Tadaaah! Here's the "angst-ridden Christmas story" that Dana won in the auction. J
Warning: Some bad language, not a lot. Rated PG.
Beta'd by Dana and Hephaistos

A Momentary Lapse of Season

Sunlight tickled his eyelids, urging them open. James Ellison released a satisfied sigh as he slid out of bed and shuffled down the stairs in his black boxers. His partner stood in the kitchen manning a frying pan, humming "Let It Snow" so softly that Jim had to strain to hear the tune. The Christmas tree stood near the balcony, standing guard over a pile of presents.

"'Mornin' Chief."

Blair looked up and grinned. "Good morning," he said cheerfully. "Breakfast is almost done."

"Eggs and bacon?" Jim asked, his eyes narrow.

Blair nodded. "Yep."

He peered over the young man's shoulder and clicked his tongue. "You mean that lard-filled, artery-clogging heart-attack-on-a-plate?"

Blair chuckled. "Hey, it's two days 'til Christmas. I figure you deserve to live a little... but if you'd prefer the healthy stuff, I'll--"

Jim slapped him on the shoulder. "Nope. This is great. Just great," he said quickly.

Blair's smile broadened. "I thought so."

Jim inhaled a deep breath, soaking up the tempting aroma, and smiled in anticipation. "This is really nice, Chief. Thanks."

Blair beamed and looked over his shoulder at the detective. "Just don't get used to it."

The older man chuckled and headed toward the bathroom. "We'll see about that," he replied, then ducked into the bathroom and closed the door, his mind wandering as he reviewed all the gifts he still had left to buy.

He gazed absently at his reflection in the mirror, noting the slight shadow of stubble on his jaw while his brain worked out the best strategy for last-minute Christmas shopping. Quickly, he grabbed his razor and set to work on his morning ritual.

"The weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and since we've no place to go, let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!"

Blair sang happily as he turned off the flame and slid the bacon onto Jim's plate, right next to the scrambled eggs and biscuit. He decided to forego the bacon himself. No use clogging his arteries. He tossed the spatula into the sink and carried the two plates to the kitchen table.

He glanced at the Christmas tree near the balcony, eyeing the large red-and-green-wrapped present he'd bought Jim. A smile touched his lips. Christmas was only a couple days away and he couldn't wait to see Jim open his present. Blair had searched long and hard for the item, and he KNEW his friend would love the gift.

Jim emerged from the small hallway and sniffed the air as he made his way to the table. "What's that, Chief?"

Blair looked up at him, his brow furrowed. "What's what?"

"That smell?"

The crease in Blair's forehead grew more pronounced. "You mean the eggs and bacon?"

Jim shook his head. "No... No, it smells like..." He pressed his lips together as he focused on the strange odor. Finally, he just shook his head. "Never mind. I guess it's the grease, or something."

Blair shrugged, but did not look convinced. "Well, what's it smell like?"

Jim smiled, but it did not reach his eyes. "Grease, or something."

The anthropologist grimaced. "Funny."

"You asked," Jim said, as he took his seat at the table.

Blair sank into his own chair and took a bite of his eggs, eyeing his partner critically. The detective sniffed his breakfast, his expression skeptical.

"Hmmm? Whu is it?" Blair mumbled as he chewed his food.

Jim shook his head. "Smells funny. That's all."

Blair's eyes narrowed. "You catchin' a cold?"

Annoyance flickered over the older man's features. "No, I'm not catching a cold."

"You sure? I mean, it is flu season and a lot of--"

"I'm sure, damnit," Jim snapped. "It's not a cold. Your food smells weird. What the hell did you put in it?"

Confusion touched Blair's face. "What do you mean? Nothing... I mean, just what I always use."

Jim's expression softened, and he stabbed a lump of eggs with his fork. "Sorry, Chief. I guess I'm a bit off this morning."

"You seemed fine a few minutes ago. You feeling okay now?"

The annoyance flared up again. "Yes, I'm feeling fine." He popped the eggs into his mouth quickly and bit down. He sputtered and choked suddenly, tears spilling onto his cheeks as he shot out of the chair.

"Jim!" Blair jumped to his feet as the detective spit his mouthful into a napkin.

"Goddamnit, Sandburg! Is this your idea of a joke?"

Blair shook his head, his face stricken. "No! I haven't done anything. What happened? What's it taste like?"

"Like you put a heap of red pepper in it," Jim accused, taking a menacing step toward the smaller man. "If this is your idea of a practical joke--"

Blair backed away, his hands raised in front of him. "No, man. No way. I swear."

"Then what the hell--"

"Calm down, Jim," Blair urged. "Are your senses out of whack? Did you take anything? Cold medicine or--"

"I told you I don't have a damn cold!" Jim bellowed. "And I sure as hell wouldn't take cold medicine after the last disaster."

"Okay, okay. I'm just trying to figure out what's wrong," Blair insisted.

The larger man grunted and pushed past his partner. "Forget it. I lost my appetite," he grumbled, heading up the stairs to his room. "You coming into the station today?"

Blair gazed at the uneaten food on Jim's plate, "Uh... No," he said absently. "I gotta finish grading the finals." He took a deep breath and glanced up at Jim's bedroom. "You sure you're okay, Jim? You know, you need to tell me when things start--"

"I said I'm fine, Sandburg. Drop it," Jim replied, his harsh voice drifting through the loft.

"Okay, okay. Excuse me for caring," Blair muttered, sitting down to finish the remainder of his own breakfast.

As Jim drove the truck toward the station, he replayed the morning's conversation in his head. Guilt tugged at his chest, and he clenched his jaw. Why the hell did I get so pissed? He didn't do anything. I know he was telling the truth, and still I laid into him for no good reason. He gripped the steering wheel tightly, chewing the inside of his cheek as he remembered the stricken look on his partner's face when he'd shouted at him. Damnit. Way to go, Ellison. The kid goes the extra mile to make you a nice breakfast, and you jump down his throat.

But, damnit, something had been wrong with the eggs... or maybe Sandburg was right. Maybe there WAS something wrong with his senses.

Well, he'll forgive me when he sees his Christmas present, he tried to reassure himself as he pulled the truck into the police garage.

Blair walked into the loft and headed for his room, dropping his backpack near his bed. With a tired sigh, he kicked off his shoes, then headed into the kitchen. He paused near the island, biting his lip as he debated the wisdom of cooking dinner. His partner had freaked out at breakfast that morning, and Sandburg didn't want a repeat performance with the evening meal.

He decided to wait until Jim came home to gauge the detective's mood. He was sure something funny was up with the man's senses, but Jim didn't seem to want to discuss the possibility. Still, it was Blair's job to look out for the Sentinel, even when the Sentinel didn't want looking after.

His gaze flickered to the present under the tree. Jim's mood would have to lift once he opened the box. With a small chuckle, he shuffled into his bedroom and closed the doors.

Jim got home at eight-thirty, after battling the Christmas shopping crowds for 2 hours. With a weary sigh, he let himself into the loft and tossed his keys in the basket. He carried a large bag in one hand and made his way up to his room, stretching his hearing to listen for his partner. He heard the faint scribble of  pen on paper, and, after hiding the newly-acquired presents in his closet, he sauntered down to Blair's bedroom, knocking on the french doors.


The writing ceased, followed by the shuffle of footsteps. The door opened and Blair gazed up at Jim, his expression wary.

"How are you feeling? Better?" the young man asked

Jim offered an apologetic smile. "Yeah, I am. Sorry about this morning. I don't know what got into me."

Blair returned his partner's smile. "It's okay. Do you... uh... wanna talk about it?" he asked hopefully.

Jim sighed and stepped back. "Not now, Chief. Why don't we go get some dinner -- my treat -- and you can grill me later."

Blair raised his eyebrows. "Your treat, eh?"

Jim grinned and nodded. "You bet."

"Where to?"

"Well, since you made me breakfast this morning and --"

"You went postal," Blair finished.

Jim ducked his head. "Yeah, something like that. Anyway, you get to pick."

"So this is, like, a peace offering?"

The Sentinel cleared his throat. "Yeah, something like that."

Blair chuckled and walked past the larger man. "Okay, then. Let's go."

The next morning...

Sunlight tickled his eyelids, urging them open. James Ellison released a satisfied sigh as he slid out of bed and shuffled down the stairs in his black boxers. The Christmas tree stood near the balcony, standing guard over a pile of presents.

The kitchen and living room were quiet, and Jim's gaze automatically fell to the french doors. Cocking his head, he listened to the sounds of the loft, hearing his partner's soft snoring inside the room. With a small smile, he shuffled into the bathroom and began his morning ritual of shaving and showering.

Twenty minutes later, he turned off the shower, and was greeted by the loud, beating rhythm of drums. The sound pounded through his skull like a jackhammer, and he gritted his teeth against the sudden headache. An intense, unexpected burst of rage flared in his chest, and he stormed over to Blair's room, flinging the doors open.


Blair jack-knifed into a sitting position, his covers falling in a heap to the floor.

"Huh? Wha--" Bleary eyes gazed through a disheveled mass of curls at the large man in the doorway.

Jim's eyes snapped to the silent speakers near the radio. "What the hell is that  noise?"

Blair blinked and ran his fingers through his hair. "Huh? What noise?"

"That damn drumming!" the detective yelled, taking an angry step into the room. "Whatever the hell it is, it's driving me crazy."

"There's no noise, Jim. I don't hear anything," Blair insisted, sliding out of bed and rising to his feet. His eyes grew wide with concern as he studied the infuriated detective, and he walked cautiously toward the larger man. "What do you hear?"

Jim released a sharp, exasperated sigh and spun around, heading toward the door.

"Where are you going?" Blair asked, scurrying after the detective.

Jim flung the door open and stormed into the hallway.

"Jim!" Blair yelled. "Geez, man, you're in a towel. Come back here!"

Jim ignored him as he stomped down the hallway, his head tilted as he followed the sound that only he could hear. He ducked into the staircase, breaking into a run down the stairs. Blair ran after his partner, hugging himself against the chill, his boxers and T-shirt providing little warmth.

The detective emerged onto the second floor, bursting through the doors like an angry bull. He hesitated only a moment, cocking his head another degree, then took off in a run down the hall.

Blair stayed on the larger man's heels, panting hard. "Jim, man, come on. What's going on?"

Ellison ignored the younger man, stopping in front of apartment 204. He pounded loudly on the door. "Open up! Police!"

"Jesus, man," Blair protested, placing a hand on Jim's shoulder. "What the hell are you doing? You--"

Ellison shrugged off the touch and pounded again. "Open this goddamned door!"

The door creaked open, stopped part-way by the chain, and a woman peeked out into the hallway. "Detective Ellison?"

Blair could now hear the soft sound of drums drift into the hallway.

"What the hell is that racket?" Jim bellowed. "Turn it down! I can hear it all the way upstairs, lady!"

The woman's eyes grew wide. "Uh... Sorry. I... I didn't know it was that loud. I mean, I can barely hear it."

"What, are you deaf? Turn it down, now!" Jim insisted.

Knowing he was taking his life in his hands, Blair pushed his way in front of the angry detective. "I'm sorry, Miss Delman. My roommate's not feeling very good and--"

A hard hand closed around his arm, yanking him out of the way.

"Can it, Sandburg," Jim barked, then glared at the woman. "Just turn the damn thing off before I cite you for making a nuisance."

The woman glanced at Blair, then back at Jim. Her eyes narrowed with irritation. "Listen, Detective, I don't know what your problem is, but the radio is NOT loud. You can't come down here threatening to abuse your position just to--"

Jim took a step closer to the door, looking like he was going to kick it in at any moment. "Don't fucking play with me, lady, or--"

Blair recognized the dangerous tone in his friend's voice and grabbed Jim's elbow, pulling the large man away from the door, hoping to diffuse the situation before it escalated... and he could tell by Jim's body language and the flare in his voice that the situation was about to escalate.

"Come on, Jim. It's not that loud. Let's just go back upstairs and work this out, okay?" He looked back at the woman. "I am sorry. Like I said, he's not feeling very good."

Jim just glared silently at the woman, and, for that, Blair was grateful. He pulled Jim further away from the door, urging him down the hall, and the woman closed her door, engaging the deadbolt.

Jim followed Blair silently back up to the loft, and the younger man breathed a sigh of relief when they were safely back in their own apartment with the door closed and locked. Sandburg guided his partner to the couch, pushing down on his shoulders to force the detective to sit.

"What's going on, Jim?" he asked, plopping himself down on the edge of the coffee table.

Jim's jaw was clenched so tight it looked like the tendons on his neck would snap. His eyes blazed with barely contained fury, and Blair's heart pounded in his chest as he gazed into those angry blue eyes. A fleeting sense of fear washed over him, and he swallowed, then took a deep breath. He never thought he'd actually be afraid of Jim Ellison... intimidated, sure... but never, ever afraid. At that moment, he was very afraid.

"You don't hear it?" Jim asked, his voice low and tight.

Blair shook his head. "No, man. I don't hear it. I didn't hear it until she opened the door, and then it was very low." He inhaled another breath. "So your hearing must be out of whack. Is it still loud to you?"

Jim's jaw clenched impossibly tighter, and he nodded curtly.

"Okay, what else do you hear? Is that it, or is everything around you amplified?" Blair asked, keeping his voice whisper-quiet.

"Just that."

"When did it start?"

"After I got out of the shower," Jim answered tersely.


The Sentinel nodded, then closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the couch.

"Okay, let's work on lowering the dials," Blair began. "Take deep breaths, you know the drill."

The Sentinel obeyed, inhaling several deep, slow breaths.

"Good. That's good," Blair encouraged. "Now focus on the sound, but stay relaxed. Keep taking slow, deep breaths," he whispered, his voice low and soothing. "Picture the dial in your head, and it's linked to the sound. Right now it's at maximum, set at ten, but we're going to turn it down... a notch at a time. Can you see the dial?"

"Mmmm-hmmmm," Jim mumbled.

"Good. Very good," Blair praised. "Now turn it down a notch. Now it's at nine. Then another. It's at eight. Another. Seven. Another. Six. One more. Now it's at five... four... three... two... one."

Silence filled the loft, and Blair eyed his partner critically, noting with satisfaction that the crease in his forehead had relaxed and the tendons in his jaw no longer popped out.

"Better?" Blair asked.

Jim released a slow breath, his eyes closed. "Yeah," he whispered. "Thanks."

Blair rose to his feet. "You just stay there. I'm gonna make you some tea."

Jim kept his eyes closed. "No thanks. That stuff you drink tastes like monkey pee."

"Oh? And how would you know what monkey pee tastes like?" Blair asked, suppressing a smile.

Jim opened one eye. "Smartass."

Blair chuckled softly. "Okay, no tea, big guy," he said, walking around the back of the couch and giving his partner a light, reassuring touch on the shoulder.

Jim's reaction was explosive. He leapt off the couch and spun around. "What the fuck was that, Sandburg?"

Blair stumbled backward, his eyes wide. "What? What did I do?"

"You scratched me... or dug your nails into my skin... or something. Don't get coy with me! You know what you did!" the large man bellowed.

Sandburg raised his hands defensively in front of him. "No, I swear, I barely touched you."

Jim winced, then maneuvered around the couch. "Stop shouting, goddamnit!"

"I'm not shouting, Jim," Blair said, making an effort to keep his voice soft and steady. "You're the one who's shouting. Now just--"

Jim winced again, raising his hands to cover his ears. "Damnit."

"What, Jim? What is it?" Blair whispered.

The Sentinel's eyes blazed with anger, his gaze fixated on Blair like a predator about to pounce on its prey. "Your heartbeat's too damn loud."

Blair's face went white, and he backed slowly toward his room. "Just calm down, Jim. Let's work on the dials some more."

"Screw the dials!" he snapped. "This mumbo-jumbo new-age hippie crap of yours is bullshit and I don't know why I put up with it."

Blair knew he was rapidly loosing control of the situation, and Jim looked to be only a moment away from snapping. He decided a quick retreat would be the wisest course of action, but he didn't like leaving the Sentinel alone. On the other hand, he valued his own health and, quite frankly, he wouldn't be much use to Jim without a beating heart.

"Okay, okay, you're right," Blair said quickly, his voice soft. "You want me to leave for awhile. I'll leave. No problem. Then you won't have to listen to my heartbeat, but that's not gonna silence the rest of the sounds." He walked backward into his bedroom. He decided to give it one last ditch effort before making his exit. "So do you want me to leave? Or do you want me to help you through this, Jim?"

The Sentinel's expression softened infinitesimally. "No, I don't want you to leave." His gaze fell to the floor, and he raised one hand to rub his temple. "I don't know what's gotten into me, Chief. I'm sorry."

Blair released a relieved sigh, then forced a smile. "It's okay," he said, shrugging one shoulder. "So, what do you want to do? Work on the dials some more?"

Jim shook his head. "No. I don't know. I don't know what's wrong with me. Things are all out of whack, and every little thing irritates me. I shouldn't be taking it out on you."

Blair moved closer to his partner. "What kinda things are outta whack? Your hearing, I know. Your touch? What did you feel when I touched you?"

Jim shook his head. "I don't know... like a burst of pain. Almost like being burned."

"And yesterday the eggs tasted spicy hot to you, right?"

Jim nodded.

"And all this started yesterday morning at breakfast?" Blair asked.

Jim released a sharp breath. "Yes, we've already covered this, Sandburg."

"Did you use any new products? Shampoo? After shave? Soap?"

Jim shook his head irritably. "No. No. No. It's everything I've been using."

Blair inhaled a deep breath, focusing on his center, trying to calm his racing heart. Jim was getting irritable again, and he didn't know if he could keep the man calm. "Look, the dials seemed to work... well, until I touched you, that is... and you were only working on sound at the time. Why don't we try it again, one sense at a time, until you've got them all under control?" Blair held his breath, waiting for the older man's response.

Jim hesitated for a moment, then finally nodded. "Okay, I guess that makes sense," he relented, moving back over to the couch and plopping down on the cushions.

Blair released a heavy sigh and walked lightly over to the armchair. He took Jim through the relaxing exercises, working on each of the dials one at a time, starting with hearing -- again -- and ending with smell. By the time he guided Jim through the end of the exercises, the Sentinel was asleep on the couch, snoring softly.

Blair sat in the armchair, watching the detective sleep. His mind raced frantically, going over everything he knew his friend had been exposed to recently, trying to find the one new thing that could be the cause of Jim's sensory problems. Nothing presented itself. All the food and drinks in the loft were the same old, same old -- things Jim had been exposed to hundreds of times. He'd checked out the bathroom and found nothing new in the medicine cabinet, and all of the Sentinel's soaps and shampoos were the standard, familiar brands.

So Blair sank deeper into the cushions, his chest heavy with the knowledge that his partner needed help, and he had no idea how to give it to him. Unconsciously, his gaze drifted to the red-and-green-wrapped present under the tree -- Jim's gift. Some Christmas the big guy gets, he thought miserably. He was grateful, at least, that Jim had the next forty-eight hours off because the man was in no condition to be out in the field.

Blair sat there for almost an hour, his gaze drifting between Jim and the Christmas tree while his mind pondered the possible causes of Jim's sensory ailments. Soon, his eyelids drifted shut and, before he knew it, he was fast asleep.

Jim awoke to silence. He opened his eyes and lifted his head, and was immediately greeted to the sight of his partner stretched out in the armchair, his legs straight out and his head tilted back. There was no sound -- no breathing, no heartbeat -- and a sharp pang of panic stabbed his chest. He tensed, about to leap off the couch, when he noticed the steady rise and fall of Blair's chest. His shoulders sagged in relief, and he sank back against the cushions. If not for the motion of the young man's chest, Jim would have had no idea that he was breathing. There was no soft sound of air sliding in and out of lungs, no gentle snoring, and, most disturbingly of all, no heartbeat. He must have turned the sensory dials lower than he ever had before. It was disturbing, not being able to hear anything, but, on the other hand, it was a vast improvement over the sensory assault he'd experienced earlier.

And he had Blair to thank. He studied his partner more critically, focusing on the soothing motion of the young man's chest. No heartbeat. He clenched his jaw as the events of that morning came fully back to him. Had he really told Blair that his heartbeat was too loud? He closed his eyes and tilted his head back against the couch. Yes, damnit, he had. God, I'm sorry, Chief. I don't know what's wrong with me. He felt like he was going crazy... just like he had when his senses first emerged after Peru, before he'd met Blair Sandburg... and just like then, Jim had gone a little psycho, and, Blair, heedless of the peril, had stayed right by his side.

Who was the crazy one?

Jim shook the depressing thoughts aside and eased himself off the couch, making an effort to be quiet -- though he really had no idea how much noise he was making. He wanted to let Blair sleep... the kid certainly deserved a bit of down time. The Sentinel treaded lightly up the stairs to his room, deciding that a little gift-wrapping would be just the thing to ease his mind. Hell, it had to be done sooner or later, anyway. He only hoped that the gift he'd gotten his partner would make up, at least a little bit, for the way he'd treated him recently.

Jim retrieved the bags from the closet and sat down on the bed, taking the wrapping paper, scissors, and tape out of one bag and then pulling out the gift to be wrapped from the other bag. He noted with satisfaction that, while his hearing seemed to be out of whack, his sense of touch, at least, was back to normal. Experimentally, he sniffed the air, and the soft scent of Blair's herbal shampoo wafted to his nostrils. Okay, three out of five ain't bad, he mused. He couldn't really gauge his sense of taste, and he had no desire to go downstairs to the kitchen to experiment, so he turned his attention back to the gift on the bed. Working as quietly as possible -- at least he hoped he was being quiet -- he set to the task of wrapping the presents.

The soft crinkle of paper broke through his slumber. His eyelids flickered open, revealing dark brick and yellow pipes. He blinked, momentarily disoriented, and lifted his head, finally realizing that he was in the loft's living room. His eyes shot to the empty couch, and he furrowed his brow.


The crinkling sound pulled his gaze upward to Jim's bedroom. Concern touched his brow, and he pushed himself out of the chair.

"Jim?" he whispered, keeping his voice low in case his partner's hearing was still out of whack.

Receiving no answer, he headed up the stairs. "Jim?" he repeated, somewhat louder.

He creeped his way up the stairs, his heart pounding with apprehension as he listened to the soft crinkling of paper. Why wasn't Jim answering? Even with his hearing turned down, he should have been able to hear the last call.

He peeked over the top of the stairs and saw Jim sitting on the bed, hunched over something, but his shoulder blocked Blair's view.


When the Sentinel didn't respond, Blair's concern grew and he walked up behind his friend. He was about to reach out and touch Jim's shoulder when he remembered the man's earlier response, so he walked around the bed. He caught a glimpse of a half-wrapped box before Jim stiffened in surprise and yanked the box behind his back.

"What are you doing up here?" he asked.

Blair took a step back, his brow creased. "Uh, well, you weren't downstairs and you didn't answer me when I called..."

Jim cocked his head, then turned his gaze to the covers, inspecting a piece of lint.

"I can't get the dials back up," Jim said softly.

At first, Blair wasn't sure if he'd heard Jim correctly.

"What was that?"

Jim continued to stare at the the piece of lint, and it was then that Blair realized he had heard correctly. His chest tightened. Oh no. Not again. He remembered the blindness Jim had experienced after being exposed to the Golden. Now it seemed the Sentinel was deaf.

He sat down on the edge of the bed, wanting to gain his friend's attention but reluctant to touch him for fear of provoking another violent reaction.

Fortunately, Jim spared him a decision by lifting his head. "I'm sorry, Blair," he whispered, his voice a little too low. "I don't know what's gotten into me lately. I'm sorry I went off on you like that earlier."

Blair offered a small smile that was obviously forced. "It's okay," he said, making an effort to enunciate each word so that Jim could have a decent chance of reading his lips.

This new development worried him, forming a knot of dread in his gut. Turning the dials down should not have caused Jim to lose his hearing under normal circumstances... but things were not normal. He was now certain that Jim had been exposed to something that was adversely affecting his senses, but he had no idea what, and Jim wasn't doing much to help Blair figure out the puzzle.

But he had to figure it out, and soon. It was imperative that he isolate and remove the cause of Jim's sensory ailments. Chronic exposure could cause irreparable harm to his friend, but there was no way Blair could protect Jim until he knew what was wrong.

Well, if worse comes to worst I can always get us out of here... somewhere far away from the source, whatever it is. We'd have to leave just about everything behind... no telling what it could be.

But first he had to find out just how extensive Jim's sensory void had become. "How are your other senses?" he asked slowly, making sure his lips wrapped around each word distinctly.

Jim shrugged casually. "Touch and smell seem okay," he replied. "Sight is obviously good. I don't know about taste."

Blair nodded absently, biting his lower lip as he pondered the information. So only hearing seems to be affected right now.

He debated taking Jim through another round of relaxation in an attempt to reset the dial, but he didn't know if that was such a good idea. Just a few hours before, Jim had seemed on the verge of losing control. At least now the Sentinel looked calm and relaxed.

Blair decided just to let things be for the moment. He would wait to see if the situation corrected itself and, in the meantime, he'd head down to the store to replace as many items in the loft as possible. No more tap water, and the bottled water in the fridge would be thrown out. He'd have to buy all different brands of everything, since he couldn't think of anything new and unusual Jim had been exposed to recently. Maybe one of the products in the loft had had its formula changed slightly, or maybe a mistake had been made during packaging that somehow contaminated the product. Of course, buying all new products presented a risk of its own, but, at the moment, it was better than keeping Jim exposed to whatever was causing his problems.

"I'm going to go shopping," he told his partner. "I don't know what's causing your problems, but it's gotta be something in the loft. It all started yesterday morning, so it's probably not something you encountered at work or in the field... unless you can think of something?"

Jim gave him a blank look, and Blair realized he'd said too much, too quickly.

"Sorry," he mouthed.

Jim offered a small smile and a curt nod in reply. "It's okay. I got the shopping part."

"Okay," he replied, then looked around the bedroom for a pen and paper.

He spotted a pen on top of the bureau and rose to his feet to grab the item. He snatched up a discarded piece of wrapping paper from the bed and rested it on his knee while he wrote the message down on the white back. Finally, he handed the paper to Jim and waited while the Sentinel read the words.

'I'm going shopping to replace as many of the products in the loft as I can. There's gotta be something you're being exposed to here that's causing your problems, unless you can think of something at work that you were exposed to. Can you? Either way, don't worry about your hearing loss right now, and it would be best if you just keep the dials low.'

Jim looked up at him and shook his head. "No, I can't think of anything. You go ahead. I promise not to touch or ingest anything until you get back. Okay?" he said, the edge of his mouth tilted upward in a lopsided smile. He pointed to his bureau. "Take forty dollars out of my wallet."

Blair smiled. "Okay, if you're gonna twist my arm," he joked.

Jim chuckled and waved him away. "Now get so I can finish wrapping your present."

Blair's eyebrows rose almost to his hairline, and he made a show of trying to peek over the detective's shoulder. "Oh? So that's what it is, huh?"

Jim shifted to block Blair's view. "Get out of here, Junior. No sneak previews."

Blair laughed and relented, taking the forty dollars out of Jim's wallet and leaving the man to his gift-wrapping.

Blair returned about an hour later carrying five plastic bags filled to the max. Normally, he'd have chosen paper bags, but the weather outside was too cold for him to make several trips to carry up the groceries. He'd added twenty dollars of his own money to the total, but still he wasn't able to replace EVERYTHING... that was just too infeasible at the moment. So, he concentrated on replacing kitchen and bathroom items... especially the bathroom items since Jim's first episode occurred after he'd emerged from the shower.

He'd made a list of all the products in the loft so he could be sure to purchase different items. He would have liked to take note of all the ingredients, but that just wasn't possible... it would have taken him forever to write down everything.

He set about throwing out and replacing each item, but, surprisingly, his sixty dollars only replaced about three-fourths of the bathroom and half of the kitchen. When he finished, he carried the three trash bags of discarded products one-at-a-time down to the dumpster, then he walked up the loft stairs to check on Jim.

He found the detective sprawled on his back on the bed, a roll of wrapping paper discarded on the floor next to two empty bags. There was no sign of the presents he'd wrapped, so Blair assumed they were under the tree. He pursed his lips as he studied the motionless man. Asleep again? Jim certainly seemed to be getting his share of shut-eye lately, and Blair didn't know if that was a good sign or a bad sign.

He decided to let his partner sleep, so he shuffled downstairs and grabbed the afghan from the couch. Then he trotted back up to the room and draped the blanket carefully over his partner, since Jim was laying on top of his own covers.

Blair trotted back down to the kitchen and stuck his list on the refrigerator. He wrote a note telling him not to use any of the items NOT crossed out on the list that were still in the loft, and placed the note next to the list on the refrigerator. That way, just in case Jim slept through the rest of the day and woke up before Blair in the morning, he'd know which items to avoid.

That accomplished, Blair headed into his room to finish some work on his laptop.

Christmas morning...

Sunlight tickled his eyelids, urging them open. James Ellison released a satisfied sigh as he slid out of bed and shuffled down the stairs in his black boxers. The Christmas tree stood near the balcony, standing guard over a pile of presents. He looked at the presents beneath the tree, focusing on the ones that he'd wrapped yesterday. A tiny smile touched his lips, and he glanced at the french doors.

The loft was silent... so silent that he suspected his hearing was still suppressed. A brief slither of panic filled his chest. What if the hearing loss wasn't temporary? What if it wasn't just that he'd turned the dial too low, but that whatever he'd been exposed to knocked out his hearing permanently?

He clenched his jaw and shook the thought aside. Blair had known how to help him when the Golden robbed him of his sight, and that had turned out to be only temporary. So he trusted Blair now. His Guide seemed confident that the hearing loss wasn't something to be overly concerned about, and so Jim wouldn't worry about it... not like worrying would change anything, anyway.

He glanced at the VCR clock on his way to the bathroom. It was a little after six-thirty in the morning, and, so, he assumed his partner was still asleep in his room.

He released a slow, deep yawn as he sauntered into the bathroom. He quickly shaved and then stepped into the shower, letting the hot spray soothe the tension in his back and shoulders.


The Sentinel cocked his head. He thought he'd heard Blair call his name, but, since he couldn't even hear the spray of the shower, how could he hear anything else? He shook his head as though clearing the remnants of the whisper out of his ears, and then rinsed off the last of the soap.

"...doesn't know."

He tensed under the harsh spray and quickly turned off the water, tilting his head as he focused on the sound, but the loft was suffocatingly silent. He clenched his jaw. This was getting damn irritating.

Resolving to find the source of the sound he was sure he'd heard, he stepped out of the shower and quickly dried off. He wrapped the towel around his waist and stormed over to Blair's room, flinging one of the doors open.

A mound of covers buried his partner, leaving only a tuft of curls exposed at the top. Automatically, he extended his hearing to listen to Blair's breathing and heart rate to determine if the kid really was asleep, but his efforts were met with a frustrating wall of silence.

Jim felt the anger swell in his chest, and made a colossal effort to push it back down. He hated feeling that way, like he had so little control over his emotions. He might have been accused of having a hot head, but he'd never felt such overwhelming, violent anger... and the fact that he had so little control over it angered him even more.

With a clench of his fist, he backed out of the room and closed the door, then spun on his heels and headed up to his room. He threw the towel on the crumpled covers of his bed and stalked over to his bureau, rifling through the drawers for something to wear. A pair of jeans and a blue flannel shirt met with his approval, and he quickly dressed.

"Once I publish..."

His head snapped up, eyes blazing. This is getting ridiculous, he thought. He set his jaw and ignored the soft whisper, turning his attention to fixing the bed. He hung the damp towel over the railing and straightened the covers, tucking the edges beneath the mattress.

"...I'm outta here."

"Damnit!" He didn't even hear his own curse, but, somehow, the harsh vibration of his vocal cords gave his some comfort. "Stop it! Just stop it!"

"I don't even need his permission."

With a burst of anger, Jim tore the covers from the bed and flung them to the floor. What the hell is going on here? Am I hearing him? Is it all in my head. THAT was a disturbing thought. Before, when his senses first emerged in Cascade, he thought he'd been going insane because he could hear, see, smell, and taste things that others couldn't, but at least those things had actually existed. Now, he was hearing things that he couldn't POSSIBLY be hearing.

Or could he?

Maybe he was experiencing some type of selective sensory spike. He'd been able to tune out other sounds before to focus in on one sound, so maybe that's what was happening now.

He shook his head. No, Blair was asleep in his room. He'd just checked on him, and, even so, the kid certainly wouldn't say such things.

"I'll just submit it, and, before he finds out, I'll be long gone."

"Shut up!" His hands shot to his ears in an effort to block out the incessant voice.

"And when he does find out, he won't be able to do anything about it."

The anger exploded in his chest, and he stomped over to the head of the stairs, intent on finding out once and for all if the voice was real or in his head.

"He'll be snatched up as a lab rat..."

His descent was stopped short by an unexpected obstruction, and he looked up to see Blair standing on the third step from the top of the stairs, his mouth moving silently and his blue eyes filled with concern.

'Jim,' the young man mouthed. 'You okay?'

The anger swelled, filling his head like a vat of hot steam. He could swear he felt the pressure inside his skull, ready to explode at any minute, and it left him with a monster headache. He just stood there, gazing at the young man, focused on one thought.

He's awake.

"You're up?" Jim asked, unaware that his voice hissed dangerously.

Blair's eyes widened, and he swallowed visibly, his adam's apple bobbing. 'Yes,' he enunciated, nodding. 'How are your ears?'

"How long have you been awake?" He moved closer to the young man, forcing Blair to take a step down to avoid being pushed.

Blair shook his head. 'Not long, I...' the rest of his words were lost when he began to speak and gesture quickly, his face taking on the guilty expression Jim had come to know so well.

It infuriated him.

"You're lying!" he snapped, and, in a flash, his hand shot out to grab the young man by the collar.

But Blair flinched backward at the sudden vehemence in Jim's voice. What followed happened so quickly, Jim didn't have time to react. He watched with dull detachment as his fist closed around air. Blair toppled backward, rolling down the steps and coming to an abrupt halt on the floor below. He lay limp as a ragdoll, unmoving.

Jim stood like a statue, a cold, hollow feeling in his chest. He stretched his hearing, listening for a heartbeat, but heard only silence... that damn, impenetrable silence.

"I can't believe you killed me, man," the voice mocked.

"No!" he charged down the steps toward his fallen partner, his chest heavy with the realization that it had all been in his head, and the anger had taken control of him once again.

He knelt down next to Blair, noting the gash in the young man's forehead that oozed blood. The thick red liquid snaked down the side of his face, falling in droplets to the floor.

With a shaking hand, Jim reached out and pressed his fingers against the side of Blair's neck. A steady pulse drummed beneath his fingertips, and he released the breath he'd been holding, his shoulders sagging with relief.

Blair's eyelids fluttered open, and he groaned.

Jim blinked. He'd heard the sound, low and raspy. Suddenly it all came to him with crystal clarity -- the steady thrum of Blair's heart, his soft breathing, and the second low moan that rose from his chest.

Blue eyes peered up at him, hazy with pain and confusion. Then, in a flash, the haze lifted, replaced with fear, and Blair gasped, scampering away as though Jim were a poisonous snake.

"Blair--" Jim reached out one hand, but a cry from his partner silenced him.

Blair fell back against the floor, cradling his left hand against his chest, his eyes clenched shut in pain. Jim's eyes snapped to Blair's wrist, just then noticing the protrusion pressing outward against the skin. He scampered toward his partner, desperate to ease the pain he had caused.

"Let me see," he said softly.

Blair's eyes shot open and he used his legs to push himself backward. "Just stay away from me... please." His voice held a tinge of desperate terror that sliced into Jim's chest like a knife.

Jim's outstretched arm fell to his side, and he lowered his gaze to the floor. He's afraid of me, he realized with icy dread. I made him afraid of me. He listened to Blair's frantic heartbeat, drumming as though he'd just run a three-minute mile.

Sandburg sat up, rising awkwardly to his feet.

Jim couldn't believe what he was seeing. "Blair, don't. Stay still," he pleaded.

Sandburg seemed oblivious to Jim's pleas as he staggered backward toward his room, his wide eyes focused on Jim. The Sentinel saw the sheen of perspiration on his friend's forehead and the slight dilation of his pupils, and recognized the signs of a concussion.

He's not thinking clearly. He needs to stay still. "Blair, please." He rose to his feet, and immediately realized his mistake.

Blair gasped and hurled himself into his room, slamming the door shut. Jim heard a soft thud that sounded like a body hitting the floor, and he was just about to charge into the room when he heard the soft click of the lock being engaged.

Hesitantly, he walked over to the door, listening to his Guide's soft breathing and pounding heartbeat. He tapped lightly on the glass. "Blair? I'm going to call an ambulance, but I need to know that you're okay for right now."

"I'm fine," came the strained reply.

A hospital was no place to spend Christmas, Jim thought miserably as he slouched in the waiting room chair.

"How did this happen?"

Jim looked over at his Captain, mulling the question over in his mind. After a few seconds, he sighed, leaning forward and rubbing his hands over his face. "It's a long story, Simon," he began. "I don't even know how to explain it." He shook his head, deciding to just come out with the truth. "My senses have been acting up lately, and weird things started happening."

"What kind of weird things?" Simon interrupted.

Jim flashed him an annoyed look, but recognized the beginnings of the anger and clamped down on the emotion. "I... Well, it all started a couple of days ago. Blair had cooked breakfast, and it smelled funny to me." Slowly, methodically, he explained the events of the past two days, keeping his gaze carefully trained on the floor.

When he finished, silence reigned. Then, a firm hand closed over his shoulder.

"Let me talk to Blair. We'll figure this out, Jim," Simon promised.

"He's afraid of me, Simon," Jim whispered. "I can deal with the sensory stuff, but not with him being afraid of me."

The Captain sighed. "Jim, just give him some time. He had a concussion, and he was hurting. Quite frankly, he had a right to be afraid of you. You could snap his neck in less than two seconds."

Jim winced. "I know, Simon."

"But he's loyal to a fault, Jim," Simon continued. "He'll hammer away at this until he comes up with the solution. He might be afraid of you, but I guarantee he'll be more afraid FOR you. He's not going to leave you alone on this, Jim."

Jim squeezed the bridge of his nose. "Maybe, but it's probably best if you go in to talk with him once the doc says it's okay."

Simon patted his shoulder. "Sure, Jim... but it WAS an accident. Don't beat yourself up over something you never intended."

The Sentinel shook his head. "I was out of control, Simon. I just got so angry... furious. I mean, I've been angry before and lost my temper, but nothing like that. I made him fall. I yelled at him, lashed out. Simon, I don't even know what I would have done if I'd gotten a hold of him... I was just so angry. I couldn't think."

"How are you feeling now?"

Jim sighed. "Better, but the anger's still there, just under the surface... it's just not as strong anymore."

"Anymore... uh... voices?"

He closed his eyes. "No. That stopped."

"Look, Jim--"

"Mr. Ellison?" a deep voice interrupted.

Both men looked up to see a white-haired doctor with round glasses and a round, pudgy face. The older man wore a tie decorated with Santas and Christmas trees, and a little reindeer clung to the tube of his stethoscope.

"Yeah," Jim replied.

The Doctor took a seat next to him, extending his hand. Jim shook it briefly, eager to hear the report on his partner.

"I'm Doctor Brannen. Mr. Sandburg has a concussion and a broken wrist," he began. "It looks like he dislocated his shoulder, but if so, it popped back in immediately. He's got some swelling in the area, and we've immobilized the shoulder, but it should heal in about a week, maybe a week and a half." He glanced at Simon, then back at Jim. "How did he sustain his injuries?"

Jim raised his eyebrows, surprised by the question. "Didn't he tell you?"

Brannen shook his head. "He says he fell down the stairs, but his responses are so terse that I get the impression he's not being entirely truthful," Brannen stated honestly.

Jim swallowed, glancing down at the floor. "That's the truth," he said, his voice low. At the moment, he saw no need to elaborate.

The doctor looked momentarily uncertain, then nodded and sighed. "Okay, then. He needs to be supervised over the next twenty-four hours, so, unless there's someone who can stay with him, he'll have to stay here."

Jim raised his head and glanced at Simon, then looked at the Doctor. "Uh, well... maybe it would be best if he stayed here."

"I think so, too, but he seems pretty antsy. We're having a hard time getting him to take the pain killers. He's asked about you several times. He's refusing to take any meds until he talks to you."

Jim glanced uncertainly at Simon, then back at the Doctor. "He... He wants to see me?"

Brannen nodded. "Very much so."

Jim didn't know whether to be relieved or concerned about his partner's desire to talk to him. Just a few hours before, Blair wanted to be as far away from Jim as possible, even locking himself in his room. A knot twisted in his gut at that thought... his friend hurt and afraid, seeking protection from his own partner... someone he was never supposed to fear. What if Blair only wanted to talk to him now to tell him it was over? He surely wouldn't want to go back to the loft -- not with a psycho sentinel roommate.

"You can see him now, if you'd like," the Doctor said, interrupting his train of thought.

Jim inhaled a deep breath. He ached to see his partner and to reassure himself that Blair was going to be okay, but a part of him was deathly afraid of what his partner had to say. Take your lumps like a man, Ellison, he told himself.

He squared his shoulders and nodded. "Okay, Doc. I'd like to see him."

Brannen smiled and rose to his feet. "Right this way, Mr. Ellison."

Jim and Simon followed the Doctor up to the second floor. The Captain waited outside in the hallway while the Doctor pointed Jim to the right room, then took off down the hall to check on another patient.

With an anxious glance at his Captain, Jim pushed the door inward and stepped into the room. Blair laid asleep on the bed, his head bandaged and his left arm wrapped in a cast, resting in a sling. His left shoulder was also immobilized beneath a cover of bandages.

Jim grabbed a chair from the corner and dragged it over to the side of the bed. A deep frowned settled on Jim's face as he sat down on the chair. He knew Blair couldn't have been asleep long, because concussions mandated that the patient be woken up every hour. Even so, he felt reluctant to wake him up.

Not wanting to startle his partner, Jim leaned back, but stretched his arm out to place a gentle hand on Blair's right elbow. "Sandburg?"

Blair turned his head toward Jim, releasing a low groan. His eyelids fluttered open, revealing pained blue eyes. "Jim?" he rasped, his voice low and coarse.

Jim nodded, not sure what he should say.

Blair spared him further indecision. "I'm sorry I freaked out earlier," the young man apologized. "It was just an accident, I know."

Jim was flabbergasted. He'd tried to prepare himself for just about anything Blair had to say, but an apology just wasn't something he could have anticipated.

Jim shifted forward an inch. "You're sorry? God, Blair, there's nothing you need to apologize for. I'm the one that needs to apologize. I--"

"I know, you're sorry," Blair interrupted, offering a small smile. "Really, it's not your fault... No more than it was my fault when I was dosed with Golden and shot up the police garage. So how are you feeling now?"

Jim gazed in awe at his partner, wondering how on Earth he had managed to come across someone like Blair Sandburg. The kid was most definitely one-of-a-kind, and a better friend than Jim deserved.

"I'm fine," he managed, leaning forward over the bed railing. "More importantly, how are you?"

Blair offered a lopsided grin, his gaze flickering to his cast. "Oh just great, but it was kinda scary waking up to see a large green elf standing at the foot of my bed."

In spite of the miserable knot in his chest, Jim laughed at the vivid image.

"Man, they should NOT be dressing up like that in a place filled with people on drugs," Blair continued.

Jim patted Blair's elbow. "I'll pass on the advice," he said.

Blair held his smile for a few more seconds, then it faded, replaced by a more serious expression. "Now, Jim... How are you really? You got your hearing back, obviously."

Jim nodded, his expression faltering. "Yeah, obviously." He glanced down at the blanket. "I..." He had to tell Blair about the voice in his head, but it wasn't something he felt comfortable admitting. It put him just shy of the loony bin. "I owe you an explanation," he began. "I, uh, I woke up early and took a shower. I thought I heard you call my name, but, when I checked in on you, you were sleeping. My hearing was still on the fritz, so I knew I couldn't have heard anything." He slowly explained the voice that taunted him until Blair woke up, studiously avoiding his friend's gaze as he related the words he THOUGHT he'd heard.

When he finished, there was a brief pause, then a low voice interrupted the silence. "Jim," Blair began, sounding distinctly uncomfortable. "That was obviously an auditory hallucination, but the words had to come from somewhere in your subconscious. Do you really think I'd do that?"

Jim's head shot up quickly, and he looked very much like a deer caught in headlights. "No, of course not," he reassured the younger man. "I don't--"

Blair shot him an annoyed look, one that said 'cut the crap'.

Jim had the good graces to give into that look. "Well, maybe a little," he amended. "Not so much now, anymore, but when we first met, yeah, I thought you might do something like that."

Blair tightened his jaw and nodded. "I understand, but I'm not going to, you know. We've got a deal, and I intend to stick to it."

"I know," the older man replied.

"Now back to your hallucination," Blair said. "Did you get my note? Tell me you didn't use any products that I didn't replace."

Jim raised his eyebrows. "What note?"

"Oh man," Blair sighed, closing his eyes. "You did, didn't you? I should have thrown the whole lot of them out, but I kinda needed to use some of them myself."

"I didn't use anything. I just shaved and took a shower. That's all."

Blair opened his eyes, his brow furrowed. "You used soap, shampoo, and shaving cream? Toothpaste?"

Jim nodded. "I didn't get to brushing my teeth, but I used the others."

A slow smile formed on Blair's lips. "I replaced all the shower stuff, but not the shaving cream or toothpaste. I ran out of money. So it's gotta be the shaving cream."

Jim shook his head. "But it's the same brand I've been using for over a year. It never caused me any problem before, so why now?"

Blair shrugged his good shoulder, then winced when the motion jarred his injured shoulder. "I'm not sure," he said quickly, careful to avoid any further movements. "Maybe they screwed up the packaging. Maybe it got contaminated somehow. Just stop using it and see if things get better."

"I'm better now," Jim said. "No more voice in my head," he offered a slight smile to offset the words.

Blair nodded. "And it's been, what, over four hours since you used it?"

"Yeah," Jim admitted.

"Well, that's probably it then. Just don't use it. Okay? Let's see how that goes."

Jim nodded slowly, his face grim. "But what if that's not it, Sandburg? What if--"

"That's it, Jim," Blair quickly reassured him. "That's gotta be it. It's the only thing that makes sense. Look, maybe you can take the stuff down to the forensics lab and see if got contaminated somehow."

Jim nodded, but he didn't feel reassured. The knot in his chest twisted. One wrong chemical, and he was turned into a virtual psychotic. He wasn't exactly a safe person to be around. And, God, Miss Delman... He leaned forward on the bed railing, releasing a long sigh.

"I guess I have some major apologizing to do to our neighbor," he said miserably.

Blair managed a small chuckle. "Don't worry too much about it. You'll think of something -- a big bouquet of flowers, chocolates, cookies, paying her next month's rent... something."

Jim forced a small smile. "I guess so," he said.

"Yeah, I--" Blair cut his reply short, his gaze shifting to a point just beyond Jim's shoulder.

His eyes widened with surprise, and Jim turned around to follow his gaze. Outside in the hall stood Simon, Rafe, Brown, Taggert, and Megan, all dressed in Christmas paraphernalia and holding presents.

Simon looked uncertainly at Jim, shrugging his shoulders as if to deny responsibility for the sudden appearance of the officers. Blair chuckled and waved them inside, which was just the signal they needed. Joel Taggert pushed passed Simon, and the rest of the gang followed him inside.

"Hey, Hairboy," Brown said. "Only you could manage a hospital visit on Christmas!"

"Yeah, so, what exactly happened, Sandburg?" Rafe asked.

"Oh just leave him be," Megan interjected.

"So do we all get to sign your cast?" Joel asked, smiling brightly.

"Don't any of you have anything better to do on Christmas," Simon growled, walking around the foot of the bed to stand across from Jim. He looked down at Blair and offered a lopsided grin. "So how ARE you feeling, Sandburg."

Blair put on the most brilliant smile he could muster, but Jim could still see the lines of pain at the edges of his eyes. "Pretty good, Sir," he said.

"We brought you your presents, Sandy," Megan said, holding out a white bag. "Yours and Jim's."

Blair actually blushed. He raised his good arm to take the bag, but Jim beat him to it.

"No moving around, remember," the Sentinel admonished. "I'll open them for you."

"Hey, but that's the fun part," Blair protested.

"You only have one good hand, remember, Junior."

"Whatever," Blair grumbled, then let his eyes wander over the group. "You guys didn't have to come down here, though. I mean, what about your families?"

Joel leaned forward and patted Blair on the knee. "Hey, I know mine can do without me for an hour. I already opened all of my presents, anyway."

Jim pulled out a red-and-green-wrapped box with a large white bow. He glanced at the nametag and smiled, looking up at Blair. "To Sandy," he read.

Blair rolled his eyes. "Just open the present."

Jim chuckled and tore off the wrapping paper, revealing a plain white box. He opened the top and peered inside, then reached in and pulled out a medium-sized hardcover book.

Blair opened his hand and Jim handed him the book.

"Magic and Medicine in Ancient Civilizations," Blair read from the cover. He looked up at Megan and smiled. "Thanks. This is really great."

The Australian smiled sheepishly. "Well, I figured that would be a safe enough present for an anthropologist."

"Hey, it's pretty cool," he said, placing the book on his lap and reaching for the bed control.

Again, Jim beat him to it. "Will you just stay put, Sandburg? Let me do it." He pressed the button and raised the bed to a comfortable forty-five degree angle.

"Thanks, Jim," Blair said. "Now it's your turn."

Jim smiled and looked up at Megan. "You know," he said, letting his gaze sweep over the gang, "all your presents are back at the loft still."

"Oh posh, just open it already," Megan chided. "We'll get ours later."

"Yes, ma'am," Jim said, reaching into the bag to retrieve his present.

He pulled out another red-and-green-wrapped present, but this one had a large blue bow. Eagerly, he tore off the wrapping paper, revealing a box for an electronic gadget called "The WatchDog."  He flashed Megan a skeptical look, then opened the box, pulling out a small model of a mean-looking dog with a permanent snarl etched on its face.

Megan grinned. "That's for your desk. It's a proximity alarm. Anybody comes too close, and the dog growls."

The rest of the gang, including Blair, broke into laughter.

"It's perfect, Connor," Simon commended.

Jim ducked his head in embarrassment, putting the dog back in its box. "Ha. Ha," he grumbled.

Joel slapped Ellison on the shoulder and placed his own bag at the edge of Sandburg's bed. "My turn," he said.

Jim steered Blair into the loft, keeping a steady hand on his partner's good arm. He was still amazed that Blair wanted to go home with him, and he'd tried to convince the kid to stay overnight in the hospital, but Blair stubbornly refused to spend Christmas at Cascade General.

Blair tried to slide out of Jim's grasp, and the Detective released his hold. "You doing okay?" Jim asked.

Blair nodded. "Fine," he said, his voice a little subdued. He'd finally accepted the pain killers, and they were definitely putting a damper on his energy level.

Sandburg headed to the bathroom, and Jim closed the front door, then moved into the kitchen to start a kettle of water.

"I'm going to check on that shaving cream," Blair mumbled as he disappeared into the short hallway.

"You know, you should be taking it easy, not moving around," he yelled, making a feeble attempt to induce his partner to sit down. He'd spent enough time with the kid to know that it would be virtually impossible to get him to relax until the mystery of Jim's sensory problems had been solved.

The Sentinel adjusted the flame on the stove, then glided into the hallway. He peeked his head into the bathroom, seeing Blair standing over the sink, the can of shaving cream held in his hand.

"So?" Jim prompted.

Blair looked up, his brow furrowed. "Jim, man, look at the back of this can." He handed the item out to Jim.

The Detective took the can and turned it around, peering at the information written on the back. He spotted the small letters on the lower portion, and unconsciously tightened his grip on the offending product.

"It's a new formula," Blair voiced. "They didn't bother labeling it all that conspicuously -- small black letters on the back of the can."

Jim nodded, his jaw clenched. Stiffly, he hocked the item into the trash bin, then grabbed Blair's elbow. "C'mon, Chief, let's get you settled into bed," he told the young man, steering him out into the hallway.

"No, man, I'm okay," Blair protested. "I think you'll be okay, now. The effects of that thing don't seem to last very long, but I guess each time you were exposed to it, your reaction was more severe."

The tendons in the Sentinel's jaw twitched. Ignoring Blair's protests, he steered the smaller man toward the lower room.

"Hey, c'mon, Jim," Blair said, twisting out of Jim's grip... a move that would surely have caused him a significant burst of pain had he not been doped up. "Let me at least open my presents. Besides, I wanna see you open yours." Without waiting for Jim's reply, he shuffled over to the tree and eased himself down on the floor.

With a resigned sigh, Jim followed after his partner, dropping to his knees next to the tree.

"You first," Blair said, his eyes bright with eager anticipation. He pointed to a large red-and-green wrapped present. "That's yours."

"I know," Jim said, flashing a smile  He'd already inspected the gift when it first made its appearance under the tree a few days ago. He'd shaken, sniffed, and listened to it, but he still had no idea what the box contained. "I see you and Megan have the same taste in wrapping paper."

Blair shrugged. "Hey, it was on sale. I figure, skimp on the wrapping paper, go all out on the present... but if you'd prefer expensive wrapping paper and a cheap present, I'll be happy to oblige next--"

"No, no," Jim said quickly, chuckling as he grabbed the gift. Without further ado, he tore off the paper, revealing a standard cardboard box. He raised his eyebrows and flashed a mischievous look at his partner. "Keeping the mystery up, I see."

Blair grinned. "Just shut up and open it."

"Yes, Sir," Jim replied, offering a mock salute. With exaggerated reverence, he lifted the top of the box. As he peered inside, his eyebrows lifted slowly. He reached inside and pulled out a much smaller box, then looked up at Blair inquisitively.

The young man simply shrugged and smiled. "Hey, I wanted to keep you guessing."

Jim shook his head in amusement and opened the top of the small box. What he saw stole his breath. Embedded in a cushion of thick tissue paper lay a sparkling gold pocket watch, an obvious antique restored to mint condition.

"Naomi says it belonged to my grandfather," Blair explained. "It was just an old broken pocket watch when she gave it to me, but it was the only thing she had from my him. I had the jeweler on Third restore it to its original condition. It even keeps good time, now." He gestured to the watch. "There's an inscription on the back."

With exquisite gentleness, Jim lifted the watch out of its nest. His chest tightened as he turned the delicate piece over to read the engraved words.

To Jim,
Friend and
Blessed Protector

A sudden sensation of heat stung Jim's eyes, and he didn't trust himself to raise those eyes, so he kept them glued to the gold watch. "Blair, this is... this is incredible. Thank you," he said, his voice rough. In an effort to distract from his own reaction, he glanced quickly at Blair's present under the tree and said, "Your turn."

Blair needed no further prodding. He pulled the red box out from under the tree with his good arm, then tore off the paper. Jim finally raised his head to observe his partner's reaction to the gift. Blair reached inside the box and pulled out a large, thick leather journal. With a quizzical glance at Jim, he opened the cover... and the color drained from his face.

"Blair," Jim started, leaning forward in concern. Damn, maybe this wasn't the thing to spring on him right now, he suddenly realized. He'd truly thought Blair would be ecstatic to receive the writings, but he now had the sinking feeling that he had just made a big mistake.

Blair swallowed and looked up at Jim. "How--?" The word caught in his throat, and he shook his head in bewilderment.

"I... uh... well, I sent word to the Chopec with the request," Jim explained, his voice a bit shaky with apprehension. "They had a local translator reproduce Incacha's journals in English, and I paid for that, and to have it shipped here. I told them what Incacha's last words were, and they agreed that you should have his journals... but, of course, you don't speak Chopec. Anyway, it's not all of it, just the time that I was there in Peru, and then a year's worth of his writings before his death. Even the drawings have been faithfully reproduced."

Slowly, Blair flipped through the pages, his eyes scanning the text. He was silent for several long seconds, then he lifted his eyes to meet Jim's gaze. "I don't know what to say, Jim... I... I mean, we never talked about it afterward. I didn't really know how you felt about it, and I didn't know what I was supposed to do."

Jim nodded solemnly. "I know, and I'm sorry for that." He glanced anxiously at the journal. "Is this okay with you?"

Blair blinked, looking almost shell-shocked. "Huh?"

"The journal," Jim explained. "I mean, I know you didn't ask for what Incacha planted on your shoulders."

Blair swallowed and looked quickly back down at the journal. "Jim, this is... this really means a lot to me. I just don't know what to say, but, yeah, it's more than okay with me." He took a deep breath and looked back up at the Sentinel. "Thank you," he said, a slight quiver in his voice.

Jim searched Blair's expression and satisfied himself that the young man truly was pleased with the gift. He breathed a sigh of relief, and his face broke into a huge smile. "You're welcome, Chief. Merry Christmas."

The End

Hey, it's the giving holiday, so fork over those comments <grin>