A Sentinel Carol
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Sandburg's laugh pealed through the bullpen's open door. "You actually said it, man! I've never heard anyone actually say it."
Looking the worse for wear, Jim Ellison shuffled through the door with a handful of wadded tissues in one hand and the other pressed to his throbbing head. Shedding his coat, he sank behind his desk and dabbed his reddened nose.
"Hey, Hairboy." Brown smiled widely. "What'd you do to your partner?"
"Would you believe he stood in the elevator and said, 'Bah humbug'?" Blair rolled the words around on his tongue, clearly relishing them. "Bah humbug! Just like Ebenezer Scrooge."
Drawn from his office by the rising laughter, Simon looked first at his detective, then at his detective's keeper. "Sandburg, he looks terrible. He looked fine when he left for lunch. What did you do to him?"
Looking nonplussed, Blair said smugly, "I wasn't the one who insisted we go Christmas shopping."
Jim sniffled and turned his swollen eyes toward the captain. "Thought the mall would be less crowded at lunch," he croaked soggily.
"Ah," philosophized Megan Connor. "Another holiday virgin bites the dust. Let me guess children?"
"City and county grades one through three," supplied Blair.
"Carols?" Megan continued.
"Mostly 'Run, Run Reindeer' with that 'Christmas Shoes' song liberally mixed in."
"Pine-scented plastic trees, you Americans have strange habits."
"Plus the department stores had elves wandering around practicing biowarfare." If anything, Jim's croak was sounding worse and the faces around him lost their joviality.
Blair translated, "That would be the perfume counter clerks. They were spraying everyone in sight."
A deep rattling cough shook Jim's already tilting frame and Henri winced. "That's a hell of an allergic reaction there, babe, maybe you ought to take something."
Blair shook off the puppy-eyed look his partner sent his way. "I don't think that's a good idea, Jim. We don't want to make you worse. I think the best plan is to get you somewhere as quiet and uncontaminated as possible and let your body decompress."
Simon motioned toward the hall. "McKenzie's office is still empty. There's a sofa in it. Maybe if he lies down for a while ..."
"Sounds pretty good." Blair put a hand under the sentinel's arm and
urged him to his feet. "Why don't we see if you can recover on your own without
adding any other chemicals to the mix."
"None of the good stuff?" Jim was trying to walk through the computer monitor. Blair led him around the end of the desk.
"Sorry there, big guy. Too much of the bad stuff to have any of the good stuff."
Simon joined them when Jim tried to exit through the bullpen wall. "Maybe you should take him home, Blair."
"It won't matter. I can't give him anything without risking making it worse." Blair paused, letting the captain get a good grip on his listing detective. "The best thing we can do is let him lie down and keep an eye on him. If he starts to have trouble breathing I'll call an ambulance, but otherwise this is just SOP. If we keep him away from other irritants he'll slowly start to get better."
Simon did one of his I-really-don't-want-to-know-this-sentinel-stuff grimaces. "Does this happen a lot?"
"I wouldn't say 'a lot,' but enough to know that most of the time we just have ride the symptoms out, if he can." Blair conceded. "Introducing something else into his system is only going to draw out his recovery time."
Jim was leaning on the larger man, slowly letting more and more of his weight be supported as the ringing in his ears and the hazy rainbow encircling his vision became more insistent. Simon resolidified his grasp.
"Jesus, Sandburg, we should keep him in a bubble."
There was a snort from Blair, then a grunt as he found himself pushed into the wall by his drunkenly weaving and much taller partner. "Don't think I haven't thought about it."
The leather couch in the unused office was long enough to accommodate Jim's tall
frame, and Blair wadded up his coat to use as a pillow. Jim burrowed into it, surrounding
himself with Blair-scent, oblivious to his captain witnessing what would otherwise be the
humiliation of admitting -- to anyone besides his partner -- his senses' desperate need
for Sandburg's calming influence.
Blair ran a hand along Jim's forehead, checking for fever, but the skin beneath Blairs palm felt cool enough. His breathing was less labored than it had been in the truck and the tensely held shoulders seemed to be relaxing as he pressed his face further into the fabric.
"You're doing good, man. I just want you to rest for a bit. In the meantime, I'm going to work on your paperwork but I'll be back in about fifteen to check on you."
The reply was too mumbled to be deciphered.
"That's it. Just go to sleep, Jim. When you wake up you'll feel much more like your old self."
The hand on his shoulder was shaking him insistently and he blearily shrugged it
off. "You said I could sleep, Chief."
"Sleeping on duty, Slick? Banks must be getting soft in his old age."
Jim groaned. His head hurt like hell and it appeared that he was hallucinating. Either that or Blair was starting to sound just like Jack Pendergrass. He managed to lift his aching head then immediately dropped it back down into Blair's jacket. Damn. It had affected his
vision too, because Blair was looking like Jack as well.
"Worse than I thought," Jim mumbled, rubbing his eyes.
"Come on, Jim. You're not pleased to see your old partner?"
Refusing to look back up, Jim muttered into the makeshift pillow. "You're not Jack."
Pendergrass patted down his suit. "I'm not?"
The Blair-who-looked-like-Jack astonishingly agreed. "So I am, but I didn't come all the way back here just to have you think I'm a hallucination."
Jim tried to get to his feet, but sitting up proved to be too great a challenge. He toppled back into the comfort of Blair's coat. An icy cold helping hand wrapped around his upper arm.
"Sorry. December in the Cascade Memorial Gardens leaches the heat right out of you."
"Oh man ..." The room was spinning dizzily but Jim knew he was going to have to get to the door and at least sprawl into the hall if he wanted someone to get Blair.
"Just sit still and listen to me, Slick."
Now that was a tone he hadn't heard in a long time. At least he hadn't heard it used on *him*.
"I came back to tell you something and by God you're going to listen. You know me. You know I wasn't the best cop. Hell, I wasn't the best at anything, not like you are, Jim. But what are you doing with it, huh? Bitching and griping when you really ought to be using your talent to help people. Not that you aren't when you have to, but there's so much more you could do. From what I see, humankind needs a whole lot of help, Jimmy and you could give them some. If you'd quit wasting your time feeling sorry for yourself."
Jim opened his mouth then shut it again. No use arguing with a figment of your overly stimulated senses.
"Listen to me here, Slick. I love you. You know that, too. And I'm going to help you, whether you want it or not. There's some people who want to have a few words with you. You can expect the first one at noon tomorrow."
Groaning, Jim buried his head back into the coat's smooth lining.
"Jim? Hey, you with me?"
Cautiously, Jim lifted his head. The rainbow halo had faded from his vision and the pounding in his head was down to a manageable throbbing.
Familiar, worried, blue eyes peered down at him. "I didn't have the heart to wake you before now but it's almost five, and I think it's time we get you home."
"Yeah, I finished all the paperwork on the Hartman case while you were napping." Blair caught his shoulders as he tried to straighten, holding him upright. "How's the headache?"
"Anything else still weird?"
Jim shook his head then had to wait a minute while the contents of the room stopped swirling. "Think I was hallucinating there for a while though."
One of the supporting hands left his arm to firmly grip his chin, tilting his head so that Blair could examine his eyes. "The jungle again?"
This time he refrained from moving his head any more than was absolutely necessary. "No, Jack Pendergrass."
Jim carefully disentangled himself from his perpetually cold partner's hands.
"Jack? Your old partner? That Jack Pendergrass?"
"Yep, and he wasn't real happy with me."
Blair took his news all rather calmly considering. "I don't know what was in that perfume, but you definitely gotta stay away from it."
With his partner's help, Jim managed to stand shakily. "You'll get no argument from me, Chief."
"Don't tell me you're going out there again, Jim. You almost wound up comatose yesterday." Simon opened the door to the bullpen, looked out then shut it again. "Where's Sandburg?"
Simon frowned. Caught. Damn.
"He's at the university."
"And you're going to the mall without him?"
"It's not like I couldn't think up ten other tortures I'd rather face but I've got to go shopping." Jim ticked off the list on his hand. "My father, my brother, Sally, Sandburg. It's the twenty-third, Simon, and I have no gifts. So, yes, I am going to the mall. Most
adults do it successfully; surely I can too."
The captain barely got his mouth open.
"Don't say it Simon. Just don't say it."
He could do this, Jim reassured himself. He could do this very simple thing that all normal people he knew did. He could walk into Cascade Mall, go to the three stores he needed to hit and walk out. He could do it because people did it by the hundreds everyday. That fact he was a sentinel had nothing to do with it. The fact he could already
feel the beginnings of a migraine was probably due to something else entirely.
He sighed. The explanation didn't convince him either.
Consequently, he was already irritated when he hit the crowd shuffling in and out the non-automatic doors. Three steps into the mall and he dialed down each of his senses, bringing the raucous noise to a mere hum and the plethora of odors to zero. He was almost deaf but he was okay. The pain hadn't gotten any worse. He could turn
sight back up to compensate and if he didn't actually have to talk to anyone (and he sincerely hoped he didn't) he knew he could actually make this work.
Feeling a bit more comfortable, he made a sharp right hand turn through the stream of shoppers and headed for the specialty music store Blair liked to browse in. Keeping a watch for wayward children and inattentive, shopping-bag-laden office workers he worked his way down the mall.
His plan was working pretty well -- until he passed the mall center where the line to see Santa twisted and writhed with impatient children and one of them grabbed his arm. Instinctively, thinking his help was needed, he let the dial for hearing swing back toward normal and immediately winced as the combination of twenty stores' piped-in carols, the squeals of excited kids and the mutterings of annoyed adults fell on his ears.
Looking down, he realized the hand tugging at him didn't belong to a child. The gnarled fingers were livid with age-spots and the face staring up at him was craggy and pinched with annoyance.
"Well, come on!"
Jim narrowed his eyes. The little man had on a musty elf suit, the kind the malls took out of storage once a year, with pointy little shoes that had lost their bells -- one minor victory in the cacophony.
"Get a move on it! The line's halfway to Seattle!"
Strangely, the little man didn't seem so little anymore; then he realized the real problem was he didn't seem so big. Great. Another hallucination. Forget the CDs, Blair was going to have his head for Christmas. He glanced around the mall, looking for a clear path to make an escape. The place had a strangely modern air about it, that he was sure hadnt been there before. The kind of modern from his childhood with aluminum trees and spiky, sputnik ornaments.
Something else was wrong; well, if something else wrong could even be noticed when it seemed he had shrunk three feet and settled into some delusion that the mall was decorated pre-Space 2001. He wasn't the only one being ungently tugged by the sturdy Santa's helper; an even smaller child, feet planted in useless resistance, was being hauled forward along with him.
The decidedly familiar looking boy opened his mouth and screamed, setting Jim's ears ringing. The malicious elf didn't seem to notice. He merely pushed the protesting toddler onto Santa's furry lap then turned and lifted Jim.
Lifted? Jim blinked. Before him, anxious faces stared out of the waiting line. Among them, one he hadn't seen in thirty years - the face of his mother. She was gamely cajoling Stevie to stop crying with reminders of how important it was to their father that this
picture be right.
A certain desperation furrowed her otherwise youthful face. "We wouldn't want Daddy to be disappointed, would we?"
"Heard that a lot, didn't ya?" The elf waved a stubby arm and the rest of the mall froze in a horrible holiday tableaux.
It took considerable effort to draw his attention away from the odd scene before him. "What?"
"You got that a lot from them, didn't ya? Stand still, be quiet, don't disappoint Daddy."
Jim tried to get down but 'Santa' had a bulky arm wrapped securely around his too-small waist.
"Who?" Shit, he was reduced to single syllables.
"Jack told you I was coming. It's noon, isn't it? You should have been expecting me."
Jim closed his eyes in desperation, willing everything to be normal when he opened them. He promised himself he'd give up Christmas shopping entirely. He'd forget his pride and tell Sandburg to come get him. Anything to stop this ... this ...
"Who'd you expect?" the voice grumbled. "The Ghost of Christmas Past?"
Eyes flying open he found himself in the same position as before, captive on
Santa's knee, legs dangling over the side of the futuristic throne.
"Look, we don't work that way anymore. Okay in Dickens' day, but nowadays people can take a few more special effects -- like the switch to your childhood body. Pretty impressive, huh?"
Struggling to move the leaden arm holding him, Jim grunted in futility.
"Okay, okay. Let's get it over with ... thought you'd be happy to see your family." The elf looked toward Stevie frozen in mid-howl and his mother fixed in a pose of sugary pleading. "Or maybe not. Point of this was that you've got to realize this is what made you who you are. You're stiff, you know that? Grumpy. But it's not entirely your fault. I mean look at her. She's so afraid of your father that she's forgotten this was supposed to be about you and your brother, not about the perfect picture. Cameras, hell, they've caused more trouble than practically any other modern device. People are so busy setting
up the shot, they've forgotten to enjoy the moment. You think it would've been better, don't you, if she hadn't left? But look at her. She's a pawn of her husband. I mean, sure, it's the sixties, things were different, but let's face it, what kind of power did she have?
Look at your brother. Does he look happy?"
Jim turned away from the sheer agony on the face of the child next to him.
"Nothing, given the circumstances, would have made it better. That's what Jack wanted you to know. Stop thinking about it. Quit letting it keep you, even now, from trusting someone you love. If you don't ... well, it won't be good. It'll be worse."
The elf snapped his stumpy fingers and ...
Jim had to fight to hold himself upright. An angry mother of three pushed past him, using her expensive stroller as a battering ram in the fight to join the Santa line. Jim mumbled an apology and staggered back out into the stream of bodies looking for a door. Any door.
"Damn." Simon surged to his feet and put an arm under his detective's shoulder and half-carried him to the couch. "Do I need to call Sandburg?"
Jim shook his head. He'd made it this far. Hell, he'd *driven* so he was pretty sure he could make it back to his desk.
"Simon, how much would it take for you to buy your own present?"
By quitting time, Jim found he was actually feeling human again and the crisp air
of a rare clear night left him oddly energized. Blair would be out at some university
party. He had wanted Jim to go, but hed cheerfully let him bow out as usual.
Climbing the stairs to the loft, Jim realized that though he'd given Sandburg permission to decorate, this year the student had set out nothing more than a small Menorah with carefully selected candles guaranteed not to irritate his sensitive roommate. Jim sighed.
Sandburg might be Jewish by birth but he was eclectic where holidays were concerned, and he loved Christmas. He loved the extra effort that went into charity this time of year, the relative peace that descended on the city the night of Christmas Eve, even loved the
glitzy, overdone decorations that Caroline had left behind.
Jim didn't think he could bring himself to put up the more glittery ornaments but there were a few plain glass balls he thought he wouldn't zone on. Maybe some lights and that star Caroline had quickly traded for a pink-draped angel with light-up wings. It would
make Blair happy, and really, what did it cost him? Plus it might distract the ever-agile mind from noticing the slightly glazed look of a roommate recovering from his second hallucination in as many days.
Heading down to the basement, Jim found the ladder and set it up so he could climb to the upper shelves of the storage cage. Halfway up, the dizziness he thought had gone away hit him again and he felt himself falling, arms pinwheeling, right before his head contacted the cracked concrete and everything went dark.
"Sir? Sir can you hear me?" The brilliant flash of light sent
staggeringly sharp pains through his right eye. He slapped at the source of the agony and
heard the penlight hit the cinderblock wall. Blinking against the afterimage, he could
just make out a female face and a familiar uniform.
Paramedics. Wonderful. He really could have done without an official report eventually making its way to Simon.
"I need you to stay still. It appears you took a heck of a fall. Good thing your neighbor happened to come down here." She nodded at someone out of his vision. "It's okay, Mr. Parvati, you can go."
Again Jim tried to struggle into a sitting position.
"Uh uh. Now, can you tell me your name?"
"Jim Ellison. I'm a detective with the Cascade PD."
The news obviously failed to impress. "Good for you. Can you tell me what day it is?"
"Close. December 24th."
Jim squinted at her, willing his vision to stop blurring. "It's after midnight? How long have I been out?"
The paramedic glanced down at her watch. "It's seven thirty p.m." A hand firmly checked his pulse. "When did you come down here?"
"Around six o'clock." Jim mumbled the rest, "December 23rd."
Apparently approving of his vitals, the woman helped him sit. "Anything odd been happening to you lately, Detective?"
"How'd you ..." Jim stopped to cradle his head in his hands. "You're one of them."
"One of who?"
She sounded innocent enough but he noticed a distinct lack of warmth from the body leaning over him. "Them. First Jack, then that pointy-eared elf. Now you."
"If you prefer, you can call me the Ghost of Christmas Present. I'm used to it."
Jim nodded. At least his hallucinations were consistent. He imagined himself facing Sandburg and admitting to two bouts of sensory dementia and a blow to the head. The wrath of the guide would not be a pretty thing.
"What can I do to get this over with?"
"Just come with me. We're going to take a walk upstairs."
He could hear Blair's voice well before they reached the door. "Simon, if you know what's going on with him you need to tell me. Something's wrong and I don't just mean the hypersensitivity. I know he doesn't like the holidays but there's usually some sign of life. He told me I could decorate the loft but it was clear he didn't really want me to."
Blair grunted, pacing. "No I don't know if sentinels suffer from seasonal affective depression more than other people. There's a lot of things I don't know. Too many."
Closing the loft door behind him, Jim watched as Sandburg wiped a hand over his drawn face.
"I know, Simon. I am the best person there is to help him but that means the best person there is doesn't know enough. I'll never know enough. No, he doesn't help me. He's not ever going to help me. It's part of who he is."
The pacing resumed. "I try. I really do but do you know what it's like to get him to talk? Okay, yeah, of course you do, but you only have to get police reports out of him. I have to try to get a fucking report on his body, or worse, his feelings. Yeah, I know. I'm sorry
Simon. It's just I don't know where he is and after what you told me about his little shopping trip yesterday I'm just worried. He could be zoned or hurt, unable to ask for help and nobody is going to understand what's going on with him if they find him like that. Yeah, I'll try the cell phone again. Hell, I may even go down to the mall. Yeah, I'll let you know if I find him."
But instead of heading straight for the door as Jim expected, Blair sank into the sofa.
"Hell, Jim." The words were sentinel-soft. "Why won't you talk to me?"
Blair's fingers picked at the fabric of the nearest cushion. "'Cause you can't, I know. I know that. There's a whole hell of a lot you can't talk to me about, isn't there?"
Still wavering from the blow to his skull, Jim's vision narrowed until all he could see was his partner at the end of a darkening tunnel...then even that light winked out.
Who was groaning? Jim tried to rise up enough to see who needed help only to
realize the sounds were coming from his own throat. Slowly he flexed his limbs, making
sure they all still bent in the right direction. He was somewhat surprised to find they
did. He must have landed on his head.
Damn. Sandburg really was going to do so serious anthropological chewing of his butt. Still, he'd have to find him first and who'd think to look for him down here? Wincing, Jim drew himself up to sit crosslegged. He could just stay down here and hide from the tests he was bound to be subjected to if Blair didn't send him straight to the ER.
His watch face was a little blurry, but not so fuzzy he couldn't read that it was 6:45. That meant he'd only been out a few minutes. Staggering to his feet, he abandoned the idea of decorating; deciding Blair would rather find him conscious and not seeing little elves and
paramedics with no body heat.
A good medic never lets a person with a head injury fall asleep alone so Jim determined that if it took surviving back-to-back showings of "It's a Wonderful Life" he would stay awake until Blair came home, then he'd confess that he might have a slight concussion and let his partner take over worrying.
When midnight came and went, and then one and two, Jim realized that Sandburg, freed from the responsibilities of blue books and the babysitting of sentinels, might not come in until dawn. He tried to maintain a sleepy fixation on a parade of old Christmas classics, but around three he turned in desperation to the Weather Channel and promptly fell asleep.
The heavy pounding on the door woke him; a quick glance toward the balcony telling
him it wasn't yet dawn. He used a second to debate whether to get the gun from its drawer
before deciding that even if a crazed serial killer was at the loft door (and it wouldn't
be the first time) they didn't usually knock, and being armed while head-injured was not
too wise a move.
He didn't know why it didn't surprise him to find no one at the door when he finally did answer it. He wasn't much more surprised to turn back toward the comforts of the couch and find the loft was no longer there either. Jim wasn't much of a reader, but he knew the obligatory graveside scene from "A Christmas Carol" as well as anybody.
It wasn't snowing. In fact it looked to be summer, although the air held no particular warmth. The funeral party consisted of the usual number of cops, Carolyn, college students he didn't know, but there, no doubt, to support Blair. He looked around for the rest of Major Crimes but didn't see them, didn't see Simon or Sandburg. He did see
Naomi. Thank God for that. For once she would show up when Blair needed her, even if it was only in his delusion.
"Still think you're hallucinating?"
His father? Shit. "Dad?"
"Not exactly." But just like his father, the vision reached a hand to
brush an invisible particle off his custom-tailored suit. "Interesting, though, how
people conceptualize Death. Something of a study of mine."
No doubt Sandburg would find it fascinating. Jim craned his neck. Where was Sandburg anyway?
"Everyone dies," Jim acknowledged impatiently.
"Some sooner than others."
"I don't mind dying young." Jim shrugged. "I don't know that I've ever really been that keen on living to be an old man.
He looked around again, seeing now where the Major Crimes detectives had gone -- they were serving as his pallbearers.
"Where's Sandburg?" He wasn't sure why he needed to see him, but he did. It would help. Even a cold, transparent version of his partner would be welcome.
"He's there." Jim drew his gaze in the direction the apparition pointed, toward the silent bearers of the expensive casket. Jim struggled to see the familiar curly head. Probably behind Simon whose height could hide anyone.
"No," he whispered when their path turned and the hidden man was revealed. "No."
It was his own face that stared back at him.
"No, not again." He could feel the cool weight of Blair's body as they pulled him from the fountain. The anguished terror as Simon kept him from his partner's side. "I can't go through this again. I can't. Please. Please."
His father's fingers were warm as they wiped away the unexpected tears.
"Ssh. It's all right, Jim. It's all right."
The voices were garbled and the red light seeping through his eyelids painful. He kept his eyes shut; knowing he couldn't face the scene again, knowing he wasn't the one who died young.
"Is he coming around?"
"I think so. Come on, big guy, it's just a little further." A hand stroked his cheek and Jim realized that some of the words sounded like Blair was saying them, but then hallucinations were like that. Maybe he'd finally gone mad and his mind had supplied him with the only thing that would make madness bearable.
"Get the lights, Simon." A second hand closed around his other cheek, warm and comforting. "Okay, Jim, the lights are off. It's okay. You can open your eyes now."
The illusion seemed genuine, but they'd seemed real all along.
"Blair." It was more a moan than anything.
"I'm here, Jim. You've had a rough time but everything's going to be okay. Try to wake up for me now, okay?"
The voice beckoned maddeningly. His own Pied Piper. And finally, realizing he couldn't resist it for long, Jim blinked in the thankfully dim light. Smiling at the ghost beside him he let himself sink further into the delusion. He didn't care. He liked this one better than the others.
"Do you remember what happened today, at the mall? We went back to the station and when I went back to check on you ..."
Jim wasn't really listening. He was more than happy to let the beloved illusion of his partner's voice wash over him.
"Jim? Are you with me?"
"Yeah, but make it stop here, Blair. Dont want to see anymore."
"Make what stop?" Blair frowned. The doctor in the ER had said to expect some confusion but he was used to Jim snapping out of a zone fairly quickly.
"This has got to be the last one. Please."
"Jim, man, you're not making any sense." Blair hesitated then, not wanting to frighten his obviously struggling partner. "Uh, not that that's completely unexpected. I mean you had a hell of a reaction. Scared the crap out of me when I went into the office and found you
Relief washed over Blair, Jim seemed to be tracking what he said. "Yeah, at the station. I went back to check on you and you were convulsing. God, Jim, I didn't realize you'd react so badly to the perfume. I should never have left you."
Jim rubbed his thumb against the fingers holding his. "You're warm. You're really here, aren't you? I didn't lose you."
Not knowing what else to do, Blair affirmed his existence with a reassuring smile, "Yeah, man, in the flesh."
"You're not one of them," Jim reiterated seriously, holding onto his hand like a lifeline.
"Ghosts?" echoed Blair.
"Like in 'A Christmas Carol'."
"Uh, Jim, you really had a severe reaction. I wouldn't doubt you had hallucinations." Blair looked around the familiar confines of the hospital room. "But I can assure you, this is all real."
Jim nodded, if a bit reluctantly, his fingers still stroking Blair's softly.
Blair finally registered what his partner had said. "Did you say 'A Christmas Carol'?"
Another nod and Blair laughed again, happy to have his partner back, even if he was a little frayed around the edges.
"Bah humbug, man. You said it. Guess your mind just figured you should live it too."
Jim took a deep breath then hugged the younger man, accepting whatever Blair told him, reveling in the warmth, and mumbling into the curly hair.
"Not if I can help it, Chief. Not if I can help it."
Snow was falling when they finally managed to escape with the blessing of the harried doctor stuck subbing for half the medical staff on Christmas morning. Flakes drifted down lightly and settled in Blair's curls, frosting them, making them all the more hypnotic to a still dazed sentinel. Aware he'd suddenly lost the partner who'd been matching his stride precisely, Blair turned his head, shaking off the gathered snowflakes.
Jim tilted his head as if listening for something. "You didn't believe me, did you?"
Blair smiled and shrugged. "I believe you experienced what you said."
"But you don't believe it *really* happened."
"Who's to say what's real, Jim?" Blair took a step toward his partner. "Who's to say Jack Pendergrass didn't take time away from the afterlife to tell you to straighten out your life."
The statement met with an odd smile from Jim. "I don't know that *straighten* is exactly what Jack had in mind."
"Okay." Blair wrapped his arms around his chest to fight off the blowing cold. "So are you going to tell me what Jack really wanted you to do?"
Moving close enough to feel the body heat leaching away from the smaller man, Jim prodded him toward the truck, reluctantly turning over the keys. In a minute Blair had the engine cranked. It would be a few minutes before the truck generated enough warmth to make turning on the fan worthwhile, so Jim huddled toward the middle of the seat, grateful when Blair did the same.
"I'm not ..." Jim tried to draw back, but a small, square hand caught his wrist preventing his retreat. "Hell, Sandburg, if anybody knows this, you do. I ... I don't do this well."
Blair was studying his face intently. "This?"
"When it's serious. When it means something ..."
Obviously aware of his distress, Blair took Jim's hand in both of his. "So,
if you're this rattled, I take it you got the whole Dickens' treatment? Past. Present.
Rest-in-peace Jim Ellison."
"No," Jim whispered, looking away. "I didn't die." The truck
windows were fogging. Jim took his free hand and brushed away enough of the moisture to
see the swirling flakes. "Someone I loved did. I guess it's inevitable that I never
get to say goodbye -- that I never truly get the chance to say hello."
Blair frowned, one of the hands holding Jim's moved up to cup the older man's chin. He gently turned his partner's face back toward him.
"Jack?" Blair asked softly.
"Have you ever been scared, Chief? So scared you couldn't move? I was that scared." Jim pulled sharply away from the fingers warming his skin. "So I slept with Emily to prove there was nothing between us. And Jack knew. He knew. And then he died."
"Jim, I'm sorry..."
Jim swallowed convulsively, looking uncomfortably at the square hands that had sought out his own.
"Then you came. And I was scared again. So I pushed you away to prove there was nothing between us. And then you died." Jim's hands left the warmth holding them to frame his partner's face. "I thought it was my funeral. I thought you'd be carrying my coffin. But I was carrying yours." Jim's forehead rested against Blair's. "And I hadn't
said it. I hadn't said 'I love you'."
"I know you do, man."
"No, Chief, you don't understand. I *love* you."
Blair's hands pushed against Jim's chest, separating them enough so he could look into his partner's eyes. "No, you don't understand. I know you love me. I know you give me what you can."
"Oh God, Blair." Jim crushed the smaller body to his own. "I'm so sorry."
He kissed the smooth skin of Blair's forehead.
"Then at least let me give you what *I* can. Let me love you," whispered the man in his arms. "Please."
Eyes closed tight, Jim nodded. A feeling of peace swept through him; a smile barely lit his lips. An instant later those same lips were caressed by a tantalizing warmth. Senses merged as touch became taste and hearing. His whole body a receptacle for the sensation of Blair beside him. Caressing him, tonguing him, slowly divesting him of the clothing that the incredible rush of warmth had made obsolete. He was all skin and nerve endings, awash in a sensory bliss. So sensitive that he came from the mere brush of Blair's tongue on one erect nipple.
Blair's mouth found his and a soft whisper melted around his lips.