Disclaimer: The Characters of The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly, The SciFi channel and others. No copyright infringement is intended.

Small warning - features Blair as a cop, but it's pretty incidental to the story line. Just thought I'd mention it.

For Jen, in appreciation of her hard work in building a beautiful new home for my stories. To all my readers - for caring and for coming back, story after story. Happy Holidays and the very best of New Years to you all.

The Greatest Gift

by JET

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

The bright red and green startled him, clinching his heart with the sudden realization that it was quickly approaching December 25. Or was it already Christmas Eve? Exactly when had the holidays arrived? Why he hadn't noticed, he knew far too well.

His mind - and his heart - had been otherwise occupied.

Ever since his partner - his Guide and his best friend - had vanished.

How long had it been? Jim shook his head to clear his mind, staring out at the gaily decorated storefronts as Simon's sedan eased silently through the cold night down the wet streets. A week? Ten days?

Time has no meaning for a man so lost he no longer remembers anything beyond the emptiness, the void in his soul.

It had been Sandburg's first undercover assignment as Jim's new partner. He'd been apprehensive, of course, about sending Blair out from beneath his sheltering, protective wing, but Jim had bitten his tongue, literally drawing blood, in his determination to let the kid have this opportunity. To let Blair prove to Major Crimes, and to himself, that he really was one of them now.

Sandburg had nothing to prove to his partner. To Jim, Blair had always been a part of the team, an integral part of his job, just as much as he was a vital part of Jim's life outside of work. Until the undercover assignment, all had been well.

No one knew exactly when things had begun to go wrong. The last time Sandburg had checked in, he was confident of his cover, sure that in a couple more days, he'd have all the information about the arms deal they needed to move in and make the bust.

They never heard from him again.

Jim's fear had started out small, a tiny, niggling whisper when Blair missed checking in for the first time. By the time a few days had passed with no word, the whisper became an angry shout that couldn't be denied. It had been all Simon could do to keep Jim from barging into Clyde Barrow's sizeable estate with all guns blazing. Only his captain's calm reasoning voice, insisting that if Sandburg's cover was still intact, Jim could do more harm than good, kept the Sentinel restrained.

After a week, they'd raided the estate anyway, using a warrant for a drug bust on Barrow's son as an excuse. The raid had turned up an impressive stash of heroin and crank, but no sign of Sandburg. Under intense questioning, Clyde Barrow had admitted knowing Sandburg, in his cover role as Peter Bergstrom, a recently-hired computer expert working at the Barrow estate. The young man had disappeared in the night without a word, Barrow claimed innocently. He had no idea where he'd gone, but then, who could tell with kids these days? Give them a good job, an apartment in a mansion, but they're still not satisfied, right?

At those cool, uncaring words, Jim had slammed his fist against the observation glass so hard, it had cracked both the glass and three bones in his hand.

Barrow had been released without charges being filed.

Frankly, Jim didn't care. What purpose would an arrest have served? If he couldn't get thirty minutes alone with Barrow, and Simon seemed rather insistent that didn't happen, then Jim had no interest in the man. Without an Ellison-style interrogation, compliments of the U.S. Army's Special Forces training, Barrow would never talk. His high-priced, sleazy attorneys would see to that.

While the estate had been under police yellow tape, Jim had taken advantage of his position and scoured the scene for traces of Sandburg. He'd found them all right, enough remnants of his Guide to nearly lead him into a zone, but nothing that would help them find his missing partner. His frustration was building by the hour, along with his fear.

"What day is it?"

Simon turned quickly to look at him, then returned his gaze to the road. "Thursday, Jim. Christmas Eve," he added softly.

Jim rubbed absently at the cast on his hand, lost in reflection. Christmas Eve. He should feel something, some greater sense of loss, but that was impossible. There was nothing greater than the loss he'd already experienced. The fact that Blair was gone on Christmas Eve was no more painful than any other night of the year without him.

Simon's voice was warm with compassion. In some ways, it helped to know he understood; yet, that very compassion somehow only made the pain more intense. "Are you sure you want to go back to the loft tonight? Daryl's with his mother; you're welcome to stay with me."

He didn't have to think about the reply. "No. I'll be all right."

Jim saw the lingering, uncertain look from his captain. Simon probably wasn't at all sure he would be all right tonight. Frankly, Jim wasn't that certain himself. At least, Simon didn't argue. He didn't want to have to work to be tactful when he told his friend and boss to mind his own business on Christmas Eve.

They pulled up in front of 852 Prospect after riding the rest of the way in silence. The slow winter rain, already mixed with sleet, beat a steady tattoo on the car roof, drumming home the loneliness of a holy evening without the one most cherished. Jim sighed heavily, but not as deeply as he would have liked, in deference to Simon. No point in his friend realizing how truly miserable he was.

If Simon didn't know already.

"Go on home," Jim said, opening the door and bracing himself against the wet chill of the late December air. "Call Daryl. Wrap some gifts."

"I'll call you in the morning," Simon said, a note of helplessness evident in his voice. "Merry... " He stopped short, his face mirroring his own personal misery.

"It's okay," Jim said with a forced half-smile. "Life goes on, right?" He closed the door before Simon could respond. He didn't really want to know the answer.

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

The tree stood bare in the living room, the pattern of icy rain on the skylight casting strange, contorted shadows upon its stark branches. A box of ornaments and lights waited, neglected, on the floor beneath it. They had been about to decorate the tree when the call came from the Barrow estate. A problem with the system. Peter Bergstrom was needed at once.

And like a fool, he had let Blair go, Jim reflected as he stared at the lonely tree, his injured fingers throbbing with every beat of his heart. He was way overdue for a pain pill, but Jim stubbornly ignored both the pills and his dials and allowed the pain to set in. Welcomed it, in fact. After such a monumental failure, he deserved the pain, both physical and emotional.

He'd let Blair go, despite his misgivings. Let him walk out that door with a quick good-bye, as if they would see each other the next day, and the next, and the next. Only a fast 'Be careful, Chief' as Jim's last words to the man who meant more to him than life itself. He'd wanted to say more, wanted to give more to his friend as he headed back alone into the dangerous world of drug dealers and arms merchants. But he'd been afraid to be too protective, too smothering, and so he'd held back, and let Blair walk out of the loft with so much - too much - left unsaid. Jim had monitored his Guide's heartbeat until it finally faded into nothingness, and the sense of loss he'd felt in that silence was deafening.

He'd never been one for premonitions, but at that moment, a wave of grief, unexplained and unexpected, washed over Jim, leaving him weak and trembling slightly from the shock. Grabbing up his cell phone, he punched in Blair's number, ready to call him back - to order him back - to the loft. To safety. To his Sentinel's side.

But he didn't.

Common sense and practicality took over, and Jim ended the call before it could ring through.

Sandburg's cover was intact. The kid was a cop now, and a good one, and Jim had no right to interfere on his first undercover assignment. Even if every instinct he possessed was screaming at him to drag his Guide, kicking and screaming, if necessary, back home.

But Jim had ignored those instincts, Blair had missed his check-ins, and now, Sandburg was missing. It was Christmas Eve, and Jim felt as if a huge chunk of his heart was missing right along with him.

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

At first, Jim thought he was back in Peru, listening to the sounds of drums pounding through the jungle. His eyes shot open, immediately taking in his surroundings, and he realized that it wasn't drums he heard, but someone beating on his door.

What time was it? Sitting up with a weary groan on the couch where he'd fallen asleep beside the bare tree, Jim checked his watch. Not quite seven P.M.. Not yet Christmas morning. It felt like it should have been later - much later. He must have nodded off not long after Simon had left.

Stumbling toward the door, Jim caught a whiff of a familiar odor. "Forget something, Simon?" he called as he opened the door.

The tall captain scowled as the door opened. "Don't you answer your phone any more, Ellison?" he growled as he pushed his way in, his eyes scanning the loft carefully.

Looking for some sign of a gun, Jim surmised, and the thought didn't anger him as it should. Simon was a good friend. A good friend who understood the grief he was in tonight and cared enough to worry. "I'm okay," Jim said quietly. "We don't know anything for sure, Simon, so I haven't given up. Not yet. There's still hope. You didn't have to come over. Especially not tonight."

Apparently satisfied and maybe just a bit embarrassed that Jim had once again read his mind, Simon grinned. "I wanted to bring over your Christmas present, Jim. It's almost Christmas Day, after all," he added, checking his watch. "Only a few hours to go."

Jim stared in disbelief. Surely Simon had lost his mind. The last thing he cared about right now were gifts and holiday cheer. "Christmas present? C'mon, Simon, I'm not exactly in the mood... "

Simon waved off his objections. "I looked long and hard for this one, Ellison. Don't you know that when a friend brings you a gift, the polite thing to do is accept graciously? Go sit down and close your eyes, Detective." When Jim didn't move to comply, Simon commanded in a no-nonsense tone, "I can make that an order, remember? Sit. Eyes closed."

Heaving a sigh of resignation, Jim sat on the edge of the couch then reluctantly shut his eyes. "No disrespect intended, but this is ridiculous, sir. Can't you just put it under the tree?"

"I really don't think I'd fit, man, and it would be so uncomfortable, especially after the week I've had, but if that's what you want, buddy, then..."

His ears must be playing tricks on him, as ridiculous as that notion seemed. But a familiar scent was permeating the loft, calling to him with a silent voice so loud, so clear, it could not be ignored. He'd never been able to ignore the voice of this man, anyway, whether that voice was spoken or merely the essence of the one he loved above all others. His sense of hearing confirmed what his heart dared not hope was true. The thrumming of a beloved heart joined with the steady whisper of drawn breath in a cadence as familiar, as cherished, as any Jim had ever known.

Jim's eyes shot open wide. "Chief?"

The ringing of Blair's laughter had never been more welcome. Jim charged across the room and grabbed his Guide's shoulders, Simon's presence completely forgotten in the sheer joy of the moment. Anxious hands, even the one bearing the cast for his broken fingers, skimmed over Blair's body, as the Sentinel checked for signs of injury.

Blair's entire lower right arm was heavily encased in plaster; Jim determined that he would find out the cause of the break later. Bruises were plentiful on his face, and the Sentinel could feel their heat even through the unfamiliar jeans and heavy flannel shirt he wore. One swollen spot on Blair's left arm gave him pause, but there didn't seem to be any other broken bones, no fractures, and no bleeding. His Guide was much too thin, his face sunburned and cut in several places, and he smelled somehow of the sea, but that was all. Miraculously, Sandburg had returned intact... healthy... alive.

Relief threatened the stability of Jim's legs, and still unable to speak, he reacted on pure instinct. Leaning forward, Jim drew Blair slowly and gently into his arms, wrapping him in an embrace as tender as it was protective. He heard the soft sigh from his Guide as Blair yielded to him, allowing himself to be held close, to be pressed tightly against Jim, his head tucked beneath the taller man's chin, his face buried in the hollow of Jim's broad shoulder.

Blair's arms slipped around his waist and tightened there, a tangible reminder that his Guide truly was alive and strong and real. "It's okay, man," came the soft whisper. "I'm here. I'm okay. Everything's gonna be fine, now, I promise. It's been tough, hasn't it, buddy? Did you think I was really gone this time, huh?" The voice was slightly hoarse, but unmistakably Blair's and undeniably steady and strong.

Jim could only jerk his head once in helpless response. Words were still far beyond his limited ability to reason. At that moment, the man who fought so often to deny his emotions had nothing else left to him but his feelings - a succession of strong sensations that defied words - powerful relief... surging joy... overwhelming love for the young man he held so tightly, so close.

"Yeah, I figured." Blair's gravelly voice held a strong tone of regret. "I'm so sorry, Jim. I tried to get word to you, I really did, but... "

"Where... ?" The rest of the sentence stuck in his throat, protesting.

"Where was I?" Blair finished gently.

Jim nodded, relieved beyond measure that, at least for now, no words from him were required.

Blair chuckled. "It's kind of a long story, man, and frankly, I think I'd rather sit down to tell it. Feel like going over to the couch?"

Jim's arms tightened reflexively, and Blair responded immediately to the pressure, saying softly, reassuringly, "It's okay, Jim. I'm not going anywhere, I promise. We're just gonna move over to sit down, okay?"

From behind him came Simon's warm laughter. "Give Sandburg a break, Jim. He's had a rough few days, remember?"

Immediately, Jim released his Guide, but he kept his good hand firmly planted on the slim shoulders. "Are you okay, Chief?" There. At last. A complete sentence. That should prove to Simon that he was still capable of rational thought.

Blair gazed up at him calmly, his blue eyes reflecting nothing but compassion for his Sentinel. "I'm fine, Jim. Tired and a bit sore, but basically fine. Really."

Jim stared down steadily into the blue depths, gauging the truth of Sandburg's words. Too often, the younger man had claimed to be fine, only for his Sentinel to find out that, in reality, all was not well. This time, however, Jim discovered no pain in Blair's eyes, and his senses picked up on no signs of injury. "Okay," he conceded at last. "Okay." Together, they moved to sit in the living room.

Blair sat close to Jim on the couch, while Simon took a seat on a nearby chair, after lighting the fire. Soon a warm glow filled the loft, negating the cold chill brought by the late December rain. Snagging the afghan, Jim spread it out over their legs. Surely, Sandburg was cold. "Want something hot to drink, Chief? Maybe some tea?" In the back of his mind, Jim realized that he was definitely treading dangerously close to the fine line between helping and hovering, but there had to be something he could do. Something to make Sandburg more comfortable, to ease the trauma of whatever he'd been through.

Blair shook his head. "I'm good. Simon bought me a cup of coffee on the way over. Decaf, though. I so do not want to lose sleep tonight."

Jim chuckled, relaxing into the soft cushions. Sandburg sounded so normal. This all felt so normal. Oh, God, thank you for normal. I promise never to take 'normal' for granted again.

Blair eyed Jim's cast suspiciously. "Want to explain that?"

Jim glanced quickly at Simon. The captain was grinning in obvious amusement. "I... got a little frustrated, that's all, Chief," Jim said weakly.

"He got furious at Barrow, if you want the truth, Sandburg," Simon interjected.

Blair's eyes widened. "You hit the guy? When?"

"No," Jim countered, with a chastising look at his boss, "I didn't hit him. I... I hit the observation window."

He expected Blair to erupt in laughter at the image, but he didn't. On the contrary, the deep blue eyes darkened in empathy. "I'm sorry, man," Blair said softly.

Jim nodded, grateful that further explanation wasn't necessary. That was one of Sandburg's greatest character traits. He understood his Sentinel as no one ever had. Blair realized what had triggered Jim's violent outburst and understood immediately the depth of emotion required to pull that trigger. "So tell me what happened to you, Chief."

Simon started, obviously weighing his words carefully. "I got a phone call about an hour after dropping you off, Jim. It was the port authority."

"The port authority? Blair, what exactly went down with Barrow anyway?"

Blair leaned back, drawing his legs up into a half-lotus position, drawing the afghan with him. He stared into the flickering flames, and when he spoke, his voice was distant. "When I got back to the estate after they called me - Peter Bergstrom - here, I walked right into a pretty amazing display of firepower. All aimed right at me. Seems Barrow's secretary's kid spotted me earlier that day. Unfortunately, he was a student at Rainier and in my Anthro 201 class a couple of years back." Sandburg glanced up at Jim. "Needless to say, he remembered that my name definitely was not Peter Bergstrom."

"Your cover was blown," Jim said flatly, cursing himself inwardly. He'd known something was wrong. Known it to the depths of his soul and still, he'd allowed Blair to walk out of the loft, right into Barrow's hands. What kind of a friend - what kind of a Sentinel - was he?

Blair looked at him for a long moment with suspicious eyes, as though he could read Jim's guilt, but he only continued with his story. "So they knew I was a cop. I'll spare you the details of Barrow's tirade, but within the hour, I was loaded onto his private helicopter. Obviously, he didn't want to get messy there on his own property, and Barrow was sharp enough to know that if... my body... was ever found, he'd be tied to the crime eventually. You don't kill a cop and get away with it." Despite his attempt at a tight smile, Sandburg's voice tightened on those last words.

Without conscious thought, Jim reached out to comfort. He wrapped one arm around Blair's shoulder, being careful with his cast, drawing his Guide closer. The younger man didn't resist, instead, he scooted nearer, pressing up firmly against Jim's side.

"There were two guys with guns on me in the back, another in the front with the pilot. No way out that I could see. They didn't even bother handcuffing me, so I guess they had no doubts that what they had planned would take care of me. They were almost right."

Jim felt the tiny shudder pass through Blair's body. "It's okay," he said softly, capturing Sandburg's hand. "You don't have to relive this right now."

Simon spoke up. "Actually, he already has. Blair insisted on giving his statement before we came here so we could go ahead and pick up Barrow. He's sitting in a holding cell right now. Sandburg got through it fine, Jim - like a seasoned veteran. He really is okay."

Blair's nod confirmed their captain's words. "They must have flown at least fifty miles out to sea. It was late afternoon by that time. It took three of them to wrestle me out of the plane."

The force of those words hit Jim like a physical blow to the gut. They had dumped Sandburg into the ocean. In December. Alive.

"Chief... " Jim gripped Blair's hand tightly, unconsciously pulling him closer with the arm slung over his shoulders. The frightening images playing in his mind made further words impossible. The images of Blair, alone and scared and oh-so-small, floundering in the huge expanse of cold water... calling out into the night for help... his voice growing weaker and more hoarse. The reality of the loft receded as the horrors conjured up by his mind grew more intense. He could almost smell the salt air... feel the cold wind on his face... see the empty darkness surrounding him.

"It's all right, Jim," Blair's slightly hoarse voice rumbled softly in his ear. "I'm here. I'm alive, man, so you don't need to zone, okay? Come on, don't do this now, please? Come on back to me, Jim."

Jerking his head with the crashing force of his reentry into reality, Jim murmured. "I'm here, Chief. I'm with you."

Blair's relieved smile flashed brightly. "Good, 'cause I really don't want to have to go through a major zone tonight. I'm just a little too tired for that, okay?"

"You got it, Chief," he managed to say.

"Go on, son," Simon encouraged gently. "Let's get this over with. Jim will know everything, and you'll feel better getting it all out."

Blair nodded. "Right. Okay, I hit the water like a ton of bricks. That's how I got this." He held up the bandaged right arm. "If either of my legs had been broken, I'd never have survived, but somehow..."

"Miracles can happen," Simon said quietly, his words hanging heavy in the quiet air for a long minute as all three mulled over what might have been.

Blair broke the silence at last. "Yeah, they can, and they do, apparently. It stunned me when I hit the water so hard, but I came to floating on my back. Thankfully, the waves weren't tremendous, just big swells at that point. I realized I had to conserve my strength, so I used the survival floatation method you taught me, Jim. You know, keeping your arms at your side, and bobbing up and down like a cork." He grinned a quirky smile. "It works, man."

Tears rose unbidden in the Sentinel's eyes as he remembered the day the previous summer when they'd gone to the beach for some much-needed R&R. As they enjoyed the warm water, Jim had taught Blair the survival technique. At the time, the kid had teased him mercilessly about implying he was a wreck looking for a place to happen, a bonafide trouble magnet, and worse, but Blair had listened. And learned, apparently.

Another miracle in a seemingly endless chain. Blair squeezed his hand gently and looked up at him. "Thanks, Jim. Next time you want to teach me some survival skill, I promise I won't put up a fight, okay?"

Jim nodded, blinking fast.

Blair's gaze returned to the flames. "I don't know exactly how much time went by. I think I was drifting in and out; that water was pretty cold. I know night came and went, then another day and another night. I knew I couldn't last much longer. I think I dozed off and realized I was sinking, but I just didn't care. I was so cold and thirsty and hungry and tired. But something began pushing me back to the surface. It was big, I could tell that, even though I couldn't see it. A few seconds later, and I was breathing fresh air again. I was curious then, fully awake, and I looked around, trying to figure out what had happened. Had I really gone under or had I just dreamed the whole thing?"

"And?" Simon prompted.

"It was a dolphin." Blair's eyes were wondrous. "He was gorgeous, all sleek and gray. From that moment on, he never left my side, just hung around like he wanted to be sure I was all right. Several times, he came close enough for me to hang on to him, just when I was getting too tired to keep afloat." Blair turned to Jim with a shy smile. "He saved my life, man."

"Then I've just become a huge fan of Flipper, Chief," Jim said roughly, ruffling the wild crown of curls. "I'm glad you had a friend out there. What happened next?"

"Like I said, time was really out of whack, but I think another day, maybe two, went by. I was in pretty bad shape by then. My skin was parched from the salt water and sun, even in December, it broils down pretty good on that water. My mouth was so dry that my tongue was swollen. I'll admit it, man, I was starting to entertain thoughts of just letting go. Of sinking below the surface and hoping the dolphin would just let me go this time."

Jim shook his head hard in denial. "No. You don't ever give up, do you hear me, Sandburg? Never."

Blair smiled at him affectionately. "I know that. It was just that I was so tired. I don't think I would have done it, but the thought did cross my mind. Several times. It was shortly after dawn, I think, when I gathered my strength to tread water and take a good look around. That's when I heard it."

"At first, I thought my mind was playing tricks, dreaming up visions of what I wanted so much to see and hear. But the sound of the engines got louder, then I saw the boat. It was a fishing boat, a trawler. I'll never know how they spotted me, but somehow, they did. I mean, man, that must have been like finding the proverbial needle!"

Jim shut his eyes, the feeling of relief and gratitude nearly too much to bear. What had been the odds of a fishing boat being at just the right place, at just the right time?

"They hauled me aboard, but most of them didn't speak much English. It was a crew out of Mexico. They had never gone so far out before, and from what I could understand from the captain, he didn't really know what made him go that direction this time. It was a message from God, he said, telling him where to go fish. They'd had miserable luck, but after they found me, every man on board that ship believed that I was the reason they'd been sent there." Blair laughed at the memories. "They celebrated the whole way back in."

"Why didn't you call from on board the ship?" Jim said softly, his hand still clutching Blair's, his arm with the broken hand still encircling his Guide's shoulders.

"Well, that was the bad news," Sandburg admitted. "Their radio was busted. No ship-to-shore at all. And it was a really tiny boat, man. Took us five days to get to port. I showed them Cascade on a map, and they agreed to bring me home, refuel, then head home themselves." He shook his head, eyes wide with amazement. "Those guys sacrificed Christmas with their families to bring me home, Jim. Can you imagine that? They'd been away for weeks already, and instead of heading straight home, they wanted to bring me here first."

Jim nodded without comment. It was almost too much to take in, the sheer wonder of getting Blair back, the chain of miracles that had transpired to bring him home, and the selflessness of a crew of a fishing boat who had put the welfare of a total stranger above their own families. Slowly, he became aware that Blair was watching him, a soft, warm glow burning in the familiar blue eyes.

"You okay, Jim?" he asked gently.

In answer, Jim drew Blair close again for a tight hug. "I am now," he whispered. "Welcome home, Blair. Merry Christmas."

He felt Blair stiffen. "Christmas! Oh, man!" Sandburg drew back, looking chagrined. "Your big gift's still on layaway! I was gonna pick it up, but... "

"Shhhh... " Jim hated the sound of guilt and disappointment in Sandburg's voice. Did the kid really think any gift could matter now? That anything in the world could possibly mean more to him than the gift he'd already received today? "Doesn't matter... I've already got my gift, Chief. I don't need another thing in the world, okay?"

Blair gazed up at him, then slowly, a smile touched his lips. "Thanks, man. It's so good to be home."

Simon coughed and stood up. "Well, now that Santa has ushered Christmas in at the loft, I think it's time he went home and got some sleep."

Jim shook his head. "Not yet, sir. If you don't mind, I think we could use some help with a little Christmas surprise."

When Simon and Blair exchanged confused looks, Jim laughed. Standing up, he reached down a hand to Blair. "C'mon, Junior. I'll explain on the way."

Blair smiled up at him, and Jim clasped his good hand firmly with his own, hoisting him to his feet. "Lead on, partner," he chuckled. "Jim Ellison playing Santa. This is something I gotta see."

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

By eleven o'clock, six Mexican fisherman had been settled in a suite in one of Cascade's finest high-rise hotels. The luxurious suite plus all room service for that night and the next morning had already been taken care of on Jim's credit card. That had been after a late-night shopping trip.

Between the three of them, Jim, Blair, and Simon had found enough clothing to replace the men's work clothes, along with bags of odds and ends picked up at the all-night superstore that never closed, not even for Christmas Eve. A new watch for each man, shaving supplies, sweatshirts for the cool Cascade air, a selection of toys for the children waiting at home without their daddies, perfume and sweaters for each wife and mother, and an assortment of shirts, jeans, and caps, many of which featured the Jags, were among the assortment of gifts.

The eyes of the six men widened farther with each gift that emerged from the huge plastic sacks. They murmured to themselves in Spanish, and Jim caught enough to know that the gifts were totally unexpected and heartily appreciated. When the presentations were complete, one of the fisherman, a man Blair had introduced as Roberto, stepped forward.

"It is too much," he said in faltering English.

"It's not nearly enough," Jim assured him, one hand pressing possessively against the small of Blair's back. Ever since he'd first seen Sandburg, alive and well, Jim hadn't been able to tolerate the younger man straying more than a couple of feet from his side. Even better to be in physical contact, to reassure himself through his heightened sense of touch. Blair hadn't seemed to mind, sticking close to Jim throughout their shopping expedition, as if he sensed instinctively his Sentinel's need to have him near.

Roberto translated, then another man spoke rapidly in Spanish. At Simon's puzzled look, Roberto explained, "He agrees that you should not have done all this for us. We only did what we felt called to do."

"You sacrificed Christmas with your families," Jim said patiently. "You did more for a stranger than many people would do for their neighbor." His heart tightened at the thought of exactly what he really did owe these men. "You gave me back my best friend... my brother. You gave me my life back," he said simply. "That's a debt I will always owe. If ever you need anything, here's my card. Call me. I promise to do what I can to help."

Roberto took the card and stared down at it. "Gracias," he said at last, meeting Jim's eyes with a look of understanding. "Tomorrow, we return to Mexico. Tonight," he said as he swept the spacious suite with his eyes, "we celebrate Christmas like kings!"

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

Simon had departed for home, but not before giving Sandburg a quick, awkward hug. Blair's grin still hadn't faded.

"Good thing you're back, Sandburg," Simon had whispered, but not so softly Jim couldn't hear. He needs you, you know. More than you - or he - may realize. We were all worried about you, kid. You're a part of our team; you always have been. Welcome home."

And he was gone.

Blair turned to Jim with that wide grin and jerked his head toward the door. "That guy never ceases to amaze me."

Jim grinned back. "Just don't let it get around the station that underneath that gruff exterior there lies a soft heart. He'd never let you have a moment's peace if you spoiled his image."

"Sounds like someone else I know."

It was so good to be back in the familiar bantering routine. As tired as he was, Jim realized he wasn't quite ready to call it a night. Checking his watch, he saw that only a half hour remained until midnight. "Almost Christmas, Chief. Want a cup of hot chocolate before we turn in?"

"Not until I get some lights on this tree," Blair insisted, turning toward the bare evergreen. On his way, he passed the table beside the door and stopped, looking at it with a startled expression. "My menorah."

Jim moved to stand beside him. He'd wondered if Sandburg would notice. "Yeah. Right where you left it."

"But the candles have been burned down. I only burned one before I went undercover, and then I wasn't around at night to... " Looking up at Jim with a puzzled look, he asked, "Did you... ?"

Jim shrugged, spreading his hands slightly in a helpless gesture. "It seemed important somehow. A part of who you are, your heritage, like the tree's part of mine. I didn't know the words to say, so I... " He shrugged, lifting, then lowering his hands in a helpless gesture. "I didn't know what to say, so I just asked that you be kept safe. That you returned home okay."

Blair's expression melted from confusion to pure, undisguised affection. "Thank you, Jim. It worked, I guess."

"A lot worked for us this time, Chief. I know you're the one who doesn't believe in coincidences, but tonight, I don't believe in them, either. Too much fell in place to be just random chance."

Blair nodded seriously in agreement. "Something bigger than we are is out there pulling our strings, man. It wasn't my time. I needed to come back to you. We needed to finish this thing that we've begun, my brother."

Jim hesitated, fiddling absently with one of the menorah candles that was a little crooked. Should he tell Blair about his misgivings at letting him walk out the loft door that last night before he disappeared? If he'd learned one thing about their relationship, it was that keeping secrets was seldom healthy for either of them. "Before you left... when Barrow called you back in... I... I had a strong sense that I shouldn't let you go. I had to fight not to run after you, to drag you back home, back to safety. But... I didn't." Jim's voice broke on the last sentence, barely able to get it out past the huge lump of guilt tightening his throat.

Blair gazed up at him, eyes warm with affection. "Did the wolf or the jaguar appear to you?" he asked calmly.

"No. Not this time. It was just a gut feeling, a strong urge to keep you safe."

Blair laughed softly. "Then you didn't have any real warning, man. Not like... before. With Alex. You had a feeling in your gut to protect me, that's all. So what else is new? Jim, man, if I let you have your way, you'd keep me locked up in the loft until I was too gray and senile to get in any trouble. That's not realistic, you know. I'm your partner and your Guide. Along with that responsibility will always come some degree of risk, just because of who and what you are." Blair clasped Jim's bicep and squeezed hard. "I wouldn't have it any other way, understand?"

"I know. But it's still... hard... to let you do something I know is dangerous, like this last assignment. I had to bite my tongue to keep from fighting Simon on it every step of the way." Jim felt helpless to explain to his friend the drive he felt... the sheer need... to protect him at all costs.

"My Blessed Protector extraordinaire," Blair said fondly. "Jim, I know what it cost you to let me do this, to let me go. It means the world to me that you trusted me enough to step back and give me my wings on this one. Even though the results were less than desirable," he chuckled. "This time. Next time, I promise, I'll soar. But it means even more that it's a struggle for you each time you do it, man. 'Cause that means you care - a lot - and nobody's ever really cared that much about me before."

Looking into those deep blue eyes, Jim fought back his natural tendency to block his feelings, to keep private his deepest emotions. He'd almost lost Blair this time, almost lost forever his right to protect him, to have him in his life... and in his heart. His voice was unsteady, and the words sounded like sandpaper in his ears, but he forced them out anyway. What if he hadn't gotten Blair back? What if they'd never been said before it was too late? "Chief... Blair, I care about you. A lot. I promise you I'll try not to hold you back... to let you fly... but if I sometimes balk... "

Jim stopped, fighting his natural instinct to withdraw, to shut off his emotions. Fighting the urge, reminding himself of the importance of honesty in this relationship, he forced out the rest of what he needed to say. "If I sometimes fight you on it, just remember why, okay? Not because I don't trust you or because I don't want you to succeed on your own, without me, but because... I can't lose you. I just... can't. I... love you," he added in a near whisper, his uncertain gaze dropping to Sandburg's shirt, and his heart clinching with a combination of fear and wonder at the admission.

Blair gazed up earnestly at Jim, his eyes radiating affection and trust and absolute commitment. "You won't lose me, man," Blair said quietly, ducking his head a bit to meet Jim's lowered eyes, "no matter what goes down one day. Incacha found a way to come to you, and if one day I don't make it back home, I'll find a way to come to you, too. I swear it." Resting his hand on Jim's chest, right over his heart, Blair promised with unrestrained emotion in his voice, "I'll always be with you, James Ellison, one way or another - whatever it takes. I'll find a way. I'm not leaving you, man. Ever."

With those words, Jim felt the weight of guilt release its death grip on his heart. If Blair was right, if there was a power bigger than them both watching out for Sentinels and their Guides, for this particular team of Sentinel and Guide, then the responsibility wasn't completely his alone. As much as Jim guarded his control, the thought was a welcome one. Keeping Blair safe was more than a one-man job. He could use the help.

And Sandburg would come back to him. Always. He had promised, and Blair was a man of his word, a man of honor and integrity. Hadn't he proven that time and time again?

Jim fought to control the emotions churning inside, to keep his voice steady. "I'm holding you to that, my brother. I don't even want to consider the alternative."

"You don't have to," Blair said softly, leaning forward to rest his face against Jim's chest briefly. "I promise." Pulling back slightly, he smiled up at Jim. "It's almost midnight. Let's at least get some lights on the tree, okay?"

Jim dropped his hands, releasing his friend. "I'll get the box. You get the hot chocolate. We've got decorating to do, kid."

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

Just as the bells in the church tower down the street chimed in the first moments of Christmas Day, Jim plugged the lights in and their tree sparked to life. Standing back to admire their work, he draped one arm across Sandburg's shoulders, anchoring the younger man to him. "Good work. We even got the ornaments on in time."

"Not exactly the most artistic, balanced arrangement, but under the circumstances, it'll fly," Sandburg agreed. "Hey, wait here! I'll be right back!"

Moving a bit more slowly than normal, Blair disappeared into his room, only to emerge a few moments later, his good hand hidden behind his back. He joined Jim on the couch before the warmth of the fire. "I didn't get it wrapped," he apologized, "but I guess I had a good excuse."

"Definitely," Jim agreed seriously. "Doesn't matter, Chief. Believe me, I've already gotten my gift tonight."

"Then I'll just take this one back," Blair teased gently.

"No way, kid. Hand it over."

Almost shyly, Blair held out a small white box. "You may not believe it, but I've had this for a couple of months already. I don't know what made me buy it for you, but the moment I saw it in an antique shop down on Richmond Street, I just had to get it. Now... " He shrugged. "You'll see."

His curiosity aroused, Jim opened the top and carefully removed the thin sheet of cotton protecting what lay beneath. His eyes widened and his breath caught in a silent gasp. There, nestled on a bed of white cotton, lay a small carved dolphin. Coaxed to life from gray stone, with just enough black linear inclusions to highlight its lifelike body, every detail was intricately captured in miniature. From the expression in the eyes to the elegant curve of its back, the artist had captured the poetry of the dolphin's form perfectly. Even Jim's enhanced vision could find no flaws.

Gently, Jim removed the carving from the box, holding it up to the light of the tree. The sea creature was leaping from the water, breaking joyfully into the light of the sun, its graceful form sleek and filled with spirit and energy. The tail sat on a tiny round stone base so the figure could stand upright.

"Blair... it's... " Stunned, Jim couldn't collect his swirling thoughts. How could this be? Sandburg had just been returned to Cascade earlier in the day. He'd given his statement to Simon, then come straight home. Surely, he hadn't stopped off to do any shopping first - had he? "You've had this how long?"

"Since September, I think." Blair's eyes glowed with wonder from the mystery of it all. "Any lingering doubts that we're both being guided, my Sentinel? I may be your Guide, but my fate rests in a bigger Guide, along with yours."

"No doubts," Jim said immediately without a second's hesitation, staring down at the carving in his hand. How could there be doubts? Even the most hardened skeptic has to admit the obvious when it's laid out before him in absolutely perfect detail. When he's seen the spirit guides. When Incacha had appeared to him time and time again.

The spirit guides... Jim studied the carved figure thoughtfully. "Chief? Do you think it's possible... ?" Jim couldn't voice the rest of the thought, but it wasn't necessary. Sandburg finished it for him.

"That since the wolf couldn't be of much help to me in the ocean, a dolphin came instead?" Blair shrugged. "I don't know, man. I think there are lots of things about the whole mystical side of this partnership we'll never understand." He grinned then, a blinding, heartwarming smile. "Some things, you just have to accept on faith."

Faith. One of the hardest things Jim had ever had to cope with in his life. Trusting in something outside of himself. Yet, hadn't he been shown again and again that he wasn't walking through this life - this Sentinel mystery - alone?

Faith? In himself, yes. In Sandburg, definitely. In whatever force was watching over them, pulling the strings on their joined destinies? That the force existed, he couldn't doubt. Too much evidence, and he was, above all, a man who believed in evidence. But could he trust that force as he trusted himself? As he trusted Blair? Maybe, just maybe, he could develop that faith as well.

Tonight, he was well on the way.

Returning Blair's grin with one of his own, Jim ruffled his partner's hair. "Hey, I've got your gift upstairs. Give me a minute."

"No," Blair interrupted with a yawn. "Let's wait until morning, okay? I think everything's kinda caught up with me here."

Jim smiled gently as he carefully set the little box holding the dolphin on the coffee table. Sandburg did look wiped out, and it was no wonder. "You got it, Chief. Plenty of time for opening presents tomorrow - well, today, actually."

Placing one hand lightly against the nape of Blair's neck, he guided him to the small bedroom. "Go. Get ready for bed, and I'll go clean up the cups from the hot chocolate."

A few minutes later, one weary Guide lay tucked beneath the covers. Jim, already in his boxers and robe, stood above him, looking down at the tiny, secretive smile gracing Blair's lips. "What?"

"Just hard to believe I'm really here, man. I mean, there were lots of times out there I didn't think I'd ever be back here again, you know?"

Jim's chest tightened, and he ran one hand through his short hair. It was still hard to comprehend it all. "We've got a lot to be thankful for this Christmas, Chief."

A few moments passed in silence, then Jim reached over and flipped off the small lamp on the bedside table, and immediately, the room went dark. A subdued glow from the living room and the Christmas tree lent enough light, Jim was sure, for Blair to see in case he needed to get up during the night. It was time for him to leave, to let Blair get the rest he needed so badly, but Jim found it hard to take those few steps toward the door.

Blair looked up at him through heavy lids, a knowing light shining from his eyes. "Hey, man," he said gently. "You don't have to go, you know."

Immediately embarrassed at being read so easily, Jim tried to hedge. "I'm okay, Chief. It's just a little hard for me to believe you're really back, too. I'd... almost given up hope, too."

Apparently, that was all it took. Lifting the covers, Blair commanded, "Get in."

"Sandburg, you need your rest. I'll just... " He glanced up toward his own room, but Blair interrupted.

"Now. You're letting all the warm out."

Still hesitating, Jim pointed out, "Your bed's not exactly built for two, Chief."

Blair laughed softly. "Somehow I don't think we're gonna require a whole lot of space tonight, Jim. C'mon, man, get in." The Guide's voice was warm, gentle, as he talked quietly, as though there was nothing at all unusual in what he was suggesting. "We'll both sleep better if we can reconnect, get back in touch with the fact that we're okay, that everything's back to exactly how it should be. Tomorrow, we'll both feel better. Now, quit wasting the warmth and get in."

Grinning and wondering why on earth he'd hesitated this long, Jim slipped out of his robe and eased his long frame beneath the covers and into the small bed. Blair was right; it was already toasty warm. Turning on his side, his Sentinel instincts overriding any remaining discomfort about the whole idea of sleeping with his Guide that night, Jim slipped one arm beneath Blair's head and shoulders, mindful of both their injured hands, drawing him closer, his other arm wrapped protectively across Blair's chest.

Sighing contentedly, Sandburg nestled close to Jim's chest, using his shoulder as a pillow. "Nice," he murmured, his eyes already shut and his breathing deepening as sleep approached.

And it was. It felt right, somehow, holding Blair so close. Jim studied the familiar features of his friend as he willed his breathing to slow. Was this the way of Sentinels and Guides? Were they supposed to do this, to reconnect, when they'd come so close to being separated forever? Was this what Sentinels and Guides had done for uncounted years past? Were they yielding to some in-born imperative to maintain their connection, the bond that drew them together, and held them together, regardless of what the world seemed determined to throw at them?

No one at the station, even Simon, would ever comprehend the powerful need he felt to be close to Sandburg tonight. The thought of trying to explain to Simon, or to his own father, that he spent Christmas Eve in Blair's bed, holding him close, brought a wry smile. Once, he would have cared what the world thought. That was one of the things Blair had changed about him, one of many. He'd grown to realize that what they were - who they were together - was something that outsiders could never understand, not completely.

If this was what Blair needed, Jim would give it to him without question, without fear or hesitation. But Jim realized that he needed the closeness just as much. His heart filled with gratitude that Blair, too, was willing to give Jim the closeness and comfort he needed in order to put the ordeal of the past few days behind him.

Now, if only he could relax enough to sleep.

As if reading his thoughts, Jim felt Blair's good hand grasp his, guiding his hand to the smaller man's chest. Gently flattening out Jim's palm, Blair pressed his hand firmly above his heart. "Feel that, man?" Blair whispered. "I'm right here. Alive. With you. Exactly where I belong. Now, close your eyes... "

Jim complied willingly.

"... feel my heartbeat... listen to my breathing and synchronize your breathing with mine. That's the way, man. Nice and slow... in and out... let all the fear, all the worry, dissipate with each breath you release. Let go of everything you've felt since I left, Jim, and replace the fear with this... with safety... with love."

As Blair whispered to him, Jim did let go. With each breath, more and more of the tightness in his heart released, as he felt his breathing become one with Blair's. Just before sleep claimed him, he heard Blair whisper, "I love you, too, man. Now rest, my brother. And... Merry Christmas."

It would be hours yet before even the most excited children bounced from warm beds to awaken their parents to the bright dawn of Christmas morning. Outside, one by one, small white flakes began to drift down from the heavens, promising that by morning, the city would be blanketed in a clean coverlet of white. As the city slept, so did its guardians. Close together, holding in their arms everything that truly mattered on this special day - or on every other ordinary day - Sentinel and Guide slept through the dark hours preceding the dawn. By morning, all their fears and uncertainties would be forgotten. Only hope, only the promise of what lay ahead, would remain.

For now, they were together - safe in the warmth of their friendship, secure in their absolute commitment to everything being a Sentinel and his Guide was all about, content in their love for each other.

That was enough.

That was everything.

It was the greatest gift of all.

Finis...

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