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 Drabbles

by Arianna

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2011 Secret Santa Drabble Days Submissions

A Sentinel's Christmas Wish

Part 1: Christmas Decorations

Word Count: 352

While Jim drove to the warehouse they'd be staking out that night, Blair looked at the sparkling lights that glittered from stars and bells suspended from streetlamps and from electric garlands around shop windows. "So, when do you put up your Christmas decorations?" he asked, as if idly passing the time.

But Jim caught the slight increase in his heart rate which belied the casual, almost indifferent tone.

"Never," he replied. "I usually work and there's no one else there, so why bother?"

"Oh," Blair returned softly, and sighed. "Makes sense," he added, rallying but Jim could still detect the trace of disappointment in his voice.

"Don't tell me you put up decorations," Jim charged. "I know you don't have any stuff - at least nothing that survived the explosion. And besides, you're Jewish, right?"

Blair nodded. "Naomi said decorations were a capitalistic plot to commercialize Christmas and the holidays, and that we weren't going to play that game." He was still staring out the side window, his tone carefully neutral.

"But ?"

A smile played around his lips as he glanced at Jim. "But I've always thought it was important to celebrate a holiday that speaks to miracles and family and joy and the spirit of giving. You don't have to be a Christian to value those things." He shrugged and looked away. "Maybe it's the anthropologist in me."

Or maybe it's the kid in you, the kid who was always on the move and never had a home, Jim thought with a frown. "The lights bother my eyes," he said, knowing it was lame but he really didn't want the bother of decorating - or of putting everything away in January. "And the evergreen smell is kinda overwhelming," he added for good measure.

"Oh, hey, sure, I understand, man," Blair said with evident sincerity as he turned to face Jim. "Do the streetlights bother you? Do we need to work on that?"

"Nah, I can manage," Jim replied, glad it had been so easy to derail any thoughts Sandburg might have had about decking the loft with garlands of pine and holly.

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Part 2: Jack Frost/Old Man Winter

Word Count: 396

Their breath fogged the air in the icy cab. Despite his multiple layers of shirts, sweater and heavy coat, and the Fargo hat pulled down over his ears and brow, Blair shivered and sniffed against the cold. Still, he seemed oblivious to the freezing temperature as he used a penlight to illuminate one of the score of essays he was grading while he alternately hummed and murmured the words to seasonal songs. Jim tried to ignore him but the visuals of chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at their noses were distracting him from the boring business of staking out the warehouse for yet another night.

Beside him, Blair finished the essay and the song, and then began reading another while he sang, "I'll be home for Christmas "

"Chief, what are you, the local version of Muzac? The light is distracting enough without you also crooning off-key."

"Huh? Oh, sorry, Jim. I've got to post the grades in the morning," Blair replied, sounding tired. "Damn, it's cold," he muttered, but absently, his attention already back on the paper.

"You're going to ruin your eyesight, trying to read with that excuse for a light," Jim complained.

"Yeah, well, we can't all see in the dark," Blair retorted, but clicked the light off. "What's with you, anyway? Got a headache?"

Grimacing, Jim shook his head. "Nah. I'm just bored out of my skull. Looks like another wasted night."

Blair huddled in his coat, his arms crossed for extra warmth, his eyes closed as he leaned his head back. He looked pale in the light cast by the moon. "Must be nearly midnight, right? Who's relieving us?"

Jim glanced at his watch and nodded. "Yeah, another fifteen minutes and Brown should be pulling up behind us." He looked at Blair and felt bad for making the kid stop working when it only meant that Sandburg would have to complete the task when they got home. "Go ahead and finish whatever you were doing," he said. "Just don't sing, okay?"

A grin danced around Blair's lips as he sat up and clicked on the penlight. "No more singing? Geez, Jim, you are such a Grinch!"

"Sticks and stones," Jim countered with a shrug. The reasons for his attitude toward the holidays was need to know.

And Sandburg didn't need to know.

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Part 3: Sleigh

Word Count: 495

"Get it in gear, Sandburg!" Jim called as he came in the door. "Stakeout starts in half an hour."

"What? You're kidding, right?" Blair yelled from his bedroom. "They called you in again tonight?"

"Yeah, well, it's flu season," Jim muttered as he pulled a bottle of water out of the fridge.

He uncapped the bottle and was taking a long swallow when he heard Blair's footsteps behind him. "I'm sorry, man, I thought we had the night off and, uh, well, I agreed to help out a buddy by taking a shift for him."

Rolling his eyes, Jim turned - and choked. Coughing and spluttering water, he gasped for breath.

"Hey, easy, easy," Blair cajoled as he pounded Jim on the back.

Jim was laughing so hard he had to swipe tears from his eyes. "An elf?" he croaked. "Your buddy is an elf?"

Ruefully, Blair looked down at the emerald green costume and the curled toes of his green boots. "It's not nice to laugh at the elf," he complained as he pulled on a cap with a floppy point that ended in a small brass bell that tinkled when he moved.

"Where does your friend work?" Jim asked with a delighted grin. "Santa's toy shop?"

"Har har," Blair mocked as he pulled on his coat. "This evening, I'll be dancing attendance on Santa's sleigh in Cascade Mall, while little kids tell the jolly old gent what they want for Christmas." He paused, worry blooming in his eyes. "But what are you going to do? You can't go on stakeout alone - what if you zone?"

"Ah, yeah, the stakeout," Jim sighed, sorry to see the laughter fade from Blair's eyes. "When are you finished tonight?"

"Nine o'clock." "Okay, I'll get someone to cover until you're done," Jim said, wishing he could just tell Blair that he could handle it on his own. But he wasn't sure he could. "Sorry, Chief. I know you've got a life but -"

"Ah, hey, don't apologize! You know I want to be there - I just thought we were off."

Jim nodded. "I know. Don't worry about it."

Blair searched his eyes for a second and then, evidently reassured, nodded and turned to the door. "I've got to run. See you later."

"Don't trip over your shoes, Twinkle Toes," Jim called after him.

He heard Blair's amused snort and the muttered, "Don't quit your day job," as he disappeared into the stairwell.

Closing the door, turning to call Brown to see if he'd put in a few hours of overtime until they could get there, Jim wondered when he'd last gotten such a kick out of seeing one of Santa's elves.

Sobering, he felt an ache in his chest when he realized it was the last time his mother had taken him to see Santa Claus, the Christmas before she left.

The last year he'd believed in Santa Claus.

The last year that Christmas had meant anything to him.

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Part 4: Saint Nicholas Eve

Word Count: 497

Jim heard the lilt of Sandburg's voice long before he could make out the words. He hadn't told Blair that his voice was distinctive, so full of life and energy and enthusiasm that it stood out from all the other voices in the PD - and everywhere else, for that matter. He smiled to himself as he continued working on the report; Sandburg's voice just made him feel good. A collective burst of laughter and shouts of appreciation greeted their entry. Jim grinned when he saw Sandburg resplendent in his elf costume with Santa trailing behind him. Bemused, he watched the two Christmas characters hand out gifts to everyone: a garish shirt with rampant reindeer, sleighs and Santas; a stylish midnight blue tie with thin slashes of brown, red, white and gold that Jim focused in on to see the same reindeer, sleighs and Santas racing across a starry night sky; an elegant porcelain angel with warm, chocolate brown skin and dazzling golden wings; and a snowglobe with a little village. "Oh, Blair, it looks just like my home town in the mountains," Rhonda cried.

Blair bounced over to his desk, eyes alight and smile blazing. "Hey, Jim, you remember my friend, Sam," he said, laughter in his voice, as he gestured at Santa. It's Saint Nicholas Eve, so we thought we'd celebrate like they do in Europe. You know Saint Nicholas right, patron saint of children and sailors? The amazingly generous man in the fourth century who secretly helped people in need? In Europe, this is the night for gift giving. Pretty neat, huh? To be remembered with gifts for nearly two thousand years?" And with that, he handed Jim his gift: a lump of coal.

"Oh, gee, thanks, Sandburg. Really nice," he drawled, seriously unimpressed.

"Ah, no, you don't understand," Blair hastened to explain, his voice and face brimming with earnest sincerity. "This is, well, it's you and your ability to see beyond the surface to the person underneath. To most people, it's just a lump of dirty old coal. But you, you see the diamond in the rough."

Jim's throat tightened unexpectedly and he squinted against the sudden burn in his eyes. Nodding with appreciation, he fingered the smooth, shiny edges of the small but heavy lump of ore. "Thanks, Chief," he managed to say. Then with a teasing grin, he added, "Whenever I look at it, I'll think of you."

Blair gaped, obviously getting the insult as well as the compliment, and then he laughed. "Great," he replied, turning away to joke with the others.

Watching him, Jim reflected that he'd never found the pure joy in life that Blair radiated, not even when he'd been a child. Easy to write it off and say Sandburg was too young and inexperienced to know better. But it was more than that, deeper than that. And he began to wonder what kind of wonderful life Blair must have had, to be such an ever-cheerful, ever-enthusiastic person.

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Part 5: Bells

Word Count: 499

Squinting through the icy drizzle, Jim watched the suspected bomber slip through the side door of the gray stone cathedral. "Call for backup," he directed Blair, then loped across the street to follow the shabbily dressed man inside.

The scent of incense nearly overpowering, Jim hastily dialed down his sense of smell. Little light streamed through the stained glass windows and, inside, the only illumination was from banks of candles on the altar and in the side chapels. Peering through the shadows, he moved soundlessly along the side wall.

Wondering where the perp had gone, Jim tilted his head unconsciously as he raised his ability to hear to the max. The guy had blown up three churches that week, in protest of who knew or cared what; the citizens of Cascade were justifiably terrified. Fortunately, no one had been killed and Jim wanted to stop the madman before anyone died.

He heard the side door open and close again, but didn't look to see who had entered. His quarry was kneeling behind the high altar. Jim ghosted toward him, pistol drawn and leveled on the bomber. When he had the man clearly in his sight, he called, "Cascade Police! Hands over your head!"

Startled, the ill-kempt man jerked back from whatever he'd been doing, his look toward Jim filled with frustrated anger. But as his hands edged up, a slow, satisfied smile crawled over his face. "You're too late," he crowed.

Jim was moving fast toward the man, desperate to disarm the device before it exploded. He was listening to the ominous ticking - then, he was on his knees, whimpering in agony, the riotous, deafening clamoring of bells ripping through his head, everything but the hideous noise forgotten.

Warm, gentle hands cradled his face and a low, soothing voice drew him back from the rim of chaos. "Turn it down," Blair urged, his calm belied by his desperate words. "C'mon, Jim. Take a deep breath man, and get it together. This bomb is gonna blow. We have to get out of here!"

Adrenaline surged. He staggered to his feet. Blair hastily supported him as he got his bearings. The perp was down, unconscious, a heavy silver candleholder lying by his head. "Get out," Jim rasped, ineffectually pushing Blair away even as he lurched toward the altar. But Blair stuck with him. Kneeling, Jim quickly disconnected the wire between the clock and the C-4. Shifting, he flipped and cuffed the perp before he looked at Sandburg. "You should have gone," he raged, frightened at how close they'd both come to dying, furious with the senses that had betrayed him.

"I couldn't leave you!" Blair protested. Jim gaped at him. He hadn't realized, not until that moment, that Blair would risk anything, even death, to help him.

As a gift, the devotion and loyalty beat the hell out of the lump of coal. Gratitude flooded his soul and turned his lonely, solitary world on its side, leaving him speechless with wonder.

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Part 6: Ice

Word Count: 500

The drizzle overnight created a diamond bright crystal world the next morning that glittered in the early sunlight and transformed Cascade into a fairyland.

"Oh, man, it's beautiful," Blair breathed, but turned to Jim to ask, "Do you need to turn it down? Is it too bright?"

"No," Jim replied with a soft smile as he lifted a hand to Blair's shoulder to steady him as they slipped and slid from the apartment to the truck.

After scraping ice off the windows, they climbed inside. When Blair shivered and rubbed his chapped hands together, Jim turned up the heat even as he steered into the street. Blair gazed with delight upon the dazzling wonderland. "Sure gets you into the spirit of the season, doesn't it?" he asked with a broad grin.

Eyes narrowing against the glare, Jim shook his head. "Only if fender-benders are your thing, along with bruises and broken bones. It's one season I could do without."

Blair gave him a quizzical look before turning away. After a moment of silence, uncertainty in his voice, he observed, "You really don't like Christmas much, do you?"

"I didn't say that!" Jim protested.

"But you don't. Why not?"

Jim blew a long breath and considered not answering. A month, even a week ago, he wouldn't have. But instead, he replied quietly, "I just think Christmas is for families and people who, well, who believe anyone or anything in this Universe cares about us."

Frowning with concern, Blair asked, "Don't you have family?"

His lips thinning he shook his head. "No one close," he muttered. There'd been a time when he'd thought Carolyn would fill that gap in his life, give it meaning and purpose -- only to feel more alone than ever. It had been a long time since he'd felt part of a family.

Shadows darkened Blair's eyes, but then he grinned. "Well, you'll always have me," he chimed gaily.

Jim snorted, but couldn't help but grin as he pulled up outside Blair's office. "Be careful on the ice," he directed as Blair climbed down. "It's dangerous!"

"Watch this," Blair said, Sentinel soft. Eyes twinkling with merriment, he glided gracefully away from the truck and spun in a wide slow circle, hands out to either side for balance. The light wind blew strands of hair across his eyes and the smug smile on his face. But then his feet slid out from under him and, laughing, he landed on his butt. Waving, he got up and, backpack over his shoulder, skidded with merry abandon toward the Hall.

Laughing, Jim drove away. Once in the office, he settled behind his computer. He knew he was wandering out on thinner ice than had coated the street, but he needed to know more about this kid; needed to know if he really could trust Blair and depend upon him without question.

Even more, he needed to know what in Blair's past had created a man who embraced life with such unguarded joy.

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Part: 7 Star

Word Count: 498

Cradling a beer in his hands, Jim stood by the balcony window and stared at the stars in the clear night sky. For eons, men had looked for meaning in the stars but Jim knew there really wasn't any - they were balls of fire, like the sun, burning in a cold, endless night. Oh, sure, the North Star provided invaluable navigational guidance, the Southern Cross did much the same, and there were any number of patterns man's imagination had ascribed to the alignment of stars: dippers and bears and belts but the stars themselves were indifferent to the patterns, and to man, for that matter.

And yet, two thousand years ago, three rich and wise men had followed a star across a barren desert to find a child in a stable. Not a stable, Jim knew from a brief tour in Israel, as was envisioned in the modern myth, but a cave behind and below an inn in a village that had only recently installed its first traffic light. What did it take to have that kind of trust, that strength of belief, to set out to follow a star?

Jim frowned, searching his memory, but it had been too many years since Sunday school, and he couldn't remember if an angel had pointed out the star and set them on their quest. Did angels really appear to wise men and shepherds? Or to righteous maidens or even to people unaware, to test the compassion and generosity of their hearts? If there were angels, why didn't they appear anymore? Or was it that no one noticed them anymore?

Jim wondered if he'd believe in angels if he saw them, or if he'd write them off to lack of sleep or some other reason for hallucinations. Hell, he'd probably attribute the vision to some aberration of his senses. He didn't believe in angels. Nor did he believe in miracles.

He hadn't found a thing in Blair's past to account for his enthusiastic love affair with life. To the contrary, he'd found frequent, if short, abandonment to strangers or distant relatives and even foster care for brief periods. He'd found poverty and no fixed address for years at a time broken by periods when Naomi moved in with one man or another. The only constant in Sandburg's life was Rainier and, since then, the kid had been in and out on field trips all over the world. Though the record showed Blair was exceptionally bright, he was taking longer than the average to finish because his attention kept straying to new ideas and places to study or explore. Maybe that was the core of Sandburg's enthusiasm: his insatiable curiosity combined with his short attention span.

Nor had Jim found any reason to believe that Blair understood the first thing about making a commitment or, more importantly, seeing it through.

He wasn't really surprised that he couldn't trust Blair's loyalty to last.

The surprise was how much the knowledge hurt.

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Part 8: Wrapping/wrapping paper

Word Count: 500

Jim was surprised to see Sandburg's 'classic' in the loft's parking lot. When Blair hadn't shown up downtown, Jim had assumed he must've been stuck at Rainier. Turning up his hearing as he entered the building, he first filtered out traffic, the dripping faucets and drone of daytime television. By the time he could hear Blair humming his usual holiday medley and a weird scrunching or rustling, he was already outside the apartment door. Jim was unhappy with how long it took him to filter all the sounds and knew he had to get better. Everything was easier when Sandburg helped, but Sandburg wouldn't be hanging around forever; long term commitment wasn't the kid's MO.

Jim hated the hollow, breathless feeling whenever he thought about the kid flitting off to his next project. Depending on anyone made him feel vulnerable, and that just pissed him off. But, deep down he knew the anger was fueled by the fear of being left high and dry. Would the damned senses bring him down?

He shoved the worry back into its box in the back of his mind and opened the door - unlocked, as usual, despite repeated instruction to always engage the deadbolt. But the homey scents of casserole baking in the oven, rich earth from the plants Blair had put in the corner, vanilla candles and the herbal soaps and shampoos eased the tension in his body and he sighed with relief.

The humming and peculiar rustling emanating from Blair's bedroom ceased.

"Jim?" Blair called. "Is that you?"

"It's not Santa Claus," he replied, shrugging off his coat. "I've told you before to lock the door."

"Sorry," Blair replied, a hasty mutter that accompanied the fast rustle and crinkle of what Jim finally identified as paper.

Curious, he ambled to the doorway just as Sandburg was sliding something under a bed littered with Christmas wrapping paper, ribbon and small gaily-wrapped parcels. Oh, shit, he thought, never having imagined Blair would get him something for Christmas. How the hell could the kid afford gifts when he still hadn't replaced all the stuff he'd lost in the warehouse explosion? Not sure what to say when Blair looked up with wide, too-innocent eyes, he blurted, "When you didn't show downtown, I thought you were at Rainier."

"Oh, sorry, was I supposed to go in today?" Blair replied in confusion as he gathered up the detritus on the bed. "I had some last minute stuff to do for Christmas. You know, little things for the staff at Rainier."

"Uh, right," Jim said, taking a step back, consciously removing himself from any association with gifts or Christmas. "The casserole smells good."

"Great," Blair replied with a grin, following Jim down the hall, as if he was finished with the gift wrapping thing. "Wanna beer?"

"Sure," Jim replied, wishing he could so easily ignore the whole gift-giving thing, but knew he couldn't.

He sighed heavily when he thought about having to brave the insanity at the mall.

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Part 9: Winter garb (gloves/scarf/hat/etc)

Word Count: 488

As he climbed out of his truck, Jim's glare toward the busy mall glittering with holiday lights and swarming with shoppers was due more to trepidation than anger. But he'd been a soldier and knew what it was to face both fear and battle, so he took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and marched across the snow-swept lot to the main doors. With each step, he concentrated on his senses and his dials, turning down his senses of smell and of hearing before he ventured inside.

Buffeted by shoppers loaded with overstuffed bags, Jim fought his way past the wide double doors. The lights were bright but not troublesome; the mingled scents of fresh pine from the massive Christmas tree soaring sixty feet or more to the skylight, roasting chestnuts and spiced cider were pleasant counterpoints to warmly-dressed, perspiring shoppers and damp wool. Though he was conscious of at least a thousand conversations being whispered, shouted or otherwise conducted all around him and upon the upper stories of the sweeping open atrium, they weren't so loud or distracting that they'd cause a headache. Satisfied that he was as ready as he'd ever be, he nodded to himself and headed along the concourse first to a bookshop - to pick up an expensive book that Sandburg had waxed on about enthusiastically but clearly couldn't afford, and the limited amount of wrapping paper he'd need - and then to his favorite men's wear store.

He'd thought about what he wanted to get, so he wouldn't waste any time and could escape the mall as expeditiously as possible. In short order, he collected a midnight blue sweater, a pair of fur-lined leather gloves, and a bright red cashmere scarf. For a moment, he paused, wondering if buying clothing was too personal. But he thought about how much Sandburg suffered from the cold on their many long stakeouts and decided the gifts were practical, if not sentimental. With a tiny frown, he hoped that the gifts would also convey his gratitude and the concern he never discussed but couldn't assuage about Blair accompanying him into dangerous situations. When the clerk advised him of the total, he had to swallow hard at the cost of it all, but he reminded himself of that danger, and of Blair saving his life on more than one occasion. This was, very definitely, the least he could do.

And then, just because he was there, and he thought Simon would appreciate a similar scarf, he picked up another in gratitude for Simon's support since the senses had come on line. Well, before then, actually. For giving him a chance when no one else wanted anything to do with him.

On the way out, he paused just long enough at a kiosk by the doors to buy a box of chocolates for Rhonda.

Smiling widely, he emerged triumphant and feeling pretty damned good from the skirmish with Cascade Mall.

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Part: 10 Ribbons/bows

Word Count: 470

Jim was very conscious that Sandburg was seeing him as a close cousin of Scrooge, maybe with a touch of the Grinch thrown in for good measure. Part of him got a kick out of playing the role, especially when he was less and less the Grinch as time went on. Still, when he was honest with himself, though he didn't go around shouting, 'Bah, humbug!' he knew he'd long sworn off any kind of celebration for Christmas. He'd tried with Carolyn - bought gifts, wrapped them, decorated a tree, the works - but it had all felt hollow. Caro never said much, but he'd known that whatever he was doing wrong or not doing was a perpetual disappointment to her.

Christmas was hard for him. Hard because of his childhood and the hurt that still ached deep down as much as tried his best to ignore it; hard because of the Army, and what he'd sometimes had to do and the comrades he'd lost and missed. Hard because he didn't have family traditions; didn't have family; didn't fit anywhere on Christmas. So he worked, so the ones who did have family could be with them.

And now, here he was, trying again; not sure it was the right thing to do, or if he was doing the right things, but knowing it was important to Sandburg. There was something about the kid, some when Jim looked into those wide eyes, sometimes he swore he could see loneliness hiding in the shadows behind the perpetual sparkle. Sometimes, when Blair thought no one was looking, the smile faltered and he looked more than a little lost. Maybe he was imagining things but Jim just couldn't bring himself to totally disappoint his young partner, not when the kid seemed to get such a kick out of the holidays.

Grimacing, he told himself that Sandburg wasn't a kid. By the time he'd been Blair's age, he'd well, sometimes he didn't want to remember what he'd done, what he'd seen. But there was innocence in the kid, or maybe it was goodness, that Jim didn't want to tarnish, didn't want to lose. And Jim sure didn't want to add to the quotient of sorrow that he suspected Blair carried alone.

So, to add to Sandburg's ultimate holiday enjoyment, Jim was careful to keep the gifts he'd bought a surprise. He sent Blair off to do some grocery shopping, while he quickly but carefully wrapped the gifts and graced them with stars with six tips, ribbons and bows. When he hid the gifts in the far corner of his closet, he couldn't help the small smile that played in the corner of his mouth or the patch of warmth he felt growing in his chest.

Warmth where he'd sworn nothing could ever grow again.

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Part: 11 Zamenoff Day

Word Count: 489

Jim woke to the delectable scents of fresh perked coffee, sizzling eggs and sausages, and fresh bread toasting. For a moment, he lay there, puzzling over what special occasion would have gotten Sandburg up and cooking breakfast, instead of rushing out the door already late for some appointment or other. And then he remembered that Blair had finished off his work for the term the day before and was now free until after the New Year. He smiled with fond gratitude at the fact that the kid had chosen to get up early and make breakfast rather than sleep all day. Suddenly ravenous, he pulled on his robe and headed downstairs.

Blair looked up with a warm smile. "Felican kristnaskon!" he called brightly as he poured coffee into two mugs. "Felican Novjaron!"

Handing a mug to Jim, he babbled on in something that sounded vaguely familiar but was only so much gibberish.

Briefly wondering if his hearing had gone wonky, Jim shook his head and rubbed his ear, but the nonsense wasn't any clearer. "What?" he demanded, his smile morphing into a frown of consternation.

Laughing as he dished up their breakfast, Blair explained, "It's Esperanto for 'Merry Christmas and Happy New Year'. You know, the language created with the hope that everyone in the world would be able to speak it and then we'd all understand one another better and get along. It's Zamenhof Day, in honour of the birth of L.L. Zamenhof who invented Esperanto a hundred and thirty-seven years ago when he was something like nineteen. Pretty neat, huh?"

Sliding onto his seat at the table, Jim asked, "How do you know all this stuff -- and why would you care?"

"I'm an anthropologist: you know, the study of man and society?" Blair replied with just the slightest tinge of sarcasm that Jim really didn't think was warranted, especially so early in the morning. "A language that was specifically created to help us all understand one another better is intrinsic to my studies and a pretty amazing achievement."

Jim shrugged. "A noble undertaking, maybe, but a false hope just the same. The idea that shared language would help people get along is a delusion. About the only thing you can depend on is that people are contrary by nature and you just can't count on them to behave rationally, except in their own self interest. To survive you have to be ready for disappointment, loss, and betrayal."

Blair snorted. "Some people are contrary by nature." When Jim shot a glare his way, Sandburg slanted an amused glance at him. "Present company excepted, of course,!"

"I'll get you for that, Darwin," he threatened for the fun of seeing Blair's theatrical pantomime of terror. "Great breakfast, by the way. Even if it is in honor of some long dead guy and a language nobody will ever speak."

Laughing, he deftly ducked the piece of toast Blair threw at him.

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Part 12: Joy

Word Count: 499

Jim could feel the strain of a migraine behind his eyes. The relentless thudding pain was making him nauseous - as was the too-sweet scent of the cookies and fruitcake that had taken over the breakroom. The sparkly, blinking Christmas lights in the bullpen and the endless renditions of the Chipmunks or the clash of brass in Mannheim Steamroller's salute to Christmas on the PA system weren't helping. All he wanted was for the shift to end so he could return to his blessedly peaceful and quiet home.

Blair's bouncy, relentless good humor, his bright grin, rollicking laughter, and apparent joy in helping Rhonda decorate the office were also wearing thin. His endless energy was exhausting, and Jim was heartily tired of being pushed into walloping doses of seasonal spirit, whether he wanted them or not. Okay, so he was a Grinch. So what?

When they finally got home that evening, Blair's persistent humming of Joy to the World or whatever was the last straw.

"Enough, already!" Jim shouted. "Would you give it a rest!" When Blair cast him a startled, wounded look that would have done Bambi proud, Jim rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on," he grated. "Who do you think you're fooling here, huh? I know damned well your life, your past has never been any kind of Hallmark classic or Disney special. No way can all this cheery joyful holiday spirit be real. So what's it about, huh? What makes you pretend to be so damned happy all the time?"

"My past?" Blair echoed, dumbfounded. "You checked me out?"

Belatedly realizing he hadn't meant to give that away, Jim broke eye contact and shrugged.

"You didn't have to sneak behind my back!" Blair raged, his high spirits well and truly quenched. "You could have just asked me." When Jim didn't answer, he went on with tight gestures and cutting tone. "Oh, but then, you're the one who doesn't believe anyone, right? Who doesn't think anyone can be trusted or or " Anger choking off his words, he threw up his hands and whirled away. Yanking open the door to the hall, he snarled, "And you know what? A man's past doesn't define him. Or doesn't have to. We're not machines, Jim. We have free will. Joy is a state of mind, a way of being in the world, and it's a choice, man, not an accident. Just like your crap attitude is a choice. But I gotta tell you, I do NOT understand why anyone would choose to be as miserable as you make yourself so damned much of the time." The door slammed behind him.

Tired beyond words, Jim rubbed his forehead as he listened to the rapid thud of Blair's boots on the stairs. Sighing with regret, he started a fire in the woodstove, and then slumped into his chair. Not exactly the peace and quiet he'd hoped for.

Staring into the flames, he thought about choices and ways of being in the world.

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Part: 13 Candles/fire

Word Count: 500

Silence but for the crackling wood in the stove, darkness but for the dancing flames, and homey scents of candles and soap and rich earth gradually muted the migraine, quieting the hammering in his head and the nausea that curdled in his belly. Minute by minute, Jim felt the tensions of the defenses he erected against his senses ease from his body. He took a slow, deep breath and let the anger, the frustration, and the pain go, leaving only regret for having unfairly lashed out at Blair, when it was the world and his own unruly senses that had overwhelmed him.

Regret and the confusion that was Blair Sandburg, the riddle of his parting words.

Brow furled in thought, Jim reflected that he agreed that men weren't totally defined by their pasts, and that they could choose to be someone or something different, at least to some extent. But the past was tricky; it snuck up on a person, dragging them down when least expected and often when they were most vulnerable. Staring into the flames, images of the past flickered in his mind, arousing the old pain and grief that had haunted him since his mother had abandoned them when he'd been a child; pain that was magnified by hurts generated by his father and brother, so that Jim felt he'd lost them, too, long ago. Pain that had increased with the violence and losses of his time in the military and then his subsequent failure with Carolyn, other deaths, so that it took all he had to hold it in, contain it, control it when maybe he should have been letting it go.

He found it harder to wrap his head around the concept that joy was a choice. Could it be that simple? He would have said 'no,' that such a statement showed only the shallowness of the entitled, who had no reason not to be joyful. But he couldn't so easily consign Blair to a category like 'entitled'. Sure, the kid's current life in the privileged halls of academia could fit that picture, but the child who had frequently been abandoned, who apparently hadn't always had enough to eat or even a safe place to live, who had been repeatedly placed in foster care when his mother flitted off to who knew where for months at a time that child's life spoke of want, deprivation, betrayal, and a whole catalogue of abuse. How could that child 'choose' joy?

Blair's childhood made his own look like a walk in the park. And yet, it was so clear, so tangible, that Blair did find joy in life and in the season, in the people around him and the world in general.

So if Blair could choose joy well then, maybe he could, too.

Or maybe he could at least let some of the old pain go.

Jim stared into the flickering flames as he pondered the possibilities until he slipped unawares into a zone.

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

Part: 14 - Carols, Caroling

Word Count: 498

Jim sat frozen, staring at a stove that was growing cold; light from the streetlamps below seeped through the darkness.

In the distance, someone was singing: low, rich tones, words mere sounds creating a sense of expectation. A Christmas carol? Still largely unaware, Jim tilted his head, straining toward the voice .

I'll be home for Christmas, you can count on me.

He winced when light erupted around him with burning brightness.

"Geez, Jim! Why are you sitting in the dark?"

Blinking, Jim scrubbed his face. "I just " he began, but faltered, unwilling to admit to his vulnerabilities after the flare of words earlier; uncomfortable that the simple sound of Blair's voice had drawn him back from the abyss. He pushed himself to his feet. "I wasn't sure you'd come back."

Evidently surprised, Blair studied him. "I was angry," he replied. "I needed some space." But he continued, "I won't abandon you man; won't leave you until you're sure you can manage your senses on your own. I hope you know that I'm committed to our partnership."

Jim nodded. "I was out of line," he admitted, his gesture unconsciously poignant. "My senses were driving me crazy."

Blair's features softened and he stepped toward Jim. "I wish you'd tell me, so I could help," he stated. "That's why I'm here."

Again Jim nodded. "I was thinking," he mused. "About joy being a choice." He met Blair's steady gaze. "I don't know how you do it," he went on. "I well, I'm sorry about checking you out. I should have just asked. But I'd bet you wouldn't've told me how hard it must've been."

Blair's gaze fell away. With a tentative smile, he replied, "I guess, for a while, I was angry at the world, like I was angry at you earlier. But, you know what? It takes energy to be angry, whereas happiness is energizing. Besides, what's the point of being angry about stuff that happened a long time ago and can't be changed? Naomi was just a kid; she did the best she could and I know she loves me. Soooo, I do my best to let the bad stuff go. Instead, I think about what I'm grateful for, and focus on all the great, amazing stuff that happens around me every day. Like meeting you; getting to work with you. And, well, being given a place to live, here, with you. I've got a lot to be grateful for, Jim. It's as simple as that."

Jim thought about all that he had to grateful for, not least of which was this man who had appeared out of nowhere to help him when he'd most needed it. Something eased in his chest; he felt happy. His smile was slow, almost shy, but Blair beamed back at him and Jim's smile widened in return. For no reason, or maybe in the rush of simple relief and the joy of shared friendship, they both started to laugh.

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

Part: 15 Hanukkah

Word Count: 499

Crimson paint, the color of blood, splattered the wall of the fire-gutted synagogue. Members of the community, some shocked, others weeping, huddled together in the chill of the gray afternoon, while firemen attacked the still smoking ashes and police began investigating the arson that was also a crime of hate.

Jim's eyes stung and his throat tightened against the smoke-thickened air but he was scarcely aware of his discomfort, his thoughts too caught up with compassion for those who were hurt by the hate directed toward them, and anger at the cruel bigotry of those who had done this. Bad enough at any time but worse somehow in the midst of what should have been the celebration of Hannukah. He was disgusted that those who had committed this atrocity were no doubt congratulating themselves for being good Christians - or maybe it was just some maniac who liked to play with fire.

He heard someone snicker somewhere nearby and turned to study the men and women crowded behind the yellow tape, like some ancient circus, hungry for excitement, for blood. Some days, people sickened him. In the back, near the mouth of an alley, he saw three skinheads watching with smug self-satisfaction. Tilting his head, concentrating to shut out the other sounds around him, he focused on their conversation, heard their laughter about the damage they'd done, their pride in how hot the fire had burned.

Quietly, Jim directed Rafe and Brown to cover the back of the alley, and he positioned uniformed officers on either end of the block. Then he moved in on the perpetrators, collaring them in a matter of minutes. They stank so badly of the gasoline they'd used that even those with ordinary senses could smell the fumes. A battered pickup owned by the ringleader was parked just inside the alley. The snickering fools hadn't even bothered to cover the empty gasoline cans and unused flares in the back of the truck.

Jim was just leaving the scene when he spotted an old, beautiful menorah in the window of a secondhand shop.

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

Hours later, Blair was astonished when Jim carried the menorah into the loft. "What's this?" he asked.

"You seem to know everything about Christmas, but I don't know anything about Hannukah. I don't even know if you celebrate it," Jim explained, feeling a bit awkward, hoping this hadn't been a mistake. "I brought this home because, well, it's your home, too. I thought, if you wouldn't mind, you could tell me what it's all about. I heard someone today call it the miracle of the oil - someone else called it the Festival of Light." Jim added, sincerely interested but mostly wanting to make the point that the loft was Sandburg's home, too, in case the kid didn't already know.

"Wow," Blair breathed, his shy, surprised pleasure conveying all Jim needed to know he'd done the right thing. He smiled when Blair eagerly began, "In 165 BC, the Maccabees liberated the Temple ."

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

Part 16: Solstice

Word Count: 500

The image of Blair garbed in his green tights, elfin clothing, hat and shoes with the pointy ends and bells never got old and never failed to bring a smile to Jim's face.

"Doing both shifts?" he asked as they donned their coats and scarves.

"Just the afternoon, I hope," Blair replied. "It's Solstice, man, the longest night of the year, the first night of winter, the magical night when we begin the long journey back to spring. It's the original party night!"

Grinning as he opened the door, Jim teased, "So, any special celebrations? Do you dance naked at midnight under the full moon?"

Blair snorted as he started down the stairs, bells tinkling. "No way, not in this weather," he muttered, as if he might have done just that in a balmier climate, but then laughed, "Maybe, with the right person."

Amused, Jim shook his head and clattered down the steps behind him. ********************

"Ellison," Jim said into the phone handset, his attention on the report he was writing.

"Jim? It's Sam - Blair's friend." When Jim didn't answer, still trying to place 'Sam', the voice continued, "Santa Claus."

"Oh, right, sure, Sam. What can I do for you?"

"I'm sorry, Jim, it's about Blair. There's been a terrible accident. We're at Cascade General."

"Accident?" Jim demanded, surging to his feet, his report forgotten.

"Please, come quickly. I'll explain when you get here."

Jim felt a sudden chill, needed to know more, but Sam had already disconnected.

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

When Jim loped into Emergency, he found Santa Claus pacing anxiously.

"What happened?" he rasped. "How is he?"

"The Mall's Christmas tree tipped over," Sam reported. "There were children in the way. Blair saved them, pushed and tossed them to safety, but he -" Sam's voice caught and he shook his head; tears glittered in his eyes.

Stunned, Jim had a sickening vision of Blair crushed under the massive sixty-foot, heavily decorated pine. He grabbed Sam, wanting to shake information out of him. "He's alive, right?"

"He's been unconscious since. Might be internal bleeding. It looks bad, Jim. Very bad."

Jim was surprised at how shaken he felt, at how much he did not want to imagine the laughing elf broken and still. Sinking into a chair, he looked up at the clock, wondering how long it would be before he could see Blair, and know the kid would be okay.

Wondering if the longest night of the year was going to become the longest night of his life.

"I'm sorry," Sam sighed. "Blair thinks the world of you and I can see he's important to you. We have to hope for the best. It's Christmas. Miracles do happen."

Jim stiffened. He didn't believe in miracles; didn't know if he believed in anything. Closing his eyes, he could again hear Sandburg singing, I'll be home for Christmas.

In that moment, Jim wished with all his heart and soul that the words would be prophetic, that Blair would be home for Christmas.

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

Part 17: St Stephens Day/Boxing Day

Word Count: 497

The continuous play of Christmas carols on the hospital's PA system was annoying but helped keep Jim awake throughout the night while he waited for updates on Sandburg's condition. Sam had wanted to stay but, around midnight, Jim insisted the old man go home to rest for awhile. Blair had already been sent for x-rays, and then to surgery to inflate a collapsed lung that had been punctured by a tree branch, as well as to fix a broken left arm and collarbone. Jim knew he'd also suffered a minor skull fracture and a major concussion, and had yet to wake up though they'd had him in Recovery for hours.

'Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen '

Jim's favorite carol caught his attention and led him to think about St. Stephen. His chest ached when he imagined pretending ignorance for the fun of it while Blair gave him an impromptu lecture about the very first Christian martyr, who was remembered and celebrated in any number of countries on the day following Christmas, which was also known by some as Boxing Day.

Shivering with weary anxiety though the waiting room was overly warm, Jim wondered if Sandburg would be alive on St. Stephen's Day.

"Stop it," he muttered. Sighing, he rubbed his temples and squinted against the headache engendered by the nearly overwhelming smells of various injuries, illnesses and medicines, not to mention the strain of listening for Blair's heartbeat and voice without spiking on other, louder sounds or falling into a zone.

What had Sandburg said? 'Joy is a choice, not an accident.' Joy would be taking Sandburg home ... and seeing the kid's face light up in surprise at the sight of a tree. Jim's throat tightened at how very much he'd give to see Blair's eyes bright with excitement and to hear the kid's rollicking laughter, mocking him for having a tree after all.

Swallowing hard, Jim decided to choose hope rather than despair so that, God willing, they'd both have joy on Christmas. Standing, he stretched against the stiffness of too many hours in the torturous plastic chair, then headed out to buy the best Christmas tree he could find. He still had decorations dating from his short-lived marriage in the basement storeroom. Later, he'd ask the guys to consider having Christmas dinner at the loft - meaning that they'd cook everything and bring it over - just in case Sandburg would be there.

Jim knew he was risking nearly unbearable disappointment and grief, not to mention the worst Christmas ever, if the kid didn't make it home. But, for Blair's sake, he'd prepare for the best - a joyous homecoming - and hope the action would give rise to the reality. He felt shaky leaving without knowing Sandburg would be okay, but it beat waiting helplessly.

To keep going, Jim just kept thinking about how great it would be to have a tree if - when - Blair came home for Christmas.

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

Part 18: Christmas Eve

Word Count: 500

Jim looked at the tree, all eight feet of it, and nodded. It was a damned fine tree if he did say so himself. There was also garland around the handrail of the stairs, a wreath on the front door, another wreath around a thick red candle on the dining room table and tiny lights blinked around the balcony doors. The menorah was in a place of honor in front of the large window overlooking the balcony and, beyond it, the cityscape. A Christmas CD was on the player and was set to continuous play, the volume very low for now to not disturb the neighbors. There was eggnog in the fridge and cider was cooling on the stove. The place smelled of pine and cinnamon, vanilla and spice. He wished there were more gifts under the tree, but he reminded himself that it was the thought that counted and Blair wasn't into rampant commercialism.

If - when - Blair made it home, this was going to blow him away.

Breathing carefully around the heavy ache in his chest, Jim felt like a fool, doing all this for a man who still hadn't awakened. But but somehow, it all felt right even if it was also pretty crazy. This wasn't about him, just like, he supposed, Christmas wasn't about oneself. What had Blair said, way back when he first asked if Jim celebrated the holiday? Bowing his head, Jim searched his memory and then nodded, hearing Sandburg's voice in his mind:

I've always thought it was important to celebrate a holiday that speaks to miracles and family and joy and the spirit of giving. You don't have to be a Christian to value those things.

"No, no, you don't, Chief," he murmured to the empty loft. "I guess it adds up to unconditional love, doesn't it? And nobody gives that gift better than you, buddy. This," he gestured at the tree and the other decorations, "this is my gift to you." His throat tightened and he blinked against the burn in his eyes. "I just hope you get a chance to see it." With a heart-heavy sigh, he donned his coat and headed out, back to the hospital.

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

Sam was there, in his Santa costume, when Jim arrived, looking older than his years and worn with worry. Standing, he turned toward the door but paused to grip Jim's shoulder. "I have to go. Christmas Eve: Santa's got to make one last appearance." He looked at Blair. "There's been no change but but I - we - have to believe that he'll be okay. He just has to be."

Jim nodded and did his best to give Sam a small smile. Then he took his place beside the bed and lightly gripped Sandburg's wrist. "Come on, Chief," he murmured. "When you're this quiet, I get nervous."

Blair's hand twitched; his eyes blinked open, drifted around the room. He looked confused until his gaze landed on Jim, and then he smiled.

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

Part 19: Christmas Day

Word Count: 500

From nearly the moment he awakened, Blair lobbied to be released to go home. His most persuasive argument was that he'd rest better there than in the hospital. "You look like you'd rest better, too, Jim," he commented wryly. "Have you slept at all in the last two days?"

Jim just smiled and turned to the doctor. "Everything's looking good," the physician said. "If you get through tonight without complications, I'll discharge you tomorrow."

Blair grimaced but agreed and then immediately harried Jim to go home and get some sleep. Hands up in surrender, Jim laughed and left for the night. He stopped by the mall to let Sam know his elf was going to be okay.

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

Jim followed Blair along the hallway toward the loft, one hand on the kid's back to steady him. For all his agitating for discharge, Jim could tell from the slight limp and the way Blair hunched around his damaged arm and shoulder that he was hurting. But Sandburg wasn't admitting to any weakness and was babbling about how glad he was to be home and wasn't Jim supposed to be working that day?

"Simon gave me time off to get you home and settled," Jim said, reaching around Blair to open the door. He could hear the others inside and could smell the turkey roasting in the oven. Entering first, he half turned, to observe Blair's face. "Welcome home, Chief," he said, as the others chimed, "Merry Christmas!"

Blair blinked and gaped in surprise and shock at the transformation of the loft, but even before he'd taken it all in, a smile was growing on his lips and delight was dancing in his eyes. "Wow," he gusted and turned to Jim. "You decorated."

"Ah, a master of observation," Jim teased as he helped Blair out of his jacket and hung it up.

"Yeah, well, I'm a trained observer," Sandburg retorted with arch good humor, and accepted a mug of warmed cider from Simon. "Thanks, man," he said. "Thanks to all of you - especially you, Jim. I this is the best Christmas I've ever known!"

"Yes, well," Simon harrumped, "maybe that's because you're Jewish!"

Blair snickered and moved further into the room, to ease down on the sofa.

Accepting his own mug of cider, Jim stood back, enjoying how happy Blair was, and how Simon, Henri and Rafe had made themselves right at home to get dinner ready. Leaning a shoulder against the pillar as he survived his domain, Jim realized he felt happier than he had in a long, long time - happier than on any Christmas since he'd been a very young child.

He'd done it all for Sandburg but discovered the real gift of the day was his: the loft, his home and Blair's, was filled with high spirits and the warmth of people who genuinely cared about one another.

He wasn't alone anymore. Admit it or not, he loved these men - his unexpected, unlooked for, and certainly unconventional family.

Finis

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

Another Secret Santa vignette written for Christmas Day 2011.

Old Man Winter and Jack Frost

For Ainm

Old Man Winter was, as per usual, in a foul mood and nothing nimble Jack Frost did seemed to cheer him up. First, he glared with ice cold blue eyes, and then it was the cold shoulder treatment when his mood went from bad to worse and the ambient temperature dropped accordingly. Then he bellowed, huffing and blowing a winter's frozen blast that sent Jack Frost scurrying for cover, leaving a delicate trail of white lace on the surface of all he passed: the street where he skipped along, the trees he breezed by and, finally, the windows he found himself up against with nowhere else to run.

Pretending to ignore Winter's blast, as if it was of no concern to him, nothing whatsoever to remark upon, Jack painted delicate scrolls of wondrous beauty on the windows that surrounded him, holding him outside, away from the warmth of hearth and home and family. The white etchings were a protection of a sort, a way of hiding that warmth inside from himself; he couldn't long for what he couldn't see and would never have. The night grew dark and the cold was very nearly unbearable for all he pretended to ignore it. He hunched into himself, cold to the bone, shivering in his soul, but still drawing by the light of the moon, giving his gift of beauty to all who would behold it in the sparkling light of the dawning sun.

Finally, too weary to do more, too cold to pretend otherwise, he curled disconsolately in on himself, to protect himself from the raging wind, and drifted into sleep.

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

"Sandburg, what are you doing here? I waited but you didn't come home. Finally tracked you down here."

"Huh? What?" he mumbled, lifting his head from the desk to behold Jim standing in the doorway, his blue eyes no longer icy but clouded with worry and warm with concern. Pushing back his hair, sitting up, gathering his pages of detailed notes together, he said quietly, "I got the impression that you wanted your space, man. There was a distinct chill in the air, if you know what I mean."

Jim sighed as he moved inside and sank down on a chair in front of the desk. "I know. I shouldn't've yelled but I just get tired of the tests, Chief. I couldn't believe you wanted me to identify the differences between different kinds of eggnog: soy, normal, low fat, no fat, no sugar added, with rum, with vodka, with southern comfort and all those different liqueurs you were relentless and enough was enough." Jim shuddered and turned a delicate shade of green from the memory of it all.

Blair grimaced with regret. "I'm sorry, Jim, but you know these tests are important. There're going to be a ton of Christmas parties around the PD, the courthouse, here at the U - you need to be able to spot which eggnog punch it is before you even taste it. You know, by texture, scent, and the color or you know you'll end up pissed off with having to drink the stuff you don't like - or just plain pissed from all the ones that are spiked."

"Yeah, alright," Jim murmured, defeated. Standing, he gestured toward the door. "Will you come home now? Place is too quiet when you're not there."

Blair graced him with a relieved smile.

Looked like he was going to get to enjoy home and hearth and the joy of the season with his family after all.

Finis

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