Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

SECRET SANTA

Christmas Story Free For All

No Box Big Enough

by Arianna

This story is composed of eight ‘no more than 500 word' word-prompt drabbles

and a final ‘Christmas Free-for-All' story written for LJ's Secret Santa 2006 celebration.

My thanks go to Ainm, for having organized the Secret Santa project for all of our enjoyment this year!

********************

Wreath

Word Count: 270

Blair hung his wreath, the only seasonal ornament small enough to carry with him from place to place, year to year, on the outside of their front door. Not large, it was a pretty thing of woven blue and green evergreen boughs intertwined with vines of glossy ivy leaves and cheerful, bright red holly berries. Each year, he made a personal ritual of renewing the treasured wreath with delicate, fragrant branches, and the pretty holly and ivy. While he wove fresh greenery or anchored new holly into the twisted frame of slim, bare branches, he reflected poignantly that the little decoration revealed his most deeply-held personal dream for those who knew the symbolic meaning of the plants, a dream he felt most keenly at this, the happiest season of the year. Pine stood for hope and fir for time. The smooth ivy represented friendship, affection and fidelity, and the holly promised domestic happiness. Taken altogether, they spelled 'home', something he'd never really had.

Until now.

Delicately, he brushed the tips of the needles with his fingertips and, with a small, reflective smile, he closed the door and turned to face his partner just as Jim plugged in the lights on their tree. Liona Boyd's Christmas CD played softly, filling the loft with the pure essence of her guitar as the lights began to twinkle merrily.

Jim looked up at the tree and nodded, satisfied. Straightening, he lifted his glass of eggnog from the coffee table and raised it in a toast, smiling broadly as he said, "Merry Christmas, Chief."

"Merry Christmas, Jim," he replied, happiness illuminating his eyes. "Merry Christmas."

********************

Jingle Bells

Word Count: 386

Blair rummaged in his backpack as Jim stonily navigated the snowy street on the way across town to interview a witness, and pulled out a red and white Santa hat – which he pulled over his curls – and then a small string of bells. Shaking them merrily, he began to sing with joyful abandon, "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way! Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse, open sleigh-eh! Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh, O'er the fields we go, laughing all the way!"

Jim gaped at him in astonishment and hastened to cut in before he could launch into another refrain. "Chief, enough, okay? What's with you today?"

"Hey, it's the holidays, man!" he laughed and jangled the bells. "We need to do more than decorate a tree and hang a wreath. We need to get into the joyful spirit of the season!"

"Have you ever even ridden in a 'one-horse, open sleigh'?"

"What? Are you kidding me?" Blair exclaimed, shocked. "Think about it. Sleighs, by definition, only work on snow. Snow is very cold. Cold means - I'd freeze my ass off, man! So, no, Jim, I have no interest in ever riding a sleigh."

Rolling his eyes, Jim asked, "Then what's the attraction of the song?"

"It's cheerful," Blair replied with a little shrug. "And the imagery is appealing."

"Imagery," he grunted. "Uh huh, of something you'd never want to do. Right." Chuckling despite himself, deciding to go with the weirdness that was Sandburg, he asked bemusedly, "Well, since it's the holidays and you want to get in the mood, and you don't want to ride a sleigh, what would you like to ride?"

"You, Jim," Blair replied, completely deadpan, with absolutely no inflection. "I'd like to ride you."

Jim gaped at him, caught the sly, twinkling sideways look, snorted and started to laugh so hard his eyes teared-up.

Blair just gave him a smug smile. "Well, see you're in the happy, holiday spirit already. My mission for the day is accomplished." And then he jingled the bells and, once again, launched merrily into, "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way!"

Unable to resist, Jim joined in to sing along with him, "Oh, what fun it is to ride, in a one-horse, open sleigh!"

********************

Snow

Word Count: 486

Trying to remain cheerful on a stakeout during a freezing blizzard, Blair crooned wryly, "Oh, 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."

Jim's lips thinned irritably. "Hard to hear while you're singing, Sandburg."

"Filter me out, Jim," Blair retorted.

Grimacing resignedly, Jim adjusted his hearing. Meanwhile, Blair continued softly, "It doesn't show signs of stopping, And I've brought some corn for popping." Rifling in his backpack for food and coming up empty, he sighed dolefully. "The lights are turned way down low, Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."

Dreading the dash to the apartment through the bitter, blasting cold when they finally got home, he hunched into his coat and stared balefully at the curtains of snow gusting violently past the truck. "When we finally say goodnight, How I'll hate going out in the storm! But if you'll really hold me tight, All the way home I'll be warm."

Shivering, he finished dispiritedly, "The fire is slowly dying, And, my dear, we're still goodbying; But as long as you love me so, Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow."

Lapsing into silence, shuddering with cold, he huddled in his seat. Jim shot him a brief glance but quickly returned his attention to the job. Every few minutes, Blair touched him lightly or whispered a question to ensure he didn't lose himself in the whirling snow or keening wind.

Soon after, Jim's cell brilled. "Ellison." Listening, he nodded. Pocketing the phone, he turned on the ignition. "They snagged him at his cousin's place. We're done for the night."

"Great," Blair gusted with relief, breath billowing whitely.

The driving was slow in the wicked weather, and dashing through the wild, tempestuous storm was as grueling as Blair had imagined. Even with Jim's arm around his shoulders and his partner blocking the wind, he felt the heat being leached right out of him. Upstairs, desperate to be warm, he hustled to his room to pull on more layers of clothing.

Back in the living room, heat was blasting from the fire Jim had started, and he was in the kitchen, looking through cupboards. "What do you need, man?" Blair called as he plopped down on the sofa.

"I thought we had some popcorn," Jim muttered.

Blair gave him a quizzical look, shivered and wrapped his arms around himself. "Don't think so."

"Huh," Jim grunted. Returning to the living room, he shook out the afghan and draped it over his partner. Sitting beside Blair, he threw an arm around his shoulder, drawing him closer to share the warmth he had in abundance. Deeply appreciative, Blair didn't resist. "Warming up, Chief?" he asked after a few quiet minutes.

"Hmm," Blair murmured sleepily and then sang softly, "Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…."

********************

The Holly and the Ivy

Word Count: 498

Blair jogged down the steps from Hargrove Hall and along the snowy, slippery walkway to the curb, where Jim was waiting in the truck to take him for lunch. "Sorry, man," he apologized breathlessly, "class went over."

"No sweat, Chief," he replied with a shrug as he pulled away. Beside him, letting his backpack slip to the floorboards, Blair fiddled with a small bundle of greenery that he'd been clutching since the class. After separating bits, he twisted a small wire binding some stems together and then hung the small bundle from the post of the rearview mirror. Glancing at the bright red berries, Jim grimaced. "Holly?" he enquired with a long-suffering sigh, knowing there had to be some weird, esoteric reasoning for cluttering up his truck like this. "Why?"

Laughing at the tone, Blair replied, "I was using this as an example in my lecture about how modern customs date back to some of the earliest folkloric beliefs. In this case, holly goes back to at least druidic times in early Celtic cultures. It's a charm for protection, healing, peace, goodwill, luck and anything to do with the element of fire. I figured, given the icy weather, the odds of you running into or after bad guys, and, well, just your driving in general, you can use whatever help you can get."

Snorting, Jim shook his head and watched as Blair stuck the sprigs of ivy he'd untangled from the holly into the buttonhole of his coat. "And the ivy? Is that a charm for staying out of trouble?" he teased.

"Well, the Ancient Greeks used it to avoid the ill-effects of imbibing too much," Blair chuckled. "But, no, its stronger associations from Celtic times are with fidelity, commitment, loyalty, faithfulness, reliability. It's mostly associated with marriage rituals but also has relevance for friendship and even, in the ancient Egyptian mythology, with everlasting life."

"So, you figure the ivy will help you be on time in keeping your commitments?" Jim challenged sardonically. "Or you hoping to impress some woman with your potential for fidelity?"

"It's just a symbol of the season," Blair returned nonchalantly, looking away. "So, where're we going for lunch?"

********************

Later that afternoon, Jim was striding past a flower shop when he stopped in mid-step. He turned and looked at the store, his expression thoughtful, and then he went inside.

********************

The next morning, Jim had already left by the time Blair got up. Running late, as usual, he grabbed his keys from the basket and hurried to his car.

When he saw a healthy bunch of holly hanging from his rearview mirror, he blinked in surprise, and then grinned in delight.

And he wondered if – when he got downtown later that day – he'd find a sprig of ivy in the buttonhole of his partner's coat. And if he did, he wondered if it would mean the same to Jim as it meant to him, a symbol of so much more than the season.

********************

Menorah

Word Count: 497

Finishing up his questions about a new protection ring in the neighborhood, Jim turned from the owner of the antiques shop and saw that his partner gazing at a small, elaborate, and beautifully-crafted candelabra. The wistful look on Blair's face quickly disappeared, though, when he looked away, understanding they were finished and it was time to go.

Crossing the sidewalk, Jim observed, "You seemed to be enthralled back there, Chief."

"Huh? Oh, yeah. It was a beautiful menorah," Blair agreed evenly. "I used to have one like it, not as nice, though, before the warehouse blew up."

"Menorah? That's something to do with Judaism, right?" Jim probed as they climbed into the vehicle.

"Uh huh," Blair agreed, fastening his seatbelt. "During Chanukah, the Festival of Light, the lighting of one candle each night on the menorah celebrates a miracle from more than a millennium ago. After the Maccabees drove out the invaders and retook the Temple in Jerusalem, they found it had been trashed and all but one day's worth of consecrated oil had been destroyed. Anyway, though it would take another eight days to bless new oil in accordance with tradition, they lit what they had to celebrate their faith and praise God. Only that single pot of oil burned for the whole eight days, a miracle that purified and re-sanctified the Temple. Eight, uh, has mystical and spiritual significance in the Jewish faith, in terms of man's relationship with God."

"You never seem all that, I don't know, affiliated with any single culture or belief system, Chief," Jim mused as he drove back downtown. Glancing sideways, he went on, "But, if you used to have a menorah, I guess you used to celebrate Chanukah?"

"I guess," Blair agreed, reflectively. Shrugging, he elaborated, "I find worth in a lot of different beliefs but … well, I like to also remember my own roots and celebrate the mysteries that hold promise and hope that the universe, or God, isn't indifferent."

Jim nodded, thinking about how they'd not celebrated Chanukah the year before - or Christmas, either, for that matter. But this year, they had a tree, a wreath and he had holly hanging from the rearview mirror.

********************

The next night, Blair wearily trudged up the steps and along the corridor to the loft. It was late, he was hungry and he was sure glad it was Jim's night to make dinner. "Hey, man," he called as he shrugged off his coat and hung it up. Turning, his gaze caught the exquisite menorah and candles on the table and he gaped. "Jim?" he queried, wide eyes tracking to his partner.

Shrugging, Jim kept stirring the stew. "Thought since we were celebrating this year, that we should honor your traditions, too. Hope that's okay."

Blair's throat tightened. "More'n okay," he murmured hoarsely, deeply touched. "Thanks, man."

"Your home, too, Chief," Jim replied nonchalantly, but with a small pleased smile. Looking up, he asked, "Hungry?"

"Starved."

"Then let's eat."

********************

Deck the Halls

Word Count: 498

Seasonal music played softly over the building's intercom system as Rhonda undertook her annual chore of decorating the office. She had the new fiber optic tree up in the corner, but the ornaments and other office trimmings were still piled on her desk or boxes beside it. The detectives hustled in and out, and Simon was reading a file in his office.

"Want some help?"

Relieved, she replied, "I really would, Blair. Alone, it's a chore, especially when I have to keep answering the phone."

"Hey, glad to," he grinned and got busy. When Jim returned from Forensics, Blair called casually, "Hey, man, can't quite reach the top. Would you mind putting up the star? Oh, and maybe you could tack some garland up on the walls? Your reach is better than mine."

"Sure, Chief," he agreed bemusedly. Traditionally, Rhonda did it all, but there was no reason not to help and it wouldn't take much time.

In minutes, Blair had involved the rest of the team with cheerful comments like, "Many hands make light work," or "Hey, H, which of these desk Santas do you want?"

Simon looked up and was startled to see all of his detectives busy decorating the office. His first inclination was to bellow that there was work to do, but he hesitated and then stood to stand in the office doorway to watch. Officers who had been testy for days with overwork and weariness were laughing and joking, playfully grappling over which ornaments or trimmings would adorn their work area and joshing one another about which little reindeer or bell should go where on the tree. Rhonda had brought some eggnog from the breakroom and was handing around little plastic cups of the stuff. He nodded approvingly.

"You wanna give me a hand here, sir?" Jim asked as he reached to hang some garland over Simon's office door.

"Sure," he agreed. Next thing he knew, he had one end of the long decorative rope in one hand and a glass of eggnog in the other, while Jim tacked the unwieldy garland in place.

"Your partner inveigled everyone into this, didn't he?" he asked.

"Who else, Captain?" Jim agreed with amused resignation and a fond glance over his shoulder.

"Where's the mistletoe this year?" Simon asked, glancing around warily.

"Blair said to hide it," Rhonda confided happily, topping up his glass in passing. "I was relieved; too many guys think it gives them license, you know?"

"Well, good; I know it's supposed to be fun but some do take advantage and well …." Shaking his head, chuckling, he said, "Hard to believe our resident Romeo was the one to put a halt to it, though."

Shrugging, Jim replied, "It's not only women who get cornered. I've found it, uh, awkward, a time or two."

Amused, glancing from Jim to Blair, Simon observed, "Guess you're lucky to have him around."

"Uh huh," Jim grunted laconically. "Damned lucky."

Overhearing, Blair looked up and grinned.

********************

Yule Log

Word Count: 493

"Jim! Can you get the door?" he called, his arms filled with the oak log and ash kindling he'd picked up from a pagan friend who took pains to cut the wood ritually.

"Whatcha got, Chief?" Jim asked with a puzzled look at the wood.

"A Yule log, for Solstice Eve," he explained with a grin.

"Solstice Eve? You gonna dance naked in the moonlight?" Jim teased.

"December 20th, the longest night of the year before the advent of spring. And, no," Blair demurred with a shiver, "it's too damned cold to dance in the moonlight."

Jim chuckled, and went back to making dinner.

Later, after the ritual with his new menorah, Blair lit the kindling, explaining, "For millennia, hungry, and cold, huddled against the darkness, people felt they had to keep watch against evil spirits and celebrate the gods, to ensure the sun returned at dawn and stayed longer, to restore life to the world. It's a very ancient tradition, Jim, still practiced by some today. They'd drink, tell stories and watch for signs, like a person's shadow on the wall would herald their death in the coming year."

"Oh, nice," Jim grunted, rolling his eyes, as he carried in two beers and sank into his favourite chair.

"Yeah, well," Blair snickered, accepting the beer and settling on the sofa, "it's a chance to tell stories and imagine what the future might hold."

"Well, our immediate future holds a stakeout on Christmas Eve, to see if we can nail the collectors for that protection ring," Jim told him.

"No sweat, I'll be available."

After that, with the lights down, the fire and the dim street lamps outside their only illumination, the wind keening and rain sleeting against the balcony windows, they talked about their memories of the past year, laughing a good deal. Sometimes, though, they were reflective, thinking of near misses, harrowing moments, like searching for Simon and Daryl in Peru.

Around midnight, Jim glanced at the wall behind the stove, and … saw Blair's shadow, unmistakably Blair's shadow. Blinking, he decided it had to be a trick of light from the street; but the shadow was in the wrong place. Distracted, telling himself it was ridiculous, that he was imagining things, he thought he heard the low growl of a cat and he felt chilled.

"Something wrong, Jim?" Blair asked, evidently aware of his distraction and sudden unease.

"Uh, no, nothing," Jim muttered. The shadow was gone. "It's late, Chief; I'm not up for an all-nighter here. Are we done with this Solstice thing?"

Shrugging, Blair said, "Well, if you want to be purist about it, tomorrow you could put the ashes in a box and store it under your bed to bring good luck in the coming year."

"Uh, I don't think so, Sandburg," he snorted.

"Somehow, I didn't think you would," Blair laughed.

But, glancing at the embers, Jim eerily wondered if maybe he should find a box.

********************

Silent Night

Word Count: 494

Figuring Jim's truck would be recognized after he'd spent the week interviewing every store owner on the street, they took Blair's car and parked halfway down the block. For two long hours as the day waned, Brown and Rafe strolled up and down the street, window-shopping, and ambling in and out of stores, while Jim hid out in the vehicle, eyes and ears scanning, watching, listening for the 'collector' to show up. Patrol cars were waiting on the next block, ready to help barricade the street, if it came to that.

"Finally," Jim grunted, squinting through the sleet at the muscle-man who had just shaken down the owner of the local grocery. Rafe sauntered out behind him, and gave a brief nod in Jim's direction. He'd seen it go down.

"Okay, that's it," Jim said into his mike. "Move in." Reaching for the door handle, he said, "Wait here."

"Yeah, yeah," Blair muttered. "At least we'll have Christmas Eve off," he sighed and shivered, knowing it had to be very close to five PM.

The detectives followed the hood into the Antiques shop. Moments later, they emerged, the perp securely cuffed, three patrol cars already cruising down the street, when the passenger door opened and a thug slid in, revolver leveled at Blair. "Drive," he ordered.

"Whaattt?" Blair exclaimed. "What's with the gun? Drive where?"

Jim's head jerked up. Shoving the perp toward Brown, he drew his weapon and started across the street.

"He takes out my partner, I take out his," the thug growled, swiveling the revolver toward Jim. "Drive or I'll blow him away."

Blair slammed the car into gear and drove.

Jim called to the patrol cars to swerve across the street and block him, forcing Blair to cut hard to the right to avoid collision, but the street was icy and the car skidded sideways, slamming hard into a lamppost. The uniforms, Jim and Rafe were racing toward the vehicle when the driver-side door opened. Blair scrambled out and ducked away from the shot that rang out behind him. Keeping low he tried to put distance between him and the car. More shots blasted from behind and he stumbled, sprawling onto the slushy street.

The others swiftly surrounded the car; ordered a surrender … and the collector's minder tossed away his weapon.

Hunkering down beside Blair, Jim asked anxiously, "Chief, you okay?"

Sighing, Blair pushed himself up and grimaced at his sodden clothing. Looking up at his partner, he asked plaintively, "Do you think we could move on to the 'Silent night, Holy night, All is calm, All is bright," part of the evening sometime soon?"

Jim laughed and threw an arm around his shoulder. "Yeah, Sandburg, we can do that."

"Think the PD'll fix my car, man?" he groused unhappily.

Snorting, Jim drawled, "You're a little old to believe in Santa Claus, Chief."

"Miracles can happen," he insisted.

His gaze softening, Jim nodded fondly. "Yeah, I guess they can."

********************

Christmas Day 'Free-for-all' Story

"Hey, Jim! You guys want a lift back to Headquarters?" Rafe asked after bundling the would-be kidnapper into the back of a squad car beside his buddy, the Collector.

Blair's brows arced up under his curls and he held his hands out as he sighed and looked down at his slush-sodden clothing and then back up at his partner.

With an understanding quirk of his lip, Jim nodded. "Yeah, thanks," he replied, "I'm with you soon as I arrange transport for Sandburg." Waving toward one of the three squad cars that now blocked the street, he called to the cop at the wheel, "Yo, Casey! You mind dropping Sandburg back home?"

When Officer Casey O'Hara nodded and gestured Blair toward him, Jim said, "It'll take a few hours to finish the interrogations, get the reports done …."

"Yeah, I know," Sandburg replied with a small smile of commiseration. "I'll keep dinner warm for you." Turning away, he jogged toward his ride.

Jim waved his thanks to the uniformed officer and was about to join Rafe and Brown when Blair ran under a street lamp. An odd shadow on the back of his jacket caught Jim's attention and he focused in – on the powder burns and the gouge in the material on the left side, just under Blair's arm. His gut twisted with the realization that at least one of the assailant's bullets had very nearly found its mark. Just a couple inches, if that – if Blair had zigged instead of zagged when he'd scrambled out of the car, if he'd been a split-second slower in making his move – he could be lying in a still, silent heap beside his wrecked car and never move again. Recalling the odd shadow on the wall earlier in the week, a shiver rushed up Jim's spine and he shuddered, feeling utterly sick. Rafe called again, claiming his attention. Biting his lip, tightly reining in his fraught emotion, he wheeled around and loped across the street to get into Brown's vehicle.

********************

Blair was beyond shivery with cold by the time he got home. Desperate to get warm, he ran up the stairs and along the hall. Inside the apartment, he dumped his coat on the floor; heading straight to the bathroom, he turned on the faucets. After putting his wallet, observer ID badge and loose change from his pockets on the vanity, hands shaking, he hurriedly stripped off his icy, sodden clothing and dumped everything into the hamper. Stepping into the tub, he kept the water running until he was covered and, gradually, the shivers began to subside. Closing his eyes and resting his head against the tiled wall, he drew in deep, calming breaths.

Now that he was safe and getting warm again, in the silence of his mind if nowhere else, he could admit that not all of the chill he'd felt had been due to the weather and wet clothes. When the shots had rung out behind him, he'd been terrified, sure that – he jerked his thoughts away. No point in going there. He was fine. Everything was fine.

But it had been a near thing.

Sighing, he reflected that there had been a lot of close calls over the past nearly two years. Very close calls. Staring up at the ceiling, he thought about that. Field work could certainly hold risks, every anthropologist knew that. But not many undertook research projects that presented life-threatening hazards on practically a weekly basis for years on end. And, God, he had to get the car repaired – again. He scrubbed his hands over his face, rubbed his eyes, and then raked his fingers through his hair. With a low groan and a grimace about insurance rates, ruefully considering that his dedication to his work had gone well beyond the bounds of sanity, he closed his eyes and resignedly let the heat of the water soak into his bones. With a last tired shiver, he wondered if he'd ever get used to being shot at. Ever get past feeling such moments of heart-stopping fear? And was that something he ever wanted to get used to?

Maybe he really was more than just a little nuts.

Puffing out his cheeks and blowing a long breath, he reminded himself that he hadn't been sticking around and taking the risks because of 'his work' for quite some time.

And, well, sometimes, the risks weren't what really mattered.

********************

Hunched over his computer, Jim tried, really tried, to stop the chilling moments from earlier that evening from replaying over and over in his mind. He was a professional; he was used to having to shelve his personal emotions in order to focus on the job at hand.

But he couldn't stop thinking about that bullet hole.

Nor could he shake the image of Blair's pale visage, or shut out the memories of the sound of his partner's heart thumping so hard and fast – or his own sick fear when Sandburg had gone down. His throat tightened as he recalled how Blair had tried to appear as if the only concern he had was his wrecked car; as if nearly getting killed wasn't of consequence. Shaking his head as he entered the last bits of information required for his report on the arrest, he thought about Blair's insistence that miracles can happen – and his own agreement with the sentiment as he'd gazed down upon the singular miracle of his life.

Standing to gather the document from the printer and then run off the required number of copies, he sighed heavily. Some Christmas Eve it had turned out to be. Back at his desk, he put the file together, but hesitated, and then sat down and pulled out yet another form. After hastily completing it, he added the document to the file and then carried it into Simon's office.

"Thanks, Jim," Banks acknowledged as he took it and glanced up at the clock on the wall, noting it was already ten PM. "You finished for the night?"

"Yeah, I'm going to head home."

"Okay, see you tomorrow," Simon returned wearily, his attention already back on the paperwork he had to complete before he, too, could take off. But when Jim didn't leave, he looked up questioningly. "Was there something else?"

"What about Sandburg's car?"

"What about it?"

"Well, the passenger side's going to need a lot of body work," he replied bluntly. When Simon's lips thinned, he hurried on, "Look, I know he's not on the books, so it's hard to make a case to pay for the damages, but we owe him, Simon. He doesn't get a dime for all he does around here – and that's a lot more than help me out with my senses, and you know it. So, there's an estimate and expenditure request form for the department to assume the cost of repairs, in the file for your signature."

"Jim," Banks began wearily, shaking his head and then pulling off his glasses to rub his eyes. "You know the budget's tight as it is. This could be what? Another couple thousand, anyway? I don't see how …."

"There was a bullet hole in his jacket," Jim said then, low and quiet. "This far," he went on, holding his index finger an inch from his thumb, "this far from blasting through his chest."

His expression flattening, Simon looked up at him for a long moment, and then he slipped on his glasses, nodded, and opened the file. "What the hell," he muttered, as he signed the form with a flourish, "it's Christmas."

"Thank you, sir," Jim said formally, but the gratitude was clear in his voice and in his eyes. He'd already decided that he'd pay for the repairs himself, if need be – but he knew that the department's acknowledgement of the legitimacy of assuming the costs would mean a lot to Sandburg. And there'd be a lot less hassle about getting the kid to accept the financial support if it came through official channels.

Snorting, Simon smiled wryly. "Go on; get out of here. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Around five?"

"Yeah, sounds good. G'night."

********************

He was glad to be home. For a moment, the fragrant scents of the evergreen and ivy sharp and refreshing, he paused at the door to admire the wreath Blair had hung there. And he smiled at the bright red holly berries that reminded him of the small clump hanging from the rearview mirror on the truck – and the larger clump hanging in the unfortunately now smashed car. Delicately fingering an ivy leaf, he thought about how Blair had immediately driven off when that bastard had threatened, his, Jim's, life, with no apparent thought about what was going to happen to himself once the perp no longer needed him as a hostage. Jim's throat tightened with the sharp knowledge that things could have turned out a whole lot worse that evening. Shaking his head, still bothered by the memory of the odd, disturbing shadow he'd seen the night they'd burned the Yule log, he mused that maybe the charm held some power after all. His gaze dropping as he fit the key into the lock, he recalled what Blair had said about the symbolic meaning of the plants: protection and security; healing, peace and warmth; fidelity and friendship – and it occurred to him that the wreath perfectly represented all that he had and held dear on the other side of the door.

The loft was quiet, with only the very soft strains of an instrumental rendition of Christmas songs playing on the CD. Most of the lights were off, the only illumination the gentle sparkle emanating from the Christmas tree lights, flickering candlelight from the menorah, and the low light on the stove. Inhaling deeply, he closed his eyes and savored the scents of the casserole in the oven overlaid with the sweeter notes of the cranberry Christmas cake and rich cream sauce Blair had made that evening, as part of their contribution to the feast the next day. He hung his coat beside Blair's mud-streaked jacket, his gaze lingering for a moment on the powder burns.

A rustle of sheets and the pad of feet caught his attention and he turned to his partner.

"Hey, man," Blair said with a yawn. "I was beginning to wonder if you were going to be stuck there all night." Scratching his head, oblivious to curls that were all awry, he ambled his way toward the kitchen. "You hungry? There's a tuna casserole in the oven and salad in the fridge. Not fancy but …."

"Sounds great, Chief," he replied with a smile. "I'm starved." Also moving into the kitchen, he pulled down a plate and then, donning oven mitts, took the hot dish from the oven. He served himself a good portion, while Blair took the salad he'd made out of the fridge.

"Beer?" he asked. When Jim nodded, he grabbed two bottles and skirted the island to put the food and beverages on the table.

For a few minutes, Jim just concentrated on eating but, once the first gnawing need was satisfied, he slowed down. Lifting his bottle, he said, "You've been busy. I could smell the cake when I came in."

Smiling, Sandburg nodded. "Yeah, and I got the vegetables chopped for roasting tomorrow, and for the coleslaw; so, not much to do before we go over to Simon's place. I figure we can sleep in and have a leisurely brunch sort of thing. Be nice to just be able to relax."

"That it will," Jim agreed warmly, once again applying himself to his meal. "This is good, Blair. Thanks."

"No sweat, man," he replied with a fond grin. When Jim had finished, he stood and said, "You must be beat. Why don't you just head on up to bed. I'll wash up and turn everything off for the night."

"Thanks, Chief," he agreed gratefully with a weary sigh. "But, uh, leave the tree lights on, and the music. They're restful and, well, I like them."

Pleased that he'd struck the right notes in the atmosphere of peace he'd created to welcome Jim home that night, Blair's smile widened.

Jim's gaze dropped away as he stood to head for the stairs. But he was smiling too, glad to have found Blair relaxed and apparently just fine despite the raw violence of his afternoon. Shaking his head as he mounted the steps, he reflected again, as he had many times, on the sheer resilience and innate courage his partner demonstrated in the face of danger and adversity. Then his smile grew as he thought about how Blair would react when he found out the PD was going to pay for his car repairs. He'd let Simon share that news - it would make a very nice and totally unexpected Christmas surprise for the kid; the best kind of surprise and, God knew, Sandburg sure deserved it.

********************

Blair woke to the rich scents of perking coffee and sizzling sausage. Smiling lazily, he stretched and then got up. Yawning, he raked his fingers through his unruly hair, stretched again and sniffed, and sighed happily. "Merry Christmas!" he called heartily as he made his way to the kitchen.

Looking up from the pancake batter he was mixing, Jim grinned widely. "Merry Christmas, Chief," he greeted in return. "Breakfast'll be ready by the time you've had your shower."

"Sounds great, man," Sandburg replied with a wave as he headed to the bathroom.

********************

Later, after they'd eaten and cleaned up the breakfast dishes, Blair set the oven to three hundred and fifty degrees and retrieved the chopped vegetables from the fridge. He layered the yams, turnip, carrots, eggplant and parsnips in a casserole dish and drizzled olive oil and balsamic vinegar over them. Covering the dish, he slid it into the oven and set the timer for an hour. Jim loaded the CD player with seasonal music and then made a fresh pot of coffee while Blair added pine nuts and raisins to a bowl of shredded broccoli and cabbage, then mixed in the coleslaw dressing. Sandburg finished the salad off with a festive sprinkle of paprika before putting the bowl back into the fridge and Jim poured them fresh cups of the fragrant brew.

Pleasantly full, their chores done, they adjourned to the living room. Blair dropped down to the floor in front of the tree to sort out the gifts and - with a stream of teasing comments about size and could Jim sense what was inside - he handed them to Jim who, snickering at his partner's nonsense, placed them at their respective seats on the sofa or chair.

They'd both had fun picking out various light-hearted gifts they thought the other would enjoy … often, given their hectic schedules, the moments browsing through shops had been some of the few pleasantly uncomplicated and relaxing times either had had for weeks. The wrapping wasn't fancy but it was bright and good-humored with snowmen and reindeer and Santa Clauses cavorting merrily across the face of the presents.

But the best fun was yet to come, as they watched one another opening their various packages. Blair crowed when he opened first a Scrabble game and then the Masters' Edition of Trivial Pursuit. "Oh, man, you are such a glutton for punishment," he teased. "Your ass is mine, man. You don't stand a chance."

Snorting as he tore off paper to find a Clue game, Jim grinned. "Yeah, well, when it comes to detecting and determining ways and means, I've got you beat all the way."

"We'll see, man," Blair retorted, snickering. "Like I've always told you, my job is about reading the signs and finding clues, too, to figure things out."

There were socks – white, of course, so they could point out their complete lack of anything approaching style, and Jim was impressed with the new, flashy coffee-maker that would produce espressos or cappuccinos as well as three different strengths of regular brew. Blair was enthusiastic about the latest computer game in his next gift. But then he looked up suspiciously, humor glinting in his eyes. "You figure you can beat me at this one, don't you? Better hand/eye coordination."

Assuming a perfectly innocent look, Jim just shrugged. "We'll see," he replied, echoing Blair's words of a moment before, and then he broke up laughing.

"Yeah, right," Blair chortled. Gathering up the wreckage of crumpled paper, he stood and asked, "You up for some cocoa and a rousing game of …." He looked around at their stack of games, and offered with happy bemusement, "whatever you feel like?"

"Sure, Chief," Jim agreed with alacrity as he reached for the Clue game. "We've got awhile before we're due at Simon's. Plenty of time for me to pound you into the dirt."

Blair snickered all the way to the kitchen.

********************

Dinner at Simon's was a veritable feast. Listening to Simon and Daryl recount their day's activities, they ate with gusto, and bragged about their respective triumphs in the games they'd enjoyed that day.

"Games?" Daryl echoed with a grin.

"Yeah, and I just happened to bring the Trivial Pursuit with me … I figure you and I can beat the pants off your Dad and Jim," Blair replied.

"Cool," Daryl beamed, while Simon and Jim snorted in disparagement. Offering their own challenge, they upped the ante to the losers having to do the dishes.

In short order, the table was cleared and the battle was on. Amid much laughter and taunting, Blair and Daryl made good their threat and smugly shooed the older men into the kitchen to do the chores. Once they were gone, Blair pulled out his new computer game and Daryl's eyes lit up. Sotto voce, Blair confided, "I figure I need some practice before I take on Jim." When he heard the burst of laughter from the kitchen, he snickered.

Later, they all sat in the living room around the fire, admiring the tree. Christmas music played softly and they sipped a last glass of eggnog before calling it a night. Conversation flowed with easy camaraderie and Blair found himself reflecting on how, somehow, over the course of the last two years, they'd become more than friends. They were family. Warmth filled his chest and he felt settled, contented – happier than he could ever remember being. There wasn't a box in the whole world big enough to wrap a gift like all that he had right there, right then.

As the evening drew to a close, Jim caught Simon's eye and jerked his head meaningfully toward his partner. Simon swallowed a laugh and did his best to appear nonchalant and even a bit business-like as he said, "Oh, Sandburg, before I forget … your car has been towed into the body shop that holds the contract with the PD for repair work. I guess, given the holiday and all, it won't be fixed until after New Year's, but you can get a rental compact in the meantime. Just give me the invoice for processing."

A small frown of confusion puckering his brow, Blair blinked and, hesitantly, he said, "Uh, sorry, I don't understand. I mean, thanks for getting the car off the street and somewhere safe but …." He paused and tried not to look worried. "Will they send the invoice to me? Or do I reimburse the department for the costs? And, uh, well, how soon would I have to do that? 'Cause, well, I'm not sure my insurance will cover it, given I was using the car for a police stakeout, which I probably shouldn't have done."

Narrowing his gaze, Simon scowled and rumbled, "What part of 'give me the invoice' didn't you understand? Your vehicle was damaged in the line of duty, so the PD is picking up all costs of repair and a temporary rental in the interim."

"Line of duty …" Blair stammered. "The PD is … you're kidding, right?" he challenged uncertainly, as if he thought Simon was teasing him but didn't find it all that funny. "You can't be serious."

"Well, if you'd rather pay for it yourself," Banks murmured with a shrug; but laughter crinkled around his eyes.

"What? NO!" Blair exclaimed. "You are serious!" he exclaimed in astonishment, joy breaking over his face. Turning to Jim, he went on excitedly, "You hear that! The PD is paying for the repairs! Because I was using the car in the line of duty! Like … like I'm really … that they think … oh, man," he stumbled to a halt, clearly rendered inarticulate by the wholly unexpected news – which made the two other men laugh and even Daryl was grinning with delight at his happy confusion.

"Yeah, yeah, I heard, Chief," Jim chuckled and smiled widely. "And why shouldn't they – you've been contributing a lot for years."

"Jim's right," Simon agreed heartily. "You've been a part of the team for a long time now."

Absolutely beaming, Blair sat back in his chair and just looked from Jim to Simon and back again. Blowing a long breath, he shook his head in wonder. Laughing softly, he chided his partner, "And you said there was no Santa Claus. Hah! Guess that goes to show that miracles do happen!"

"There's no Santa Claus?" Daryl wailed, teasingly.

"Oh, now look what you've done!" Simon growled, but then he laughed. "Merry Christmas, Blair, from the Cascade PD."

Very, very pleased with his partner's evident surprise and happiness, a broad, close-mouthed smile on his face, Jim nodded slowly. "And as for miracles … well, yeah, they do happen, every day." Gazing at Blair, he went on, "You just have to be smart enough to know a miracle when you see one, and then be damned glad of it."

"Yeah," Blair agreed with an emphatic nod, meeting his partner's openly affectionate and appreciative gaze, love glowing in his own. "Exactly." Lifting his glass of eggnog, he toasted, "Merry Christmas and the happiest of holidays to all of you … and may our next year be filled only with joy!"

Finis

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