nothing happening yet. After checking in with Simon it was decided to wait one more hour, if nothing happened they'd call it a night and try again tomorrow. Trying to lighten the mood a bit and hoping for a disastrous but humorous story, Jim asked, "So, what was your worst Christmas?"

Blair squirmed but didn't answer. Thinking this must be a really good story, Jim prodded his reluctant partner. "C'mon, Chief. I told you mine, now you tell me yours."

Blair stilled and looked out the side window. "Well, actually, Jim, that was my only Christmas. We moved right after that because of Mom's new job. Then we just kept moving. Naomi wasn't really into Christmas too much. Part of it was probably because she was raised in a traditional Jewish family. Even though she wasn't real religious herself I think she still didn't want me to lose sight of where I came from. You know, like making sure I had a Bar Mitzvah when I was 13. But I also think it was because she really hated the commercialism of the season. She always said that we didn't need to get caught up in all the hoopla and hype. And frankly, I think the guys she hooked up with were relieved not to have to buy presents or do anything for the holidays. None of them ever pushed it. I know most guys hate all the decorating and stuff."

Jim cringed at that last remark even though he didn't think Blair deliberately aimed it at him. Blair had mentioned getting a tree and decorating the loft a little but he had vetoed that suggestion, saying he didn't want all the bother and mess. His new roommate hadn't pushed it but it did explain why Blair had kept his small menorah in his room; he probably figured that he might also object to that, too.

"By the time I got to Rainier and was on my own I was pretty busy. During the Christmas break I usually take extra session classes. Since I'd never done Christmas before there wasn't any reason to bother with it now. So you see, Jim, it really worked out for the best. Since I've only had one Christmas, and it was a great one, I've never actually had a 'worst' one."

Or the chance to have another one for comparison. Before he could voice his thoughts Jim thought he spotted something moving near the building.

"Heads up, Chief. I think we've got something here."

All thoughts of Christmas gone, Blair stared out into the darkness, not seeing anything. "Where? What'd you see?"

"Someone's sneaking around the far side of that concrete building over there. Call it in while I go check it out." He gave his partner a hard look. "Stay here. You'll need to let backup know where to go."

Holding up his arms in submission, Blair agreed. "Hey, no problem, man. My I. D. tag says 'observer' not 'junior G-Man'. You go find the bad guys; I'll tell the cavalry where to find you." It was his turn to look serious. "But, Jim." He waited until the detective was looking at him. "Be careful. Just find them. Don't do anything until backup shows up, okay? And don't overuse your senses. This is no place to zone. Maybe I should come with you." He had one hand on the door handle ready to open it and join his sentinel.

"No way, Chief. Just stay here. I'm just going to see where they went. I'll wait for backup—that is, if you ever call them."

He held up Jim's cell phone. "I'm on it. Just be careful, okay?"

It was a strange feeling to have someone worry about him. He couldn't help the small smile as he softly answered. "Okay."

Blair watched as his partner disappeared into the darkness. Using speed dial he contacted Captain Banks and told him what Jim had seen. The Major Crime commander promised that he and backup would be there soon, the building they were watching wasn't too far away. Duty done, Blair leaned back to wait. A large part of him was itching to follow Jim. The feeling that he should be with him had been growing stronger each time he watched the detective leave to go into another potentially dangerous situation. The more he learned about Jim's senses the more he also realized how vulnerable they made him. Bright lights or a sudden loud noise could incapacitate him instantly. Plus there was always the danger of him zoning at the wrong time. He knew as an untrained, unarmed observer he was technically useless as far as actual police work was concerned, but as the only person who understood how a sentinel worked, he felt he needed to be more involved when Jim was doing something like following bad guys in the dark. But for now all he could do was wait.

As promised, Captain Banks soon arrived. Blair wasn't sure where he stood with Jim's boss. Sometimes he seemed to accept that Blair was necessary to Jim's being able to use his newfound senses but other times it seemed like he thought he was just a nuisance to be endured until Jim could function without him. Unfortunately he was beginning to think that helping Jim gain control was going to take a lot longer than either one of them had originally thought. But that wasn't something he was going to bring up to the large, intimidating man standing in front of him any time soon. After filling in the captain on Jim's whereabouts, he watched as he and the other police officers took off in the same direction his partner had recently taken.

After a few minutes he began to feel uneasy. Sitting alone, not knowing what was going on, was grating on his nerves. Getting out of the vehicle he began to pace beside it. He had no intention of going after Jim and the others but the waiting was driving him crazy. A sudden movement off to his left caught his attention.

It couldn't be Jim; they had gone in the other direction. Peering into the darkness he tried to see what it could have been. He'd be really embarrassed if he raised the alarm over a stray cat. There. The shape was much too big for a cat. As the shadow moved out into the open there was enough moonlight for Blair to make out the definite shape of a man. Damn. There were two arsonists. Just before the figure entered the dilapidated brick building, Blair could see that he was carrying some kind of bag in his hand. Now what should he do? Jim was over at the other building following the other suspect. This man looked like he was getting ready to set another fire and that was probably his equipment he was carrying. If Blair used Jim's cell phone he might give Jim and Captain Banks away to this man's partner. After standing in indecision for a few minutes, Blair decided to keep an eye on his guy and risk calling if it looked like he was definitely up to something.

Mind made up, he cautiously crept towards the building. By then the man had been in there for several minutes, more than enough time to set up another arson fire. Just as Blair reached the door, it suddenly swung open. He couldn't move back fast enough. The suspect came barreling out and knocked him to the ground. Getting up he turned in the same direction as the fleeing arsonist. As he pulled out the cell phone, he heard Jim's voice coming at him from off to the left. Both Jim and Captain Banks were yelling and waving their arms. Blair pointed to where the now long-gone suspect had been heading and starting turning towards his partner.

From the building behind him came a sudden, deafening roar. A second later his entire back seemed to explode with pain. He found himself being hurled across the open space between where he had been standing and Jim's truck. His forward momentum was abruptly halted when he slammed against something hard and unyielding. He was vaguely aware that he was now lying on the ground. Not that it mattered. All that mattered was the incredible agony that seemed to emanate from every cell in his body. Everything hurt. On top of the overall misery, his head was pounding, his arm throbbed and there was a searing pain in his leg that wouldn't quit. He was distantly aware of running feet but they barely registered through the red haze of pain that had become his whole world. Hands were touching him, turning him and he heard himself groan at the added pain they caused. He dimly heard voices from somewhere up above. Although he felt that he should do something, he decided that the approaching darkness seemed to offer more comfort. When it finally reached him he didn't offer any resistance and let it enfold him in its mercifully pain free embrace.

Jim stared in horror as he watched the events unfold. He and Simon had caught their suspect and, after some 'coaxing', he admitted that he was a decoy and that his partner was actually setting the fire in the next building over. The building near where he had parked his truck and left Sandburg, alone. They left the perp with Henri and took off. Then... Wham! Everything seemed to happen at once. Jim saw Sandburg heading for the building's door. Before he could call out, the door flew open and the other arsonist ran out, knocking Blair down. Thankfully he got right up and turned away from the building. He was moving but not fast enough. If the arsonist was running that meant that the incendiary device must have a very short fuse.

Jim and Simon were both yelling and waving, trying to get Blair to move away from the building even faster. Unfortunately it had the opposite effect. Blair pointed then slowed down to turn towards them. At that moment the warehouse went up. Jim froze, unable to move as Blair was thrown across the asphalt, right into the side of his truck. Even though they were far enough away to escape the blast, they both had to duck when debris began raining down all around them. By the time Jim reached him, his partner was an unmoving, crumpled heap on the ground. Carefully turning him onto his back, Jim cringed at the moan of pain his touch elicited. But he had to check out Blair's injuries. The first thing Jim saw was a long, narrow piece of wood protruding from the front of Blair's left thigh. It had gone straight in, no telling how deep it was. Holding back a curse he gently ran his hands over the battered body, trying to assess any other damage. Even though he knew Blair was at least semi-conscious, there was no response when he called his name. A few minutes later Blair let out a small sigh and went totally limp. Jim focused on the unsteady heartbeat.

"Jim!" Simon's alarmed voice filtered through. "Jim! What's going on?"

Giving his head a small shake and blinking his eyes Jim shook off the last effects of the near zone. How many times had Sandburg warned him not to focus on just one sense? Simon was hitting his shoulder. "Dammit, Jim. Answer me."

Keeping his eyes and hands on his injured partner, Jim reassured his captain, "I'm all right, Simon."

The relief was audible. "Good. Now, how's Sandburg?"

"Besides the piece of wood in his leg, he's got some badly cracked ribs, a broken arm and a head injury, probably with a concussion of some degree. I'm not sure but I think he may also have some internal injuries, too. He was semi-conscious at first but now he's out cold. Can you call it in, sir? Blair had my cell phone."

Simon patted him on the back as he stood up. The cold, mechanical voice that reported Sandburg's condition only meant that Jim was suppressing his emotions. It was probably best for now. "Stay with him. I'll be right back." Walking away, he pulled out his cell phone as he surveyed the damage all around him. Even though the building was burning, Jim had parked far enough away that they weren't in any danger. In the morning the Arson Squad would have another burned out hulk to go through. There was debris littered everywhere, a testament to the force of the explosion. He called Dispatch and had them contact the Fire Department and EMS. He also put out an APB for the escaped arsonist, based on the arrested partner's information. He wanted to be sure he was picked up before Ellison went looking for him. Returning to his men he knelt down behind and to the side of his detective. "Help's on the way. How's he doing?"

Jim had one hand wrapped around Blair's wrist on his uninjured right arm, monitoring the pulse beneath his fingers. His other hand was keeping the curly hair away from a large, nasty looking cut on the observer's forehead above his left eye. A steady stream of red had already run down the side of the pale face.

"Not too good. His pulse is weak and thready. He might be going into shock. Breathing is labored. I'd like to sit him up some, so he can breathe easier, but I don't want to move him because of his ribs and possible internal injuries. How long until the ambulance gets here?" However long it was, it wasn't soon enough.

"It shouldn't be long now, Jim." He paused for a minute. "How do you know exactly what kind of injuries Sandburg has? I mean besides his leg, that's pretty obvious. Don't tell me you can sense them somehow." This sentinel stuff just got too weird for him sometimes.

Jim nodded. "I can feel them. The Army medic training helps but things like cracked or broken bones are real obvious now. Blair had me practice with sticks covered with a heavy cloth. Said it might be useful some day." Looking up he continued. "I can take a pulse just by shaking hands with someone and gauge a fever level by touch. He even had a doctor friend of his let me listen to different lung conditions so I'd recognize them when I heard them. The internal stuff is harder."

Simon shook his head. TMI. He looked down again at his injured man, wishing there were something more he could do. Sandburg certainly never signed on for something like this when he asked to ride along with Jim. If Jim hadn't already told him how much he needed the kid around, he would pull his credentials right now. Instead he would just wait and see how Sandburg felt about staying on after he recovered.

A moment later Jim tilted his head. "I can hear sirens. They're just a few blocks away." It was another minute or so before Simon heard them too. Soon the scene was swarming with fire fighters, police and EMS crews. Jim reluctantly moved away from Blair to let the medical crew get him ready for transport. He arranged with Simon to have his car driven to the hospital so he could ride with Blair. As Simon watched the ambulance pull away, he wondered once again about the unusual relationship that had developed between two such different men. Then he turned his full attention back to the chaos behind him.


When Simon finally arrived at the ER, a quick flash of his badge soon had him heading towards the cubicle the nurse had told him his two men were in. He found Jim sitting in a chair beside a large empty space where the exam bed would usually be. Sandburg's cut off clothing was on the floor. Jim not reacting to his coming in was not good either. "Jim?"

At the sound Jim turned around and wearily nodded a greeting to his captain. His face told Simon that things were not going well.

"Where's Sandburg? What did the doctors say?"

Jim scrubbed a hand down his face before answering. "They took him to X-ray. The doctors have to see exactly how the wood is positioned in his leg before they'll even attempt to remove it. Plus he needs his arm and chest X-rayed and they're worried about a possible skull fracture so they want pictures of that too. He's been gone for a while and probably won't be back for another while yet."

"Jesus. Did they mention any other injuries?"

"They put in a catheter and his urine output was good with no blood present so they don't think his kidneys were damaged. Hopefully that means his other organs might not be injured either. They'll know more when the lab tests come back."

"Then we have time. Come on."

"Time for what? Go where?" Did he miss a part of their conversation somewhere?

"Well, I'd rather you go home and get some rest but I doubt if that's going to happen so I'll settle for the next best thing—going down to the cafeteria for some food and a lot of coffee." He raised his hand to stop the coming protests. "You said yourself it'll probably be a while before he's finished. We'll stop at the nurse's station and tell them to page you if Sandburg comes back or if there's any news." He softened his tone. "You need to eat, Jim. Keep up your own strength so you can help Blair."

If there was a flaw in that logic, Jim was too tired to see it. The hours on the stakeout followed by the emotional shock of what had happened had left him drained. So, much to Simon's surprise, Jim agreed without an argument. After a brief stop to tell the nurses where they'd be, the two men made their way down to the basement cafeteria. At four in the morning there were only a few 3rd shift hospital employees there, so it only took a few minutes to get their food and find a table. Once they started eating both men realized that it had been several hours since they'd last eaten and they dug into their food. It wasn't until they were both almost finished that any conversation was started.

"Not bad for cafeteria food."

Jim just nodded and sipped his coffee. His mind wasn't on his food. He wanted to listen and see if he could hear his partner but as tired as he was and without Sandburg's help he didn't dare try it.

"I'm sure he'll be all right. They would have paged if there was a problem."

"I know. I'll just feel better when all the tests are done and we know what we're facing."

Simon didn't miss the use of the word 'we'. Ever since Jim had first seen the rattrap Sandburg lived in he had voiced his concerns about his new partner's welfare. Although he tried to hide it under a gruff exterior, he had actually seemed relieved when Sandburg had to move in with him at the beginning of last month. Rhonda had even commented the other day that Blair looked like he had put on a few badly needed pounds since the move. No wonder Ellison seemed so shook up. He had quietly taken the kid under his wing. Now another explosion had just rocked their world, this one with much worse consequences. He shook his head; what was it with these two and trouble? "You ready to go back upstairs? Maybe the doctors can tell us more about his condition by now."

Tossing his paper napkin onto his tray Jim stood up. "Yeah. Let's go."

After dumping their trash and putting up their trays, the two men headed back to the ER, both hoping for good news. The still-empty bed space was a disappointment. Finding a second chair for Simon, both men settled down to wait.

Approximately 20 minutes later the curtain was pulled aside and two techs wheeled an unconscious Sandburg back in. After positioning the bed and re-hooking up the monitors, they assured Jim that a doctor would be in after reading the X-rays. They then left their patient alone with his visitors.

There was no way Simon could keep from staring at the unusually still form on the bed. The large head wound, held together by several butterfly bandages, had spectacular bruising all around it. Sandburg's face was pale, making the dark circles under the eyes stand out even more. A nasal cannula fed oxygen into his nostrils. The left arm was wearing a temporary cast. Even though there was a sheet covering Blair's lower body, it couldn't hide the spike protruding from his left thigh. It wasn't as long as it had been, someone had apparently cut off most of the wood's original length, but just knowing what was under there was upsetting enough.

Jim wasted no time. As soon as the techs left he was standing at Blair's right side, once again wrapping his fingers around the thin wrist. His other hand rested on the top of his roommate's head, unconsciously starting a comforting stroking motion. He leaned down until his face was near Blair's and spoke softly.

"Hey, Chief. You're going to be all right. You just rest and take it easy and you'll be home before you know it." Never taking his hand off Sandburg's wrist, Jim hooked the nearest chair with his foot then sat and waited, his whole demeanor becoming a lot calmer since his friend had been returned to the room.

Blair's other visitor silently watched the interaction between his detective and his observer. Ellison wasn't exactly known as a cold hearted bastard, in fact he was liked well enough by his fellow officers, but this type of emotional display wasn't something anyone expected to see from him. Jim tended to maintain a very professional persona while on the job. Even off the clock he was friendly and sociable but not overly so. Many people would be surprised to see him reacting this way, especially with someone he hadn't known all that long. The more Simon watched the two of them together, the more he was impressed by how 'big brotherishly' Jim acted towards Sandburg. Simon's musings were interrupted by the arrival of the doctor. He and Jim both stood up and faced the person they'd been waiting to talk to.

When the doctor entered the cubicle, he found himself under the intense scrutiny of two men rather than just the one he had dealt with earlier. Nonplussed, he addressed the newcomer.

"I'm Dr. Walker, I've been treating Mr. Sandburg here in the ER. And you are?"

"Captain Simon Banks, Cascade PD. Det. Ellison is one of my men and Blair Sandburg is an observer in my unit assigned to him. I consider him one of my men, too. So, what can you tell us about his condition?"

Both the doctor and Simon missed the slight raising of Jim's eyebrows at his boss' comments concerning Blair's position in his department. The ER physician silently commented on Simon's words. Straight and to the point, just like his detective. Good. People like this are usually easier to deal with than the more emotional types. Out loud he addressed the captain's question.

"Well, Captain, and Detective, I've been studying Mr. Sandburg's X-rays. The arm isn't too bad; it was a clean break of the ulna, one of the two bones in the forearm. We'll set and cast it and it should heal up just fine. He has some cracked ribs that will be painful and make taking a deep breath or some movements difficult for a while but they should also heal without too much difficulty."

He looked at the two men before continuing. "The other two injuries are more serious. I'm very concerned about some internal swelling behind the site of the head wound. When the body is injured, fluid rushes in to cushion the damaged area. That's how you get swelling. Unfortunately, however, unlike other areas of the body, the brain is totally enclosed by bone. That leaves very little room for expansion. When the brain swells, it pushes the damaged area against the skull, which can kill off brain cells. We've already given Mr. Sandburg a drug called Mannitol. I won't go into any great detail except to tell you it's a one shot dose given through his IV that has been proven very effective in drawing out excess fluid and reducing swelling in the brain. If this doesn't work, although I have every reason to believe it will, we'll have to go in and relieve the pressure manually. For now we'll continue to monitor him closely and see how it goes." He paused before delivering the other news that the two men were anxious to hear about.

"As for his leg, that's a bit more complicated. It seems that the wood didn't enter the leg from the front as we first thought, but actually from the rear and was driven all the way through. There's about a one and a half inch section protruding from the posterior side of his thigh as well as the section in the anterior, or front half. Fortunately, it missed both the femur and the femoral artery completely but we won't know the full extent of the damage until we can get in there and see what's what. Naturally we want to remove it as soon as possible, but I'm leery about his having surgery right now with that head injury. So for the present we're treating him with full spectrum antibiotics to ward off infection and we're going to keep him sedated so the swelling I mentioned can go down faster and he won't be as likely to move the leg. People with head injuries tend to get agitated and thrash around quite a bit. That, of course, is the last thing we want to happen. At this point I feel that a benzo based sedative is a safer risk than surgical anesthesia." He looked at each man. "Any questions about anything?"

"How long will he have to be sedated?" Jim wanted his partner awake as soon as possible.

"Just until we feel his overall condition improves enough to warrant risking surgery. Hopefully no more than a few days at most. This will actually be easier on him than having him awake and having to lie there with a piece of wood sticking through his leg. Anything else?"

"What about any internal injuries?"

"I almost forgot. Thank you, Captain, for reminding me. The lab results are back and they look good. I don't think he has any injury to his organs other than perhaps some deep bruising. It looks like he was caught more by the blast concussion, than the actual fireball itself. He was wearing several layers of clothing plus a fiber filled jacket that protected his back from the worst of shockwave. When he struck the vehicle, his arm apparently was across his chest like this." The doctor brought his left forearm across his own chest at an angle with his fingertips near his shoulder. "Hitting it like that broke his arm and cracked a few ribs but it also protected his torso from a direct impact. That kept him from more having more extensive internal damage. Considering the mechanism of injury, he could have been hurt a lot worse."

Simon looked again at the jumbled up pile of clothing on the floor, hoping that at least Blair's coat had been spared being cut. He wasn't sure if the grad student could afford to replace it.

"But even so, there's no way to avoid the fact that with his injuries, plus surgery, for the next several weeks he is going to be a very sore and miserable young man." He looked back and forth between Simon and Jim. "With his having both a leg and arm injury and cracked ribs, too, he's going to have a hard time getting around and being able to take care of himself once he's released. Does he have any family here or someone who's available to help him?"

"I am."

"Jim."

"No, Simon. I'll take vacation time if I have to. Blair got hurt trying to help me, actually, trying to help all of us. Besides, the other arsonist doesn't know we've already arrested his partner. That puts Blair in danger since he probably thinks that Blair is the only person who can identify him. The fire was already on the early morning news and somehow they were informed that a police observer was present at the time the fire was set. The man literally ran right into him. It wouldn't take much to find out Blair's identity. I'm not leaving him alone."

The taller man sighed. No point in fighting a battle you couldn't win. "All right, Jim. As of right now he's under protective custody." He turned back to the doctor. "There'll be a guard outside Sandburg's door 24 hours a day while he's here. Ellison will need total access to him at all times. How soon until he's moved to his permanent room? I'll need to set up the guard rotation schedule."

Dr. Walker paused, a bit thrown by the sudden turn of events. "Ortho will want to set his arm before he's moved. Since we're just going to monitor his head injury before operating I guess he can be transferred after his arm is set. But I will have to stabilize his leg before he's moved anywhere. I'm not sure yet which med floor he'll be sent to from here since he's not going straight into surgery. I can let Detective Ellison know as soon as I get his admissions' info."

Simon nodded. "That'll be fine." He turned to Jim. "I'm heading back to the station now to get everything set up. Call me with Sandburg's room number and when he's being transferred."

Knowing that his observer, now eyewitness, was in more than capable hands, Simon left to start putting the necessary police procedures in place. After another check on his patient, Dr. Walker left to contact Orthopedics to have them set Blair's arm and to arrange for his transfer from the ER to a medical floor.

As soon as his boss and the doctor left, Jim resumed his previous seat, determined to remain by his friend's side as long as there was the slightest risk to his safety. Blair was bringing out feelings in him he thought had died the day that Stevie said nothing and let him take the blame for the damage to their father's prized Cobra. He didn't understand why but he knew that he'd been developing a sense of responsibility for the quirky young man who had suddenly become such a large part of his life. Just as he had felt responsible for Stevie when they were growing up under their father's strict rules.

He found himself regretting not reassuring Blair about their friendship back at the stakeout when he had the chance. Now it would probably be several days, if not longer, before Blair would be able to hold any kind of conversation. Although he understood the reasoning behind keeping Blair sedated, he found himself getting irritated at the thought that he wouldn't be able to talk to him about anything for that long. Reaching out, he once again encircled the uninjured arm's wrist with his hand, careful of the IV tubing. It was amazing how much calmer he felt just from feeling the steady rhythm pulsing under his fingers.

As he watched his battered partner in his forced slumber, he marveled at how much his life had changed in such a short time. Just a few months ago he was a regular cop, solving crimes using nothing more than good old detective work. One stakeout alone in the woods and his whole life changed. Suddenly he had these super senses followed shortly thereafter by the arrival of someone he normally would have been shaking down for drugs, rather than turning to for help. Now, not only was that person helping him, he was living with him too. Jim shook his head. They do say that truth is stranger than fiction. And this, Chief, is about as strange as it gets. Just hurry up and get better so we can go back to driving Simon crazy with this sentinel stuff, okay? Getting comfortable, but never letting go of his charge, he settled in to begin his first night of self imposed guard duty.


Five days later Jim was once again sitting beside his partner's bedside but now it was in anticipation instead of regret. After three days of waiting, Blair's surgeon had decided that it was safe enough to risk the surgery on his leg. That had happened yesterday morning. It had gone well and they were expecting him to wake up any time now. The deep gash on his forehead had been stitched and was covered by a large, white bandage. His casted arm was resting on a pillow beside him. Even the extra blankets weren't enough to hide the large, bulky bandages wrapped around Blair's left thigh. The nurses had gradually reduced the amount of sedatives he'd been receiving prior to the surgery so Blair could wake up naturally from the anesthesia.

The missing arsonist had been picked up three days after the explosion and the two former partners were now busy pointing fingers at each other and the people who had hired them, trying to cut deals for themselves. The D. A. was happy and the case was considered closed. That meant that Jim could now relax and concentrate on helping his friend recover from his injuries. Blair's new doctor had said that if everything went well he would try to release him in time to be home for Christmas, providing he had someone there to help him and wouldn't have to exert himself. Since the case was officially closed, Simon had agreed to give Jim some of his overdue vacation time, as long as he was available to come in should the D. A. have any more questions or to touch base with the detectives who were taking over his other cases. Now it was all up to Blair.

As if on cue, Jim felt a slight twitch of the hand under his. The electronic monitors confirmed what Jim could hear for himself; Blair's heart rate and breathing were slowly increasing, signaling his gradual return to consciousness. He leaned in closer, urging his friend to wake.

"Come on, Chief, you can do it. You've been asleep long enough."

His only answer was a long, low guttural sound and a small movement of Blair's head. Jim tried to be patient. He knew that after being sedated for three days and then put under anesthesia, not to mention the trauma of his injuries and surgery, waking up wasn't going to be easy. He hadn't realized how much he'd miss having Sandburg around. Or how important it'd become to see his eyes open again. He gave the warm hand a small squeeze. "That's it, Blair. Can you open your eyes for me?"

After what sounded like a groan the eyelids finally started to move. They slowly opened partway then closed again. Opening and closing again they finally managed to stay about three-fourths of the way open. Even though Blair was looking at him his eyes had a glazed look to them.

Lights on but nobody's home. "Hey, buddy. Welcome back. How you feeling?"

This time Blair managed to blink rapidly a few times. When his eyes remained open this time they were a lot clearer. He opened his mouth but nothing came out.

"Hold on. The nurse said your mouth and throat would probably be dry. I have some water right here. I'm going to raise up the head of your bed a little."

Letting go of Blair's hand he pushed the button on the guardrail and watched as the bed started to rise. Suddenly Blair gave a small intake of breath as his right hand grabbed the hospital gown over his chest. Jim immediately stopped the bed. "I'm sorry, Chief. I forgot. Your ribs are going to hurt for a while. I think that's high enough anyway. You okay?" Not getting an answer he poured some water from the bedside pitcher into the glass and held the straw in front of Blair's mouth. "Small sips." He sighed as his partner sucked greedily. When he pulled the straw away Blair made a small sound of distress. "More?" At the small nod he held the glass until he heard the slurping sounds indicating that the glass was empty. Taking it away again he placed it back on the table. "That's enough for now."

Blair leaned back with a small sigh and closed his eyes. Just drinking a glass of water was tiring. He opened them again when he heard Jim asking if he was all right. Nodding, he opened his mouth to answer but again nothing came out. However this time he was able to swallow and try again. "Wha-wha happ'nd?"

Knowing Blair probably wasn't going to last long he gave him the Reader's Digest condensed version. "You were caught in an explosion at the warehouse. You've got a good-sized cut on your forehead, a broken arm and some cracked ribs. Your leg caught a piece of wood. But you're going to be all right. Pretty sore for a while, but the doctors said that everything should heal up just fine." He'd give him more details later, when he was more awake. And find out what he was doing heading for the building in the first place. "How're you feeling? Anything hurt? I should probably let someone know you're awake."

Giving his head a small shake, Blair tried to check himself out. The broken arm was pretty obvious and he had already felt the ribs. Fumbling a bit, he slowly raised his right hand and gingerly felt the bandage on his head. He couldn't stop the small grunt of pain when he leaned his head forward and tried to lift the blanket to see his leg. His eyes closed of their own volition when Jim took his hand in one of his and used the other to gently push him back onto the pillow. He didn't have the energy to resist.

"Don't. It's all wrapped up anyway. Just lay back and take it easy. I already pushed the call button for the nurse."

A sudden thought occurred to Blair even as he felt himself getting drowsy. "Jm? You 'kay?" His eyes refused his direct command to open. Jim's voice seemed to be getting farther away.

"I'm fine, Chief. You're the only one who got hurt." Someone was stroking his head; it felt so good. "Go on back to sleep. I'll be here when you wake up again." The comforting stroking and Jim's promise were the last things Blair was conscious of as he drifted off.

When the nurse entered the room a less than a minute later, she found her patient sound asleep and the big cop who'd been there since day one sitting in his usual spot, holding his hand. She cleared her throat.

Jim knew the nurse, Marie, was there before she announced her presence but didn't acknowledge her until then. He also kept his grip on Blair's hand. "He was awake for a few minutes but just now fell back asleep." He watched as she checked the IV and the monitors.

"How was he?"

"A bit groggy. He drank some water. I don't think he was in much pain except when he moved."

Marie nodded. "He'll probably be feeling it a lot more next time he wakes up. The doctor's ordered a morphine pump for him to use. I'll make sure it's set up before he wakes up again." After a final check on her patient she left to update his chart.

After checking to make sure Blair wouldn't be awake any time soon, Jim took one of his rare breaks from the room to call the station and let everyone know that the Major Crime observer was finally conscious and seemed to be doing fine.


True to his word, the doctor released Blair in time for Christmas, on December 20th. After signing a stack of forms and getting the obligatory prescriptions filled at the hospital pharmacy, Jim was finally able to roll his partner out to his car in the wheelchair he had rented until Blair could get around on his own. With his leg and arm injuries both on his left side plus the cracked ribs, crutches, or even a cane, were useless. Just getting from the chair into car left the newly released patient pale and panting.

Silently thanking God that the elevator was working, Jim wheeled an already exhausted Blair down the hall towards number 307. He hoped the surprise waiting inside would perk him up a little.

Pushing the chair across the threshold, he stopped just inside the doorway. Blair looked up and gasped. Standing in front of the balcony doors was a fully decorated, lit Christmas tree. Tiny white lights were wrapped around the banister leading up to Jim's room and across the top railing of the loft bedroom. On the coffee table was a large centerpiece made of green holly leaves with red berries. Three red candles rose from its center. A gold French horn with a red and green plaid bow hung on the support pillar near the kitchen. In fact, everywhere he looked there seemed to be little touches of Christmas. Jim turned the wheelchair around so Blair was facing the still open front door. Reaching down behind the door, he picked up a large wreath made from real pine branches. Different sized gold and silver balls, with red berries in between them, stood out from the green background. A few silver bells were grouped together on one side. A perfectly made, dark red bow hung gracefully from the bottom of the circle. Jim hung the wreath on a pre-hammered nail on the front of the door, releasing the fresh pine scent into the loft along with the soft chimes from the bells.

"We didn't want you to see it when you first got home. It would have ruined the surprise. So what do you think?"

Blair, still open mouthed, could only nod his approval. Smiling, Jim then closed the door and wheeled Blair into the living room. "The guys did a good job, don't you think?"

"The guys?" It came out more like a squeak.

Jim was enjoying this. A speechless Sandburg was a rare sight to behold. "Yeah. I told them what I wanted, gave them the money and they did all this while I was at the hospital with you."

"But why? You said..."

"Never mind what I said. This is what I decided I wanted." For you. When the other detectives had found out that Blair had only had one Christmas in his entire life they were more than happy to help out. "And on Christmas Day we're having a big turkey with everything. Since we were working on Thanksgiving we're doing turkey instead of ham."

The younger man's smile let Jim know that this had been the right thing to do.

Despite the shock of the transformed loft Blair had to cover his mouth as a large yawn escaped. He looked up apologetically. "Sorry."

"Don't be. I know you're tired. I'll make you something quick to eat so you can take your pills and get into bed."

Blair nodded. "Sounds like a plan to me."

It was a still shocked, but content, Blair that later fell asleep in his own bed for the first in almost two weeks.


The next morning found Blair comfortably stretched out on the couch. Jim was standing nearby checking to make sure he had everything he might need handy and within arm's reach.

"You have enough pillows? Blankets? Water? Can you reach your pills and the phone?" He hated the fact that on Blair's first full day home he had been called to the station for a little while. He had some forgotten paperwork that needed his signature right away and the D.A. wanted him to clear up a few points concerning another case coming to trial soon. He tried to get out of it but Simon insisted he finish everything up before things got too far behind. Blair had already had breakfast and his first antibiotic. He refused the pain pills saying he felt all right but promising to take them later if he needed them.

He had also gotten him into the bathroom so he could take care of business, then helped him shave and brush his teeth. "How about I leave something to eat here, too. Just in case." He was already in the kitchen when Blair's voice stopped him.

"Jim. Stop. I'll be fine. You're only going to be gone for a few hours. I think I'll manage till then. Relax."

Grabbing a box of crackers Jim was back at Blair's side. Ignoring his roommate's comments by adding the box to the growing pile of 'supplies' he double-checked to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything. "Okay, food, water, remote, pills, phone, paper, pens. Anything else?"

Blair held up a notepad. "Maybe you'd better write down the number for 911 in case I forget." Jim actually reached for the offered pad before seeing Blair's grin and realizing that he'd been had.

"Very funny, Sandburg. I just really hate that I have to leave you alone so soon." He'd done what he could to make his partner comfortable. There was a pillow behind Blair's head and back, propping him up a bit, another under his leg and a third supported the broken arm. Two blankets covered the injured man. The coffee table had been pushed right next to the couch so Blair could reach everything without having to stretch.

The grin turned into a warm smile. "I know you do, Jim. And I appreciate you doing all this for me. Heck, Naomi didn't leave me this well off when she had to leave me when I was sick. If you could just get me my laptop and hook in the phone line, I'll be perfect."

Trying to ignore the comment about his mother leaving him alone when he was sick, Jim got and hooked up the laptop. Putting it within reach on the table beside him he glanced at the heavy cast. "How are you going to do this with only one hand? Besides which you're supposed to be resting today. And I don't want you tying up the phone line all day; I might want to call you for something."

Wouldn't be to check up on me, now would it? "Don't worry, Jim. I just want to check my e-mail and maybe look at a few things. I don't see me doing much of anything today besides maybe watching some TV and sleeping. And even the TV part is iffy." Well, except for the one little project he had in mind. Jim's having to leave for a while was a godsend. That is if he would ever leave. He needed to get this done quickly before his energy ran out or the pain got so bad he needed the painkillers. He was already hurting but didn't want to take the pills yet because they knocked him out and he needed to be alert and clear headed, at least for a little while. "Jim. Go. Before Simon reams me a new one for keeping you here. Besides, the sooner you leave the sooner you'll be done." But not too soon, I hope.

"All right, I'm going. You sure you have everything you need?"

Blair rolled his eyes at his mothering partner. "Yesss, I'm fine. I'll see you when you get back."

Obviously not happy, Jim took his jacket off the hook and opened the door. Turning in the doorway he paused for a second. "You know you can call me—for anything."

Blair's face and voice softened. "I know. I will if I need to, I promise. Now go make Simon happy. I'll see you later."

After the door closed Blair waited another minute before leaning his head back and mouthing, "Finally."

Sitting up slightly higher, ignoring the pull on his ribs, he powered up the laptop and pulled up his e-mail program. After scanning through the unopened mail he pulled up his address book and scrolled down until he got to the letter K. Awkwardly writing down the phone number he closed the laptop and managed to plug the phone line back into the base of the cordless phone, thankful that the phone stayed on the end table next to the couch. Dialing the number he prayed it would be answered.

"Hello?"

"Jack? Hi. It's Blair."

"Blair? I heard about what happened. Are you all right?"

Not surprised at finding out that his friend already knew about his current mishap, Blair answered. "Yeah, I'm fine. Well, not fine exactly, but I'll be okay. I'm kind of laid up right now. Which is why I'm calling actually. I need to find out some information but I think I might have a hard time finding some of it on my own. I think you could find it a lot faster, especially since I can't get around much right now. I need to find this stuff as soon as possible; I don't have much time. This might require some of your, uh, 'special' contacts, if you know what I mean."

"Uh-huh. Am I going to regret any of this, Blair?"

"No, Jack. Honest. It's all on the up and up. It's just that you have access to things that would take me forever to get into and I'm facing a real time crunch here. Nothing illegal or immoral, I swear. Let me tell you what I need and if you think it's a bad idea I'll forget about it. Okay?"

Across town Jack Kelso smiled. Even though Blair knew all about his past as a CIA operative and the contacts he still maintained he had never asked him to use his influence for anything underhanded. Their vastly different backgrounds had sometimes led to some rather lively discussions, but their friendship was based on mutual interests and a genuine respect for each other. If Blair was calling to ask for his help it must really be important to him. "Okay, Blair. Tell me all about it."

A short time later Blair disconnected the phone and leaned back with a sigh. Part one was done, now for part two. He looked at the small bottle of painkillers, resisting the temptation to take them now. God, he hurt all over, his arm and leg were both throbbing and a headache was making itself known. One more phone call. Picking up the phone he used speed dial to place his next call, relieved when the female voice he wanted answered.

"Cascade Police. Major Crime Unit."

"Hi, Rhonda. It's Blair. Don't say anything; just answer yes or no. Is Jim around?"

"No."

Blair's whole body relaxed. "Is he in the building?"

"No, he's at the D.A.'s office. He left a little while ago. What's going on, Blair? Are you all right? I can call over there and—"

"No, Rhonda, no. I'm fine, more or less. I want to talk to you but I don't want Jim to hear. I was wondering if you would mind doing me a big favor. I'd do it myself but I'm kind of stuck here. You will? Great. Got a pencil handy?"

By the time he hung up sweat was beading around his hairline and upper lip. He reached out a shaking hand and picked up the open bottle of water, managing to take a drink without spilling any. The painkiller vial was also already open, the cap just sitting on top. Bless you, Jim, for thinking about that. Blair shook a few pills onto the table then put two in his mouth, downing them with more water. Doing everything one-handed was more awkward than he'd thought but at least he could relax now. Within minutes the only sound in the loft was the steady, rhythmic breathing of a person in deep sleep.


When Jim entered the loft an hour later he tried to be quiet. Listening as soon as he exited his car, he knew that his roommate was asleep. Now he realized that a marching band probably wouldn't wake Sandburg up. Seeing the pills and cap lying beside the vial he knew that Blair would most likely sleep for a while yet. From the looks of it he hadn't moved at all since he'd left this morning. Good. Part of the reason he was reluctant to leave earlier was that he was afraid that his unpredictable partner would try to do something on his own and end up hurting himself again. Guess he worried for nothing. Grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge he sat on the other couch and picked up the remote. This was one of the times that his senses came in handy. Out of habit, when he turned on the TV he turned the volume almost all the way down, still able to hear everything perfectly. He chuckled; more than once Blair had to remind him to raise the sound since, as he put it, "Not all of us have sentinel hearing, ya know." Finding an old Western movie that looked like it had just started, Jim settled in to watch.

When the movie ended Jim looked over to check on his sleeping partner. Some, but not all, of the pain lines had smoothed out. Jim knew Blair had been in pain that morning but accepted that it was his choice when to take or not to take the painkillers. Part of him was relieved that Blair finally took them, but it must have meant that he was hurting pretty badly to do so. Blair had told him once that he preferred more holistic, natural remedies over man-made chemicals. While he had seen the Chopec do amazing things with plants and herbs there was no way Blair wasn't at least taking the antibiotics.

Speaking of which... Jim looked at his watch. It was almost time for the next dose, which meant Blair had to have something in his stomach before taking them. It didn't look like he had even touched the crackers so he hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. Turning off the TV he got up and made his way into the kitchen. Something that Blair would be able to eat with one hand.

He'd been upset when he first saw the rundown warehouse Blair was living in. Soon after that he'd been appalled when he discovered how thin his new partner was after seeing him without all the usual layers of clothing. He couldn't do anything about his living conditions, or the secondhand clothes he wore, so he started a secret program to fatten the kid up a bit. It started out with him springing for lunch a few times a week. Now, close to two months after moving in, Blair had begun filling out some, not nearly enough yet, but getting there. Deciding on sandwiches and chips for lunch, he set about making one of Blair's favorites, knowing from experience that an ailing Sandburg usually didn't have much of an appetite. If he didn't want Blair to lose any of the weight he'd finally gained Jim knew he'd have to keep tempting him to get him to eat. He'd just finished putting the chips on the plates and was ready to bring the late lunch out to the living room when he heard Blair stirring. Perfect timing.

As he was clearing a space on the coffee table for the plates he watched Blair gradually wake up.

"Hey, Chief. Glad to see you're awake. I just made sandwiches. I'll bring them right out."

Rubbing his eyes with his good hand Blair looked around. "Jim? You're back already?" He looked over at the sunlight streaming in from behind the Christmas tree. "What time is it?"

"Almost three in the afternoon. And almost time for your antibiotic, so you need to eat something. I made your favorite, lean turkey slices, the organically grown lettuce and tomatoes, just a touch of honey mustard on your all-natural, multi-grain bread. After all that work, I expect you to finish at least most of it."

Leaving the room he returned a minute later with two plates, setting them both on the table. Two bottles of juice soon followed. The sandwich in front of Blair had been cut into fourths while his bottle of juice had a straw sticking out of it. "You need to go to the bathroom or anything before you eat?"

Blair thought about it. He probably could go but it was such a hassle getting into the wheelchair, being pushed down the hall then having to have Jim help him out and over to the toilet, then reversing the procedure to get back. He'd rather wait until his bladder was full, and he had to go, and empty it all at once and therefore less often, than a bunch of trips all day long. "Na, I'm good for now." He looked at his plate. He really didn't feel like eating. "It looks good, Jim, but I'm just not hungry right now. Maybe later." He took a sip of his juice.

"Sorry, Chief. You have to take the antibiotic with food. Eat just half the sandwich and a few chips. That should be enough."

Knowing Jim wouldn't back down on his meds, Blair picked up one of his pieces of cut up sandwich and took a bite. It really was good. Giving Jim a small smile, he let him know he liked it. By the time he finished he had eaten three of the sandwich squares and most of the chips. That earned him his own smile from his caretaker as he gave him the medication. Not feeling too bad after his nap he declined the painkiller.

Even though he knew it was still too early yet, Blair was itching to get back online to check his e-mail for anything from Jack Kelso. Both Rhonda and Jack had agreed to contact him via the computer instead of calling since the odds were pretty good that Jim would be around practically all the time now. If he didn't want Jim to get suspicious, he would have to limit his laptop time to only once or twice a day.

The rest of the afternoon and evening passed pleasantly enough, with both men mostly relaxing and watching TV. Blair did manage to check his e-mail one more time, pleased to find a message from Jack saying that he had contacted some people and they were working on it. At bedtime Jim first wheeled Blair into the bathroom, then into his room where he stripped him down to his boxers and T-shirt and helped him into bed, making sure that once again there were pillows supporting the injured limbs. Despite his earlier nap it didn't take long for Blair to fall into a deep, healing sleep.

During the next few days they fell into a regular routine. After Jim got Blair up and ready for the day, he would set him up lengthwise on the couch so Blair wouldn't feel isolated in his room. While Blair slept, which, thanks to the painkillers, he did quite a lot, Jim handled the normal household chores. He also found it easier to change the bandages around Blair's leg when the younger man was in a medicated sleep; it was less painful for both of them that way. They ate their meals together, with Jim usually managing to coax a sometimes reluctant Blair into eating more than he thought he wanted. Simon stopped by a few times bearing gifts for Jim from the other members of Major Crime, which were then placed under the tree until Christmas. Accepting that since he hadn't been able to buy any presents for anyone else he shouldn't expect any for himself, Blair watched Jim's small pile of gaily wrapped gifts grow. The only exceptions were Rhonda's two gifts, one for Jim and one for himself.


Christmas morning dawned clear but cold, so Jim built a warm fire in the fireplace prior to waking up Blair. Dressed for the holiday in green sweat pants, a red Henley and thick, red socks Blair decided he wanted to sit up on the couch instead of stretching out as he had been doing for the past few days. Jim settled him at one end so he could use the arm of the couch to lean against if he needed to. The injured leg was propped up on a pillow on the coffee table. Even with the fire, a blanket was tucked around Blair's lower body and another pillow placed in his lap to rest his cast on. Only when he was convinced that Blair was warm and comfortable did Jim leave him to go make breakfast.

After breakfast and morning meds Blair decided it was time for Jim to open his presents. Feeling a bit guilty, Jim gathered up the gifts and placed them on the coffee table, then sat down beside Blair. He picked out the two from Rhonda, handing Blair the one with his name on it. Before Jim could start to open his, Blair suggested that they open those last. Shrugging, he put it back and picked up another one. Soon both men were laughing and commenting on the wide variety of tastes among the different gift givers. Eventually they were down to the two from Rhonda. Jim opened his first and found a nice pair of leather gloves. He turned to watch Blair open his gift, curious to see what Simon's secretary had gotten the unit's first official observer. Instead of opening the present in his lap Blair was toying with the bow with his good hand.

"You can't see what you got unless you open it, Chief." Thinking he had figured out the problem he asked, "You need some help with that?"

Blair licked his lips, keeping his eyes down. "Actually, Jim, this present isn't for me, it's for you." Before Jim could comment he continued. "It's for you—from me. Umm. If you want it." Now that the moment was actually here he was beginning to wonder if this really was such a good idea after all. When Rhonda had e-mailed him that everything was arranged he had been excited. But what if he'd been wrong and Jim got upset? What if he crossed the line with this present? Maybe he should just keep it after all.

Jim took that option away by reaching over and putting both hands on the wrapped box. He gently tugged as he asked, "May I?" When Blair finally lifted his hand he put the box in his own lap and started unwrapping it. While his hands were busy unwrapping, his ears couldn't miss the rapid increase in Blair's heart rate.

Inside the box, wrapped in tissue paper, were two large picture frames hinged together in the middle so they opened like a book. Parting the frames, Jim felt his breath leave his body as he stared at the two pictures. In the left frame was a black and white picture obviously taken on his last day at the war-torn orphanage. The patched up building was used as the backdrop. In front of it was the original gang from his unit, including himself. Standing with them were the priests and nuns he remembered. And grouped in front of them, some standing, some sitting, were all the children. Each child wore their Army issued T-shirt and a big smile. Tearing his eyes away he looked over at the second picture. It was another black and white photo but this one showed a modern looking building with ST. JOSEPH'S ORPHANAGE over the front doors. The smiling priests and nuns were older versions of ones from the first picture. Looking closely he could see that some of the lay workers pictured there were some of the original children, now several years older themselves. He reverently ran a finger over the first photo.

It was the total silence beside him that finally tore him from his memories and had him remember the person who had given him this extraordinary gift. He turned to thank his partner but was stopped short. Blair had his head slightly bent, looking up through his eyelashes. He was biting his lower lip while at the same time his fingers were worrying the blanket covering his lap. For a few brief seconds Jim saw not his twenty-five year old roommate, but a small, eight year old boy nervously waiting to hear what his mother thought of the Christmas present he bought her. He blinked a few times and his roommate was back, but still just as nervous.

"Blair. How did you—?"

"I-I hope you're not too mad. The way you talked about how that Christmas was the best one you ever had and how you wondered what had happened after you left I thought you would like it. I'm sorry if I stepped over the line. I'll take it back, it's okay. I didn't mean to—"

Now it was Jim's turn to interrupt. "Blair. It's okay. This... this is incredible. I just can't figure out how you did it. How did you get these pictures? Especially the second one, I've never seen it before."

A relieved Blair broke out in a big smile. "Oh man. I was so worried you might be upset. Thinking I was prying into your life or something. Anyway, I have this friend at school. He has all these government contacts. Totally legit, he used to work for the government himself. You should meet him; I think you two'd get along really well. So I called him and he started a search through your Army records and he found out where you were stationed back then and since none of it was classified it was okay and he discovered that the person taking the pictures that day sent some pictures and the story to The Stars and Stripes. That's the newspaper the Army puts out for its personnel around the world but you already know that, don't you? So Jack, that's my friend, e-mailed me this guy's current phone number and I sent the info to Rhonda who called him. Originally I just wanted to try to get a copy of one of the pictures he took that day but then it turned out that they did a follow-up story later when the new orphanage opened and he sent that one too. He sent everything to Rhonda at the station and she bought the picture frames for me since I can't get out and we decided that if she sent it as a present to me along with yours then you wouldn't suspect anything. There's also supposed to be a print out of the stories that went with the pictures. I didn't have time to get actual back copies of the newspaper. Sorry."

Jim wasn't sure if he was more stunned at the story he just heard or the fact that Blair didn't asphyxiate from lack of oxygen while telling it. He knew it would probably take a while before everything he just heard sunk in. Looking in the box he saw several typed sheets of paper. The title across the top of the first page read 'Soldiers Save Orphanage'. It was hard to read any more with his eyes starting to sting like they were. Blair's voice brought him back.

"Uh, Jim? Would it be all right if I look at the pictures? I haven't seen them myself yet. Unless you're not done with them."

Quickly blinking his eyes, Jim scooted closer as he opened up the frames again, laying them on Blair's lap. After a minute of looking Blair pointed to one of the taller men in the first picture. "Wow. Is that really you? I hardly recognize you there."

"Because I'm so young and good looking?"

Blair grinned. "No, because you have a full head of hair."

Jim pointed a warning finger. "You're lucky you're hurt. Just remember, for later, I owe you one."

"Uh-huh." Pointing to a smaller Hispanic-looking man standing next to Jim, he asked, "So, who's this?"

"Sanchez. He's the one who came up with the plumbing system. And this is Robinson, he could scrounge up anything." Jim spent the next several minutes telling Blair who each person was and entertaining him with stories about the orphanage's early renovations.

Talking about the renovations suddenly reminded Jim that he hadn't given Blair his Christmas present yet. Getting up carefully so not to jostle his friend, he told him to wait, he'd be right back. Going up to his bedroom, he soon returned with an orange envelope in his hand.

"It's not much, compared to what you did, but I hope you like it." He handed the envelope to Blair.

In the corner was the logo for The Home Depot. Puzzled, Blair held the envelope down in his lap with his cast and used his other hand to pull out a plastic Home Depot gift card. He looked at it, not sure what he was supposed to do with it.

"Uh. Thanks, Jim."

Jim looked embarrassed. "I was thinking that, when you're feeling better, you could use that to fix up your room. Maybe put some real doors up. Get a bigger bookcase. You can do anything you want, it's your room now. I'll help you, if you like. As you already know, I've got experience with renovations."

This time Blair's eyes began to burn. Once the original agreed upon week had passed nothing was said about how long he could continue living there. He felt like he was there on a week-to-week basis. What Jim was saying, in his own macho way, was that he wanted him to stay. He was offering him something he'd never had before. A permanent home, here, with him. He wiped his eyes with his hand and smiled up at his friend. "Yeah. Doors sound good. And maybe some shelves on one wall. I have some really neat things still packed in boxes I could put out. Would you come with me? Help me pick out what will work in the—my—room? I don't know anything about home repairs or do-it-yourself stuff. I'm lucky to know which end of a hammer is up." Actually he wasn't too shabby with tools himself but he really didn't know too much about picking out the materials needed and it would also give them something fun they could work on together.

Jim's answering smile almost lit up the room. He had been afraid that Blair would turn down his offer of a place to live. After all, it was just a small room in someone else's home. Nothing like the warehouse space he had had all to himself. That Blair was willing to settle for so much less to stay there spoke volumes about how far their relationship had progressed in just a few short months.

"Sure, whenever you feel up to it. Maybe we can go after all the holiday crowds are gone. You should feel more like getting up and around by then and we'll still have use of the wheelchair and everything. You know, just to look around and get some ideas for later." Somehow the thought of pushing his roommate around Home Depot while they picked out things to fix up his room seemed like a perfect way to spend an afternoon. "How are you feeling now? Tired? You hurting?"

Blair shrugged. "A little tired I guess, but good."

Looking around at the torn wrapping paper and ribbon Jim made a suggestion. "How about if I clean up around here, make us something light to eat and then you take a little nap? By the time you wake up it should almost be time to start dinner." The turkey had been cooking since before breakfast, the rest of it wouldn't take too long to fix. This way Blair would be well rested for his other surprise.

Stirring their soup Jim watched as Blair switched channels on the TV until he found something he liked. After Carolyn left Jim hadn't thought he'd want anyone else living with him but somehow Blair had fit in as if he had always been there. Not that there weren't some problems. Their standards of housekeeping were miles apart and the foods Blair tried to get him to eat were unusual, to put it mildly. And Blair had to learn to be quieter at night. But Jim was sure that with a few simple house rules he could housebreak Sandburg to his way of thinking in no time.

After lunch and meds he helped Blair lie down and get comfortable. Within a few minutes his now-permanent roommate was sound asleep.


A few hours later Jim smelled the distinctive scent of Simon's cigars coming down the hallway from the elevator. He decided, today being Christmas and all, to actually let the man knock on the door before opening it. Beating Simon to the door was one fun use of his senses that he never got tired of, mainly because his boss never got used to it. However, he made sure he stood nearby and answered it after the first set of knocks, before it could wake Blair up. As he took off his coat and hung it up, Simon handed Jim a large box covered in Christmas wrap and sporting a large red bow.

"'Bout damn time I actually got to knock like a normal person." Before he could continue Jim put one finger against his lips and tilted his head back towards the couch. When the captain saw his sleeping observer he automatically lowered his voice. The kid still looked awfully pale which made the uncovered stitches and bruising on his forehead stand out even more. The cast covering his left arm from his elbow down to his fingers looked bulky and cumbersome. He knew that under the blankets were cracked ribs and the recently operated on leg. "Is he all right?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah. He's just sleeping. In fact he should wake up soon. Let's go into the kitchen, I just made a fresh pot of coffee." Leaning the box against the back of the other couch, out of sight should Blair wake up, the two men made their way into the kitchen where Jim poured them both a cup of coffee.

As he sipped the hot brew, Simon looked around at the soon to be used preparations for dinner, took a deep sniff and grinned. "Turkey smells good. So what all did you and Sandburg do today?"

When Jim told Simon what he had gotten Blair, the implication wasn't lost on the former detective. "You sure this is what you want, Jim? I mean, how well do you really know this kid?"

"Well enough. Especially after what he did for me for Christmas." He then told his old friend how his roommate, just out of the hospital and still hurting, had made all the arrangements to get him something he thought would make him happy; basing it on something just said as a way to pass the time. Blair had picked up on how important that Christmas was to him and had given him a way to always remember it. Obtaining that gift had involved a lot more work than a casual acquaintance would do, especially one who wasn't even able to get out of bed by himself. Simon finally had to agree it was something special and definitely unexpected.

Of course Jim still planned on having a serious talk with Blair about accessing his military records without his permission and about what else this 'friend' of his had access to. But that was for another day, he had no intention of ruining Christmas for his partner over what he had done with only the best of intentions.

As he and Simon were talking he could hear Blair starting to stir. "C'mon. Sandburg's waking up."

Re-entering the living room they saw Blair struggling to pull himself up using just one arm. The grimace on his face told them it wasn't a battle he was winning. Jim hurried forward.

"Whoa, Chief. Hold on. Why didn't you call me?" He gently helped him into a sitting position, using the arm of the couch as a backrest. Pulling the pillow up behind him, Jim made sure he was situated before standing up again.

Blair ran a shaky hand through his hair. "Thanks, man. I figured you were busy so I tried to get up myself. I guess I'm not quite ready to fly solo yet." Seeing the visitor to the loft, he gave him a lopsided smile. "Hey, Captain. What are you doing here?"

"Gee. Merry Christmas to you too, Sandburg."

The smile fell. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it like that. I just wasn't expecting anyone else to be here today. That's all." Dammit. Why did he always seem to say the wrong thing around Jim's boss?

"Sandburg. Blair. It's all right. I was just kidding. Daryl is with his mother this Christmas so Jim invited me over for dinner. I hope you don't mind."

"No, that's great. Not that Daryl isn't here, but that you're not doing anything. I mean that you could come over." He shook his head. "Awww hell. Merry Christmas, Cap— Simon."

Jim had to fight to keep from laughing. "If you two are finished, we have one last bit of Christmas to take care of before I start dinner. Simon, if you please."

Simon stepped behind the second couch and picked up the present he had brought with him. Walking over to Blair he carefully laid it down across the wide-eyed young man's lap.

"What's this?"

"It's a Christmas present, Sandburg. See the name on the card." Tucked under the bow was a white envelope with 'Blair' written across it.

Slowly pulling it out Blair used the fingers showing beyond the cast to gingerly hold the bottom of the envelope as he fumbled a bit with the flap but finally withdrew the card. On the front was a cartoon drawing of a sad looking man sitting in a hospital bed. A big wreath was hanging from the end of the bed. Above the picture were the words 'Sorry You're Feeling Bad During The Holidays'. Opening the card showed another drawing of a large group of people at a party. The caption read "Guess We'll Just Have To Eat, Drink And Be Merry For You. Get Well Soon!' It was personally signed by every member of Major Crime, including Simon and Jim.

Blair looked up. "This is great. I can't believe everyone signed it."

Jim indicated the wrapped box with his chin. "I think you're forgetting the main part here, Chief."

Blair looked down and spread his hand over the box, lightly feeling the embossed texture of the paper with his fingers. When he looked back at two of the people who had done this it was obvious that he was truly puzzled. "But... I don't get it. I didn't get anybody anything. Except Jim and he didn't know I was doing it. Why would everyone... anyone...?"

His mother had always refused to accept charity, no matter how bad off they were. She constantly told him that you had no right accepting anything you couldn't pay for or didn't have something to give back in return. The only exception she would allow was on his birthday.

Simon began to wonder what kind of childhood Blair must have had when he couldn't believe that no one would want to give him a present unless they got something in return.

"Blair, son. Sometimes people just want to do something for someone else. We didn't do this because we expect anything in return. Each person chipped in because they wanted to, no other reason. You don't want to hurt their feelings by rejecting their gift, do you?"

Blair shook his head. But later, when he could get around again on his own, he would get each person a small present. He already owed Rhonda something for the picture frames. Maybe he'd get them each a fetish to suit their personality. That would balance everything out. Mollified, he took a deep breath and set to work tearing off the wrapping paper. "Okay, let's see what's in here."

Jim wasn't fooled. He'd been watching closely and knew the instant Sandburg had made some kind of deal with himself that allowed him to accept the unrequited gift. He had the feeling that somewhere down the road there were some unexpected presents in store for the members of Major Crime. He wished that his friend could just accept what was freely given but the reality was that they weren't going to change a lifetime of learning with one brief lecture. But as he watched the excitement in Blair's eyes as he unwrapped his surprise he was grateful that he now would have plenty of opportunities to try.

Under the paper was a white box. Jim had to help him get the lid off. Pushing aside the tissue paper Blair gasped. Inside the box was a black leather jacket with a thick quilted lining. Lying on top of the jacket was a soft red, white and black plaid scarf and a pair of black leather gloves, similar to the ones Rhonda had given Jim. He checked the label on the jacket. It was his size, as were the gloves. It was too much, way too much. He started to shake his head but before he could say a word Simon spoke up.

"Don't you dare say 'No'. Remember what I just said about rejecting gifts and hurting feelings? Still stands."

"But..."

Simon wagged his index finger. "Aah."

Conceding defeat Blair sat back. "How about... thank you?"

At that Simon leaned back a bit where he stood and crossed his arms. "Now that we'll accept."

"Not that I don't appreciate this, it's great, but why a leather jacket? I already have a coat." Looking over to the hooks by the front door he noticed that his coat was conspicuous by its absence. Thinking back, he remembered that he wore one of Jim's jackets home from the hospital. He'd still been pretty out of it from the last dose of drugs they gave him and didn't think to question it at the time. "Hey. Where's my coat?"

Simon gave Jim a "You tell him" look.

"Well, Chief. Seems that your coat got ruined in the explosion. It took a direct hit on the back from some flying debris and burning embers. While it saved you from being hurt even worse than you were, it was too badly damaged to be salvaged. It died a valiant and noble death. We thought it should be replaced by something worthy of its sacrifice." He could hear Simon trying hard not to smirk out loud at his eulogy for the coat's heroic demise.

While Blair was listening he was stroking the leather of his new jacket. It was buttery soft. "Well this is definitely way better than my old coat. I've never owned a leather jacket like this before." He looked up again. "Please tell everyone that I really love it. And that I can't wait till I can wear it. Not just the jacket but everything."

"I'll tell them. I know they'll be happy to hear how much you like it."

Jim rubbed his hands together. "Okay then. I think I'll go start dinner. You two amuse yourselves for a while." He'd been hoping for a chance for Simon and Blair to find some time together. His partner often seemed nervous around the Major Crime captain while at the same time Jim got the impression that Simon didn't know how to take Sandburg. Since he worked so closely with both men he hoped that they would both learn to get along well with each other.

While he prepared their dinner, Jim listened as the discussions in the living room ranged from current cases, to some of Blair's students' wilder antics, to sports, to finally deciding what to watch on TV. Talk dwindled as they both settled on one of the seemingly endless variations of A Christmas Carol. He heard joined laughter then realized they had found the Bill Murray version. Good choice. Something not too serious that they could both enjoy. That should keep them entertained until dinner was ready. He found that with very little effort he could watch and listen to the movie from the kitchen.

Jim managed to time it so dinner was ready just as the movie ended. Simon offered his services to set the table and then they both carried the food in from the kitchen. Returning to the living room he helped Blair into the wheelchair and pushed him up to his place at the table. He sat just a tad too low. Hurrying back to the couch, Jim retrieved the plumpest pillow, and as Blair held onto him while he balanced on his good leg, he placed the pillow in the seat of the wheelchair. When Blair sat back down he was just the right height. Grinning, he wiggled his butt. "Comfy, too."

Looking over the linen-topped table Blair marveled. It was beautifully set with an obviously expensive set of crystal and china that he'd never seen before. Even the silverware was real. The settings must have been Carolyn's and had probably never seen daylight since she left. Jim must have dragged it all up from the storage cage in the basement just for today. Even the serving bowls matched the china. Jim and Simon both had wine in their finely cut wine goblets while, because of his medications, he figured his contained sparkling cider. A perfectly cooked turkey sat on a silver platter, with several slices already carved. There was mashed potatoes with gravy. Another bowl held extra stuffing. Two more contained green beans with pearl onions and glazed baby carrots. A cloth-covered basket held a small mountain of rolls. There was real butter in the crystal butter dish and the butter knife matched the silverware. Even the salt and pepper shakers matched the rest of the china. He had never eaten off such fine dishes before in his life. Even the Cahills' weren't this nice. He felt his eyes start to sting again and his throat close up. He knew that Jim had gone to all this work mainly for him. To give him another Christmas to remember.

Jim looked over at Simon then Blair. His roommate had suddenly gotten very quiet. "You all right, Chief? You feel okay?"

Sniffling a little, Blair looked over at Jim. "I'm fine, Jim. In fact I'm better than fine." He waved his hand over the table. "And guys, the table looks beautiful. Who would have guessed that two hard-boiled flat-foots would have the soul of a Martha Stewart buried somewhere deep inside them?"

"Martha Stewart had nothing to do with it." Simon looked insulted. "When I was growing up we'd usually go to my grandmother's for Sunday and holiday dinners. It became my brother's and my job to set the table. Believe me, Grandma Banks did not allow her table to be set incorrectly. Some things you just never forget. Now, are we going to just sit here admiring my perfectly set table or are we going to eat?"

"Eat!" The simultaneous answers brought a smile to everyone's face.

Under the guise of preparing his own plate, Simon watched as Jim causally picked up Blair's plate and started filling it. Then he proceeded to cut up the turkey slices into bite sized pieces. After putting the plate back in front of Blair he split open and buttered two rolls, placing them on the smaller bread plate above the just filled dinner plate. Only after Blair was set did he pick up his own plate and start helping himself. When everyone's plate was full, Jim raised up his wine glass.

"To good times and having good friends to share them with. Merry Christmas."

Simon and Blair each touched the rims of their glasses to Jim's glass and to each other's. They each answered with, "Merry Christmas."

Throughout the meal Blair kept up a lively discussion, using his fork more as a way to emphasize something than as an eating utensil. As he ate his own food, the loft's dinner guest watched the interaction between his two hosts with interest. Every time Blair got too distracted, Jim would smoothly encourage him to keep eating. He actually seemed to be monitoring Sandburg. While Jim and he himself had seconds on almost everything, Blair barely managed to finish what Jim had originally put on his plate, but that seemed enough to satisfy the older man. Jim was certainly taking his role as caretaker very seriously. He proved it again when everyone's plate had been pushed back and belts loosened a notch. Jim left the table then returned with two medicine vials. He refilled Blair's glass of cider then offered both bottles to his partner. Blair shook out a pill from one vial but shook his head as Jim held up the other, saying he was okay for now. When Simon gave the detective a puzzled look, he mouthed, "Pain pill." It was a quick reminder that although the younger man seemed to be doing fine, he had just recently been released from the hospital and was recovering from some fairly serious injuries. He must need the painkillers or Jim wouldn't have offered them.

Everyone agreed to wait a while before indulging in dessert, deciding, instead, to sit back and relax with cups of fresh brewed coffee. Returning to the living room, Simon continued to watch as Jim pushed his roommate up to the couch. After agreeing with Blair to let him sit upright again, Jim began the careful act of transferring him from the wheelchair onto the couch, apparently a more difficult maneuver than getting from the couch into the chair. Despite Jim's gentle handling, by the time Blair was situated at the end of the couch with his leg propped up on the coffee table and covered with the blanket, he was at least one shade paler and breathing hard. Even so, he managed to give Jim a small smile and a whispered, "Thanks, man." Jim patted him on the shoulder then stood up and backed the wheelchair out of the way. Simon realized that the two of them probably went through this at least a couple of times a day, every time Sandburg needed to get on or off the couch. No wonder Jim had insisted on taking some time off; Blair was virtually helpless until he healed enough to get around on his own.

Once his roomie was comfortably settled, Jim returned to the kitchen and put on a fresh pot of coffee. While waiting for it to finish brewing he quickly covered the turkey remains and the rest of the food. Setting some aside for Simon to take with him, he put the remaining leftovers away in the refrigerator. For once the dishes could wait. A few minutes later he carried a large tray holding the covered coffee carafe, creamer, sugar and three cups with spoons. After pouring everyone a cup, he set about fixing first Blair's coffee then his own. Only then did he take his seat beside his roommate. Patting his stomach, Jim let a look of self-satisfaction creep onto his face.

"Well, I don't know about you two but I think that was pretty good, if I do say so myself."

"Which you just did." Blair's impish grin was infectious.

Before Jim could respond, Simon answered. "I agree with the cook. That was a great meal, Jim. Thanks for inviting me over. Sure beats sitting home alone with a frozen turkey dinner." The one thing that would make this perfect, he thought, would be a good cigar. But Jim didn't allow smoking of any kind in his home and now with Sandburg's ribs making breathing more difficult for the poor kid, not even today being Christmas would allow him any concessions in the usual Ellison house rules. Somehow, though, it really didn't seem to matter. It was Christmas and, if he couldn't be at home with his son, he was in the next best place.

"We're glad you could come, Simon." Jim broke his own house rules as he slouched down a bit then lifted his feet onto the coffee table, crossing them at the ankles, next to Blair's pillow supported foot. Picking up the remote he pointed it at the TV. "I'll bet there's some kind of Christmas show on at least one channel." Clicking a few times, he finally found one of the network's usual star-studded Christmas specials. After everyone agreed to watch it, he put down the remote and leaned back into the cushions behind him.

About halfway through the show he became aware of Blair very carefully moving around beside him. Looking over he saw the deeper lines around his eyes and mouth, the slight sheen on his face and the stiff way he was holding himself. Glancing down at his watch, he realized it had now been way too long since the last painkiller. Despite Blair's complaint that they knocked him out, it was obviously time for them now. With the TV show in a commercial break anyway, he went into the kitchen and returned with a glass of water and the two pills. He debated just letting him take a half dosage but one more look at his roommate made him bring out the full dose. Sitting down again beside his partner, he held out the water and the pills. "Here you go, Chief. Don't argue, just take them."

Blair looked down at the pills and bit his lower lip. Not that he wasn't hurting enough to want them—everything was aching badly right now—but they were having such a nice night he didn't want to fall asleep, especially in front of Simon. He slowly shook his head. "No, I'm all right. Maybe later, when I go to bed."

Even Simon could hear the strain in the younger man's voice. One look at him and it was evident that he wasn't all right. "Go on. Take them, son. You'll feel better, then we'll feel better."

Not wanting to ruin everyone else's evening by worrying about him, and because it just hurt so damn much, Blair sighed, then took the pills and swallowed them with the water. He knew Jim would understand, he just hoped the captain would, when he crashed on them later.

Jim sat the glass on the coffee table, then resumed his previous position right beside Blair. This time, besides stretching his legs out, he extended an arm across the back of the couch behind his hurting friend. He wrapped his hand around Blair's upper arm, gently rubbing up and down in an unconscious effort to provide at least a small measure of comfort. The Christmas special came back on and all three men turned their attention once again to the TV. A few minutes later Jim could feel an easing in the tenseness of Blair's body as the pills began to work their magic.

Blair tried to watch the show and keep up with whatever Jim and Simon were saying but soon it just became too much effort. He could feel the pills start to work; it felt so good not to hurt so bad anymore. He gave up any pretense of being able to concentrate. Instead he let his eyes drift around the room. He watched the lights on the Christmas tree, under which his leather jacket and Jim's gifts had mysteriously appeared. Took in the various decorations adorning the loft. Felt the warm fire that was still blazing brightly in the fireplace. He knew that there were still remnants of dinner on the table, but that soon the very pretty, but now dirty, china would be meticulously cleaned and put away, probably until next year. He still couldn't believe that Jim had done all this for him just because he had mentioned that he'd only had one Christmas. And that the other cops from Major Crime helped, wanted to help, to do this for him. That they all got together and bought him that gorgeous new leather jacket plus a scarf and gloves. He leaned back and closed his eyes as the medicine continued to make its way through his system.

But as wonderful as all that was, and it truly was wonderful, the most incredible thing about this Christmas was the gift Jim had given him. While the Cahills had opened their home and welcomed him into it—and he would never, ever forget their kindness to a lonely, little boy—Jim had offered to share his home with him, permanently. No more wondering where he was going to live next semester or having to use a post office box as an address because he changed residences so frequently. Of course they still had to figure out a rent agreement and a fair division of the household chores, because Blair Sandburg, after all, never was and never would be a freeloader. But for right now he was content just knowing that from now on when he told people he was going home, it meant he had a real home to return to and somebody there who'd be waiting for him. His first Christmas had been great but, no matter how many Christmases the future held, he knew that this Christmas would now always stand out as his best one ever.

His whole body was getting heavier; he'd already given up trying to keep his eyes open. Instinctively he leaned against the warm, solid support beside him. He was vaguely aware of Jim's hand tightening on his arm and pulling him closer. Then as his head found a new pillow in the hollow of a strong shoulder, he heard Jim speaking softly, just above his ear. "You feel okay, Chief?"

It was all he could do to nod and whisper, "Uh-huh. Just... tired." When the same voice told him to relax and go to sleep, he had no trouble following its advice.

"He out?"

"Yeah. Right now a couple of hours is usually the longest he can stay awake, with or without the pain pills. He'll probably sleep through the rest of the night."

"You gonna put him to bed now?"

Jim looked down at his charge in what Simon could only described as fond amusement.

"Na. He's fine for now. Maybe when the show's over. Then we can have our dessert."

Simon found his attention split between the show on the TV screen and the one being played out on the larger couch. Sandburg's cast had found its way onto Jim's leg. His head was turned slightly, resting on the larger man's broad shoulder. Jim's arm was still securely around Blair's shoulders, holding him in place next to him. As he watched the pair, he tried to figure out the unusual expression on his detective's face. He looked... happy? No, not happy... content. He was a man totally content with where he was at this exact moment. Apparently hooking up with Sandburg then taking responsibility for his welfare filled a void that Jim didn't even seem to know he had. Maybe it had something to do with his being estranged from his younger brother for so long or having looked out for the newer, younger recruits when he was in the Army. Or maybe it was just Sandburg himself, or this whole weird Sentinel thing. Whatever it was, it was doing Ellison a world of good to be needed. And who was he to mess with a good thing when he saw it?

Thirty minutes later the Christmas extravaganza was over. Simon stretched his arms over his head.

"After you put Sleeping Beauty there to bed I'll help you clean up."

"Thanks, but you don't have to do that. I can manage."

"Jim, it's the least I can do. So, how do you plan on getting him into his room? The wheelchair? What can I do to help?" After seeing how much pain Sandburg had been in, even though he never said a word, he wanted this to be as quick and as easy on his observer as possible. "You know it'll be easier with both of us doing it."

"Yeah. Okay." Jim jostled his shoulder a few times trying to shake his sleeping partner awake. "Hey, Chief. Wake up. Time to go to bed."

"Stop." The reply was almost completely muffled as Blair tried to burrow his face deeper into his bumpy but warm pillow.

Jim gently jostled him some more. "C'mon, Blair. You need to wake up for a couple minutes so we can get you nice and comfy in your own bed."

"M'wake."

The jostle-er couldn't help but smile at the jostle-ee. "Sure you are. Except the last time I checked, awake usually meant your eyes were open."

"Can't sleep anyway. Earthquakes."

Before either man could respond Blair's eyes shot open as he suddenly leaned forward and tried to grab his injured upper leg. Leaning forward started his ribs hurting so he quickly wrapped his good arm around them as he futilely tried to rub his thigh with his cast. "Ohgodohgodohgod."

"Blair? What's wrong?" Jim had one hand lightly resting between Blair's shoulder blades and other hovering anxiously in front, not sure if he should touch him or not.

"Leg. Hurts. Oh God, Jim. Do something. Please."

"Okay, let me see." Placing his hand on Blair's leg, it only took a second for the sensitive fingers to feel the muscle spasms beneath them. "Your muscles are cramping, Chief. Probably due to your leg being propped up like this for so long. Let's get you stretched out on the couch, that should start to help."

He turned to the third man who had been quietly watching. "Simon, can you come here? Help me get him lying flat."

Simon immediately hurried over to the other couch, surprised at how fast Blair had gone from being half asleep to being in some serious pain.

The two men quickly got Blair stretched out on his back, tossing all but one pillow, placed under his head, onto the floor. His eyes were squeezed shut, tears leaking from the corners. Jim sat on the edge of the couch by Blair's lower legs; his hand once again able to sense the muscles constricting. He could feel the next cramp building in intensity as Blair cried out in pain and arched his neck, riding out the latest spasm.

"Blair? I'm going to massage your leg, try to loosen up the muscles so they'll stop cramping. I'm going to have to pull down your sweatpants and take off the bandage. Okay?"

After receiving a quick nod in reply, Jim reached up and pulled the green pants down to just past Blair's knees. A few pulls on the medical tape and the bandage on top of Blair's thigh came off and was set aside. Placing his fingers on both sides of the newly healing incision, Jim began to rub in smooth circles, able to feel each knot and over tight muscle. When he started he felt Blair stiffen in anticipation of more pain but then, as the soothing massage began to ease the aching muscles, he relaxed and lay still.

Once he had finished helping get Sandburg positioned on the couch, Simon stood back. Hearing Jim say he needed to pull down Blair's pants made him a little uncomfortable. He wasn't exactly looking forward to seeing Sandburg in his tighty-whiteys or, God forbid, if he was one of those guys who went commando. It was with a sense of relief that he saw that Blair was wearing a pair of plaid flannel boxers. When the bandage was removed, he couldn't help staring at the long, red line that started a few inches above the knee and disappeared up under the boxers. Even though the piece of wood itself wasn't all that big, the surgeon had told them that she had to open up Blair's leg above and below the point of entry in order to be able to safely remove it. The incision was longer than he thought it would be. The evenly spaced, black stitches made it look even more grisly. Jim had told him that the other wound on the back of his leg was smaller but just as painful. Dealing with the aftereffects of the surgery and his other injuries must be hard enough; having to deal with cramping muscles, too, just didn't seem right. At least the massage was working. Even though he was still lying with his eyes closed, Blair looked less tense and his breathing was evening out.

After a few minutes Jim was sure he had managed to loosen all the constricted muscles. Blair was lying quietly, his breathing and heart rate almost back to normal. "Feel better?"

At the answering nod, Jim picked up the bandage and started to fasten it back over the incision. He debated about going ahead and doing a routine cleaning of the wound but decided now wasn't a good time. After getting the sweatpants pulled back up, Jim settled Blair comfortably with a warm blanket. "You need anything, Chief?"

Blair opened his eyes, gratitude shining through them, then shook his head. "No, I'm fine... now. Thanks, Jim. I-I can't believe how bad that was. I think I'll just lie here and not hurt."

Rather than try to move him again, Jim decided to let him stay on the couch for now. "All right. Simon and I are going clean up the mess from dinner then have dessert. You just rest here for now."

"Dessert? What do we have for dessert?"

"Apple and pecan pie. With ice cream. Think you can handle some of that?"

The wide-eyed look of astonishment followed by the charmingly shy smile told the experienced detective more about his roommate's unstated feelings about the choice of desserts than the almost whispered, "Yeah, Jim. I can handle that." Jim smiled to himself at Blair's reaction. Having the same dessert Blair had had at his other Christmas was just one more little surprise he'd planned for his partner.

With the two of them working together, it didn't take Jim and Simon long before the delicate china, crystal and silverware were washed, dried and stacked on the dining room table, ready ready to be repacked until needed again. Jim took dessert requests and set about serving everyone their preferred piece of pie, using the everyday dishes. Once Blair was propped up against the arm of the couch so that his legs remained straight, his nuked slice of apple pie, heavily ala mode and, by his own request, a glass of milk was brought to him on a bed tray that was placed over his lap. The two dishwashers opted for apple pie for Jim and pecan pie for Simon, with coffee for both. They settled themselves on the opposite couch.

"Say, Jim." Simon could hardly talk around his full mouth. "This is really good. Don't tell me you baked these on top of making dinner?"

"Hardly. These came from the bakery down the street. It is good, isn't it?" Jim looked over to see how his partner was making out. "You doing all right there, Chief?"

Knowing that was really a multi-layered question, Blair smiled back. "Yeah, Jim. Doing just fine. We may have to check out that bakery more often. See if they carry things like whole grain bread or any other natural foods along with desserts like this."

Jim shook his head. Only Sandburg would think about going into a bakery looking for health food. "Sure, Chief. Whatever you say."

Once the dessert dishes were gathered up and left in the sink to soak, the three friends spent some rare quality time together relaxing, talking about whatever subject came up next. It wasn't long before the older two watched in amusement as the youngest one among them began fading again. The yawns became more frequent and he had a harder time holding up his end of the conversation. When Blair finally ended up leaning sideways against the back cushions, his eyes at half-mast, Simon glanced down at his watch. His own eyes widened a bit when he saw what time it was. Standing, he stretched and turned to his more awake host.

"I had no idea it had gotten this late. I'd better be going. Jim, thanks again for dinner and everything. I really enjoyed myself tonight."

"We're both glad you could join us. I've got some leftovers ready for you to take home. I figure whatever you don't eat, Daryl'll polish off. Hang on a second, I'll go get them."

While Jim busied himself in the kitchen, Simon walked over and stood beside the barely awake Blair. Reaching out, he lightly placed one hand on his shoulder. "Hey, Blair. I just wanted you to know that I'm glad we had this chance to spend some off-duty time together. I know that everyone is looking forward to your coming back, so you just concentrate on getting better, okay?"

He was gifted with a sleepy but genuine smile. "I'm glad too, Simon. Be sure to tell everyone 'thank you' for the jacket, will you? Oh, and I'm sorry about..." he waved his hand over his leg.

The tall captain gave a small, exasperated sigh. "Sandburg, your muscles cramped. There wasn't anything you could do about it. Besides, it took what, a whole ten minutes out of the entire evening? Don't worry about it. I'll see you back at the station, but not until your doctor totally clears you to come back, understand?"

"No problem there. I don't think Jim plans on letting me out of the loft until I'm around thirty."

"I heard that."

Blair looked over at Jim who was leaving the kitchen with two fully loaded plastic grocery bags. "Well duuh."

Ignoring his roommate Jim handed the bags over to his boss, who now was standing beside the open door with his coat on. "Here ya go, Simon. You and Daryl enjoy this. Maybe next year he can join us and we can all spend Christmas together."

"I'm sure he'd like that." He looked over towards the couch and raised his voice. "Good night, Blair. Take it easy."

He got a small wave and a quiet "Bye, Simon" in return.

Leaning forward he lowered his voice. "Take care of him, Jim. He really is a good kid. Just don't tell him I said that." With that Simon slipped through the open door and headed down the hall towards the elevator and that long-awaited cigar.

Jim shut the door and turned around just in time to see his roommate quickly duck his head, hiding his face behind a curtain of hair. But not quick enough that he didn't catch the unusually bright glint to the tired blue eyes.

Worried, Jim sat on the edge of the couch, directly in front of his partner. "You okay, Chief? Your leg hurting again?"

A shake of curly hair was his only answer.

"What's the matter then?"

"Nothing."

"Doesn't sound like 'nothing' to me. Something's bothering you. What's wrong?" When no answer was forthcoming, he tried again. Something had suddenly and mysteriously upset his friend. "Blair?"

At the sound of his name, the bowed head came up. Only now he looked more embarrassed than upset. "Really, Jim, it's no big deal. Honest."

Looking at Jim's crossed arms and raised eyebrow, Blair sighed. "Okay. Okay. It was what you said to Simon. About inviting Daryl next year and all of us spending Christmas together."

Jim was puzzled. "I thought you liked Daryl. You two seemed to hit it off. But if its going to be a problem we don't have to do that."

"No. No." Blair started to shake his head then thought better of it; he could feel the earlier throbbing starting to return. "I like Daryl. We get along great. This has nothing to do with Daryl."

Now Jim was thoroughly confused. "You're losing me here, Chief."

Blair sighed again. How to explain this? "Remember how I told you that my Mom and I moved around some when I was growing up?" At Jim's nod he continued. "Well, it was actually more than 'some'. We moved around a lot. Sometimes it was when she hooked up with another guy and sometimes when it was just us. Whatever she was looking for, well, apparently she never found it and so we kept moving on." A sad, pensive look crossed his face. "I guess she's still looking."

Seeing Jim's puzzled expression, he kept going. "Anyway, the point here is that I never stayed anywhere very long. Sometimes she'd leave me with friends or relatives while she traveled around, but eventually she'd come get me and we'd be off again. I learned early on not to expect to be able to do things with other kids. Like all the times there'd be a school trip or someone's birthday party coming up but then we'd be gone before I could go." He shrugged like it was no big deal, but even now the disappointment showed.

"Even when I got to Rainier I was always heading out somewhere new. Most summers were either spent on an expedition or working somewhere, depending on my financial situation that year." Blair looked up, hoping Jim was getting what he was trying to say. Apparently not.

"What I'm saying here is, other than outlining college courses, I've never made any long range, personal plans. For most of my life I just never knew where I'd be at any later date." Looking down he started following the pattern of the blanket with his finger. "It wasn't a bad life. Most of the time."

Jim looked at his partner. At that moment he seemed younger and more vulnerable than usual. He had a feeling that talking about himself wasn't something Blair was used to doing. And, while he was grateful for the new insight into his friend's life, he still didn't know what had upset him earlier.

"Well, Chief, I'm glad you told me all that, really, I am. But...I'm still not quite sure about why you're upset."

Blair looked up, a small smile now gracing his features. "It wasn't so much that I was upset as I was surprised. Like I've been telling you, long-range plans were not something I'd ever made. And the thought of planning for something or even being somewhere a year from now..." He did manage to shake his head slightly, relieved when it didn't hurt too badly. "And yet there you were, calmly talking about all of us getting together next Christmas as if it were nothing. Just taking it for granted that I would still be here." He held up his hand. "I mean that in a good way, Jim, in a good way. I-I've never been included in any plans that started with 'next year'. I guess it just threw me there for a minute, hearing you include me when you were talking to Simon. I wasn't prepared for that." Damn, now his eyes were starting that familiar stinging again. Ducking his head again he tried to wipe them before Jim saw. "See? I told you it wasn't a big deal."

Not a big deal? Is that why you're tearing up again, Chief? Because just the thought that somebody wants you to still be around a year from now is overwhelming? Jim had to keep his own emotions under control. How could anyone raise a child like that? Dragging him from place to place because she was looking for what? Herself? Enlightenment? Nirvana? Leaving him with near strangers when he became inconvenient, then yanking him back when she felt like playing Mommy again. No wonder Blair couldn't imagine anyone wanting him around for any length of time: he was never around anyone long enough to find out if they did—including his own mother. Well, someone definitely wanted him around now. All he had to do was to convince his roommate that, despite what he had been conditioned to believe all his life, his invitation to live here had no time limit and no strings attached.

Blair's thoughts were swimming. He was tired and his head was beginning to hurt even worse. He hoped that he'd made his point but Jim was taking too long to respond. Maybe he'd gotten it all wrong. Maybe Jim didn't mean to include him when he was talking to Simon. Maybe 'us' just meant Jim and Simon. Oh God. A horrible thought struck him. What if he'd been wrong about everything? What if all Jim meant by giving him the Home Depot card was that as long as he was going to be here for a while he might as well be useful and fix up the room? After all, Jim didn't really ask him to stay; maybe he just foolishly jumped to a really big conclusion based on a simple, practical Christmas gift. Naturally Jim offered to help him fix it up; he wanted to make sure everything was done right because he probably had plans for the room after he left. And here he had gone and practically invited himself back for Christmas next year. No wonder Jim didn't know what he was getting at, after boring him with his life story. Just because you want to stay here doesn't mean that Jim wants you here, too. Jeez, Blair, could you be any more pathetic?

Keeping his head down, Blair tried to let Jim off the hook while maintaining as much dignity as possible. "Look, Jim, just forget everything I just said, okay? These drugs make me kind of loopy and sometimes I say things that don't make any sense. Just forget what I said about me and next Christmas. And as soon as I can get around I promise I'll start looking for a new place. Keep the gift card and use it to change the room however you want." There. That should fix everything. Looking up he expected to see a look of relief on Jim's face. Instead he looked hurt and...disappointed.

"So are you now saying you don't want to live here? I thought earlier we agreed that that was your room now. That we were going to fix it up for you. What happened?" Jim thought for a moment. "Is it because I took it for granted that you'd want to spend next Christmas with me and Simon and Daryl? Made plans for you without asking first? You're right; I shouldn't have done that. I guess since you're living here now, or at least I thought you were, and we all had such a good time tonight, I just thought you'd want to do it again next year." He paused. "I'm kind of confused here, Chief. Do you want to stay or not?"

Blair reached up and rubbed his aching head. First he'd thought Jim wanted him to stay, then that he didn't and now Jim was saying he did. Right? Memories of all the times he thought he'd found a permanent home only to have it suddenly snatched away again still tormented him. "You really want me to stay? You know, even all the way to next Christmas?" Better to find out for sure now exactly what Jim meant than to think he had found a home only to lose it again.

Jim watched his partner, able to see the doubts reflected in his haunted eyes. Blair was fading fast and although he hadn't said anything, it was obvious that his head was hurting again. Poor kid should have been asleep long ago, not dredging up unpleasant demons from his past. Time to finish this conversation once and for all. He had no idea what one innocent comment to Simon would end up starting. Blair's last questions made him realize that, at least in part, he wasn't talking to the usually confident, very capable grad student he had come to rely on, but rather to the scared, insecure, often abandoned child still buried deep inside him. Realizing it must be the combination of pain, exhaustion and medication that was allowing these usually well-hidden doubts to finally surface, Jim decided to take advantage of this rare opportunity to address them. He decided to change tactics. Slowly reaching out he gently cupped Blair's face between his hands, guaranteeing eye contact. When he knew he had his roommate's full attention he spoke slowly and carefully.

"Listen to me, Blair. For right now I don't want you to think about whatever happened to you before. The past is past; it's over. What I'm telling you right here, right now, is that I want you to stay, to live here, with me. For as long as you want. As far as I'm concerned, that is your room. You can do whatever you want to it; change it any way you want. I'll help you but as far as what changes are made, you're in charge." He paused for a moment, not wanting it to seem like he was trying to put any pressure on him. "It's your call, Chief. I'll respect whatever decision you make."

He didn't even need to think about it. Blair's answer was immediate. "Actually, Jim, that decision was already made a while ago. I've been wondering how long I could get away with staying here before you politely asked me to leave. When you gave me the Home Depot card and talked about doing up the room, I took it to mean you were saying I could stay. But just now, while we were talking, I started second-guessing myself and somehow decided that I was wrong earlier and you really didn't want me living here after all. What a mess." A small, self-conscious grin appeared. "I don't know about you, but I'm blaming the whole miscommunication thing on me being so medicated. I keep telling you that these artificial chemicals are bad for you and cause problems. See what they did now?"

Jim looked down at the face he was still holding. The drugs were probably a large part of the reason Blair was able to be so open with his feelings tonight, along with his being so tired, but they had nothing to do with his deep-rooted feelings of not being wanted. Even though he was smiling, those expressive blue eyes still held some of the pain and sadness he was now trying so hard to hide again. He thought about Sally's all-purpose cure for whenever he or Steven felt really bad about something. To this day he still remembered her comforting hugs and sympathetic ear. Even after they'd grown taller than the diminutive Asian housekeeper, she apparently knew that just being shown that someone cared went a long way towards making things better.

Before Jim could change his mind, he lowered his hands from Blair's face to his shoulders, then slipped his arms around the slim frame and pulled the younger man to him. He felt Blair freeze.

"Uh, Jim? What's going on, man?"

He hoped he wasn't about to make things worse, but he was sure this was exactly what his friend needed right now. Using one hand he gently lowered the curly head to rest on his shoulder and used the other hand to slowly rub up and down the stiff back. "Just relax. Go with it." Once he was sure his partner wasn't going anywhere, Jim kept one arm securely around the broad shoulders as he started to massage the temple that wasn't pressed against him. It took a minute of rubbing before he finally felt Blair slowly let go, growing limp against him.

"Your head hurts, doesn't it?"

"Uh-huh."

"Does this help?"

"Uh-huh."

"You okay with this?"

"Uh-huh." There was a slight pause then came a barely whispered, "Trust you."

Jim's hand hesitated for a fraction of a second then continued its comforting motion. Coming from someone with Blair's fractured past, that small declaration of faith confirmed for him that his decision to have Blair move in with him was the right one. Somehow he doubted if Blair had learned to trust many, if any, of the revolving doors of men he had had to live with while growing up. While his own childhood had been far from ideal, especially after his mother left, at least he always knew where he'd be sleeping at night. He was determined to show his new roommate that stability and safety were still possible for him too; at least as long he was around.

After a few more minutes Jim felt Blair grow even heavier against him. As surprisingly content as they both seemed to be at the moment, he knew that they'd both also be stiff and sore in the morning if they sat there much longer. Time for all good little injured anthropologists to be in bed. As well as their big tired sentinels.

Mindful of his injuries, Jim gently shook Blair. "C'mon, Chief. Time to wake up again. And this time you really do need to get to bed." He felt more than heard the answering grumble.

"Then why do you keep letting me fall asleep if you're just gonna wake me up again?"

"It's all part of my master plan. How's your head feel?"

There was a slight pause before the answer drifted up. "Better. Hardly hurts at all now. How'd you do that?"

"Ancient Chinese secret. You ready to sit up now?"

"No." A soft sigh emerged. "But I guess I have to, huh?"

"'Fraid so." Holding on to Blair's upper arms, he scooted back. "You need to use the bathroom before going to bed?"

Blair nodded as he yawned. "Yeah. Probably a good idea."

Their bathroom routine took longer than usual since Blair stayed half asleep the whole time. Jim finally got him into bed, pillows supporting the injured areas. Blair's eyes closed the second his head hit the pillow. After adjusting the covers, Jim turned off the bedside lamp and headed back to the living room. Just as he reached the doorway, he heard his name being softly called. Turning, he saw that Blair's eyes were open but he was looking down instead of at him. "Yeah, Chief? You need something?"

Eyes still downcast Blair's good hand started to pick at the top blanket as he answered. "Um. I was just wondering... if we could... sometime... maybe..." He waved his hand in the air. "Never mind. Go on to bed."

Jim hoped he knew what Blair wanted but it was important that he ask for it himself. "No, it's all right. Go on. What were you going to say?"

Blair had to swallow the large lump in his throat before he could continue. "I was just wondering if maybe sometime we could do that that...that holding thing again." He closed his eyes and tensed, waiting for Jim's reaction. Then relaxed again when he heard Jim's easy reply. "Sure, Chief. Anytime you want." It was the larger man's next words that had him opening his eyes wide and staring at the dark figure in the doorway.

"But sometimes we might have to reverse who holds who."

"You? You want someone to hold you?"

Even though he knew Blair couldn't see him, Jim shrugged. "Why not? How do you think I learned about it in the first place? Now go to sleep. I'll see you in the morning." He walked out of the room, pulling the curtain across the doorway behind him, grinning when he heard Blair's muttered, "Well I'll be damned."


As he went about securing the loft for the night, Jim heard Blair shift around a bit then become still. Soon after, his breathing evened out to a steady rhythm. Climbing the stairs to his own room, the tired sentinel quickly undressed and slid into bed.

Resting his head on top of his interlocked fingers, Jim stared up at the windows above him. Too many thoughts were swirling around in his head to be able to sleep yet. And they all centered around the person sleeping below. He never expected to feel the need to look out for someone again like he did for Sandburg. He hadn't felt like this since he and Stevie were kids. What was it about this particular person that got to him? Was it because of the determination he showed when he bluffed his way into his hospital room? The courage it took to push him, a total stranger, under that garbage truck? Because he was the only person who had a clue what his senses were all about? Or that, despite everything that happened to him since they met, he was still here? It was probably all those things, but more too. To his own surprise he had discovered that he actually liked Sandburg. During the time they'd spent together, the originally annoying grad student had somehow managed to grow on him, until now he not only depended on him for help concerning his senses but also felt an ever growing responsibility for his welfare as well.

That also included a growing responsibility for his personal safety, too. Maybe because they had barely started working together when Blair ended up trapped on that doomed bus and hurt his hand helping him capture Veronica Sarris. And right after that Kincaid took him hostage. Then his home got blown up when an illegal drug lab exploded next door. Now he was injured in different explosion. Jim closed his eyes. His heart had actually stopped for a moment when he watched Blair get caught in that explosion. He wouldn't have been surprised if Blair had turned down his offer to stay. After all, most of Blair's troubles occurred because he was working with him. Instead, he had seemed almost heartbroken when he thought he had misunderstood the offer. Another lost home to add to his collection. For some reason Jim found it upsetting, learning how Blair had spent his whole life being shuffled from one temporary home to another, never knowing when he would be uprooted again. It just reaffirmed for him the 'rightness' of having Blair live here, with him, where he was actually wanted. He was sure Blair felt it too. Convinced that everything was going to be all right now, he finally found himself getting sleepy.

Jim rolled over onto his side and got comfortable. As he had been doing lately, he cast out his hearing, assuring himself that everything was secure in his territory before going to sleep. Satisfied that there wasn't anything going on nearby that he should do anything about, he finished his sensory net as he always did, with the person sleeping safe and secure in the room directly below him. Someday he should tell Sandburg that he could home in on his heartbeat, but probably not anytime soon. For now, that was his secret. Punching his pillow into submission, he burrowed down, his last thought for the night being that, despite everything that had happened, this was now going to be his best Christmas ever.

~ End ~


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Page last updated 8/15/03.