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No Sexual Situations
No Violence


Jim and Blair exchange Christmas presents.

As always, for Aly and Amy.

This tale takes place after "The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg."

With thanks and apologies to Pet Fly, Jimmy Buffett, and O. Henry, and proceeding under the assumption that forgiveness is easier to ask than permission ...

And I got presents to send you 
I even got money to lend you 
But honey I can never ever pretend 
You're not there on my mind



Snow.  Large, fat flakes, the kind that drifted down slowly, like feathers, and melted as soon as they touched brick or asphalt or even the frosted glass of the truck's windshield. 

A Christmas-card Christmas Eve.  Beautiful.

Except that the plows hadn't been out yet, and in the streets that same "White Christmas" snow turned into a brown, ugly slough that repeatedly and dangerously pulled the truck's tires astray.  Jim maneuvered carefully through the heavy traffic, cursing in English and Chopec as he peered through the small smears of moisture that the old Ford's windshield wipers struggled over and over again to erase.  At Prospect and Horizon a mini-van ran the light and Jim slammed on his brakes and automatically stretched out his right arm to secure the young man who usually sat next to him, then smiled ruefully as he remembered that Blair ... his partner ... no longer rode with him, and might never again. 

The smile disappeared completely as he thought back on the night before.


It was simple work for a Sentinel, even one burdened as he was with a large box, to creep into the loft late at night, move silent and sure-footed through the kitchen to the basement door, and open and pass through it without waking his roommate.  Carefully he made his way down the stairs to the storage area, where he set the box on top of a large pile of other cardboard cartons and carefully nudged it back into the darkness.  It would be safe there; Blair had stored the other boxes months ago, and never gone near them again.

The precise strokes of marker that labeled them seemed rune-like in the dark. Jim reached out in the shadows and traced the letters on one box with a fingertip.  "Contributor Copies -- Anthro Today, AJ of A, Chicago Press, etc."  A decade's worth of work, boxed and stored away.  His finger left the cardboard and traveled to the corner of his eye, then Jim turned away and climbed the stairs back into the loft.

The French doors were ajar and he walked quietly to them and peered into the shadows.  Blair lay on his side, hair a wild tangle across his face and the corner of his comforter bunched into the embrace of his arms ... and his right foot up on a pillow.  The ragged sock, toe raveled open and long bereft of any elastic that had once snugged it to Blair's leg, had sagged down and revealed a brown, course cloth wrapped tightly around the ankle. 

An ace bandage.


Jim sucked in a harsh breath at the memory.  He fought his way through a big drift at Harbor and braked gently as he approached the light at Sebring.  The injury itself was bad enough, but still worse because it was no novelty.  Since Blair had been at the Academy, there had been a black eye that had lingered for a week ... battered ribs and a sprung shoulder, sturdily and stubbornly dismissed ... a small, deep cut and large lump hidden beneath Blair's too-short curls and only discovered when a playful cuff to the head produced a wince instead of bright laughter.

Jim had decided it had to stop.  In Blair's long history of sacrifices, large and small, the fountain had been unacceptable and the press conference unspeakable.  Jim wasn't going to stand by and watch Blair die again.

Body or soul.


He stomped the snow from his boots and shook it from his coat while still in the lobby, and sent his hearing up the stairs ahead of him.  Muttering, and a small grunt of pain.  He hurried up to #307, unlocked the door and found Blair sitting at the kitchen table with one leg of his sweat pants pulled up to his knee as he struggled to wrap his bad ankle.  Jim dropped his keys into the basket, hung up his jacket and swung a chair around.  He reached out and took Blair's foot into his lap.

"Hey, Chief," he said.  "Let me help."  He undid the snarled length of cloth and with quick, deft motions began to wind it around the angry red skin stretched tight over swollen muscles.  Blair tried hard not to move, but Jim heard the sudden inhalation as he put the small metal clips in place.

"Too tight?"

"Nope.  Thanks."

Unconvinced, Jim tugged at the wrap with his finger and Blair sighed in exasperation.  "It's fine, Jim."  He wiggled his toes to prove his point, and dropped his head to hide the flinch that Jim saw anyway.  He winced again when he bent to reach for his socks.

"Those are dirty, Chief.  And they've got holes in 'em.  Hold on a sec."  He got to his feet and went to the Rubbermaid basket sitting next to the basement door.  From the mound of clean laundry he pulled pair of heavy black wool boot socks, neatly knotted together, and tossed them to Blair.


"You should have stayed off it today, Chief."

"No choice, Jim.  I had to make class."

Jim narrowed his eyes at the tone of voice, but Blair was focused on the bundle in his hands, fumbling with the knot, trying to pull the socks free of each other.  For one terrible moment Jim saw this as a metaphor of their lives, then fiercely rejected the thought and took the bundle back from Blair.  He untied the knot and brought Blair's feet back to his lap, one by one, rolling the socks up and over the chilled skin and tucking the tops into the threadbare sweats.

"Well, at least you can take it easy through the holidays," he said.

"Yeah."  Blair smiled faintly, but Jim heard the heartbeat quicken.  "Ah, Jim?"

The tone implied A Serious Talk, and while Jim himself had much to say this evening, he wasn't yet ready.  Never let it be said that I didn't learn anything from my Guide, he thought wryly, and proceeded to deflect Blair's intent.  "Don't worry, I'll cook dinner," he announced, using deliberate misunderstanding to do the job. 

It worked; in anticipation of the feast at Joel Taggert's that they were attending the next day, dinner was quick and light, and eaten mostly in silence.  Afterward, Jim cleared the table and cleaned up the kitchen, then went to Blair and tugged on a short curl.

"Come on, let's get you over to the couch and get that foot elevated."  He offered his hand to Blair, who used his partner's grasp and the kitchen table to lever himself into a standing position.  Once on his feet he tried to pull away but Jim wouldn't allow it, instead staying by his side and offering support as Blair hobbled into the living room.  He eased his friend onto the couch, lifted the injured foot and placed it on the coffee table, and slid a pillow beneath it.

"How's that?"

"Okay.  But didn't you just break at least two of your house rules?"

"I made 'em, and I can break 'em, Chief.  How about a fire?"

"Sounds good."

Jim built the fire by the twinkling illumination of the Christmas lights.  He was still slightly surprised at how much he enjoyed them.  The first year that he and Blair been under the same roof, he'd come home to find the balcony doors and railing wound with strands of small, brightly colored bulbs.  Blair had apologized, nervously, then launched into a highly detailed narrative about light being the one thing that all winter celebrations had in common, and that they ought to celebrate in some way, and the lights had been some used strands that the janitor down at Hargrove Hall had given him so they didn't really cost anything, and didn't they look good from the street?  In the years that followed they'd never gotten a tree ... Blair had only celebrated the holiday when he was with someone else who did, and Jim had abandoned keeping Christmas long ago ... but by mutual unspoken agreement, the lights had continued to go up every season. 

They exchanged presents, too.  Small ones, that first year.  Jim had given Blair gloves and a muffler and a warm hat that didn't resemble a dead animal.  Blair had given Jim a few pairs of brightly colored socks and an IOU for six months of report writing.  The next year it was a new winter jacket for Blair and, for Jim, another IOU entitling him to a full six months off from preparing dinner and a small piece of onyx carved in the shape of a jaguar.  The Christmas before this one, in recognition of harsh words and deeds survived and also of Blair's slightly improved financial status, they'd both upped the ante a little.  Jim had given Blair a RAM upgrade for his laptop and a tune-up for the Volvo, and had received from his friend a machine that ground coffee from fresh beans and a soft moleskin shirt that was comfortable and comforting, even on days when stress made his skin extra-sensitive.

This year, though, the roughest they had ever survived, seemed to require something special.  Jim had thought long and hard about what to give Blair ... what might make up, in some way, for all the young man had lost or forfeited on Jim's behalf.  Weeks of watching his partner come home from the Academy each night newly wounded, inside and out, had finally made the choice for him.  He'd fought with Simon, and bargained with his father and brother ... and god, that had been hard.  But in the end Jim had secured the help he needed to make his idea a reality.

All that remained was to tell his partner what he'd done.

The fire caught and Jim pulled the screen shut and sat on the couch next to Blair.  He glanced sideways at his friend's face, unearthly in the radiance of the holiday lights.  The blue eyes fixed on the falling snow were dark with some forlorn emotion that pulled the full eyebrows tight together and drew the wide mouth down at the corners.  One thumb rubbed compulsively against an index finger, and the uninjured leg jittered uneasily.

Blair was not happy.

The timer on the coffee pot beeped in the silence.  Jim rose and went into the kitchen, pulled two cups down from the shelf over the sink, filled them, and placed them on a tray with a bowl of sugar packets.  He opened the refrigerator and snagged the milk carton, regarded it for a moment, then replaced it and reached instead for the slightly dusty bottle of Kalhua on the top shelf and added it to the tray, then returned to the living room.

Blair looked at the coffee and the Kalhua, then at Jim, grinned faintly and doctored his cup with a generous hand that trembled slightly.  Jim did the same, and they sipped the hot sweet liquid together.

"Okay, Chief.  What is it?"

Blair glanced sharply at Jim, eyes wide and transparent with an expression that rocked him to his core.  Something bad ... something terrible was waiting to be said.

"Um ... well, I've been thinking."

"Oh god."

"Fuck you, Ellison."

"Sorry.  Someday I'll learn to take that better.  What were you thinking?"

"Well, ah ... we're going to be at Joel's most of tomorrow, and everyone from MC is going to be there, and ... well ... I've got something to tell you that I'd like to tell you now.  Before you hear it from anyone else."

Jim put his coffee cup on the table, disappointed to see the surface of the dark liquid ripple slightly.  He was losing his touch.  "All right.  Shoot."

Blair shifted and made as if to get up.  Automatically Jim's hand fell on the tense shoulder.  "Where are you going?"

"My room.  Your present's in there ... I need to give it to you now.  Tonight.  It ... has to do ... with what I have to tell you."

"Stay put.  I'll get it.  Where...?"

"On the floor under my desk.  In the back, by the wall."

"All right."

 Jim squeezed Blair's shoulder and left the couch.  He swung the French doors aside and stepped into the small space that had somehow, in his regard, become the heart of the loft.  The darkness was rich with the smell of dirty laundry and cold coffee, old paper and fresh ink, Ben Gay and an unchanged bed ... and Blair.  He breathed deeply of the beloved reek, smiled a bit in spite of himself, then remembered his errand and lost the small grin. 

He pulled the chair away from the desk and bent down and there it was ... a package wrapped in plain brown paper and sealed with masking tape.  Very unlike his Guide to not use the gaudiest recycled paper he could find, and forego a garnish of raffia or a knotted bandana.  It was weighty, too, and contained several things which shifted as Jim tugged it from its hiding place.  He hefted it in his hands, uneasy with the sudden certain knowledge that this was less a gift than a bomb, about to blow his life all to hell.

He carried the package back into the living room and tried to give it into Blair's hands, but Blair refused it.  Finally Jim set it down on the table.

"Leave it for now, Chief.  I've got something to tell you, too, and you should open your gift when I do.  Be right back."

He left Blair sitting on the couch and headed for the basement door.  When he reappeared a moment later Blair was still sitting on the couch staring at his gift to Jim, the expression on his face an open picture of the dread that Jim was trying so hard to hide.  Jim placed Blair's present on the coffee table next to his own, picked up the coffee cups and refilled them, added more of the liqueur, and then sat down.  He took a swallow and focused for a moment on the sweet burn in his throat, then looked at Blair.

"Okay.  You said you had something to tell me."

The words came out in pauses, as if Blair needed a new breath to create each one.

"I ... ah ... I've been ... kicked out.  Of the Academy.  Expelled."

The same vacuum that had stolen the breath from Blair's lungs now took Jim by the throat and left him unable to speak.  He finally, with great effort, managed one word.


A shaky hand pointed at the bandaged ankle resting on the coffee table.  Blair bit his lip, hard, then smiled ruefully.

"You should see the other guy."

Jim looked up, surprise splashed across his face.  And then the laughter burst forth, leaving Blair stunned. 


Jim consciously dialed down his mirth as he might his senses.  "Yeah, Chief?" he gasped.  "What?"

"You're laughing at me."

"Yeah, Chief, I am."


"Just wondering what Naomi will say when she finds out that you were too violent for pig school."  Jim dissolved in laughter again, and was pleased to see Blair's lips curl again in a smile, albiet one still tempered with unhappiness.  Jim reached out and lightly tapped his cheek.

"Hell, Chief.  It's okay ... it's okay.  All's fair in love and war."

For a moment shock chased all expression from Blair's face.  Then he said slowly, carefully, "I guess."

Jim didn't miss the odd tone of voice, but didn't understand it either.  "Why are you so upset, Chief?  You didn't want to go through the Academy ... didn't want to be a cop.  I know that.  But you did your best ... toughed it out.  For me.  I know that too.  So you finally lost your temper at one more whack disguised as a training exercise?  Fine.  I'm sick and tired of seeing how they've been beating up on you ... I'm glad you're out of it.  You've got nothing to be ashamed of.  Nothing to regret."

"I have everything to regret, Jim!  Everything!"  Blue eyes aching with remorse met his.  "I lost my temper, yeah.  How many times have I ragged you for that?  How many times has Simon ragged you for that?  And then I go right ahead and ..."  He grabbed his coffee cup and quickly, almost defiantly, emptied it in four deep draughts.  He choked and his eyes watered, and Jim wondered if it was the liqueur or emotion. 

"You've been taking shit from those jokers at the Academy for weeks now, Blair.  It's not the same thing."

"It is the same thing, Jim.  This wasn't a scuffle in self-defense class.  I jumped this guy.  Jumped him and beat the shit out of him and only stopped when three of his buddies took me down."


"They said some things.  Things that pissed me off ... because they were true."

"What things?" Jim asked softly.

Blair swallowed hard and wiped his eyes.  "That it was too damn bad that a fraud like me took an Academy berth from someone who deserved it.  That the only reason I made it in was because Simon ... and you ... liked my ass.  That even if I earned my badge, no court would ever believe my testimony, and some perp would walk because of it.  That someday the traffic would be too heavy, or sunspots would screw up the radio, or somebody would get the location wrong ... and your backup wouldn't show."  Blair turned his desolate gaze on the snow outside, unable to look at Jim.  "They think I'm fucking you, and fucking you over.  And they're telling me that if I go out into the field with you, I'm going to get you killed."

"Chief--" Jim started to reassure Blair, to tell him that it didn't matter if he was out of the Academy, that Jim had already made everything all right.  But Blair put up a hand.

"I've let you down, Jim.  Again.  I can't be your partner.  And it's okay ... we both know that you don't really need me ... not like you did at the beginning.  What you do need is a partner you can trust ... and we both know that's not me either.  Now, open your package, Jim."

"Chief--" Jim tried again.

But Blair sighed heavily.  "Okay, then I'll do it."  He pulled the box to himself and scrabbled at the tape with ragged fingernails ... When did he start biting his nails? wondered Jim ... then pulled the flaps of the box apart, spread them wide and pushed them down.  A harsh odor of plastic wafted free and Jim scowled.  Blair reached in and pulled out three ring binders, half-full of loose-leaf pages sheathed in plastic page protectors.  He set them down before Jim.

"Merry Christmas," he said sadly, and slumped back on the couch.

Speechless, Jim pulled a binder from the top of the stack and opened it.  There, in bold 14-point Avant Garde, were three words.  "A Guide's Guide."  There was no author's name.  Jim turned the page; it crackled slightly as static electricity released its hold on the next plastic sleeve, and then the next, and the next.

The plastic protected white bond paper printed with neat lines.  Lists of foods which they had found Jim could not, or should not, eat.  Lists of cleaning products which did not irritate his skin or his nose.  Lists of drugs he could tolerate, and those he could not.  Methods of assisting him in collecting evidence, ways of directing him in dialing his senses up and down ... and how to help him when he zoned.

A Guide's guide to a Sentinel's safety, and quality of life.

"Jim?  Hey, Jim?"


"You okay?"

Jim took a deep breath.  "What the hell is this?"

"Jim...."  There was pain in the way Blair spoke the name ... a plea not to have to explain.  But then he took a deep breath and the words tumbled out in an unbroken stream, as if some levee had been breached and was finally releasing all that it had been straining to hold back for too long.  "Okay.  It's time we see things for what they are, Jim.  I didn't look at my dissertation and its consequences in the cold light of day, and neither did you, in all those years.  And it ruined us.  But we still didn't learn our lesson.  We've both been looking at the Academy in the same way.  As if what we want to happen actually will ... as if it will fix things.  It won't, you know.  It'll only make things worse.

"I could appeal the expulsion.  But Stanton told me not to bother ... and I wouldn't, anyway.  Not even for you.  Because actually, it's better for you if I don't.  Well, maybe not better in some ways, not in the short term perhaps, but you'll see that in the long run it will be.  Better for you.  Honest.  Anyway, that's why I'm giving you these."  He nodded toward the binders still balanced on Jim's knees.  "There's one for Simon, and one for Megan, and one for you."

"You're leaving."

"Yeah."  The short hair bobbed as Blair nodded.  "I'm going to New Mexico.  I've got a buyer for the Volvo ... that'll pay for my ticket, and a storage unit, and the rent and household expenses that I owe you."

"New Mexico."

"Yeah.  A friend of Naomi's lives outside of Taos.  He has a resort where people go for spiritual retreats.  They've found some old burial grounds on the property ... some pictographs, some pottery, stuff like that.  Anyway, he's got an archeologist out there, but he also needs someone to be a liaison between him and the local tribes.  Help everyone find a compatible way to deal with the sites.  He asked me to do it.  Room and board, and a small stipend."

"Is it .... is this something you really want to do?"

"It's as close a chance as I'm going to get to use my education.  I know the Indians in that area already, from time I spent there when I was a kid, and I did some field work on the Anasazi when I was an undergrad.  So I'm qualified.  And it'll be warm."  Blair smiled bitterly, as if for some strange reason he didn't really think it would be warm at all, and patted Jim's arm.  "There's one more thing in the box," he said softly.

Jim closed the binder on his lap and set it and its two companions on the table, then reached into the box.  He smiled slightly ... this package was wrapped, neatly and in recycled paper hand-stamped with images of stars.  A twist of raffia circled it, somewhat flattened but still festive.  The paper concealed nothing from the Sentinel; his fingers traced a knobby texture embossed with stately lettering, and he could smell the old leather and binding glue and heavy rag pages.  And Blair.  His eyes filled and he made no move to work the raffia knot or tear the paper away.  He didn't need to.

"Blair ... this book ... I can't ... this is yours."

"No.  It's about you.  It brought me to you.  It should stay with you."

"It will.  And so will you."


"Time to open your gift, Chief," he said firmly, pulling the sizeable but not weighty box across the table and placing it in Blair's lap.  "Now."  Jim laid the still-wrapped monograph on the table and leveled a commanding gaze on the younger man.  Obediently, the ravaged fingernails plucked the adhesive-backed red bow from the tasteful gold foil and pulled it away from the cardboard box beneath.

"A toaster oven?  Are you still pissed off about--"

"No, Chief, no.  That thing was about shot anyway, and between the full-size oven and the microwave, we manage.  Just used the box."

"Oh."  Blair tore the tape away and Jim winced at the small screech it made as it released its hold on the cardboard.  "Jeez, Sandburg!"

"Sorry."  He pried the box open, and gasped.

Jim watched carefully, every sense he had tuned to his partner, trying to read the response.

Blair eyed the new backpack with awe, and deep sadness.  He stared at it for a moment, then his fingers traced lightly over the supple leather, and he lifted it to his nose to inhale the oily fragrance.  He counted the many pockets, fingered the heavy brass zipper pulls and strap buckles, inspected the stitching and the embroidered patch depicting the silhouette of a howling wolf against a full moon.

"It's beautiful.  But Jim...."

"You need a new one."

"Not any more."

"Yes you do.  You will.  You see, that's not the whole present," said Jim nervously, scanning the suddenly expressionless face.  "Um ... look in the top pocket."

Obediently Blair worked the zipper and fumbled inside.  He pulled out a small piece of paper and held it close to his nose to read the lettering there.  His eyes widened.

Jim smiled tentatively.  He had memorized the dark green imprint, repeated it like a mantra many times a day since he'd had the cards made.

Jim Ellison ~ Blair Sandburg
852 Prospect, Cascade, Washington

"What is this?" came the soft query.

"It's a business card," Jim explained.

"Ah ... yeah, I see that.  But...."

Jim had to touch him then, keep a hold on him and know he wouldn't run before Jim had a chance to explain the gift. 

"Blair, you're the best cop I've ever known.  You care about the victim as much as the perp, and you care about doing the right thing as much as you care about the law, or about justice.  And having you as my partner has made me a better cop too.  But the Academy...."  Blair dropped his head, and Jim tightened his grip on Blair's hand.  "You're right, Blair.  We need to start seeing things as they are.  There's just one absolute left in our world, and that's that we're partners."

"Partners," Blair whispered, looking down at the long fingers wrapped around his own.

"Damn straight.  And if we can't be partners as cops, we'll be partners in our own business.  Dad and Stephen are financing us, and I've talked to Simon.  He said he'll throw referrals our way ... do what he can to help.  This can work.  We can do this."

"Jim, I can't let you give up your career."

"You gave up yours."


"Blair, please...."

And the doorbell rang.

Two pairs of blue eyes met, and then Jim lifted his head slightly and flared his nostrils.  "His timing sucks," he commented, and rose from the couch to let Simon in.

"Merry Christmas, sir."   Jim took his friend's topcoat, shook the snow from it, and hung it by the door.

"Merry Christmas, gentlemen," Simon replied, in a voice so benevolent and with a smile so wide that Jim asked without thinking, "What's wrong?"

"Why, Detective Ellison, does something have to be wrong for me to drop by and wish two of my friends a Merry Christmas?"

"I'm not working tonight, Simon," Jim said, warning in his voice.

"I'm not here to ask you to work.  Tonight."

"You're not here to ask him to work tonight, or you're not here tonight to ask him to work tonight, or you're not here tonight to ask him to work?" Blair asked. 

Simon lost his smile and bit hard on his cigar.  "Sandburg!"

"Just asking, Simon."

"It's a good question, sir," Jim affirmed.

"No it's not," Simon growled.  "If it was a good question, I wouldn't have to figure out what the hell he was asking before I could answer it.  However," and he glared at Blair, who smiled faintly, "since I am brighter than a rock, I have figured out what the hell he is asking, and the answers are no, no and yes.  Or yes, yes, and no."


Blair jumped in, his grin a little wider now.  "Yes, you're not, yes, you're not, and no, you are?"


"Jim," said Simon, rubbing his eyes with his fingers, "get me a beer, would you?"

"How about some coffee and Kalhua?"

Simon nodded and headed for the yellow chair.  Jim grabbed the coffee pot and a mug, poured Simon a cup and refreshed his and Blair's, and soon the three of them were breathing fragrant steam in comfortable silence.  Simon took a careful sip, smiled, set the cup on the coffee table and reached into his jacket pocket.  He dropped an envelope on the table.

"Ho ho ho," he said.

Jim looked at the envelope, looked at Blair, then picked it up and untucked the flap.  The single piece of paper inside took only a moment to scan, but the information needed some time to sink in.  Silently he handed the sheet to Blair and followed the movement of those blue eyes as they read it, twice.

"It was actually the Mayor's idea," said Simon, sipping his coffee and savoring the taste.  "But I think it's a good one."

"Simon ... I...."

"I know about the expulsion, Blair.  You'll be hired as a civilian city employee, with full benefits.  An Academy certificate isn't required.  This is a new position, so we were able to write our own rules, and the Mayor's a self-made man ... your field experience and your track record are all he cares about."

Blair's eyes dropped to the paper again, and he read the words aloud in a voice barely more than a whisper.

"Cascade Law Enforcement Community Relations Liaison Team."

"Jim, you'll no longer technically be a part of Major Crime.  But you'll remain a detective, and still report to me directly, and the Mayor's office indirectly.  Your jurisdiction is any high-profile case that has the potential to create unrest between neighborhoods or ethnic communities and the city's law enforcement.  When you're not actually working on a case, you'll be building good will relationships between community leaders and the Cascade PD.

"It's not a perfect fix,"  And Simon's voice dropped a little ... he too bore wounds from the past few months.  "You're still in disgrace in a lot of eyes, Blair ... although we're counting on that fading with time.  And it will.  Hell, no one remembers the name of that district attorney that you two busted for murder a year ago.  People forget.  But for the time being, Rainier is off your plate ... when you deal with them, your intern will go with Jim.  And Jim," his voice took on a warning tone, "you're not going to be on the street as much as you used to ... and when you are, you're never going to be the primary.  You'll be called in, you'll be kept informed ... but it's up to the lead to decide how deeply you get involved in any given investigation.  And you'll be going to a lot of formal dinners, neighborhood festivals, committee meetings ... wearing suits and ties and glad-handing.  Although I think we all agree that any podium work should be Sandburg's responsibility."  He grinned.  "And there's one more catch."

Jim stiffened, his mind still stuck on "ties" and "glad-handing," but Blair made the connection immediately.

"The intern."

That benevolent smile, so alien to Simon's face, spread wide across it once again.

"The intern.  A freshman from Rainier, majoring in criminal science and headed for the Academy when he graduates.  I know him ... a bright young man.  Name's Banks.  Daryl Banks."

Blair smiled.  "I'm sure he'll prove a real asset."

"He'd better." 

"He'll be fine with us, Simon.  Don't worry."

"I won't, Jim.  That's why I want him with you."  Simon's face sobered, and he sipped his coffee.  His gaze still on the rippled surface contained within his cup, he murmured to his friend, "Jim?  Will this work for you?  I know you hate compromises ... but I don't want to lose you.  Either of you."

"It works for me if it works for Blair," Jim said, without hesitation.

Simon looked up.  "Blair?"

But Blair had lifted his gaze up, over Simon's shoulder, past Jim's profile, and was watching the snow fall again.  Fear tickled the back of Jim's neck with cold fingers.  Time slowed down and stretched into an endless moment, like the instant before a drop of water leaves a spigot or the bottom of a glass.  Jim was aware of Simon's concerned face, the smells of leather and of plastic hanging in the air, the soft glow of the Christmas lights, Blair's lashes moving minutely as his eyes tracked the falling snow, and Blair's body, at rest on the outside but in turmoil behind those eyes.  And he wondered what his life would be like if Blair said no....

"It sounds ... amazing.  Like the best of both my worlds.  Of all my worlds."  Blair blinked back the sudden shine in his eyes and smiled.  "Thank you, Simon.  Thanks."

Jim felt fear rush out of him with the air his lungs had held tight in anticipation of his fate's pronouncement.  Blair looked at him, understanding on his face, and smiled ... the old, broad, joy-filled smile that Jim hadn't seen in far too long.  Blair's hand came to rest for a moment on Jim's knee, offering a gentle pat to the place where the wound inflicted by Zeller's bullet was in the last stages of healing, and Jim put his own hand over Blair's before that touch could be withdrawn.

"Thanks," he said, to Simon and to Blair and to whoever, just this once, had caused the universe to smile upon him.


"Ah, Jim?"


Blair looked up from where he was stoking the fire, and Jim returned his gaze from the kitchen counter where he was rinsing out the coffee cups.  Blair gave the fire a final poke and closed the screen, straightening with a vertebrae-popping stretch.  "About that business card ..."

Jim's hands held Simon's cup very still under the running water.  "Yeah?"

Blair limped into the kitchen and stood very close to Jim.  He reached out and turned the water off, took the cup from Jim's hands and set it in the drainer.  "You used the loft address."


"So, you were planning on running Paladin Investigations out of this place?"

"Yeah."  Jim wondered where this line of questioning was going, already fairly certain that he was in trouble of some kind.

"Where were you going to set up the office?"

"I don't know.  Under the stairs, I guess.  Clear out the stereo and the bookshelves, put in a desk and some file cabinets, a computer and phone lines ... you know.  Why do you ask?"

"No reason."  And Blair walked out of the kitchen and picked up his new backpack and carried it into his room, then emerged and disappeared into the bathroom.

Jim started his evening ritual of securing the loft for the night as his mind folded itself around the small exchange that had just passed between him and Blair.  His thoughts kept snagging on the fact that Blair had asked him a simple, seemingly pointless question, and quietly accepted his answer.  Not like him at all.  Jim wondered if he was ill and listened ... but no, his lungs were clear, except for that tiny rasp that was always there, had always been there since ... well, he wasn't ill, or becoming so.  And he wasn't frightened, either; his heartbeat was calm and steady.  Still, something was not right, or at least not usual.

Jim sent his hearing in search of clues.  And behind the bathroom door he heard the sigh, and the tight swallow, and knuckles brushing at skin stubbled with late-night beard. 

And knew.

Not sick, not scared ... sad.


Things had turned out well, even better than either of them could have hoped for.  And he knew Blair hadn't been lying when he'd told Simon he was happy with the new arrangement.  Jim ran the words through his memory; something about them touched him deeply, although he wasn't sure why. 

It sounds ... amazing.  Like the best of both my worlds.  Of *all* my worlds.

There had been a subtle hesitation in those words.  An unspoken "almost."

What were Blair's worlds, and which one had been left wanting?  Why the sadness that he would not share?  And why would he ask where the office would be?  There was no other place in the loft to put it.

Except Blair's room.

All my worlds.

God, Jim loved and hated that feeling that always came right before he solved a case.  The tease of almost seeing, almost understanding, felt like sex ... like the spike of pleasure/pain just before coming....


And then, epiphany.

If the office was in Blair's room, then Blair would be in Jim's room.

Partners.  In every way.

All my worlds.


And Jim's heart obtained Sentinel sight.


It was Christmas morning, although only just, when Jim heard the bathroom door open.  He turned from the windows where he'd been watching the snow fall and silently rejoicing, and softly said his partner's name.


"Yeah?"  He was blinking sleepily; he smelled of toothpaste and the hand-made, hard-milled nonallergenic soap he bought at the natural foods store over on Greene.  His eyes were calmly curious beneath his wild hair.  Jim crooked a finger, and Blair obediently padded across the hardwood floor to stand beside him.  He followed Jim's gaze outside, where snow fell soft and heavy and gathered with Christmas-card beauty on their balcony and the eaves of the buildings across the street.

"Snow," said Blair astutely.  "Hope it lets up by dawn, or we're gonna have a hell of a time getting to Joel's."

Jim smiled sadly.  Blair's default view of the world had changed from poetic and fascinated observation to practical and somewhat dour assessment.  Another change that Jim felt responsible for.  He reached out and put his hand on Blair's shoulder; Blair winced at the touch, and Jim remembered the bruises and eased his grip, frowning.

"You were going to leave."

Blair dropped his eyes, and Jim could feel the tension beneath his fingers.

"Yeah," he whispered.


"I thought I was doing the right thing ... the best thing ... for you."

Jim's heart cracked a little.  "You've given up too much for me already."

Blair spoke to the floor.  "You've given up a lot for me.  Your privacy, your independence ... hell, Jim, you were going to give up your job.  I know what you think about p.i. work ... you would have hated doing it."

Jim shook Blair gently and pulled him closer.  "And you were going to give up your home."  He spoke into the short curls that brushed his chin.  "They say that home is where they take you in, no matter what ... the one thing you can count on when you can't count on anything else.  I never had that, never believed in it, until you moved in.  Chief, this is your home.  Never doubt it, and never leave ... because if this isn't your home, it isn't mine either."

Blair's head came up, blue eyes shiny with moisture but his mouth curved up at the corners.

"Thanks, Jim."  He shook his head and murmured softly, "'The Gift of the Magi'."


"A short story, by a guy named--"

"O. Henry.  I did go to school, Sandburg.  She cuts her hair to buy him a watch chain, he sells his watch to buy combs for her hair."

"Yeah, that's it."  Blair chuckled.  "Well, I did cut my hair for you, but I don't think it would have been worth enough to buy you a watch fob."

Jim smiled and ruffled Blair's curls, pleased that they were growing out again.  "You gave me something better," he said.

"What's that?"

"A friend.  A shaman.  A partner I can trust.  A home.  A life.  And love."  He let his hand slide from Blair's hair to his back and turned him so they were standing close, face to face.

"Love?" Blair whispered, leaning in.

"Mmm," Jim replied.  "I think so."

He felt the curve of Blair's cheek press into his shoulder and he knew the young man was smiling.  "You could be wrong, you know.  You haven't unwrapped the present yet."

"Don't need to.  I can read the label."

"What's it say?  'This end up'?  'No deposit, no return'?"  And Blair looked up at him, his smile warm and wicked.

Jim smiled back and held him close.  "Nope," he murmured.  "It says 'handle with care.'  And I promise I will, from now on."

The first kiss was the best present either one of them had ever received ... until they kissed again. 


... here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.


~ 30 ~

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