The Greatest Gift Of All
Happy holidays everyone and to my twin sis and fic soulmate, Annie, and my spiritual triplet, Melody, Happy Birthday!
Blair studied the pile of bills in front of him once more then resolutely turned on the calculator. Maybe he'd made a mistake the last time. Didn't hurt to check again, did it?
Tabulating the sum, he switched off the calculator and sank back against the sofa cushions with a heartfelt sigh. No matter how many times he worked at it, there was no way he was going to make ends meet this Christmas.
He knew deep down that Christmas wasn't about the material things. Naomi had drilled that into him often enough from the time he was five or six years old. Still when you knew that your best friend had bought you a gift, all the rhetoric you'd been taught kinda went by the wayside. At least, it did for Blair.
He couldn't help seeing the large, gift-wrapped box under Jim's bed. Well, okay, he could have but he'd already seen Jim walk into the apartment with it, the slight stutter of movement Jim made when he walked in and saw Blair there, not expecting him home for another couple of hours.
Blair had shrugged. "Kerry got the flu," he said by way of explanation. He eyed the box curiously. "You want a hand with that?"
"I got it, Chief." Jim continued his walk to the stairs and started up. "Something Simon bought for Daryl. Asked me if I could hide it here."
Blair couldn't resist checking the box out a couple of days later when Jim was on a stakeout late. Under the bed was a gift-wrapped box, same size as the one he'd carried in that night, but now it had Blair's name on the gift tag. He felt like a kid experiencing his first Christmas. In a way, he was. Naomi loved him more than life, but she'd never been big on celebrations. He remembered getting a bike two weeks before his birthday because his mother had seen it and bought it when it was on special. When he'd asked her why she didn't wait till his birthday to give it to him, she'd just shrugged, hugged him and proclaimed that everyday was a birthday. Other years, she'd seemed to forget it was his birthday, or perhaps money had just been tight and she hadn't wanted him to worry. Whatever the reason, ever since he'd been supporting himself, he'd embraced the Christmas spirit, joyfully giving gifts to friends and family, indulging in the pleasure of the season.
The guilt he felt at snooping frittered away in about two seconds, excitement swamping him. What had Jim bought him? He wasn't confident enough to do more than simply look at it, run his fingers lightly over the nearest, neatly folded edge of gaily patterned paper, but just the fact of knowing Jim had bought whatever was inside for him, even if it had only cost him a dollar was enough to send a frisson of warmth through him
And then he'd worked out his expenses and realized there was no way in hell he could even afford to buy Jim a Christmas card, let alone a gift, and he knew, really, that it shouldn't matter and Jim would tell him not to sweat it, but he would, and this year, he decided, Christmas totally sucked. He tried to console himself with the thought that at least he could pay his rent and buy the pizzas he'd promised Jim on Friday night, but it seemed a hollow commiseration.
He had a beef and red wine casserole simmering in the oven and was just sliding a chili and cornbread loaf into the oven to accompany it when Jim walked in the door.
Jim sniffed the air appreciatively as he pulled off his jacket and hung it on the hook then unstrapped his holster. "Smells great, Chief! Beef and red wine casserole? We haven't had that for ages."
Blair shook the wooden spoon at him. "You're good, man. Can you detect the extra I added to the casserole this time?"
Jim shook his head, frowning, though Blair knew it was only half-serious. "Tests, Sandburg, it's always tests."
"Be grateful," Blair preached. "It's what keeps your senses under control, and you on the street."
Jim waved a dismissing hand. "Yeah, yeah." He sniffed again. "Mustard," he announced triumphantly, "and wholegrain mustard, at that. I'm starving, Sandburg. Is it ready yet?"
Blair rolled his yes. "By the time you shower and change, and watch the news, it will be, and giving me pleading looks will not make it cook any faster, so go already."
Blair had just set their loaded plates on the dining room table when the phone rang. He didn't need sentinel hearing to know dinner was going to have to wait. Heaving a heavy sigh, he carried the plates back to the kitchen while Jim grabbed his weapon and their jackets.
"It'll reheat, Chief," Jim said. "In fact it usually tastes better the next day."
"I'm starving," Blair complained, helping himself to an apple from the fruit bowl on the way out. He held it out to Jim who shook his head.
"I had lunch," he said.
"I planned on it," Blair grumbled. "So, what's up?"
"Those two escaped cons, Fuller and Martin, were spotted near here about ten minutes ago."
Blair nodded, sucked up his disappointment at their delayed meal and crunched on his apple to waylay his hunger pangs as he followed Jim down the stairs.
"You got plans for Christmas, Chief?" Jim asked as they cruised the local streets.
Blair shrugged. "Not really," he replied. "Naomi's away again. Besides, I'm beginning to think Christmas is overrated."
"I thought you loved Christmas."
"I do. It's just this year " Blair stifled a sigh. "I guess it just doesn't feel the same this year."
"I know you're upset that Naomi couldn't make it but we'll still have a good time. Turkey and ham, the guys are coming over for your famous leftovers. Hopefully, the bad guys will take a vacation as well."
Blair pasted a smile on his face. "Now that would be a great Christmas gift."
Jim glanced over at him. "Something else bothering you? I know we've had a crazy couple of weeks."
Blair stretched the smile till it felt it would split his cheeks. "Nope, nothing at all. Guess I'm just looking forward to the break."
Jim nodded. He turned his attention back to perusing the sidewalks and studying the passersby before speaking again. "I've been wanting to say something to you, Sandburg, about Christmas "
Blair's spirits took a further downward slide. He hadn't thought about it until now. Jim was probably going to his dad's for Christmas Day. It made sense, after all. You spent Christmas with your family, not the guy who rented your spare room.
" Sandburg? Did you hear a word I said?"
"What?" Blair dragged his focus back. "Sorry, daydreaming. What did you say?"
"I just wanted to say -" Jim stopped and held up a hand. He slowed the truck down to a crawl. A small smile curved his mouth. "Well, well, look who it is. Tom Fuller. Wonder where his buddy is?"
Pulling the truck to the side of the road, Jim killed the engine and opened his door. "Call it in, Chief."
Blair reached for his cell phone but hesitated. "You want me to come with you? I mean, Martin could be with him, just hanging back or something."
Jim scanned the road in both directions. "I can't see any sign of him. They probably split up, to try to avoid suspicion. Besides, Fuller's limping and he looks out on his feet. I don't think he's gonna put up much of a fight."
Blair nodded and punched in the numbers. He watched Jim cross the road while he waited to be connected, then gave his ID and requested back up. Task completed, he opened his door and climbed out of the truck. Stepping around the front of the vehicle, he watched as Jim stalked his prey, keeping just behind the limping Fuller, probably until the sidewalk was clear before tackling him. Blair knew there was always the chance a desperate criminal might grab a hostage if cornered.
Blair's heart pounded with familiar adrenaline as he saw Jim pull his weapon and announce his presence. "Cascade PD, Fuller. Stop!"
Fuller only hesitated a split second then took off at a shambling run. Blair braced himself to follow, but before he could step off the sidewalk, he heard a car engine roar to life. Looking up, he saw a white sedan cut into the traffic, leaving plumes of blue exhaust smoke in its wake.
"Paul! Come back here!"
Looking over, he saw a small blond boy stepping out onto the road between two parked cars. Blair was racing for him before he'd registered he'd moved.
He was halfway across the street when he heard Jim's shout. He stuttered to a stop, then threw himself forward, feeling his hands impact the child's back, intending to push him out of harm's way. He rolled, desperately hoping to avoid the car, but as the road rose up to meet him, something slammed into his hip, tossing him up and over. The pain battered at him and he screamed. Oblivion rushed in and he didn't even feel himself hitting the bitumen.
The gentle tapping on his cheek was annoying the hell out of him, setting up a syncopated rhythm in his leg. He tried to move away from the annoying touch then arched his back, a moan scraping from his throat as shards of white-hot fire shot through his entire body.
The tapping stopped at least and something rested against his shoulder, stilling his frantic efforts to escape the pain.
"Easy, Chief. Settle down, okay?"
Jim. He felt himself relax then, his mind drifting away from the discomfort.
"Open your eyes, huh, Chief?" Blair made a small effort but he had to admit his heart wasn't in it. Even laying here motionless, he could feel a faint echo of the pain. There didn't seem to be a part of him that didn't hurt. "There's a pretty nurse here with a grape Popsicle to soothe your throat but you can't have it till you open your eyes."
"Don't like grape," he managed to husk out, realizing his eyes were opening of their own accord as he spoke.
Jim smiled down at him. Blair carefully turned his head, first to one side, then the other. They were alone.
"Liar," Blair said but he couldn't gather the energy to sound pissed.
Jim grinned and sat back on his chair. "Got you to open your eyes though." His face grew solemn. "How are you feeling?"
Blair sighed. "Like I got hit by a car." His eyes widened as the whole terrifying incident rushed back. "What about the little boy? Is he okay?"
"He's fine. A few grazes on his hands and knees from where he hit the road when you pushed him out of the way."
"Thank god. What about Fuller and Martin?"
"We got Fuller. Martin was in the car. He got as far as the city limits before they caught up with him. As for you -"
"Jim, I'm sorry, but I couldn't just stand by and watch that little boy get killed and anyway-"
Jim reached out and pressed a finger to his lips, stopping him mid-explanation. "I was going to say, as for you, you have a fractured femur about " His hand drifted down Blair's body and hovered over a point midway down Blair's right thigh, which Blair saw now was suspended above the bed by a pulley and ropes. It felt decidedly weird and he was terrified if he moved his leg in the slightest, he'd be in agony again. " here. And a concussion, some pretty impressive road rash. Apart from that, you're alive, and I'm pretty sure I heard the Commissioner talking about a commendation to Simon."
Blair felt his face heat with a mix of embarrassment and pleasure. "That's nice, man, but it's not necessary. I mean -"
"Just accept it with good grace, Chief," Jim insisted. "Might mean keeping him off our backs about your ride-along status for a while."
Blair gave a thumbs-up. "Gotcha. So, when can I get out of here?"
Jim's face fell. "Not until you get that complicated looking contraption off your leg. You've got quite a collection of pins and screws holding your femur together."
"So, how long?" Blair asked, although he had an awful feeling he already knew the answer.
"About 6 weeks. Sorry, Chief."
Blair felt tears burn his eyes and determinedly blinked them back. "So, I'll miss Christmas."
"No! Of course you won't! I'll be here, and I'm sure Simon and Henri and Rafe will drop by."
"You don't need to do that, Jim," Blair said. "You've got family to spend the day with." He summoned up a small smile from somewhere, though his chest still felt tight with pent up emotion. "Besides, I told you, I'm not really in the mood for Christmas this year."
"Well, I am." Jim leaned forward and tapped Blair's cheek. "I'd already planned to spend Christmas Day with you, Sandburg. Doesn't matter where we do it." He sat back again and crossed his arms over his chest. "You okay with that?"
Blair smiled as warmth suffused him, managing to quell even the painful throbbing of his leg. "You making that an order?"
"If I have to."
Okay, truth time. "Thing is, Jim, I can't afford to do Christmas this year. I mean, even before this " He waved a hand at his leg. "Now, with hospital bills to cover "
"All taken care of, Chief. The parents of the little boy you saved are insisting on covering all your medical expenses."
"That's really generous of them, but I couldn't."
"Already done. As a matter of fact, they'll be here in a little while. They wanted to thank you personally."
"Okay, I guess." Blair nodded. "I have no gifts for anyone, Jim. Didn't matter how I tried to figure things, there just wasn't enough money to go round."
"Seems to me, you've already given little Paul Stevens' parents the greatest gift of all, Chief."
"Yeah, but -"
"And me. My partner's alive, that's the best gift I could wish for."
Blair nodded, his throat too closed up to allow speech.
A knock sounded at the door and Jim stood and opened it, then stood aside to let a young couple enter. A small blond-headed boy, cartoon character plasters on both knees, cuddled against his father's chest, sucking furiously on his thumb.
"Mr. Sandburg," the man said, stepping over to the bed, his free hand outstretched. He took Blair's hand in his, squeezing it firmly.
Blair smiled and sketched a wave at the little boy. "Please, call me, Blair."
"Close your eyes, Chief. No peeking."
Blair did as bid then opened his eyes again. "Jim, it's okay, really. I told you that you shouldn't have bought me anything."
Jim shrugged. "Already bought your gift a while ago, Chief. Besides, I'm going to get as much pleasure out of this as you are. Now, close your eyes." There was a rustling of paper then a small thump as something was settled onto the chair by Blair's bed. "Okay, open your eyes."
Blair did and saw the brightly wrapped package he'd seen under Jim's bed. "I thought you said this was for Daryl."
Jim shrugged. "I'm allowed to do a little obfuscating, aren't I?" He gestured toward the large package, looking as excited as Blair felt. "Open it already."
Aware his hands were shaking just a little, Blair reached out and began to tear off the paper. He couldn't lean far enough over to get to it all and Jim obliged with the bottom part then stood back, a small expectant smile on his face.
"A backpack? Jim, you shouldn't have. I mean, this looks way expensive, and I have a backpack and -" Blair stopped, realizing how ungrateful he sounded. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean -"
"I know what you meant," Jim replied. He opened the box and pulled the large dark green backpack out, setting it on the bed next to Blair. "This is for when we go hiking together. Your school pack's getting worn out from you using it when we go camping, and this one's a lot bigger. Got a whole load of accessories too." He unzipped the top pocket and pulled a plastic yellow jacket out, shaking it out. "No more cold and wet is my world. Oh, and a compass Anyway, lots of neat stuff."
"Thank you," Blair said sincerely. He opened more pockets and checked everything out, piling things haphazardly on his lap, exclaiming over the nifty little folding cooking utensils and a box of waterproof matches. "We need to make sure I don't lose this next time we jump off a cliff."
"You got it, Chief." Jim took the box off the chair and sat down, looking pleased.
"Guess I won't be breaking it in any time soon though," Blair couldn't help adding, feeling a small knot of disappointment clench his stomach.
"By the time the weather clears enough to head up into the mountains, your leg will be good as new - and Simon's promised me a week off soon as you're back on your feet."
"As long as he's invited," Jim added.
"Wouldn't think of going without him." He looked up at a knock on the door. "Finally! That'll be your Christmas present."
"My present?" Jim stood and walked over to open the door. "Chief, I already told you I understand your situation."
Blair rolled his eyes and settled back against his pillows, his spirits lifting. "Open the door already, man."
Jim did and found Paul Stevens' father, Matt, standing on the other side, arms loaded with containers of food. "Detective Ellison," he said as he made his way in and began unloading the goods onto the rollaway table. "Merry Christmas!"
"What's this all about?"
"My wife is a chef, Detective. She wanted to do something personally for Blair as a thank you and when we heard he'd be in the hospital over Christmas " He waved a hand at the food. "Voila!" He shook Blair's hand, then Jim's. "I'm going home to be with my family, thanks to Blair. Enjoy!"
"Thank you, Matt, and tell Ellen thank you too. My mouth's watering already."
He watched Matt leave then turned to Jim. "There are plates and glasses in the bedside cupboard. I got Simon to bring them in yesterday. Merry Christmas, Jim."
Jim pulled Blair forward and wrapped him in a hug before settling him back against his pillows. "Merry Christmas, Chief."
"Now, serve it up already!" Blair ordered. "I'm starving!"