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.

Christmas Break

by Arianna

Written for Secret Santa 06

Story Request: Gen, slice of life the guys building something or working on some project together

maybe some h/c but not a lot, humour and some holiday flavor.

(I guessed the recipient, my very good friend: Merry Christmas, StarWatcher!)

Special Thanks to Roslyn for her invaluable knowledge about the toxicity of household paints.

And to Ainm, for organizing our LJ Secret Santa this year.

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

The toaster died this morning. Yep. Gave up the ghost in burgeoning clouds of black smoke and a few flames just to make life exciting. Par for the course, in some ways, given the way our lives had been going lately, one hassle after another, not enough time, too much to do going up in smoke and flames seemed a metaphor of sorts. God knows, I felt tired enough to give up the ghost and would be almost grateful to do so.

"Sandburg!" Jim yelled irately, and coughed, and yelled some more, "Your damn bagel got stuck again!"

I'd popped the offending bagel into the toaster before dashing into the shower, hoping to save a few precious seconds of time that morning. Not particularly pleased about now having to go without breakfast, I yelled back that I'd been telling him for months that we, er, he needed a new toaster and my poor, burned-to-a-crisp bagel was an innocent victim of circumstance. He didn't reply directly; probably he just ignored me, as he usually does when it concerns something about his castle. Man, you'd think that antique toaster had sentimental value the way he carried on about how there was nothing wrong with it and it would last another hundred years. I was rinsing my hair when I heard him cursing again and something banging and he must've turned on the cold water faucet in the kitchen because, all of a sudden, I was taking a very hot shower. "DAMMIT, JIM!" I yelped, not at all happy with him, either, at that precise moment.

By the time I left the scalding bathroom in nothing but a towel, the rest of the apartment was freezing. He'd opened the balcony door to air out the place, but wisps of dark smoke were still hovering around the ceiling and the arctic air definitely smelled of burned bagel.

"It's dead," he muttered, aggrieved.

"The bagel?" I returned, shivering.

"No, you idiot, the toaster," he grunted with a glare. "Gonna have to buy a new one."

I sighed in commiseration. I mean, he really seemed to have loved that old useless piece of junk. "I'm sorry," I said, trying to sound sincere but it was, well, like, old and long past its prime. And it was only a toaster. "Can we get one of those toaster oven ones?"

"You broke it, you replace it, so buy whatever you want," he grumbled.

"What! Broke it! I just put a sliced bagel into it! Geez, Jim, you're acting like it was some kind of family heirloom!" I exclaimed at the unfairness of it all, and then wondered if maybe it had been his mother's or something. "It wasn't, was it? An heirloom, I mean?"

He rolled his eyes at the question but otherwise ignored it, which didn't mean it hadn't been his mother's toaster, just that I could pull out his fingernails before he'd admit it. "Gonna have to paint the place, too," he groused with a woeful look at the smoke-smudged walls and then he graced me with another glare, like it was my fault.

Okay, it was my bagel, but still. "Jim, I told you months ago that we needed a new toaster. That one has been on its last legs for a decade, at least! Must've been a faulty wire in it, or something. We're lucky it didn't burn the whole place down." I gazed at the walls and they didn't look so bad to me. "I don't see why you think we need to paint. It's only burned toast."

"I can still smell the last burned toast, and that was three months ago," he muttered unhappily. "And the walls are filthy with smoke residue."

"They are not."

He gave me a narrow look and I understood. Okay, so I'm a little slow when I'm hypothermic and especially before I've had my coffee and bagel, which I apparently wasn't going to get that morning. "Right," I sighed and nodded in real commiseration. Who knew what he could see or how bad the smoke damage looked to him? "Okay. I'll help."

"You bet you will, Einstein, soon as we catch a break and have the time to do it," he assured me as he pulled on his jacket and stomped out of the apartment.

"Have a nice day!" I called cheerily after him, only partially facetiously, as I hastened to shut the balcony door. After all, it had been my bagel that caused the meltdown. And, to be even more fair, we were both a bit more than unusually testy. It was only a week before Christmas, with all the craziness and overwork and exhaustion that meant for both of us, in both of our jobs. I'd finish putting in the last of my grades later that morning, which would give me time to do the running around and shopping for the holiday; Jim was off from the afternoon of the twenty-fourth for five full days. We both figured we'd sleep for most of that time.

Now it looked like we might spend some of our precious downtime playing Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.

Which meant I'd better do some research and quick.

Like I had time for this.

Still shivering, not at all happy about the additional research chore when I was already so tired I could barely think, I did a little stomping of my own on the way to my room to get dressed.

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

Man, oh man painting the loft was SO not a good idea. I couldn't believe what I found out with a modicum of research on the 'net and just about all of it was bad. Scratching my cheek as I scanned the screen, I wondered when Jim had last painted the place. Had to have been before his senses came online and maybe the paint job predated his occupancy. In which case, we could be looking at lead poisoning as the most likely outcome of sanding down the walls.

Maybe we could just wash them and let it go at that.

I shut down the laptop and jammed it into my bag along with the books I needed over the holiday to prepare for the next term. Not even midafternoon and I was free as a bird until after the New Year; well, free of obligations at Rainier. A sentinel, however, apparently never really rests, so who knew what excitement our Christmas break would hold.

Other than the threat of lead poisoning, that is.

Meanwhile, I still had a ton of grocery and other shopping to do so I practically ran out of the university before someone else could think of something they wanted from me or needed me to do.

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

I was surprised to see Jim's truck outside the loft when I pulled up after having done the shopping, most of it food for the holidays so we wouldn't have to go anywhere and could just veg for the duration. I was really hoping to talk him out of doing the painting or, if it simply had to be done, maybe have someone professional do it for us. That would be a much safer option for him.

"Hey, Jim, open up!" I called as I left the elevator, my arms too full of grocery bags to bother fishing for my keys. Couldn't resist grinning when the door opened upon command I felt like Ali Baba after discovering the 'open sesame' command. It never failed.

"What are you doing home so early, man?" I asked on my way inside. "Simon give you time off for good behavior?"

"Something like that," he muttered, sounding distracted. "I've got so much accumulated leave that it was a case of use it or lose it, so he sent me home until after New Year's."

"Hey, man, that's great!" I enthused at the prospect that we could both catch a break, starting immediately. But my grin faded when I set the groceries down on the counter and looked around. He was shifting the bookcase and the other furniture was already shrouded with sheets. There were paint cans in the corner under the stairs just by my bedroom door. Wonderful. The man's exhausted, I'm exhausted, but does he relish the time off to simply relax? Oh, no, not my Jim. He has to find work to do; so much for making an argument to either not paint or get someone else to do it.

Looking up at the grocery bags, he frowned and demanded, "You get the new toaster?"

"Uh, no, not yet," I replied with a grimace of impatience. It wasn't like I'd had an extra second or two that day to buy a damned toaster. Leaving the food, I checked out the paint cans. "Jim, you can't use this stuff, man. It's not good for you."

"It's paint, Chief," he grunted.

"Oil-based paint that will take six months, at least, to dry in this climate and all that time, it'll be giving off poisonous fumes that will have who knows what effects on you," I told him bluntly, too tired to be subtle or jolly him along. "I'm serious, Jim. You cannot use this stuff."

With an aggrieved expression, he turned to face me and crossed his arms. "And you became the expert on paint exactly when?"

"This afternoon, after you told me we were gonna paint the place," I retorted, annoyed. "You should have waited to discuss this with me."

"It's paint," he replied impatiently. "Just like the paint I used last time."

"Before your senses came online." He waved off my statement of irrefutable fact and turned away. "Right?" I pushed, moving around to get into his face. "Right?"

"Yeah, yeah," he allowed and then sighed. "You really think this is a problem?"

"Yes, I do," I emphatically assured him. Gesturing toward the kitchen, I went on, "C'mon and help me put away the groceries and I'll tell you what I found out. Man, I really think we either just wash the walls and leave it at that or pay someone to do it while we take off someplace."

"We?" he challenged. "Even if I can't do the painting, what's to stop you from being useful?"

Good point. "I'm not your slave, Jim," I countered with a wounded look and started putting the food away. "What's with this sudden need to redecorate anyway? Even with your sight, the walls can't look all that bad."

He sighed and his gaze dropped away. When he gave a little shrug and started rubbing the back of his neck, I began to really pay attention. Jim well, Jim is as articulate as the next guy when it comes to everyday stuff like talking about the Jags or criminal justice or whatever. But just like most guys, he doesn't always say much verbally about the softer stuff, you know? The feelings stuff; the stuff that leaves him feeling vulnerable and out of control. But, once you decipher them, his non-verbals are very expressive. The avoidance of eye contact, the diffident shrug and, especially, the neck rub left me with no doubt that he was uncomfortable, uneasy and a little embarrassed. Finally, he gazed at the walls and muttered, "I'm tired of feeling like I'm surrounded by grunge. I want I want the place to feel clean."

Given that the loft wasn't exactly a pigsty, I figured the grunge he was talking about was a whole lot more than some faintly smoke-smudged walls but he felt helpless to do anything else that would give him any sense of relief. All my resistance and annoyance seeped away because, honestly? It had been a hell of a year. Well, two years. And that's just since I came into the picture. From everything I've been able to learn about him, his life has never been a picnic. He looked tired, worn to the bone, and he's usually so stoic that such evident weariness meant that he had to be feeling pretty rough. If having pristine walls would help him relax and make some sense of his world, well, then, that's what we'd do.

"Okay, man," I replied quietly, no longer ragging him as I lightly gripped his arm. "We'll paint the place. But let me get the right paint, okay? And a few other things we'll need so it won't be a traumatic experience for you."

Still looking away, he nodded and went on unpacking the grocery bags.

I grabbed my jacket and stuffed the keys and my cell phone into my pocket. "Why don't you get started on washing the walls down? Do not, under any circumstances, sand them. And don't worry about dinner. We can order pizza or something easy. If we can wash all the walls tonight, we can probably get all the painting done tomorrow."

"Works for me," he agreed, his voice still sounding strained.

"And, uh, Jim?" I asked and waited, needing him to look up at me. When he obliged, a questioning expression on his face, wondering what I wanted now, I continued, "We haven't talked much about Christmas and I know Simon is booked with Joan and Daryl to try to have a 'normal' Christmas for Daryl with their old neighbours and friends. Did you have any specific plans for the holidays or would you be game for something different?"

"Different?" he echoed cautiously.

"Yeah, well, we'll need to vacate the place for a few days to let even water-based acrylic latex paint dry thoroughly and I've got a few ideas of where we might go for a week or so. You know, along the coast or into the mountains. You got a preference?"

Intrigued, he shook his head. "No, no preference," he replied, still sounding wary. "Just something with a few more amenities than Saint Sebastian's, okay?"

"You got it, buddy," I assured him with a grin as I hoisted the cans of paint, got the receipt from him, and headed off on my errands. "I'll see about getting a toaster, too, while I'm out," I called over my shoulder as I closed the door.

As I clattered down the stairs, I was conscious of a warm glow inside. Jim doesn't trust easily and, well, given the outcomes of a few adventures like the one we had at Saint Sebastian's last year, he had reason enough to still be wary of me and my wild ideas. But he'd let me take off with his precious paint and he'd given me leave to plan our holiday together as I chose, without any close examination of what I had in mind. He trusted me, not only as a sentinel who looked to me to know how to care for his senses, but as a friend, too, to arrange our accommodations for Christmas, a tradition I suspect he hadn't celebrated much until I plunged headfirst into his life. It's, well, sorta mushy to admit it, even to myself, but I treasured him both as my sentinel and as my very good friend. Meant a lot to me to know he trusted me, maybe even as much as I trusted him.

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

Took me awhile to get everything we needed, including a spiffy and on-sale toaster oven, let alone make the arrangements for our retreat from Cascade. By the time I'd rented the industrial-sized fans for pick-up the next day, and then circled around to the other side of the city to pick up the keys and directions to our holiday spot, it was long past sunset and I was starving. I figured Jim was probably hungry by then, too, so I made a last stop to pick up a humongous pizza with our favorite toppings. If I fed the monster within, then maybe he'd be less inclined to bite my head off when he realized the color and texture switch I'd made in the choice of paint for our walls.

He must've smelled the pizza from the parking lot, because he came downstairs to meet me and help me carry everything upstairs. Sure is handy living with a sentinel.

"Took you long enough," he griped, but there was no heat in the complaint. If anything, his mood seemed lighter and some of the tension lines around his eyes and mouth had eased. He'd probably been working flat-out since I left, the mindless physical labor helping him to burn off some of the frustration and irritation that he'd been carrying around, too tired to let it go. The fact that he could see the progress he was making would have given him a sense of achievement he didn't always get out of his work and that would have helped relax him some, too.

"Uh huh," I agreed unrepentantly as I got out of the car, and then asked with studied innocence, "You finished washing the walls?"

Laughing, he clipped the back of my head. "No such luck, Huckleberry. There's still lots of work for you to do, too."

Handing him the pizza, I sighed and shook my head as if dejected by the sorry news, but couldn't quite suppress a grin as I ambled around to the trunk. I also gave him the box containing the toaster oven to cart upstairs, while I hefted the paint cans and the bag of other supplies I'd purchased for the next day. I hadn't made any Tom Sawyer cracks out loud and I got a kick out of the fact that he had thought of the same metaphor.

And I kinda liked being cast as the free-spirited Huck Finn.

Once we got upstairs, I saw that Jim had appropriated a ladder from the building superintendent; nodding at it as I set the paint cans under the stairs, I said, "You'll do the high areas, right?"

Grinning but pleasantly passing up the opportunity to tease me about my, um, fear of heights, he set the pizza box on the table and nodded. "Beer?" he asked, already on his way to the fridge.

Over our meal, I set out the agenda for the evening and the next day. "We need to pack tonight and get the cases out of the apartment in the morning, so no paint fumes pervade the luggage or clothing. And I think we might as well take our own linens, to get them out of here, too. We can put them in garbage bags in the morning and leave them on the balcony with our bags and coats until we're ready to go. You'll need to pack outdoor gear, sweaters, socks, that sort of thing and it would probably be a good idea to take more rather than less, again to get as much of your stuff out of the loft as possible, to keep your clothing from absorbing the paint fumes."

"Where're we headed?" he asked before taking a big bite of a piece of pizza oozing with cheese and loaded with toppings.

"One of the Anthro profs, Amelie Gordon, has a winterized place in Olympia National Park. I've seen photos and it looks pretty nice, perched on the edge of a mountain lake with forest all around," I told him. "Her family used to use it when her kids were younger, but her husband died last year, so they're spending the holidays in the city, creating new traditions, I guess. She said we could have it for as long as we wanted. I picked up the keys on the way home."

"Sounds great," he approved, his gaze growing distant as he pictured the place in his mind's eye. I swear the tension in his shoulders eased just thinking about it.

"She even said we could cut a tree from the bush around the place, if we wanted to," I went on as I reached for a second piece. "So I thought we could take some decorations with us, in case the mood hits us."

"I haven't had time to do any shopping," he admitted then, his gaze shifting away.

"I haven't either," I replied with a shrug, not particularly worried about it. Changing the subject, I continued outlying the plan of action. "I got some large plastic sheets to cover the furniture and your mattress, which will keep out the fumes and smell better than the sheets you've covered things with. We can cover the furniture tonight and your mattress after we strip the linens off it in the morning. Tomorrow, we'll get up early and, hopefully, get the painting done by early to midafternoon. If you attack the heights early, then if the fumes start to get to you, I can at least finish. I've arranged for a couple big fans and we need to pick them up sometime during the day. They'll help dry the paint while we're away."

"I should be okay," he muttered before finishing off the beer, his shoulders again stiffening, and I sighed. Jim has such a love/hate relationship with his senses. He loves it when they help him in an investigation or just make daily life interesting, like when he's staring out to sea and can see so much more than most of us ever could. But he hates the vulnerabilities, the sensitivity he has to certain things like antihistamines and chemicals, sudden loud sounds and over-bright light, and he really hates the zone outs. They make him feel weak, I guess, and are harsh reminders that he doesn't have perfect control, not even of his own body. "I'll just turn them way down," he added.

Shaking my head, I objected. "No. No way," I argued. "We need to know if the fumes are getting to you before you space out or break out in a rash or stop breathing. So normal levels, okay?"

His jaw tightened, but he nodded in mute agreement as he stood to wrap the leftovers for our lunch the next day. I put on some seasonal music I've always been partial to the Chipmunks and I'd noticed last year that Jim seemed to get a kick out of them, too. We packed what we could, leaving our shaving kits for the next morning, and then finished washing the walls. When I heard him singing along with the CD, I grinned to myself and I mentally saluted Simon for having sent him off on holidays early. He needed this break. We both did.

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

The next morning, we ate breakfast and finished packing up our clothing and linens, and put everything out on the balcony before we started on the painting. When it was time to get down to work, Jim wasn't happy when I handed him a surgical mask from the sack of supplies I'd bought the afternoon before. "Oh, come on," he objected irritably. "Don't you think this is just a bit over the top? Talk about overkill."

"Better overkill than to underestimate the potential impacts," I retorted. Blowing a breath to slow myself down and ease my desire to throttle him for his recalcitrant ways, I held up my hands. "Jim, maybe you don't know all the constituents of paint, or how harmful this experience could be for you."

When he just stared at me, his lips thin with frustration, I took the fuming silence as an invitation to elaborate. "Okay, okay, just consider a few facts. I didn't want you sanding the old paint down, even though we'll probably have lumps or bumps in some places, because you probably used an oil-based paint last time, right? And this building went up before 1978, so you probably painted over stuff already on the walls. Your vision wasn't as acute then, so I figure the uneven surface wouldn't have bothered you as much, also right?"

"Yeah, so?"

"Well, before nineteen seventy-eight and even into the eighties, paint had a very high lead content. Sanding the walls can release that lead dust into the air and it adheres to surfaces, so we could ingest the poisonous flakes or inhale them or absorb the lead even through our skin just by touching the dust in any of those situations, we'd both be in danger of brain damage. If we were going to strip down to the base, we seriously would have to get professionals in here to do it, because they have the right gear and they are certified in terms of the skills required. The paint I bought yesterday still has some lead in it less than a percent but even that might be enough to hurt you, I just don't know. So I really don't want you breathing the stuff, you know?" Digging out a pair of plastic gloves and holding them out, I said flatly, "Nor do I want you touching it."

He took them, reluctantly. "You sure you're not exaggerating all this, Sandburg?" he challenged.

"Oh, I'm sure, alright," I told him sternly, then continued with my mini-lecture on the household health hazards associated with redecorating. "And, wait, there's a lot more. I suggested we just wash the walls, rather than strip off the old paint, because stripping paint can be hazardous for anyone. Apparently, methyline chloride is used in a lot of the strippers, and it's a pretty serious carcinogen. Plus strippers melt the paint off so say hello to the lead undercoats. Just not safe. Better to paint over, even if the finish isn't perfect.

He grimaced but still wasn't convinced. "Okay, so we leave the undercoat alone." Holding up the mask and gloves, he went on, "I don't see why I have to treat this like brain surgery."

"Jim, I haven't even begun to tell you about what's in the paint itself," I replied as I gripped his arm to hold his attention. "Oil-based paints, like I mentioned yesterday, can take months to dry completely; the latex, water-based acrylic paints at least dry in a matter of days. But I found out that all paints contain a certain amount of volatile organic compounds in the binding agents acrylics and polyvinyl acrylic to hold the pigments together and give the finish a toughness that will last, as well as in the soapy elements to prevent the separation of the various constituents while it's still in solution, and in the coloration elements themselves. These elements can turn into gasses at room temperature or when heated."

Gesturing at the paint cans, I told him, "I got a better, albeit more expensive, brand that you originally purchased. The Best Paint Company in Seattle has the lowest volatile organic compound content because the owner created this paint after he personally ended up in hospital after working with more traditional epoxy paint. Water acts in place of the paint thinner, lacquer, denatured alcohol or even benzene that's used in oil-based paints, so this is as safe as I could manage. That stuff you bought yesterday was full of crap that could have unexpected side effects for you or even for me, for that matter."

He frowned, but started to pull on the plastic gloves, though he still didn't look all that convinced.

I was grateful that he was beginning to respond more positively but I really needed him to take what I was saying seriously, so he wouldn't discount any untoward reactions. Scratching my cheek, I frowned as I tried to remember the rest of what I'd learned through my hurried research the day before. "Oh, yeah, and then there are additives put into the paint mixture for specific purposes such as thickeners to vary viscosity and retard spoilage, or to improve mildew resistance. Man, do not get me started on the biocides anti-bacterials and fungicide which are really pesticides and very dangerous. And there can be co-solvents or other added crap to prevent freezing, and so on," I told him in a rush, before he got fed up with listening. "It's a minefield, Jim, of toxicity and potential health hazards. Not just for you, for anyone. But we know we have to be especially careful given your heightened sensitivities." Waving at the paint cans, I reiterated, "I got the safest stuff I could find, rated for indoor use only, so fewer additives, water-based, and so on. We'll just have to see if you react or not." Looking up at him, I added with earnest urgency, "If you have any trouble breathing, or if you get dizzy, or anything, you have to tell me right away and we have to get you out into the fresh air on the balcony. No tough guy, 'I can take it' shit, okay?"

Looking a little dazed by all the information I'd just thrown at him, he nodded, drew on the second glove and then put on the mask. "Okay, Chief," he replied soberly. "I get it. No screwing around."

"Right. We want to go to the mountains later, not the hospital."

And that was when he hunkered down to open one of the paint cans, and noticed that not only had I changed the brand and type of paint, but also the color. "Pink?" he roared, surging to his feet after glimpsing the light tint of the paint.

"More peach, actually, but yeah, basically a very slight pink tinge," I admitted and tried not to sound defensive. Sometimes I really wished he'd just accept things, you know? Without all the explanations and rationalizations? But it was his apartment, so I guess he was entitled to hear the reasoning behind my choice. Pulling out the paint trays and rollers I'd also bought to replace the brushes he'd intended to use, I shrugged diffidently even though I was sure I had made the right choice for the right reasons. "The stark white you chose was too harsh. You know how you squint in the morning now from reflected light, even on dull days? Well, this matte finish and the very slight color tone will soften the light refraction so the light in here will be much easier on your eyes. Besides, pink makes a person feel cheerful. I thought about blue or green, which can be cool and restful, but all the samples ended up looking more gray than anything else, and I thought about what you said about the grunginess of the walls and figured gray wasn't going to work. Yellow might have been okay, but it can be sallow or too mustardy. I also considered beige, but that's just boring. There's hardly any color in this at all, but what's there will be crisp, clean and easy on your sight."

He snorted and rolled his eyes. "If this place ends up looking like a boudoir, rather than just a softer white, you're going to pay to have it all redone, you hear me?" he growled.

"Yeah, yeah," I muttered, waving off his concerns, too tired to argue and we hadn't even started the real work yet. "You're going to love it and any women we bring in here certainly will. Trust me. I got some of that glossy white you like so much for the baseboards to provide contrast and to emphasize the sense of 'cleanness' in the end results."

He shook his head but didn't say anything more, so we got started up in his bedroom, him on the ladder and me working on the lower walls.

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

He did pretty well, actually. We'd finished the upstairs, the stairway, hall, my room and bathroom, kitchen, and were more than halfway through the living room when the accumulation of fumes finally got to be too much. His breathing caught and he started to sneeze and, at the same time, his eyes started to water.

"Shit!" he exclaimed, letting go of his roller, which splattered when it hit the floor, to grab hold of the ladder with both hands.

I was up and over behind him before I even realized I'd moved. Reaching up to hold his hips, I demanded, "You dizzy?"

"Yeah," he gasped and sneezed again, violently.

"Okay, I've got you," I told him briskly. "One step at a time, ease your way down. We need to get you outside immediately."

His foot fumbled for the step and I risked letting go of one hip to guide it. He'd started to tremble, and his breathing was already getting raspier. "You're doing fine, Jim," I told him, keeping my fear for him at bay as I guided him down to the next step. "Just two more. That's it, good, good." And then I had my arm around him and he was gripping my shoulders. Quickly, I eased him to the door, slid it open and helped him outside to sit in one of the chairs. "Deep breaths," I told him, taking off his mask and then the gloves. "Slow, deep, yeah, like that," I encouraged as I hunkered down beside him and watched him. He'd gone really pale and sweat was beaded on his brow. His eyes were pressed closed against the dizziness and he still had a grip around my shoulders, as if holding himself steady. Pulling out a handkerchief, I dabbed at his brow, and was glad to see some color come back into his cheeks as his breathing eased. Then I reached for his jacket, which I'd taken the precaution of putting outside earlier along with my own and the large garbage bag stuffed with our bed linens, to keep the fabrics from absorbing the paint odor. The day was mild, but I didn't want him to get a chill. "Here, let's just get this around you, and then I'll get a damp cloth to wash your face."

Wordlessly, he let me help him. "You okay?" I asked anxiously, very worried by his uncharacteristic passivity.

He nodded and opened his bloodshot, irritated eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I think so," he replied hoarsely, sounding shaken. "It just hit me. No warning."

"I could see that," I told him gently and patted his shoulder. "I'll just get the wash cloth and be right back."

When I got back and started to wipe off his face, he took the cloth from me to do it for himself. I couldn't resist a small smile at the return of his fierce independence but I swallowed it before he looked at me. "What do you think did it?" he asked.

"I don't know," I told him. "Could be anything in the paint. But once it's dry, it shouldn't bother you. I hope not, anyway. Look, you stay out here for a few minutes until you're sure you're okay, and I'll go in to finish up. When you're feeling better, maybe you could do the run to get the fans."

Flicking a look over his shoulder, he said tightly, "I didn't quite finish ."

"I know," I said, when his voice trailed off. "But there's not much left of the upper walls to do. I can handle it, providing I don't look down."

"You sure?"

"Hey, I climbed a tree, right? I can climb the ladder," I assured him blithely with a slap on his back. And then I went inside to finish painting the last of the walls and baseboards. I really, really didn't like climbing that ladder and reaching out to cover the last third of the last wall, but I didn't like to admit it. I don't like looking like a wuss anymore than he does. Besides, I didn't want him to feel any worse than he obviously already did about having to bail on me.

A few minutes later, he came back inside. I rattled off the address of the rental company, and he went off to get the fans.

By the time he got back, I was finished with the ladder and he took it back to the basement, and then he ferried the bags with the bed linens and our suitcases down to the truck. "What else?" he asked when he again entered the loft.

"You can't stay in here, Jim," I told him firmly. "So, you can wait on the balcony or downstairs. I shouldn't be much longer. Actually, hold on. If you wait outside for a minute, I'll load the cooler, and you can take it and the groceries we packed earlier downstairs."

"I can pack the cooler," he grumbled, feeling useless.

"No, man, you can't," I insisted, moving to push him toward the balcony. "The effects of this paint are obviously cumulative and you've reached your tolerance and then some. It's okay. I don't mind, all right? Seriously, I'm almost done here."

He lifted his hands in surrender and went outside like a good little sentinel. Poor guy; I know he hated having to quit before the job was done. As I packed the cooler, I found myself hoping that our clothing wasn't a risk. But we'd packed most of what we'd owned to get it out of the loft, and I couldn't suggest he take a shower here because the new paint in the bathroom would probably get to him. Nor did I want to take any of the towels we weren't taking with us out of the bags they were in on the balcony, and then leave them to dry and absorb the smell and fumes from the paint. Damn, I probably should have just insisted we hire students or someone to do this for us. Glancing at the balcony, I saw him standing rigidly looking out over the bay, his frustration clear in every line of his body. "Okay, Jim," I called genially, pretending not to notice, "this stuff is good to go."

"You need another hour or so, right?" he asked tightly as he loaded up.

"Yeah, about that, I guess," I agreed. I still had the rest of the wall to do and all the baseboards in the living room and hall. "Maybe a little longer."

"Okay. I'm going to do some shopping and then I'll wait for you downstairs," he told me as he headed off.

"If you're going to a mall, turn your senses down!" I called to the closed door, knowing he'd hear me. Normally, he'd remember to do that himself, but he was so irritated about having to leave me to do the rest of the painting that he might not think of it. Sighing, I went back to work. But then I wondered what he might have gone shopping for and lost myself in pleasant speculation about what my Christmas present might be if, indeed, that was what he'd gone to buy. I'd lied, of course, about not having done any shopping myself. I had his gift in my suitcase, down in the truck. But, well, we hadn't made a big deal of Christmas the year before and hadn't exchanged gifts then. So I wasn't sure if we were going to do so this year or not. If not, what I'd gotten would be fine for his next birthday.

An hour and a half later, I cranked up the heat, opened the windows in my room and his not wide, but enough to let the air circulate and turned on the fans. And I turned on the radio, low, not loud enough to bother the neighbors, but enough to discourage any possible thief, and set the timers I'd bought for the various lamps in the apartment. I didn't like leaving the windows open sorta defeated the idea of security while we were away but I had to let the place air out. I just hoped the low music and the different light sequences would make the loft seem occupied while we were out of town.

I retrieved my coat from the balcony, shivering a little as I slipped it on as it had grown colder outside, and left the balcony door open a crack when I went back inside. With the bags containing the disposable paint trays, rollers and brushes, and the paint cans in hand, I turned off the overhead lights and locked the door behind me.

Our chores were done. With luck, we wouldn't have to wait long for the next ferry.

Now all that was left for the next ten days was to relax and have some fun.

Well, isn't that what Tom and Huck did, after they finished painting the fence?

Going out the back way, I dumped the trash where we left toxic waste for pickup, and then jogged around the front of the building to climb into the truck. Jim must've heard me finishing up, because the engine was running and the heat was on, so the cab was pleasantly warm. I grinned at him and fished the directions to Amelie's place out of my pocket. "We're off!" I crowed jubilantly, waving the paper at him as he put the truck into gear.

"Sorry I bailed on you," he said stiffly, still evidently feeling uncomfortable about it, as he steered into the traffic.

"No sweat," I assured him. "You feeling okay now?"

"Yeah," he said with a decisive nod. "Just needed to get some air, I guess."

"Good. But if you feel any itchiness or any other delayed symptoms, let me know," I replied as I settled against my seat. "This is going to be great," I murmured, smiling blissfully as I pictured the lake and the forested mountains around it.

A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth when he looked at me, really looked at me, for the first time since I got into the cab. Briefly, he seemed bemused, and then he laughed. "What?" I asked, feeling as if I'd missed a punchline somewhere.

He just chuckled and shook his head and kept driving toward the ferry terminal.

We were lucky and managed to squeeze onto a boat only moments before it closed and slid away from the pier. Since the ride would be more than half an hour, we went up to the canteen to get some coffee. The bored teenage girl at the till gave me a double-take, which was momentarily moderately ego-boosting, but then she snickered as she dropped her eyes. As we made our way out on deck, moving toward the bow, I noticed others giving me a second amused glance and I grimaced. Nudging Jim with my elbow, I said unhappily, "I've got paint on my face."

He looked down at me and grinned merrily. "Yeah, some," he agreed.

I swatted him and demanded, "Why didn't you tell me!"

Laughing lightly, his smile wide and his eyes dancing, he looked around and shrugged. "You look like a little kid who's been finger-painting, Chief. Kinda cute. Whimsical, even."

"Whimsical?" I echoed and shook my head. "Great. That's just great." More amused than concerned, glad to see him laughing and looking so happy, I took a sip of the hot coffee, grateful for its warmth in the chill of the deck. The wind was brisk as the ferry picked up speed and I reached up to pull the leather tie from my hair, to let it blow freely to get rid of any lingering scent of the paint. I took a deep breath of the clean, salty air and, closing my eyes, tilted my face to the sun. If I'd been a cat, I would have been purring.

"Chief, you look like you're glad we're on this little junket," Jim observed dryly.

"Oh, yeah, I am," I sighed and opened my eyes to drink in the serene view of azure water and the softer blue of the islands in the channel, and to take a deep breath of the clean salt air. "Don't get me wrong. I love Cascade, you know I do. But, sometimes, well, it's all a bit much at Rainier, people are always at me for something and I'm always playing catch-up and, well, things've been really busy at the PD, too. It's good to get a break, to get some peace." I turned to look up at him, and found him studying me thoughtfully. "I don't know how you do it, Jim. I mean, I think your senses are fantastic but well, the noise you must experience with the neverending traffic and everyone talking, and the sheer stench of the city all mixed up with the colognes and aftershaves and exhaust fumes, not to mention the lights, bright lights everywhere, flashing and blinking. I don't know how you absorb it all and just keep going. Must be exhausting."

When he looked away and nodded slowly but didn't comment, I sighed and shivered a little in the cold. "And you can't even bitch about it all to anyone, can you? Well, maybe to Simon, but he doesn't really want to hear about it. And me, I guess. But I'm as likely to want to run a test or something to figure out how to manage your senses better or how to deal with a particular problem, that it's just more aggravation. I can see why sometimes you just just keep it all inside and don't always share the irritations and frustrations with me. I'm sorry, man. Sorry it's so hard for you and sorry that I can't do more to make it easier."

He looked at me then, surprise in his eyes and a small smile quirked his lips as he looped an arm around my shoulders and drew me close to his side, sheltering me a bit from the wind. "I won't pretend it doesn't get to me and there are times I wish I could just turn the damned things off," he said, his voice low and reflective as he turned his face away, to look out at the islands. "But it's been easier since you started to help me. At least I understand what's happening and have those dials in my head to help manage them. Most of the time now, I'm glad I've got 'em they're sure an asset on the job." He paused and then added, "You do plenty to make things easier, Chief. All the time."

Lifting my hand to rest it on his back, I bowed my head and savoured his words, appreciating them more than he probably knew. He doesn't say much usually, about whether I'm really helping him or not. His words warmed me and I was glad to know that I was making a difference for the good in his life. 'Cause he's sure made a huge difference for the good in mine.

"Just, uh, no tests during the holiday, okay, Chief?" he asked uneasily.

"No tests, Jim, I promise," I assured him with a smile.

Not long after, we finished our coffee and made our way back to the truck. I ducked into the men's room on the way, to wash my face. When I saw the smears of paint on my forehead, cheek, chin and nose, and the speckles of it in my hair, I grimaced and shook my head. How did I manage to get so messed up when Jim didn't have a drop of the stuff on him?

Whimsical? Cute? Not hardly. More like a class-A klutz. Or a plain and simple clown.

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

The road climbed steeply from the dock up into the mountains. The afternoon was waning, the light dimming to dusk, and I was fading fast. My neck and shoulders had started to ache long before we got to our destination and, in the quiet of the truck and the monotony of trees and more trees, I was hard-pressed not to doze off. Thank goodness for sentinel sight because, without it, I don't think we would've found the narrow lane or seen the tiny, very discreet name board tacked to a tree. But Jim saw both and swung onto the rutted track. He didn't say anything about how rustic it seemed, but his face tightened a little and I think he was worried about what I'd gotten us into this time.

But when the road opened up to the vista of the placid lake backed by the dark peaks of mountains reaching into the night sky, and the long, low lodge of stone, glass and wood surrounded by pines and barren deciduous trees, he slowed to take it all in. "It's beautiful," he murmured, a sigh of surprise, and I smiled, pleased that he liked what he was seeing. He pulled up on the graveled drive to the side of the wide covered porch that spanned the front and at least one side of the structure and I rifled in the glove compartment for the flashlight.

"I'll go round back and turn on the generator," I told him, sliding out to pick my way through the darkness. Behind me, he started to unload our gear and supplies, carrying the stuff up the short flight of stone steps to the front door. The shed was flush against the back wall of the lodge, near the back verandah and the door into the kitchen. I fumbled a bit with the keys before finding the right one, but eventually got inside and flicked on the generator, glad that it powered up immediately with a low hum. Flashing the light around, I spotted snowshoes and cross-country skis and poles, as well as a shovel and an axe. Backing out and locking it again, I climbed up to the porch and noted the gas barbecue while I again tried one key after another. Once inside, I turned on the light switch by the door. The kitchen was all wood alder, I think and deep green ceramic tile on the counter and floor. The appliances put those in the loft to shame and expensive copper cookware hung over the massive chopping block island that had a low seating area at one end for quick snacks.

Moving through the chilly interior into the great room, I snapped on more lights that glistened on the rich wood flooring. On one side of the room there was an oak dining room pedestal table and chairs, hutch and desk with a bookcase, and on the other was a grouping of comfortable, well-stuffed furniture. A black, cast-iron stove, with a glass front in a stone niche with kindling and stacked wood ready to hand, was flanked by two more bookcases, one with dozens of games and decks of cards and the other with a large television, sound system and innumerable video and cassette tapes and CDs. The rest of the walls were glass, floor to ceiling, to bring the outdoors inside. A large ceiling fan hung from the pinnacle of the high pitched ceiling.

Unlocking the wide front door, I called, "C'mon in, but leave your coat on it's chilly, as in freezing in here!" When I picked up the heavy cooler, I felt the pull in my shoulders and back. Man, I was going to be stiff in the morning. Moving back through the house to the kitchen, I started to transfer our stuff into the fridge. I heard Jim come inside with the luggage and head down the hall. When his footsteps hesitated, I directed, "You can take the main bedroom and my stuff can go into the other one with a double bed, across from the bathroom."

Moments later, he came into the kitchen laded with grocery bags. "You've been here before, right?" he asked.

"Nope, first time," I told him as I straightened to help put things away. "But Amelie talks about the place a lot and I've seen photos."

"The place is incredible," he enthused. "The master has a humongous shower and Jacuzzi, and the windows give views of the lake and mountains. You know, when you said 'cabin', I pictured a fishing hut or something pretty basic, but this this is fantastic."

Grinning, I nodded, well pleased with his reaction. "There's a satellite dish out back, so we should be able to get the games."

"All this and football, too? This must be heaven," he murmured and shook his head. "You did good, Chief, really good. She must be a good friend to let you have this place for the holidays."

"No, not really," I replied, sorting out the vegetables I needed to chop up for our dinner. "We've known each other for about ten years, though. She taught several of my undergrad courses and we serve on a couple of the same committees. She said she was glad to have someone in the place over the holidays, as I guess this is a prime time for vandalism. Reassures her that you're a cop."

"Always happy to serve and protect," he rejoined sardonically.

"You want to start a fire while I get dinner on?" I asked, shivering. "Might help warm the place up faster. Maybe put the bag with our linens near the woodstove to take the chill off them before we make up the beds."

"You got it, Chief," he agreed, and went back into the great room. A few minutes later, soft music began to play, something classical I didn't recognize, easy on the ears.

My arms felt like lead weights as I chopped and diced the vegetables and meat. The next time he came into the kitchen, I was pouring oil into the wok. He came up close behind me to peer over my shoulder at the food. "I'm starving," he told me.

"Won't be long now," I assured him as I tossed in the beef to brown.

He rifled in cabinets and drawers to find the dishes and flatware to set the table. Glancing around, he observed, "She must love cooking."

"Maybe," I shrugged. "I don't know really 'cause we've never socialized away from Rainier. But I think cooking was more her husband's passion. He was the chef and owner of that glitzy restaurant in town, Le Beaujolais."

Jim's brows arched, impressed, and he nodded to himself, probably because I'd answered his unasked question about how a professor could afford a holiday home like this one. Then he was gone to set the table.

By then, the room was warm enough to shrug off my jacket and I draped it over one of the kitchen chairs. The next time Jim wandered through, he picked it up and took it away to hang where it belonged, on a hook by the front door. I couldn't help a small grin as I briskly sautéed the vegetables. That's Jim, all right; everything in its place, neat as a pin.

Minutes later, I carried in the platters and he brought a couple beers to the table. The room was warm from the fire, and he'd turned off the bright overhead lighting, preferring the softer, cozier illumination of the lamps. We were both hungry and ate quickly, and then he told me to relax while he took care of the clean-up.

I moved to sit in front of the fire and was quickly mesmerized by the dancing flames, nearly drifting off to sleep. Man, I could not believe how tired I was. My whole body felt heavy and was seriously beginning to ache from the painting I'd done that day. Not that it was hard work or all that strenuous, but the repetitive motions and bending had used muscles that were evidently out of shape. When Jim came in and suggested we take a walk, I groaned in protest.

"Aw, c'mon, Chief," he cajoled. "Some fresh air before bed time would be good for you."

I looked up at him and was caught by the hopeful expression on his face. You know, it never ceases to amaze me how much he seems to actually enjoy my company. I mean, he's more than a decade older than me and we don't exactly share the same interests or world views or life philosophies, and I know that I tend to wear a bit thin after awhile with my herbs and tendency to talk about whatever interests me at the time. There's a reason I was living alone when we first met I get along with most people on a superficial level but don't really connect with very many beyond that point. But Jim well, I guess he sees me as a kind of kid brother or something. He finds me amusing, I guess. All that to say, there was no way that I could resist that expression on his face or all that it meant about our friendship, which was something I treasured among the greatest gifts of my life. So I struggled to my feet and he grinned as he lifted my jacket from the hook and held it open for me to slip in my arms. "That's the spirit!" he encouraged, and then he pulled open the door and led the way into the night.

God, it was cold. But it was also very beautiful. The moon had risen, casting a silver sheen over the lake and brightening the night enough that even I could see my way. We went down to the water's edge and wandered along the shoreline. The air was crisp and clean, rich with the scent of pine, invigorating. The tension I'd noted in Jim's body earlier in the day had melted away. He moved easily, his expression alert as he scanned the forest and lifted his gaze to the peaks and then the sky. At one point, he paused and just studied the lake, a soft smile on his face, enjoying whatever it was that he could see or smell or hear in the ripples or on the wind. But when I yawned and shivered, he wordlessly looped his arm around my shoulders and drew me into his warmth as he steered us back to the lodge. As we neared it, he again looked up at the sky and said, "Snow's coming."

"There're snowshoes and skis in the shed in the back," I told him and then yawned again widely as we climbed the stone steps to the verandah.

"Kids today, no stamina," he teased me and playfully punched my arm. But when I winced and tensed, he frowned suddenly with concern. "Hey, you're really hurting here. What's wrong?"

"Ah, nothing," I replied, feeling like a wimp. His muscles obviously were not bothering him. But then the guy pumped iron regularly; lifting a paint roller was nothing for him. "I just used some muscles I didn't know I had today, and they're, uh, complaining."

Inside, he slid my jacket down off my shoulders and hung it up. And then he moved his hands over my shoulders and back, not touching but about half an inch above my body. It was fascinating to watch his face as he assessed the extent of muscle strain by heat, I guess. I don't really know. The fixed look of concentration gave way to a deeper frown of concern. "You're going to be stiff as a board by morning if we don't take care of this now," he muttered. His gaze came up to meet mine as he continued, "How about you spend fifteen or twenty minutes in the Jacuzzi, and then I'll massage those muscles, loosen them up."

"Seriously?" I exclaimed and gaped at him. But he didn't need to repeat himself I was already unbuttoning my shirt on the way to that hot tub. His room really was something else. Completely sybaritic. But it was the tub that held my attention. I turned on the faucets and stiffly stripped; man that hot water was going to feel SO good. After checking out the bath oils and salts, I tossed in a couple handfuls of Epsom salts, figuring they couldn't hurt and might help. Moments later, I eased into the steaming water and turned on the jets to let the water pummel my aching back. Sinking down, my hair hanging outside the rim, I closed my eyes and gave myself over to the sheer sensuousness of the experience.

And I must've fallen asleep, because the next thing I knew, Jim was softly calling my name, the jets were off and the water had cooled. "C'mon, sleeping beauty, let's get you to bed."

I was muddled by sleep, not entirely sure, I guess, where I was or what I was doing. Dizziness hit when I stood, and he grabbed my arm to steady me and help me out of the tub. And then he was wrapping a huge, warm towel around me and guiding me to my room. "'m sorry," I mumbled. "'m just so tired, you know?"

"Yeah, I can see that, Chief," he murmured. He helped me dry off and get into sweats, and then he hastily pulled back the duvet and eased me down onto the bed. "But I need to take care of those muscles or you won't be able to move tomorrow."

Rolling onto my stomach, I mumbled, "Do yer worst, man," and closed my eyes. I tried to stay awake; I really did, if only to be conscious of how good that massage felt. Man, he's got great hands and he seems to know, maybe because of his extraordinary sense of touch, just how much pressure to apply. He sure finds the knots and tender spots with no trouble. It was hard to hold onto consciousness, though. I felt as if I'd been broadsided by a wave of weariness, submerged in exhaustion, numb with it and hardly able to think coherently. I can usually keep going and don't need much sleep but every once in a while it all catches up with me and knocks me sideways. This particular energizer bunny had finally run right out of juice. He must've sensed my struggle to stay halfway alert because he said very quietly, "Let go, Blair. Relax, okay?"

"Mmm, okay. Feels so good," I sighed gratefully and gave myself over to his hands. Dropping like a stone, I plummeted into sleep but just before I was completely gone I had a very vague sense of him ruffling my hair and hearing him murmur fondly, "Sleep well, Chief; you've earned it," but I might've just been dreaming.

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

I woke to complete and utter silence, the kind of silence that feels muffled, wrapped in cotton. Dim, early morning light was filtering through the windows but all I could make out beyond the glass was white. I got up, stretched and raked my hair back, and then peered outside; I couldn't see the trees that weren't more than fifty feet away from the house, only heavily falling snow. Given the blustery weather outside, I was very glad that we'd come up the day before and were safe and well settled inside.

Padding into the great room, I found Jim sprawled on the sofa, a book open on his chest, but he was sound asleep. A fire was burning in the stove and there was a half-drunk mug of coffee on the low table beside him. Despite the fire, the room felt a bit draughty to me, so I unfolded the bright afghan on the back of the couch and carefully layered it over him. Meandering into the kitchen, I sliced a bagel and poured a cup of coffee, sipping it while the bread toasted. A brief search of the refrigerator turned up a jar of homemade wild blueberry preserves that I liberally spread over the bagel halves. Oh, man, what a taste sensation that was on my tongue. Indescribably delicious. I rinsed off the implements I'd used and, yawning, wandered back into the living room. Finding a historical whodunit in the bookcase that I hadn't read, I grinned and ambled back to that truly fantastically comfortable bed in my room. It was soft but firm, supportive, if that makes any sense. Anyway, I sank back down on it, drew up the puffy duvet and read about three pages before sleep claimed me again.

The next time I woke, I smelled frying eggs and sausage and grinned with anticipatory pleasure. I pulled on my robe and sauntered to the kitchen. Jim looked up when I wandered in and smiled, looking relaxed and at peace with the world. "Hey, sleepy head, perfect timing. I was just going to call you. How're your shoulders and back this morning?"

"A little tender but not bad," I replied, "thanks to that great massage. And I'm not the only lazy one today who do you think covered you up this morning? How'd you sleep last night?"

"Like a log," he said, dishing up the food. I poured two mugs of fresh coffee and we ate at the snack bar on the kitchen island. "It's the quiet, I think. I can't remember when the world was last so quiet." Tilting his head toward the door, he said, "We've got a real blizzard going on out there, Chief. We'd best stay inside until it's over in this weather, we could get lost twenty feet from the house and never know it was there."

Nodding in agreement as I munched on a bagel, I wasn't unhappy to think we wouldn't be taking any ten-mile nature hikes that day. As much as I'd slept, I still felt achy with weariness and, at that point, didn't care if we couldn't get outside for a week. Of course, such forced inactivity would soon drive Jim nuts, but the weather wouldn't stay bad for long and would probably clear by nightfall.

"Mm, this is good," I complimented him as I tucked in, suddenly ravenous. Once I'd taken the edge off my hunger, I asked, "So, what do you want to do today? Play some board games or cards, read, watch videos or see what we can get on television?"

He mulled the options over as he chewed and then decided, "It's a good day to just lie around and read." I watched as he reached for the wild blueberry preserve and grinned at the beatific look on his face as the flavors exploded on his tongue. I was going to have to send Amelie a huge bouquet of flowers in gratitude for letting us stay there over the holidays. There couldn't have been a better place in the world for a world-weary sentinel with battered senses to rest and recuperate for a few days.

After we finished our brunch, I cleaned up the kitchen and he went back to the great room to stoke up the fire. I found him back on the sofa, stretched out under the afghan, which made me smile, and deep into his book. The flames were crackling in the stove, filling the air with the pleasant pungent scent of burning wood. He looked as snug as the proverbial bug in his rug. Grinning, I ambled back to my room and that incredible bed. I plumped up the feather pillows and, once more, I made a stab at my medieval mystery, but only managed a couple pages before sleep again overtook me.

The thunk and scrape of metal on wood woke me as dusk was falling and it didn't take a detective to figure out that Jim was shoveling off the verandah. He teases me about always being in motion, but that guy really can't stay still, you know? And if there are chores to be done, he just has to do them. Tossing back the duvet, I debated actually getting dressed and discarded the idea. The sweats were comfortable and I had no intention of going out to help clear the deck. However, I could make myself useful by getting dinner ready.

I thought soup and sandwiches would be great comfort foods, easy and satisfying. Besides, having done little more than lie around, read and sleep all day, neither of us needed a lot of food. Well, okay, Jim was actually doing some manual labour out in the freezing cold the hot soup would be his reward.

When he came in the back door after replacing the shovel in the shed, his face was flushed with cold and exertion but the shadows of pain and weariness that had dulled his eyes for weeks were gone, replaced by the glint of humor. He sniffed the air as he pulled off his gloves and grinned good-naturedly. "Smells good, Chief," he said as he passed through the kitchen to hang up his coat by the front door. Man, I am so glad that he's really very easy to please.

That evening, we played some cards and called it an early night. I just couldn't seem to stop yawning.

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

The next day dawned bright and clear. I don't know if it was all the sleep or the sunlight streaming in through my window, but I felt substantially more energized than I had the day before. After a shower and a shave, I was a new man, eager to do more than just lie around. Jim wasn't up yet, so I took on breakfast duty, mixing up pancake batter and tossing in some frozen blueberries I found in the freezer. The scent of fresh roasted coffee drew him from his room, or maybe it was the smell of bacon frying, and when he saw me pour the pancake batter into the skillet, he rubbed his hands together with clear delight.

After breakfast, we decided to brave the great outdoors. The snow had finally stopped sometime during the night and the temperature had dipped, so I layered on a sweatshirt and sweater for warmth. We pulled out the snowshoes and started with a hike around the near edge of the lake and then made our way into the forest. What a gorgeous day it was. The fresh new drifts were pristine, glittering under the sun, and the branches of the trees bore thick, smooth clumps of glistening snow. Our breath billowed out in front of us in crystalline clouds. I was pleased I'd remembered to toss my camera into my suitcase because I wanted tangible memories of this place and time. I was glad we were in the mountains and had gotten the snow back in Cascade, the same weather system would have dumped sleety rain, making the world dull and dirty-looking, not like the glorious Christmas card beauty that we had around the lodge.

We spotted some trees that would have been perfect to cut and haul to the lodge for decorating, but we both hesitated. Finally, Jim sighed and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Chief," he muttered. "But I don't really like cutting down healthy trees just to decorate them for a few days. Always seems such a waste to me. It's one thing if they're already cut, having been grown for the purpose but, out here, well, it just doesn't seem right."

Gazing at a cute little fir that was no more than six feet high and perfectly proportioned, I nodded in complete agreement. "I know what you mean, man. So, let's not bother with a tree this year."

"Well, I think there might be compromise position, here," he suggested. Waving back toward the lodge, he went on, "There's a pretty much perfect little tree outside the front windows on the path toward the lake. I've got some extension cords in the box of decorations. Maybe we could string up some lights on it and consider it to be our tree this year."

"Hey, that's a great idea!" I enthused. "And I bought some popcorn, so I could string that and the birds would get something out of the deal, too. Not only could they eat it, but they'd use the bits of string in building their nests in the spring."

"Sounds like we've got a plan, Chief," he replied with a grin, seemingly happy that his idea had been so well received.

So off we went, back to the lodge, to check out the tree in question. After we had lunch, we spent a good part of the afternoon sorting out the lights and cords and stringing popcorn, and then decorating the tree. When dusk fell, we plugged in the cord and stood back to admire our handiwork. Lights blinked and the star on top shone clearly through the gathering dark. It looked great, to tell you the absolute truth and, when we went inside, we found we could see and enjoy it both from the dining room table and the sofa and chair close to the fire.

"This was a good idea, Jim," I told him and he nodded, pleased.

That night, we prepared dinner together, something we hadn't done for months. Nothing fancy, just a tuna casserole and salad, but we joked around, easy in one another's company. And we cleaned up afterward together, Jim washing and me drying. The tree decorating having finally put me into the Christmas spirit okay, yeah, I'm nominally Jewish but I enjoy the Christmas ethos and atmosphere of family, love and unfettered giving as much as the next guy I checked out the video selection and was delighted to find the old classic movie, A Christmas Carol with Alastir Sim. In my view, none of the remakes even come close to capturing Dickens' great tale as well as that version does.

We settled down with mugs of hot chocolate in the soft glow of the fire and the light of our tree blinking merrily outside. I really love the themes of this old story; Dickens deftly captured the spirit of Christmas and how we all make choices without knowing all the facts, choices that influence our lives for good or ill, and that we can all make a difference, even if only small ones, in the lives of others around us, if we choose to do so and if we want to give with an open heart. I think my favorite scene is the one where Scrooge wakes up and realizes it's only Christmas morning, that he hasn't missed it, and he says ruefully near the end, "I don't deserve to be this happy." Man, that could be the motto of my life.

When the movie ended, I looked over at Jim and was surprised to see a thoughtful, somewhat sad, expression on his face. Concerned, I asked, "Hey, Jim, is something wrong?"

He started, as if he'd forgotten I was even there. Then, looking into the fire, he shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. All of a sudden, I wondered if suggesting that movie had been such a good idea after all. But then he shook his head and said slowly, "No, nothing's wrong. I was just thinking about some of my Christmases past." He turned his face to return my gaze and he seemed vulnerable somehow. "And, I guess, about what I'd like future Christmases to be like."

"What would you like them to be like?" I asked, figuring I'd do all I could to make his Christmases the sort he most wanted and it would sure help to have a clue as to what those hopes might be.

He studied my face and then again looked away, his gaze hooded. "I've spent most Christmases alone, Chief," he told me then. "Just about all of them since I left home. I guess I guess I hope I won't spend anymore of them alone." He sighed and shrugged again. "I guess I've avoided reminders of how Christmas was back when I was a kid and we had a real family. Later memories weren't ones I wanted to revisit. But but maybe it's time to make new memories, to create new traditions."

"Well, you won't be alone this year," I said softly.

"I know," he replied glancing up with a quick, furtive look of gratitude and then away again, as if he was embarrassed about being so open about how he felt and how glad he was not to be alone. Like most tough guys, he has gentleness and vulnerability and the need to be loved, just like everyone else, buried deep inside where not many people get to see it. I knew it was a pretty big deal that he allowed me to see past the stoic, carelessly indifferent image that he usually projects to the world around him.

"So, what do you want to do this Christmas?" I asked. "Anything besides cook that turkey we've got in the fridge and watch the Rose Bowl parade and game?"

"No," he smiled almost shyly. "Nothing else. That sounds about perfect."

See, like I said, he is so easy to please. He never volunteers much personal stuff about his past and I don't like to pry because he evidently wants and needs to keep things private. But I was sorry that, evidently, he didn't have particularly happy memories. Jim's a really good guy, you know? He gives the best of himself, risks all he is, on just about a daily basis. He deserves more than life has granted him in the happiness department; a whole lot more.

When he got up to get us each another bottle of beer, I changed the video and put in Short Circuit, a fluffy, funny and touching story about a robot who was alive. We laughed a lot and then it was time to call it a night.

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

We spent the next two days playing in the snow, building a fort, tossing some snowballs at one another, wrestling in the drifts, and hiking through the forest behind the lodge. I'm not sure when either of us had laughed so much or felt so at peace with the world around us. The quiet beauty was healing, I guess, for both of us, restoring our energy and sense of balance, revitalizing us by allowing us to let the darkness of the past months of our hectic lives drift farther and farther away.

Not that we weren't happy with our daily existence because we were, for the most part, anyway we were both doing what we wanted with our lives. But Jim's work, well, dealing with the dark side of humanity was unavoidable and it just gets wearing sometimes. Justice well, justice is great and what Jim and his colleagues do is vital work, but justice doesn't erase the indignities or cruelties they witness every day. His world can breed cynicism and it can certainly be depressing, so we needed this break; to sustain balance, to feel good about life, he needed more than his work and so did I.

I'd have to remember that and make sure that we took some time every once in awhile to get away from it all and chill out, to remember the world has beauty in it and joy, not just death and destruction. And why do I know it's part of my job to build in the fun? Well, like I said, Jim is about duty and getting the chores done, and his work, in a way, is never done, so he wouldn't let go and take a break without someone around to remind him to do so. For now, at least, that someone in his life is me. I think, maybe, it might always be me. I'm not sure, exactly, how he feels about our friendship but, well, for my part, he's the best friend I've ever had and I hope he always will be. I know it's only been two years but but I just can't imagine my life anymore without him being a big part of it. I've never had much family, just Naomi, but Jim matters to me. He's, well, he's become family. And given that I hardly see my mom from one year to the next, he's just about the only family I've got.

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

We woke Christmas morning to find it had started snowing again, a light, delicate drift of flakes that freshened the world, cleansed it. We got the turkey stuffed and in the oven, and had breakfast, and then settled down with hot chocolate to watch the Rose Bowl Parade. Man, what those people can do with flowers is an amazing feat of artistry, imagination and engineering. We debated whether we'd give the same awards for various floats and chatted about the upcoming game, speculating about which team would win.

We prepared the vegetables and salad at half-time and salivated over the delectable scent of turkey that was emanating from the oven. When the game was over, we finished preparing the dinner and Jim carved the bird while I made the gravy. And then we enjoyed our feast, stuffing ourselves with too much food, and recapping the highlights of the game.

After dinner, when the dishes were done, he disappeared into his room for a minute and I spirited the gift I'd brought for him from mine, slipping it under the sofa because I still hadn't decided whether to give it to him or not. I didn't want him to feel awkward about not having gotten me a gift, but I also wanted him to have a present to mark this Christmas, to complete it somehow.

I was in the kitchen when he came back into the great room. I brought coffee from the kitchen, and asked if he wanted to watch a movie or play some cards. Or maybe a game of Clue.

"Clue?" he laughed.

"Well, sure," I teased. "Miss Scarlett in the conservatory with the candlestick. Don't want your detective skills to get rusty."

"Yeah, okay," he agreed. "But, uh, first, I want to give you something. I know Christmas isn't something you probably celebrate normally and we hadn't talked about gifts, except to say neither of us had time to shop, but well, I just wanted to give you this." He reached down to the far side of the sofa and then held out a neatly wrapped box with a big cheerful red bow on it.

"Oh, hey, this is great!" I exclaimed, surprised and pleased, not having expected anything. "And, um, well, if you reach under the sofa just beside where you're sitting, you'll find Santa's elves left something for you, too."

"Really?" he grinned, looking like a kid as he bent down to retrieve the gift I'd left there.

"You first," I said with a wide smile.

Bemused, he very neatly unwrapped the present and seemed exceptionally pleased to find the latest editions of three of his favorite authors. "Great!" he enthused, flipping them over to read the excerpts on the back. "I've been wanting to read these. Thanks, Blair." He looked up and gestured at the gift he'd given me. "Your turn."

I was a lot less neat about ripping off the paper. But then, I'm a lot less neat about a lot of things than Jim is. Inside was a box that was also very neatly taped, and I laughed as I tore through that barrier as well. Inside the box I found several different objects: more memory for my laptop a lot more; a small, battery-powered reading light that would fit on the end of a pen; a gift subscription to my favorite anthropology journal; and a first edition that I'd admired in a bookstore when we'd been working on a case a few months back. I was stunned. Gaping, I looked up at him and shook my head. "Oh, man, this is too much, Jim. Too much. I'm mean, it's all great and thank you, but I never expected ." Hell, I'd only given him the three pocket books lying next to his coffee mug on the table. Yeah, yeah, it's not about being equal, or it's not supposed to be, but it is and I'd just come up short. You know, it really is better to give than to receive. Feels better somehow. I just never, ever expected so much. I told myself to suck it up and just be really pleased and grateful for his generosity; God knows, I didn't want him feeling badly for being so good to me.

But when I looked away from those novels on the coffee table and up into his eyes, I found him studying me and I knew it was already too late, that he knew I felt awkward and that would make him uncomfortable. "Ah, I'm sorry, Jim. I really love what you got. I mean, I need the extra memory really badly and this light will help me when I'm working in the truck when we're on stakeout. And I love this journal, you know that and this book ." My voice drifted off as I looked down at it and caressed the cover. "You don't know how much I appreciate this; what it means to me." My voice caught and I had to clear my throat. "I just didn't think we'd exchange presents and, well, I I just wanted to give you something I knew you'd like. I know they aren't much, but "

"But you give me gifts when I need them, not just at Christmas," he cut in. "I know that. And I know we weren't planning to exchange gifts today. But I had that time to shop the other day and it, well, it occurred to me that it was a chance to show how much I appreciate what you give me, 'cause I think I probably don't express that very well."

"What?" I stammered, frowning in confusion. "Gifts? What gifts?"

He smiled and shook his head, looked at the fire. "I'm not used to people just giving me stuff, you know? So I guess I've never gotten the hang of saying 'thank you' when I should. But when sound was driving me crazy last year, you got me the white noise generator and that's kept me sane. When light bothered me so much that I couldn't sleep, you left the sleeping mask beside the bed, along with some earplugs, even though I hadn't told you about how the noises in the building and on the street often woke me in the night. When I just couldn't get a grip on my senses, you showed me the dials I have in my head and how to use them. And, well, everyday, you give me the priceless gifts of your time and attention, even when you don't have time and you've got a thousand different things warring for your attention. Even when you're so tired you're nearly dead on your feet, like earlier this week the last thing you wanted to do was paint the loft, I know that. But I insisted and you went along with it and you made sure that it was safe for me to do it because you knew it was something I really needed to do. And then, when I couldn't finish what I started, you finished it for me with no complaints. And you arranged for us to have this great place for the holidays because we couldn't stay in the loft while the paint dried. Right from the beginning, even when I've been an ass, you've stood by me, made my life easier, and backed me up as well as you could, even when it meant placing yourself at considerable risk. I, uh, I don't know how I would have survived the last couple of years without your help and, well, your belief in me, I guess. That I can do this; that I can manage these senses." He shrugged and looked back at me. "I just want you to know that I appreciate all that, Chief. I appreciate you. And I know I take you away from your own work a lot, too much maybe. I thought these gifts might, I don't know, help with your work."

And just like that, he restored the balance between us and gave me my dignity back. It's never about the cost of the gifts that are given, but the thought that goes into them, and the care and affection. Here, I'd been worrying that I'd not given him enough and he had seemingly been afraid of the same thing, of not giving me enough. God, I'm such a sap and it's too mushy for words, but what he said about appreciating me, well, I'll never forget it.

"Thanks, Jim," I managed to say, deeply moved and pretty much overwhelmed. "These gifts will help a lot, a huge amount."

"Good, I'm glad," he replied and then he stood to move to the bookcase to get the board game, which he then carried to the dining room table. "So ready to take me on, Sherlock? Ten bucks says I clean your clock."

"You're on, man," I replied with a wide grin, grateful that he'd so deftly moved us to less emotional ground. "Easy money." He snorted disparagingly as he set up the game.

I don't know about him, but that was about the best Christmas I've ever had, even if he did clean my clock at Clue.

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

The next day was clear but brittle with cold. We could hear the limbs of trees cracking and popping in protest to the freezing weather. Not that the cold discouraged Jim from suggesting we pack a lunch and take a long hike all the way around the lake and maybe check out some of the forest on the way back to the lodge. What could I say? Man, he looked so eager to get out there and do some exploring that I just laughed to myself and went to put on more layers and an extra pair of thick socks. Somehow over the past years, I'd grown more sedentary than I used to be when the idea of exploring new places also made my eyes light up. I was too into my computer and books. He was right; the fresh air and exercise would do me a world of good.

So we packed sandwiches and a thermos of steaming coffee, and stuck bottles of water in our pockets because even with the cold, a strenuous hike was bound to make us sweat and we'd need the fluids. Outside, the air was so cold that it burned the back of my throat until I got used to it, and then it was like breathing ice water, clean and refreshing and tangible. Our breath billowed out in clouds as we snowshoed over and through the drifts along the water's edge. The shoreline was a bit obscure, actually, because ice had formed like a lace collar over the water, and snow had sifted over the ice in long, serene drifts. I had to rely on Jim to lead the way to keep from inadvertently taking a dunking. I'm not sure, but I think he was using his senses of hearing and sight to listen to the gurgle of the water under the ice and to see the crystalline edges of the paper-thin veneer of frozen water.

Took us nearly two hours to hike around to the far side, past summer cottages that were closed up for the season. Jim's gaze raked the snow around them and he cocked his head often, listening, maybe not even conscious that the cop part of him was reflexively checking for evidence of intruders and vandalism. But he evidently didn't spot anything wrong because we kept going.

I was starting to shiver, my sweat having formed a thin sheen of ice on my skin, and he decided we should stop, build a small fire to warm me up a bit, eat our lunch to fuel our metabolism and drink the coffee for some energy. It's times like this that his ranger training is so evident. Sure, I know how to build a fire from scratch but not in the snow. He's got winter survival skills. Wasn't long before flames were licking at dry sticks he'd found buried under a blanket of snow and leaf mulch. Man, for such a little fire, it threw a fair amount of warmth. We sat on logs and munched our sandwiches and watched a blue jay flit through the trees. Felt like we were the only people on the face of the earth, it was that quiet, that still.

We didn't linger long. Jim didn't want me to get chilled or stiffen up by inactivity and, his gaze ranging the distant mountains, he said the wind would pick up soon. So, off we went to complete our circuit of the lake. When we rounded the far end and were in sight of ground we'd traversed on earlier walks, he decided to angle up into the trees. Climbing was tougher than snowshoeing on fairly level ground and I was soon panting from the exertion, and my legs were beginning to ache from the unfamiliar gait. But Jim caught my arm and raised a finger to his lips, and then slowly pointed through the trees and I saw two deer foraging not a hundred feet away. Man, what gorgeous creatures they are. We stood, mesmerized, until they moved off.

More tramping and we were finally heading downhill again, which was a relief. We'd finished our lunch nearly three hours before and I was beyond tired. I was also sweating again, which was annoying because Jim looked fresh as a daisy. There's no question that, while I might be a decade younger, he was in far better shape. I have a lot of mental and emotional stamina, and I could go forever on a couple hours of sleep, but I'd never be a marathon man. I'm fast in the short sprints but fade in the stretch, and I was definitely fading.

"It's only about another mile, probably less," Jim encouraged me, or maybe he was reassuring himself, given the worried looks he cast my way when perspiration started trickling down my forehead. The wind had picked up, as predicted, and it had a bitter, sharp bite. I was sure it was degrees colder than when we'd started out that morning and it hadn't been mild then. I think he was worried about hypothermia because he dropped back to march beside me, maybe to make sure I kept moving and didn't get confused and wander off on my own. "Ease up, Chief," he cautioned. "You don't have to work this hard. We're nearly back to the lodge."

Trying my level best not to pant and vowing I'd die before I complained that my legs wanted to fall off, I just nodded and kept plodding along. It was hard work moving around the trees and the fairly thick undergrowth so even if it was only a mile as the crow flies, I was betting we'd walk closer to two before we actually got to a warm place where I could collapse. But I took heart when we came to a meadow of smooth drifts and we could go in a straight line.

Jim was closer to the trees and he frowned as we started across. "I hear water, I think. Gurgling. Close by."

"Probably a creek or something," I huffed and the ground fell away beneath me. With a startled yelp, I plunged down through the icy snow and must've dropped fifteen feet before I landed hard on a rocky, wet surface. The fall was startling the landing knocked the breath right out of me.

"Chief!" Jim yelled from above, and more snow cascaded down onto me, and I shouted for him to stay back. I was afraid of being buried. But when I tried to stand, agony shot up through my right leg and I discovered I couldn't move it. Somehow, the snowshoe had twisted and gotten stuck between some rocks and both my knee and my ankle were badly sprained. At least, I hoped they were sprained and not broken. I hadn't heard any bone cracks but then I hadn't been aware of much besides falling and landing.

"Blair!" he called again, anxiety ringing in his voice. "Are you okay? Can you crawl back up here?"

I gritted my teeth against the pain that burned up into my hip and side and grunted, "Uh, that would be a no." Panting, I tried shifting to ease the strain on my leg and to get out of the icy water I was lying in, but I nearly blacked out. There was no way I was going to be able to twist around and reach down to free my foot from the snowshoe, let alone work the snowshoe free. Trying to keep fear out of my voice but hearing an embarrassing quaver, I rasped, "Jim, I'm in trouble, man. I'm lying in icy water and my foot is caught. My leg's pretty banged up and I I can't move."

"Okay, hold on, I'm going to find a way to get down to you," he called back, his voice level, firm and calm. Even though I knew it was his professional tone, the one he uses to mask all his personal feelings, I was reassured that one of us at least wasn't hyperventilating.

Closing my eyes, I concentrated on taking deep breaths and did what I could to relax the spasming muscles in my leg. I also tried to imagine a hot, sunny beach to offset the impression I had that I was fast freezing to death in the icy water that flowed under and around me, soaking my clothing. Though it felt like forever, Jim probably took no more than five minutes to work his away around and down the slope to a point where he could slide down the bank of the creek without creating a mini-avalanche, and to slog back to where I was lying on my side, my face only inches above the rippling water.

"I'm here, Chief," he told me and I heard him splashing through the shallow, icy creek. "Just give me a minute and we'll have you out of here."

I was shivering so badly my teeth were chattering and all I could do was nod. God, my leg hurt. You'd think the throbbing fire that lanced up and down would have kept the rest of me warm, but no such luck. I felt him touch my ankle and I bit my lip to keep from crying out.

"You got your Swiss Army knife with you?" he demanded curtly, the veneer of calm giving way to the sharp irritation that told me he was really worried.

"M-m-my l-l-left j-j-jean p-p-p " I stammered but he was already reaching for it before I got the whole message out. He swiftly cut the bindings holding my boot to the snowshoe and the tearing relief as my foot fell free nearly knocked me out. I was beginning to feel numb everywhere but where the pain told me I was still very alive, and I could hardly keep my eyes open. Bad news, I thought blearily. The cold was getting to me.

Jim felt along my leg and I bit back the urge to curse him, and then he had an arm around me and was helping me stand, getting me out of the frigid water. "Nothing's broken," he assured me as he pulled my arm around his shoulders and looped his other arm around my waist. "You're gonna have to help me, Chief. Stay with me here, okay?"

I nodded jerkily and blinked to clear my vision. "C-c-can't w-w-walk," I stuttered hoarsely.

"We'll just call you Hopalong Cassidy," he returned. "This way, the bank's not too steep."

My world funneled down to one hop after another but I was rapidly losing it. The forest had started tilting in a sickening way and all I wanted to do was sink into sleep. Grimly, I struggled to help him help me and we finally, somehow, with gritted and grim determination, got back up the side of the creek but that was as far as I could go. I was definitely done. The world dimmed to early dusk and then full dark in a heartbeat. "Can't see," I whispered, no longer cold, no longer shivering, and I guess that's when I passed out.

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

"NO!" I gasped, not quite awake, only knowing I was up to my neck in water and terrified of drowning in that damned creek. I thrashed to get to safety and the blinding pain lancing up my right leg drove my breath away and, gagging with the sharp nausea that spiked at the agony, I thought I was going to be sick.

"Easy, Chief, easy," Jim called and I felt his strong hands grip my shoulders to calm me and keep me from sliding under the water. "You're safe, okay? You're safe."

Teeth clenched, panting, swallowing convulsively in an effort to quell my nausea, I looked around wildly. I saw Jim's face hovering not far from my own, and he looked pale, with lines of strain around his eyes and mouth and shadows darkening his eyes. My gaze flicked around and I realized I was back in the lodge and in the big tub in his room. The water I was immersed in was deliciously warm, not icy like that creek. The pain subsided in waves and I gradually relaxed enough to breathe and unclench my jaw.

When he saw that I was settling down, he let go of my shoulders and gently raked my hair off my face before cupping my cheek. "You were hypothermic and I needed to warm you up fast," he explained. "You know where you are now?"

"Yeah," I rasped and closed my eyes as I leaned my head back against the porcelain. "My leg?"

"Badly sprained ankle and knee, but no breaks," he told me and I vaguely remembered him assuring me there was nothing broken at the creek.

"How long was I out?" I asked then, feeling disoriented, not quite with it. I looked up at him again, his strong presence anchoring me, reassuring me.

"About an hour," he replied, looking away. Long enough that I think I'd begun to scare him.

"Sorry," I muttered, "for being such a klutz."

He shook his head and gave me a small smile. "Not your fault," he said firmly. "Mine, maybe, for not realizing what I was hearing under that field of snow. You did good. You helped me get you out of the gully before you crashed."

"You carried me back here, right?" I asked, feeling ridiculously like a maiden with the vapours. "Please don't tell the other guys?"

"What? And miss my chance to be acclaimed the hero of the day?" he teased briefly but, maybe at the expression on my face, he relented quickly. "Don't worry, Chief. My lips are sealed."

"Thanks," I sighed. "For that, and for getting me out of there and back here."

He barked a laugh and shook his head. "Well, I wasn't going to leave you out there," he said sardonically. "You ready to get out of the tub? I want to get some ice on those swollen joints."

The idea of moving didn't thrill me much, but the water was growing cool and I was beginning to feel chilled again. So I nodded and gripped the wrist he held out to me. After he slipped an arm around my back, I got my good leg up and under me to push myself up and he helped make the move smooth and as painless as possible. He helped me ease out of the tub, and sat me on the edge while he swiftly toweled me off and slipped a sweatshirt over my head and maneuvered sweat pants up my legs. I was shaking by that point, still cold inside, and he grabbed a blanket he'd put close to hand to wrap around me.

With his help, I hopped as far as my room but I was still feeling dizzy and sort of insubstantial, weak. Probably the result of being chilled so badly and shock. Whatever. I felt like a wuss.

He got me into bed, told me he'd be back in a few minutes. I sank into the mattress and fisted my hands against the throbbing in my leg. When he returned, he was carrying a tray that he set on the table by the bed. Jim helped me to sit up and propped pillows behind me for support. After handing me two extra-strength Tylenol and a mug of hot tomato soup, he carefully placed frozen bags of peas and corn on my ankle and knee. I hissed at the cold that immediately leeched through the cotton material covering my skin, but was not about to do any more complaining. Popping back the pain killers, washing them down with the rich, thick soup, I felt the warmth fill me and thought that had to be the best soup in the world. He disappeared again, briefly, and returned with two tensor bandages.

"Those joints are going to need some support for the next few days," he said. "I want to give the ice bags a few more minutes and then I'll wrap them for you."

He's a handy guy to have around. He could tell by touch that there weren't any breaks. He was strong and fit enough to carry me what must have been darned near a mile. And he was a former medic who knew how to treat hypothermia and sprained joints. Do I know how to pick a best friend, or what?

I think I may have mumbled some of that sentiment because he snorted and rolled his eyes. I finished the soup and he took the mug from me, replacing it with one filled with tea liberally laced with honey. The medicine was starting to take effect and I was finally feeling warm both inside and out. He put the frozen veggies on the tray and then, very carefully, very gently, he wrapped my knee and then my ankle. Even so, it was all I could do to keep from cursing about how much it hurt. But, even as I was gritting my teeth, I knew damned well that if our situations had been reversed, he likely wouldn't have passed out, would have managed to hop all the way to the cabin, and he probably would have taken care of his own hot bath and the wrapping of the bruised and swollen joints. He's intrepid. And tough. A whole lot tougher than I am, that's for sure.

When he was finished, I heaved a sigh of relief and forced myself to drink the last of the tea. I felt like I'd been through a wringer and ached all over. He helped me ease back down on the bed and, once again, he reached out with that oddly tender gesture to brush my hair off my face. "Sleep is the best thing for you," he said reassuringly. "You'll be stiff and sore but feel a whole lot better when you wake up."

"Thanks, man," I mumbled, my eyes already closing. Tired. I was so, so tired.

He came in to check on me several times during the night, to ensure the tensor bandages weren't too tight and restricting circulation to my foot, to put ice packs on the sprained joints, at least once to give me more Tylenol. But he was quiet and so careful with me, I hardly even knew he was there and probably completely missed some of his nocturnal visits. I remember the light warm touch of his palm on my brow when I stirred restlessly in the night and then, wincing, jerked at the shaft of pain, and his soft murmur that I was okay and should just go back to sleep.

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

I did feel substantially better the next morning. At least the numb fogginess and roiling nausea was gone, and the pain in my leg had receded somewhat. Jim, though, looked even more haggard than he had the evening before. I guess he didn't get much sleep. Still, he feigned a degree of cheerfulness when he carried in my morning coffee and toasted bagel, liberally lashed with the delicious blueberry preserve, and the ubiquitous bags of frozen veggies.

"How're you doing?" he asked with a tentative smile.

"A lot better," I told him, shoving myself up on the bed. When he hastened to plump the pillows up behind me my antennae went up. Okay, so the solicitousness was pleasant but he was a bit too nice, you know? Too oh, I don't know, reticent, eagerly helpful, or something. "You, though," I went on, "you look like shit."

Startled, he blinked and rolled his shoulders. "Real nice," he muttered.

"Seriously, did you get any sleep last night?" I demanded, perhaps a shade sharply. Well, I felt embarrassed, alright, about being so damned much trouble.

"Some," he allowed, but his gaze avoided mine as he drew back the duvet and applied the improvised ice packs. "The swelling's gone down," he observed with a too carefully neutral tone, redirecting the conversation, or trying to.

"Good. Good," I replied. "Must've been all the ice packs you brought in during the night."

He nodded and turned to sit on the edge of the bed, his back to me. "Some holiday, huh?" he said flatly. But his tone was softer after he sighed and added, "I'm glad you're okay."

"Thanks to you," I told him, meaning it.

He huffed a laugh and shook his head. "Yeah," he sighed again. "Well," he went on, standing, "guess I'll go get breakfast started. You want cereal or eggs this morning?"

"I want to know what's wrong," I replied, puzzled, wondering what I'd missed because he was sure acting strangely.

"Nothing," he said and forced another smile as he checked the thawing bundles of vegetables and then lifted them onto the tray. "Everything turned out fine."

"You upset because I won't be able to go out tramping with you for the next few days?" I asked. "Or or did I throw your back out? I mean, having to cart me back here?"

I'd obviously startled him again, if the surprise on his face at my questions was any indication. "No, Chief, no," he hastened to reassure me.

"Then what?"

The muscles along his jaw flexed and he rubbed the back of his neck. Shit. He was really worked up about something. Finally, he said, "We're a long way from any hospital." As if that was supposed to make everything clear.

But, when I thought about it, I guess it did. Hypothermia can be serious and, when I passed out, I guess he must've worried that it was worse than it was. "I'm okay, Jim," I told him. "Just a couple sprains, that's all."

But he still didn't meet my eyes. So, there was more going on in his head. He settled the duvet back over my legs and reached for the tray. "Cereal or eggs?" he asked again.

"Jim " But I wasn't sure what to say, what to ask. "Eggs," I said and he nodded and turned away.

After he'd gone back to the kitchen, I tried to work out what might be bothering him. We'd been having a good time, other than the fact that I was flagging toward the end of our long hike. So what could be and then I remembered. He'd heard water somewhere close by. Damn. He thought he should have sensed the creek. He thought my accident was his fault or failing or something. I blew a frustrated breath and raked my hair back. The man has a really exaggerated sense of personal responsibility for shit that he truly has no accountability for. It was an accident; that's it, that's all. But he evidently didn't want to talk about it and forcing him to do so would be awkward for both of us. So and I smiled, a bit evilly maybe, but this was going to be fun.

"Jim!" I pealed. "Jim, would you help me up to the bathroom?"

And a moment later, he was there, supporting me while I hopped across the hall. I took pity on him and said I could handle things on my own from there. Once he got me back in bed and had again made his way back to the kitchen, I called again, "Jim! Jim, I'm thirsty. Could I have a glass of water?"

And he was back with the water.

After that, it was, "Jim! Jim, I can't get these pillows sorted out. Would you help me, man?"

And then, "Jim! Jim, I'm bored. Maybe you could help me out to the kitchen."

Once I was ensconced on a chair in the kitchen and then, just as he was about to crack the eggs for the fifth or sixth time, it was, "Jim, I'm cold. Could you get my robe?"

A grin twitched at the corner of his mouth and then he burst out laughing. "You're making me pay, aren't you?" he charged.

"Well, you seemed to feel so guilty that I thought a little penance might help," I replied, all innocence. "Feel better now?"

"I should have realized that field of snow wasn't safe," he said then, but more in the manner of stating a fact than with any tone of undue guilt.

"Right on, Superman," I nodded, completely soberly. "You should have made much better use of that x-ray vision of yours and seen right through those drifts to know they were a sham and there was a huge pocket of air under the thin film of snow that hid the creek. Absolutely, man. You should have seen that very clearly and known instinctively that those drifts were not the same as all the other drifts we traversed with no problem for the previous five or so hours. What happened was entirely and unequivocally your fault."

He gave me a quizzical look and then his shoulders eased. "You're saying it was an accident, pure and simple."

"That's exactly what I'm saying."

"You could have been really badly hurt."

"Could have been, but you made sure I was okay."

"So we're good."

"No, we're great."

"You really want eggs for breakfast?"

"Scrambled, with sausage, thanks. And another bagel."

"So, I'm your slave now, Hopalong?"

"Works for me."

He laughed and reached to lightly smack my head but I ducked away with a snicker. And the upside of it all was I wouldn't have to do any more long distance hikes in the freezing cold that week.

Even when it hurts, there's always an upside.

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

For the rest of our vacation we took full advantage of the amenities of the lodge: we read, watched movies, played cards and board games. Jim trounced me at Clue and Monopoly and I have to say he was very smug about it, like the cat that got all the cream. If I had a suspicious nature, I'd wonder if his sense of touch gives him an advantage when rolling the dice but he was having such an obviously good time that I didn't much care. Besides, I ruled at chess and scrabble. When it came to cards, we broke fairly even at cribbage. We also ate leftover turkey in sandwiches, soup and casseroles until we'd maxed out on that bird. And, when we felt like it, we took afternoon naps, richly enjoying that rare luxury as our daily lives certainly left no time for such indulgences. Jim also took very good care of my sprained ankle and knee to ensure I didn't over-stress the joints and let the necessary healing take place; I got adept at hopping around the place like a one-legged jack rabbit and he manfully refrained from teasing me about how ridiculous I looked.

Each day, Jim went for a few short walks on his own when I tossed him out of the lodge when he got twitchy from lack of physical exercise. The first time I kicked him out, he retrieved the snowshoe we'd abandoned at the creek and that evening he repaired the binding he'd had to sever to free me. Other days, I'd hear him chopping wood to replenish the woodpile or shoveling the long drive a little at a time to clear the lane for our return home at the end of the weekend. He always came back inside ruddy with the cold and with a smile and eyes sparkling with good humor. He was having a ball doing simple, uncomplicated things that gave immediate, tangible results. So I didn't feel the least bit guilty about not being able to help out more than I did.

On New Year's Eve, we toasted one another with the champagne Jim had picked up on his shopping excursion just before we'd left town and watched the ball drop in Times Square. He grew pensive then, reflecting over the past year. "It was sure hectic and had its darker moments," he summed up, "but, basically, it was a pretty good year."

"Yeah," I agree. "I'm sure glad that we got Simon and Daryl back safely from Peru. And, uh, that the effects that Golden had on you wore off; the effects on me, too, for that matter."

He nodded emphatically at those sentiments. "You did great, dropping that bomb through the elevator floor. I'm sorry you got shot, though."

Shrugging, I waved that off. "War wounds, man," I laughed. "It healed and I'll get to brag about the scar for the rest of my life."

He gave me an assessing look and then asked, "You're really okay, aren't you, about all the time you spend backing me up on my job? Despite the risks?"

"I'm definitely okay with it all, Jim," I assured him. "Yeah, it gets hairy sometimes, but you do your best to keep me out of the line of fire and I appreciate that. And, well, I really like it, the work. It's interesting and meaningful. And I like doing what I can to help you with your senses."

"We make a pretty good team," he murmured and then stood to take our glasses and the empty bottle into the kitchen. I was sure glad to know he thought so. Personally, I think we make a great team and I didn't want it to ever end. At some point, I was going to have to some serious thinking about that, about what to do when the dissertation was done and my excuse for riding around with him was over. But there was no rush. I was in no hurry to cross those bridges.

When the time came to pack up the next day, I was able to put weight on my right leg again, though it was still tender and I limped a bit. All in all, even with the tumble I took in the creek, it was a terrific holiday, made to order for two guys who had arrived tired to the bone and needing a bit of serenity.

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

When we arrived back at the loft, Jim switched off the ignition but sat for a moment, not reaching for the door handle. "Pink walls," he muttered, as if he'd just remembered.

"Peach," I corrected, "and only a very, very light tint. C'mon, give it a chance you might like the way the color absorbs rather than reflects light."

He took a deep breath and nodded stoically. "Okay," he agreed. "But if I hate it "

"We get it repainted. Yeah, I know, but this time we get professionals to do it for us," I cut in sternly.

"Deal," he said with commendable alacrity. And then, after a beat, he went on quietly with a slow smile, "It was a great holiday, Chief. Not sure I ever had a better one."

"Yeah, me either. We'll have to ask Amelie to loan us the place again sometime. I'll bet the fishing up there is great in the summer." As I got out of the truck, I said over my shoulder, "If you take the Christmas stuff and the empty cooler down to the basement, I'll cart our luggage and linen upstairs."

"No, just take the linen," he replied. "I'll come back out for the bags. I don't want you putting too much weight on that ankle yet."

We split up in the downstairs corridor as we headed in our respective directions. Upstairs, I hastened to turn down the heat and close the windows. It's not that I wanted to deceive Jim, but nothing had been stolen and I didn't want him concerned after the fact that I'd left the place wide open for over a week. I was folding up the plastic that had covered the furniture when he came in with our bags.

"You want to order pizza for dinner?" he asked as he tromped through to dump my case on my bed and then carried his own upstairs.

"Sure," I said as I started sorting the linens. Some went into the hamper to be washed later; some went into the cupboard, and some we'd use to make up our beds. I called in our order and then we made short work of making the beds while we waited for the delivery.

Later, after we'd decimated the pizza, we each took a second bottle of beer into the living room. He settled in his chair and gazed critically at the walls. "I guess it's not too bad," he allowed.

Rolling my eyes at the faint praise for the choice of color and matte finish, I dropped into my usual place on the sofa and took a sip of beer. "All things considered," I returned, "I'm glad you decided to paint the place. Got us out of here for a great break in the mountains. Otherwise, we wouldn't have gone anywhere."

"Funny, I was just thinking it was a good thing you destroyed the toaster," he teased.

"I destroyed !" I began to protest, but caught the glint of humor in his eyes and laughed. "Yeah, okay, my evil bagel destroyed that venerable antique," I allowed with a grin.

He chuckled and picked up the remote. "Oh, and it was a good idea to leave the windows open to air out the place while we were away," he said with a sideways glance. "I can hardly smell the fresh paint."

So much for my little subterfuge of directing him to the basement while I shut everything up tight. When I gaped at him, he grinned smugly as if to chide me for ever trying to fool a sentinel or maybe just a detective. God knows how he knew, whether there was something in the smell of the place or if he'd noticed the windows were open a crack either when we drove off or when we got back. Fairly caught, I snickered and nodded, toasted him with my beer bottle, and we settled down to watch the History channel.

"Happy New Year, Chief," he said later with an affectionate smile, when we called it a night and were heading off to bed.

"Happy New Year, Jim," I replied warmly. "See you in the morning. Oh, and will you be making scrambled eggs and sausage for breakfast?"

He laughed as he headed upstairs. "In your dreams, Sandburg," he called back over his shoulder. "My days as your kitchen slave are over."

With a long-suffering, woebegone sigh that only made him laugh harder, grinning widely, I limped down the hall to my room. Our hectic, too-demanding and sometimes downright dangerous lives would begin again on the morrow, but it had been one hell of a great Christmas break.

And, personally, I thought the pink, er, peach walls looked great.

Finis

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