With my very best wishes for the merriest of Christmases
and the happiest of New Years!
And, as ever, my thanks to StarWatcher for her beta and to Starfox
for hosting my stories in her Mansion.
2009 Secret Santa Request:
Gen or slash, seasonal story before Alex Barnes appears, happy ending ....
Jim's eyes narrowed as he studied me with critical appraisal, and I could see the effort it was taking him not to laugh. "Yep, it's definitely you, Chief," he decided, and when I made a face that I hoped suggested he would pay dearly for that remark, he joined the others in raucous laughter.
It's moments like these that make me wonder if participating in tribal rituals is such a good idea. As an anthropologist, I understand how important it is to be accepted by the group. But I gotta tell you, getting a floppy green felt hat with stitched-on pointy elf ears and a pair of green felt slippers with curled toes from my 'Secret Santa' isn't as amusing as you might think. Oh, I know, it's all in a spirit of fun but, sheesh, how am I ever going to get any respect from this crowd if they see me as Santa's little helper? Oddly and ironically enough, in some ways, the role fits but ... they don't know that. Ah well, being of average height in a land of giants lends credence to the elf persona, and I've long been cast as the clown in this crowd. Besides, in all honesty, I have to admit that I generally live up to those expectations. Or is it live down?
I settled for a mental shrug and a visible grin, not seriously all that concerned about being seen as something of a mascot to this crowd; actually, I was kind of flattered that someone went to so much effort to get the cute gift. To get things rolling again, I asked, "Okay, who's next?"
Henri lifted the white envelope with his name on it and called out, "Thanks, Jimbo!"
Megan frowned. "You didn't open it, so how do you know it's from Jim? How would you know anyway? It's supposed to be a 'secret' Santa, right?"
Brown laughed. "Yeah, usually, but Jim gives the same thing every year no matter whose name he gets. By process of elimination – and catching him a couple years back buying the gift certificate at the coffee shop across the street – we figured out they came from him."
"But that misses the point, doesn't it?" Megan replied, sounding snippy.
"What point would that be, Conner?" Jim asked, his tone dry.
"The point of entering into the spirit of the thing," she retorted, bristling as she usually did when she and Jim disagreed – which they seemed to do on every possible subject under the sun. "The point of getting something that suits the person, or something amusing, or both. The point of taking a bit of time and making a bit of an effort for one of your colleagues."
"Uh huh," Jim grunted. "Well, I guess that clears up the mystery of who Sandburg's Secret Santa is – it would take considerable time and effort to find something that is this hilarious and also happens to suit him so well."
"Hey!" I protested, and mock-punched him on the arm. Not that anyone took any notice of me.
When she flushed and looked away, he drove home his own position. "Okay, I admit I'm not a big fan of this Secret Santa stuff. Seems to me that we all have more than enough 'stuff' we don't need, and most of us will probably get even more 'stuff' tomorrow. But everyone here does business with the coffee shop across the street, so at least the gift certificate means the recipient will get something they want and it won't clutter up their closet. Plus, the certificate has the added benefit of being appropriate regardless of the gender or culture of the recipient." Once again he looked at me, a smile quirking the corner of his mouth signaling that he wasn't really taking any of the discussion seriously. "Still, I have to say, those ears do something for you, Sandburg."
"If you don't think much of the tradition, why do you bother participating at all?" she challenged, unwilling to yield the field.
Smirking, Jim waved the gift he traditionally received (largely because when he was asked what he'd like, he minced no words). "Because I like getting a fresh new pair of white socks every year."
Snorting, she shook her head and then, evidently giving up on the mock battle, she laughed. "You really are a modern-day Scrooge, aren't you, Jimbo?" The others guffawed and nodded in agreement, some gesturing toward his desk – the only workspace in the bullpen that didn't sport some kind of seasonal decoration – as further evidence that my partner basically spurned Christmas and all its trappings.
"If you say so," he allowed with a good-natured shrug, knowing full well what they thought of him and his evident lack of Christmas spirit, and obviously not caring any more about their opinions this year than he had last year. Looking around at the others who were still grinning at the bickering between the two of them, he asked, "So, are we done here? Because, if so, Captain, I'd like to take some of my comp time and get an early start on my day off tomorrow."
"Yeah, yeah, we're done," Simon replied, but stayed with us when we moved toward Jim's desk and our coats slung on the hooks behind it. "So, what are your plans for tomorrow?"
"Oh, the usual," Jim replied and turned away before Simon could ask if he wanted to get together, maybe come over for dinner. Simon asked every year, and every year Jim declined with thanks; I think Jim was finding it hard to refuse without saying why. "Come on, Legolas," he said, already heading toward the hallway as he pulled on his coat and settled a blue knitted cap on his head. "I'll buy you one of your fancy nutmeg and cinnamon double latte whatevers at the place across the street before we head home."
Grabbing my jacket, calling, "Merry Christmas everyone!" I hurried out of the bullpen on his heels. But, out in the hall, while we waited for the elevator – careful to first check no one was close enough to hear – I hissed, "Why don't you tell them?"
Looking downright surprised by the question, Jim retorted, "Why should I care what they think about my attitude about Christmas? What I do is my own business and nobody else's, and my self-esteem sure isn't grounded on what other people think of me."
"But they're your friends," I protested. "And they think you're, like, Scrooge, or the Grinch who stole Christmas, and that's just not true!"
Jim rolled his eyes and sighed, obviously trying to find some measure of patience with me. "Look," he said, "for them, Christmas is about getting together with their families, about last minute shopping and ... and whatever. For some of them, like Joel and Simon, yeah, the whole spiritual part about the birth of Jesus is important and I know they go to their churches to give thanks. But none of that is what Christmas is about to me and I'm not sure ... well, like I say, it's my own business, okay?"
"Yeah, sure," I agreed, though I thought it was more than that. Jim didn't want anyone to know what he did because they might confuse him with some kind of saint, and that would embarrass the hell out of him. He did what he did because he was a damned good man, one of uncommon generosity, and I felt very honored that he was comfortable enough with me to let me inside his secret, allowing me have the joy of sharing his unique and wonderful approach to celebrating the holiday.
In the lobby, we skirted the crowd at the popular annual kiosk under a banner proclaiming 'Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men' that offered hot chocolate, hot apple cider and a variety of cookies and other treats from first thing in the morning on Christmas Eve day until midnight Christmas night. Run by a local catering firm, it was paid for anonymously by someone who 'was grateful to all the men and women of the PD for their courage and commitment in doing their best to serve and protect the people of Cascade'. Outside, we pulled up our collars and ducked our heads against the stinging sleet. The sidewalks were crowded with last-minute shoppers and traffic was heavy, bumper to bumper, horns blaring impatiently. Moving quickly, dodging the other pedestrians, hurrying to get out of the icy weather, happy, laughing, we slipped and slid on the icy cement, alternately throwing out a hand to support the other or to be supported. To save a few steps, rather than go to the corner to cross at the light we decided to cut across the street, and were carefully weaving our way through the stop and go traffic.
One driver, evidently in a futile rush to get who cared where, abruptly swung out from behind a bus across the street that had stopped to take on and discharge passengers. There was a screech of brakes as the impatient dark blue SUV cut off another vehicle, prompting a cacophony of blaring horns. Jim winced at the piercing noise. Shooting an annoyed glance toward the vehicle that was now accelerating rapidly to get around the bus, he thrust out an arm to stop my forward momentum and to keep me from blundering into the path of the oncoming SUV. Then, with a muttered, "Shit!" he was moving at full speed – typical Jim, already in action, serving and protecting, with no thought to his own safety – while I was still gaping at what was happening.
Belatedly, I noticed that a little girl, laughing, calling out, "Hurry up, Mommy!" had let go of her mother's hand and was running gaily in front of the bus, out into the lane of moving traffic, right into the path of the now speeding SUV. Jim darted across the lane, barely a step in front of the hurtling vehicle and caught her up into his arms before diving out of harm's way toward the far sidewalk. I saw him twist his body to cushion her as they fell. God, he was fast – but he wasn't quite fast enough.
The driver of the SUV had no time to hit the brakes. The front right bumper caught Jim somewhere around the hip or thigh, slamming him toward the curb. His forward momentum, the twist he'd already made, his grip around the child, took them both out of the SUV's path and held her safe, but he hit hard, his head cracking against the curb. The little girl screamed and cried for her mother as she fought loose from his now lax arms. But Jim just lay there in the wet, cold slush, not moving.
"Oh my God! JIM!" I yelled, horrified. I don't really remember how I got there, but I was suddenly beside him, shouting at people to call an ambulance. He was laying half on his back, his head tilted toward his chest, neck bent, his eyes closed; I could see blood was already beginning to stain his woolen cap and the icy slush under his head. And blood was also seeping from beneath the rent in his jeans on his lower left thigh.
Bleeding was good – it meant he was still alive – but I was terrified to imagine how badly he might be injured. I was scared to touch him; didn't dare move him. What if his neck ...
"Damn it!" I cursed and looked around wildly. "I need some help here!" Bending over him, I pulled off my coat to lay over him, in a vain attempt to keep him warm and to keep the sleet from making him any wetter than he already was. There was a chance he was in some kind of zone, maybe from pain, but given what had happened, not to mention the blood, it was more likely that he'd suffered a head injury. "Jim, Jim! Can you hear me? Huh? Come on, please, man. Jim?"
A uniformed cop appeared at my side, and I hastily told him to get help, to tell Simon. I guess I was babbling. I was aware of the world around us, but it seemed distant, not quite real. Clinging to her mother, the little girl was still crying, and so was her mother. The driver of the SUV had finally stopped and was standing by his vehicle, saying over and over, "I didn't see him – I didn't ... I'm sorry. So sorry." The bus was stuck, unable to move, with Jim and me practically under its front bumper. Traffic had come to a standstill and pedestrians, caught up in the drama of someone else's horror, were standing around, gaping. Ignoring them all, I gripped Jim's arm and gently cupped his too-pale cheek, still calling his name, begging him now to open his eyes, to wake up, to be all right.
Simon arrived and layered a blanket over Jim and another around my shoulders. I was vaguely aware of uniformed cops and the other members of Major Crime covering the scene, interviewing the driver, the mother, the bus driver, and anyone else who had a version to offer of what they thought had happened. All around me, I kept hearing, "It happened so fast – it was an accident. Just an accident. I'm sorry. Sorry."
Just an accident. Dear God. I wanted to shake Jim back to consciousness, but I could only kneel there in the sleet and slush, shivering, gripping his shoulder like some kind of lifeline and urging him in low, fierce tones to wake up. To please, please wake up.
But he didn't wake up, and was still unconscious when we arrived at the hospital. They let me stay with him for the first few minutes as we stripped off his clothing, to answer questions about his general health and about what happened, but then they said they'd be taking him for x-rays and other tests, and insisted I wait in the reception area.
Simon was out there, pacing, worried, but I couldn't tell him anything more than he already knew about what had happened and Jim's condition. He sighed heavily, then said he was going outside for a few minutes' communion with a cigar. Patting my shoulder in mute commiseration, he said he'd find us some coffee on his way back or maybe some hot chocolate or cider from the temporary kiosk just inside the Emergency entrance – the one under a 'Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men' banner.
Feeling dazed, I just nodded and looked around for a place to sit and wait. But the rows of battered chairs were filled with people of all ages suffering a variety of ailments and their anxious family or friends, so I slumped against the wall and stared morosely, sightlessly, out a grimy window at the rain.
I kept telling myself that Jim had a hard head, and that it was probably the shock of being hit and then landing hard that had knocked him out. The bleeding didn't have to mean the injury had been serious – head injuries always bled a lot. Could just be a superficial abrasion. But if he hadn't been in a zone to begin with, if – when – he began to awake he might zone on anything: the pain, the odd, medicinal smells. As soon as possible, I needed to get back in there to do whatever I could to help.
Needing distraction, I took a deep, steadying breath and, trying to focus on the world outside, peered out the window at the parking lot, which was obscured by the slashing sleety rain that gusted on the wind and splattered erratically against the glass. Though it was not yet midday, the leaden clouds created an early twilight. Frowning, I could only hope the weather forecast was correct, that the temperature would rise throughout the afternoon and the sleet would turn to rain before evening. Otherwise it would be a miserable night and the ice-slick roads would turn what was supposed to be the happiest time of year into horror, grief and tragedy – made even more poignant for occurring at Christmas – for far too many people.
As for me and Jim and everyone who cared about him? Well, I was fervently hoping that any personal grief or tragedy would be avoided, but I was afraid it wasn't looking good. Twitchy with anxiety, my mind dull and heavy with fear, I tried to shake off the negative vibes and think more positive thoughts, just in case Naomi was right and we really do get more of what we think and feel from a responsive and eager to please Universe.
"Christmas," I murmured, still trying to distract myself and scarcely aware I'd spoken aloud. Nominally Jewish, an anthropologist by inclination and a child of the Universe, I respect and often celebrate the rituals, traditions and spiritual holidays of a multitude of other cultures, from Winter Solstice to ... well, you name it and I'm usually ready to celebrate it.
Every year, Jim shakes his head and accuses me of being a pagan by nature – like that would be a bad thing? And he pretends to the world that he's the reincarnation of Scrooge, but I know differently: I know this holiday represents something very special to him, something which resonates deep within his soul. Not that I realized that in the early days. I'd found Jim just a few weeks before Christmas, and was still so thrilled at meeting and working with an honest-to-God sentinel that I wasn't really paying attention to much else about him. In those days, I hadn't yet visited his apartment, though I was curious about it, wondering how a sentinel lived when he was at home. But, since Rainier was practically empty at the end of term, we were spending most of our time either in the labs, running test after test so I could calibrate his senses, or on the job. Actually, to be precise, Jim was on the job, pulling his usual double shifts. I was tagging along, trying to help but mainly scrambling to learn as much as I could about ... well, about just about everything related to his work and the law enforcement subculture (which was, with its paramilitary, rigid authoritarian hierarchy, attention to regulations and use of weapons, as foreign as anything I'd yet encountered in all my travels, but I digress); not to mention doing my absolute best to pretend I had some clue about what I was doing when it came to his incredible senses.
Oh, and in my defense for not having observed a whole lot about the man in those early days – despite being a highly trained and professional observer – I was also trying to avoid being killed by a mad bomber, a bunch of domestic terrorists, twin assassins ... well, you get the picture. Needless to say, not being particularly supportive of the rampant commercialism of our 'civilized' Yuletide myself, I vaguely noticed and approved that Jim didn't get caught up in the hectic 'Christmas spirit' of the traditional holiday shopper, and that he only grudgingly seemed to participate in the Major Crime 'Secret Santa' gift exchange. Whoever pulled his name gave him a pair of white socks which, from the chortles and teasing that suggested he was a modern-day Scrooge, I gathered was what he was always given. I know Simon asked Jim to dinner with him and Daryl, but Jim said he had other plans; at that time, I figured he'd be spending Christmas with his family. I didn't know in those days that he was pretty much totally estranged from all of his family, with the exception of his cousin, Rucker. But all that aside, basically, I got the impression that Christmas didn't mean much to Jim and that, if he celebrated the holiday at all, his attention to it was cursory at best.
When the next Christmas rolled around I was living in the loft, and I learned just how wrong I'd been about Jim and his attitude toward Christmas. I remember with vivid clarity the day I clomped into the apartment, shivering and grumbling about the wet, cold rain, dumping my soaked backpack on the floor and tossing my keys into the basket – and stopping dead in stunned shock when I looked up and saw Jim decorating a Christmas tree. And not some fake, plastic thing, either – this was a real, seven-foot-tall Scotch pine rooted in a large tub of soil. He'd never mentioned the approach of Christmas – the holiday really hadn't seemed to be on his radar – and yet there he was, quietly, diligently, stringing lights around a fragrant tree of pleasing proportion amidst boxes of ornaments and garland.
As I wandered along the corridors of my mind and back into the memories of that day, the drab waiting room around me and the sounds of the rain lashing the window faded away.
"Oh, wow, hey, nice tree," I stammered when my discombobulated brain started working again.
Jim glanced at me and nodded with a distracted expression, his attention clearly on carefully stringing the lights over and around the prickly boughs. "Hope you don't mind," he muttered, with another glance and a frown of concern. "I know you're Jewish but, well, I put up a tree every year."
Grinning at him, I shrugged off my coat and raked my sodden hair back off my forehead. "I don't mind at all," I assured him. "And even if I did, it's your place to decorate however you want." I hung my coat on a hook and went into the kitchen to get myself a beer – I could see Jim already had one of his own. Ambling into the living room, I asked, "Can I help?"
He gave me one of his rare shy smiles that told me offering to help was exactly the right thing to have done, and said, "Sure."
While we hung ornaments, I regaled him with information about how many of the Christmas rituals and trappings, like the evergreen tree itself, the holly and ivy, the Yule log, not to mention the date, were all actually drawn from far more ancient pagan traditions. Jim listened and nodded, much like he usually did when I was rambling on, so I didn't know if he was really listening or just humoring me, but at least he wasn't growling at me to 'give it a rest'. Anyway, at some point, I made some comment, really half a question because I still didn't know all that much about his past or about him in a personal sense, about how Christmas must've been important when he was a kid, a special time of year, and that he must have a lot of great memories and – definitely jockeying for information here – plans to get together with his family.
A cloud passed over his face and darkened his eyes, and I was afraid I'd unwittingly stumbled on rocky ground. But his expression cleared and softened with a crooked smile of remembrance. "Yeah," he murmured, "I remember some great Christmases when I was a little kid." But then the grin turned rueful. "I didn't really understand it then. I was pretty mercenary, more concerned about whether Santa would bring everything on my list and a few extras besides than about ... well, about what's important."
"Uh huh," I grunted. "Well, not surprising. Same as most kids for the past several generations in our society." He hadn't said anything about his plans for Christmas day so, throwing caution to the wind, I pushed a little harder, thinking that I might finally find out more than he'd so far shared about his parents and whether he had any brothers or sisters. "So, will you be spending the holiday with your family?"
He went still for a moment, and then shrugged. "I don't have any family," he replied, his tone even, empty of emotion. "Except for Rucker," he added, I guess belatedly remembering that I'd met his cousin a few months before. "He and Andy are getting the holiday off this year and are going to Hawaii for their postponed honeymoon."
"Oh," I said, not sure why I felt so bad for him. After all, a lot of people, myself included, often spent the holidays alone, or at least not with close family. But that was different from not having any close family; and there was something in the set of his shoulders and the rigid line of his spine that told me the bland tone was hiding what he didn't want me to know or guess, something that hurt. I had to bite my lip to stop myself from probing further; I knew from experience that direct questions about his family, about his past, wouldn't be welcomed or answered. Jim was an intensely private person, and while he'd be reasonably forthcoming about what was going on with his senses and completely open about his job, he had very little to say about whatever he held close to his heart. Pushing too hard would only make him clam up even more; he'd share details if and when he was ready and not before.
Sometimes I had the impression that everything that had ever happened to him before I'd met him was buried under the label, 'Classified', and he'd have to kill me if he ever let something slip.
Still ... I was, you know, curious, which is really only second-nature for an academic. Clearly, Christmas meant something a whole lot more to him than I'd ever suspected, but whatever it meant didn't seem to be related to the traditional things like family and the re-enactment of childhood rituals. "Um," I hesitated, then plunged ahead. "You said you don't celebrate Christmas because of, well, what it meant when you were a kid – and you sure didn't seem to make a big deal of it last year – so why do you celebrate it? I mean, you've never seemed particularly religious ..." I was being cautious, wondering if I was tramping over thin ice. Maybe Jim was a more spiritual being than I'd imagined, but he'd always seemed, well, concrete and uncomfortable – or just downright impatient – with anything that wasn't well-grounded in what he considered 'reality'.
Not that he didn't respect the beliefs and traditions of others; he just didn't seem to share any of them.
I heard him draw in a deep breath and let it out slowly, and I wondered if he was debating answering my question, or if he'd just ignore it. But after a moment's silence, he said, "I'm not religious. Not sure I believe in much of anything I can't see or touch but ...." He paused and stood back to look at the tree, and then he turned to face me. "I didn't much care for Christmas for a lot of years. Thought it was a crock, all that stuff about family and love when it just seemed to be about who got the best, the most expensive present – or who gave the most, as if it was some kind of damned contest. But then I joined the Army."
His gaze dropped away and he wandered over to the balcony to stare up at the sky. "I don't know if there's a God," he said. "But if the Bible is more than just a collection of old myths and stories, then maybe what Luke wrote about was true. You know, the 'I bring you tidings of great joy of peace on earth and good will to men' message from the angel to the shepherds." His voice dropped away; bowing his head, he gave a small shrug before turning back to me. "Nobody hopes and prays more for that peace and good will to become real than a soldier in the midst of danger and war ... except maybe a cop who has had to kill. I've done my best to ... to respect and honor those words at least once a year every year since I joined up." Jim rubbed his mouth and shook his head. "Whether or not someone was born to die for my sins isn't as important to me as that message. I guess, for me, that's what Christmas is about: trying to live up to that message; trying in my own small way, as much as I can, to bring the reality of it into being." He sighed heavily, and he seemed almost embarrassed. "Stupid, I guess."
"Ah, no, man, not stupid at all!" I exclaimed. "If everyone felt the same way and acted accordingly, it would be more than a dream of 'someday'. And that message has a lot of power – over the centuries, it has stopped battles, put wars on hold, at least for a day and sometimes as long as a week."
"I know," he murmured and turned back to the tree. Rolling my eyes, I gave myself a mental slap. Of course he knew that – he'd been a soldier and was no slouch when it came to military history.
"So," I ventured, "do you already have plans for Christmas Day? I mean, I know you have the day off this year."
He chuckled softly. "I don't expect you to drop everything to keep me company," he demurred.
"No, really," I insisted. It wasn't like I had any other plans; even if I did, I'd rather spend the day with him.
"Well, I do have plans," he admitted, and I felt a wave of disappointment. Over the past year, I'd come to really enjoy his company and I could definitely get behind his reasons for celebrating the holiday in his own way. But then he added with a shy, shuttered look over his shoulder, "But you'd be welcome to join me, if you want. I spend the day at the Harbor Lights shelter, down by the docks, helping to prepare, serve, and then clean up the Christmas dinner they give to the homeless and destitute."
For a moment, I couldn't speak. This was the guy everyone in Major Crime thought was such a Scrooge; the guy that no one, even me, suspected cared a damn about Christmas or what it meant? Humbled, a lump in my throat, I could only nod at first. "Yeah," I finally managed. "I'd really like to do that with you."
He smiled then, wide and bright, and his eyes lit up. "Great!" he enthused, as if I'd just given him a gift of tremendous value, and went back to trimming the tree.
The memories faded. Ruefully, I thought how little I'd known then about my partner. I'd thought that putting up the tree and spending time at the shelter was all he did to celebrate Christmas, to embody that message of 'peace on earth, good will toward men'. But after that day decorating the tree, he included me completely in his private, personal rituals, and I soon learned that he did so much more – like footing the bill for that annual Christmas feast at the shelter – without fanfare, without any fuss, usually anonymously or at least with no expectation of anything in return. He seemed to get a kick out of including me, as if sharing made it all more fun for him – and I think, hope, that it did. God knows, I've had a blast being part of it all.
And now, here we were again, Christmas Eve, the third since I'd found him. I know now that Jim does, indeed, have family: a father and a brother. And I understand a whole lot more of what his past had been like, about the painful memories of so many – too many – hurts and devastating losses that he had locked away and hated to talk about. The more I'd learned about him, the more I'd come to value, even cherish, the man as opposed to 'the sentinel', and the more I was awed by how he managed, despite everything, to remain a compassionate and overwhelmingly generous, if shy and secretive, soul. I don't think I ever saw him happier than when he was making his clandestine arrangements, especially when he allowed himself to carry out some of the annual deliveries personally.
Staring out at the dismal day, I shook my head at my reflection in the glass and wished with all my heart that I could turn back time. Not far, just a little more than an hour, so we could have stopped that little girl before she ran into the street, before the SUV was speeding toward her.
Turning to see who'd called me, hoping it was the nurse from Emergency, I was disappointed to recognize the middle-aged head nurse from the children's ward upstairs. "Diana," I acknowledged with a sober nod.
"My sister works in Emerge," she explained, "and she called me when they brought Jim in. I'm so sorry! I hope he's okay. What happened?"
When I told her what had happened, she sighed and shook her head. "Why is it always the good ones? Jim does so much for others; trust him to put himself in harm's way to help a child. But he sure doesn't deserve this on Christmas Eve. I'll have to let Madeleine and Theresa know," she said, referring to the head nurses of pediatrics at the other two hospitals in town: Rainier University Health Sciences Centre and Sisters of Mercy. "They'll be so sorry to hear he's been hurt."
"I don't know how he's doing," I complained with a glance at the closed doors into the treatment area. "Any chance you could ask your sister? Maybe get me back in there?"
Diana patted my arm and nodded. "I'll see what I can do," she agreed. "Just give me a few minutes."
"Who was that?" Simon asked from behind me, and held out steaming disposable cups of apple cider and hot chocolate.
"Diana Harvey," I replied, absently choosing the cider. "She's the head nurse up on Pediatrics. When she heard Jim had been brought in, she came down to see if he's okay."
"Pediatrics?" Simon echoed with a small frown of confusion. "How would you and Jim get to be on first-name basis with her? She, uh, she doesn't look like his type and she's far too old for you."
"Huh? What?" I muttered, distracted, worried about Jim, wishing Diana would come back with news – or at least word that I could return to Jim's side. "His type? Too old?" Shaking my head, I replied, "No, no ... Diana's very happily married with three teenaged kids."
"Uh huh," Simon grunted. "So how did you guys get to know her – and did she mean Madeleine Jamieson who works on Pediatrics at the university's hospital? I got to know her when Daryl was admitted over Christmas, oh, must be eight years ago now."
Belatedly, I started paying attention to the conversation. "Um, yeah, that's who she meant," I replied, looking away as I tried to come up with a reason for us to know three pediatrics nurses when Jim and I not only didn't have any kids but, aside from Daryl, didn't even know any. But my imagination seemed to have gone on strike and I had nothing – nothing but the truth, and I didn't think Jim would thank me for sharing it. Wasn't my secret to share. "Diana's sister works in Emergency, and she's going to see if she can find out how Jim is doing," I went on, hoping to deflect Simon's curiosity as I wandered back toward the window to stare out at the rain and the parking lot. There was a small crowd gathering and I frowned as I studied them. There was something familiar –
"Joan and I were so afraid." Simon had followed me, and his voice cut into my thoughts. Looking up at him, I saw a faraway look in his eyes and realized he was staring back into the mists of time.
"Sounds like Daryl was really sick," I prompted, grateful that he'd been distracted by his memories and wasn't pursuing our acquaintance with nurses in three different hospitals that, in the normal course of events, neither Jim nor I would have ever met.
His expression grave, Simon nodded. "Meningitis. A little girl in his class died." Simon heaved a sigh and shook his head. "We didn't know for a while if he'd live or ... or if he'd suffer permanent damage. Only time I've been that scared was when Kincaid ... well, you know." For a moment he seemed lost in thought and then a small smile played over his lips. "I remember Daryl woke up late Christmas afternoon and the first thing he noticed was a bunch of his favorite comics on the bedside table. Joan and I didn't know where they'd come from and we soon found out all the kids had gotten something that day. I asked Madeleine – the nurse – who was playing Santa Claus. I wanted to thank him or her. She said the person was a former soldier who wanted to remain anonymous."
"I'm glad everything worked out okay," I said softly but with absolute sincerity, unable to imagine what life would be like for Simon without Daryl.
Simon grimaced. "Well, it did and it didn't. That was the start of the trouble between Joan and me. She wanted me to stay with her at the hospital twenty-four/seven. But, but I felt so damned helpless just sitting there, not able to do anything to help my son. And, well, I'd just been promoted. Youngest captain in the history of the department, first African-American; it was the days of Affirmative Action, and I felt I had a lot to prove, to show I deserved the position." He shook his head and bit his lip. "Looking back, I can see my place was at the hospital, supporting my wife but...."
"I'm sorry," I offered, automatically reaching out to lightly touch Simon's arm. "Sounds kinda like a no-win situation to me."
Simon shrugged and looked around the waiting room. "Come to think of it, that was the first time I met Jim. Oh, I'd heard about him, the hot-shot rookie fresh from Special Forces. SWAT wanted him – hell, everyone wanted him, even though he was known to have a fair-sized chip on his shoulder. Anyway, I was coming back into the hospital Christmas Eve and he was there, near one of the Christmas kiosks – you know, with the banner over it: Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men?"
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Like the one at the PD, and the one out in the lobby here," I agreed, but I looked away, afraid that Simon might read more in my eyes than I wanted to reveal; it was so hard not to just blurt it all out. I mean, I understood Jim's reasons for wanting to remain anonymous, but I also knew that Simon cared a great deal for and about Jim. It didn't seem right, somehow, to not tell him that the ex-soldier he'd wanted to thank was one of his best friends.
"Anyway, Jim saw me and waved me down. He introduced himself and said he'd heard my boy was sick, and he hoped Daryl would be okay." Simon slowly shook his head in recollection. "Never did ask him what he was doing at the hospital. Didn't notice that chip everyone said was so heavy on his shoulder, either, not that evening." Shrugging, he studied the cup of hot chocolate in his hand. "Peace on Earth," he reflected and lifted his gaze to meet my eyes. "There was one of those banners up in Pediatrics, too. Madeleine said it was the only thing the ex-soldier wanted in return for what he gave: that that banner be displayed even though some might have thought it wasn't 'politically correct'." His tone was edged with sarcasm on the last two words, and I knew he wasn't happy about having to eschew 'Merry Christmas' for 'Happy Holidays' in his official role, and I couldn't blame him. The holiday was, after all, created because it was Christmas, the celebration of the birth of the man Christians believed was the Son of God. His lips thinned and he frowned, but then he seemed to let the irritation go as he returned to what he'd been talking about. "Whoever that guy is, he's a damned fine man."
My throat tightening, I nodded and looked away. "Yeah," I agreed, feeling sick with worry. "The best."
"And a generous one," Simon added. "Has to be someone fairly well off."
"Or someone frugal who budgets well," I countered, and could have bitten my tongue. The one thing Simon didn't need was any more clues. If he only knew it, he had far too many as it was. Taking a shuddering breath, only too aware that Simon had no idea that the story he'd just told had a particular poignancy, I looked up at the clock high on the wall. With every minute that passed, I was more afraid that it was a really serious injury, not just shock combined with a fairly nasty concussion, which would be more than bad enough. I wanted to be with Jim – what if he had slipped into a zone? What if –
I was astonished to turn around and see Brody Williams, a burly, balding, middle-aged man in faded jeans and a leather jacket coming toward me. That's when I realized what had seemed so familiar about the people I'd noticed gathering in the parking lot. My mind definitely wasn't firing on all cylinders, or the overflowing shopping carts some of them had been pushing would have given me a pretty good clue. "Brody, what are you doing here?"
"One of the guys from the shelter saw the accident and told us all that Jim had been hurt. How is he?"
"God, I wish I knew," I replied, and raked my hair back with mingled frustration and despair. "I don't know if he's regained consciousness yet. He banged his head pretty hard. And I know the SUV clipped him, but I don't know how much damage it did." Conscious of Simon standing by my shoulder, I introduced him, and then explained that Brody was the Director of the Harbor Lights Homeless Shelter and Soup Kitchen.
Then, looking past Brody, I was utterly, speechlessly, astounded to see a man I'd never expected to ever see again. Diffidently waiting a few steps away, shoulders hunched under his shabby coat, Gabe, the self-professed angel, bobbed his head and gave me a tentative smile.
"Oh, my God, Gabe! You're alright!" I exclaimed, moving to grip his arms in welcome and, okay, in part to be sure he was real and not some figment of my imagination. After all, I'd seen him shot and so badly injured that I thought he might die in my arms only about a week before, and then he'd mysteriously disappeared from the Emergency treatment room.
"Gabe?" Simon rumbled. Glancing at him, I could see from his expression that he was wondering why the name – and the man – seemed so familiar. I wasn't sure whether I should remind him or not. Officially, Gabe was impersonating – including sporting the fingerprints, which is just downright weird – a man who'd died nearly a year before. Call me crazy, but I more than half-believed he was an angel. The fingerprints, his fluency with ancient Aramaic, his claim that the hardest thing about miracles was making them seem like an accident, and his propensity for appearing and disappearing out of and into thin air are some of the reasons for my willingness to believe his claim. And, hey, that bullet in the back should probably have killed him, but here he was, looking perfectly fine.
"Gabe was the one who saw the accident," Brody explained to us, and then focused on me. "He said he knew you and Jim, and he wanted me to give you a message from him, but I told him just to come along with me."
"Message?" I echoed, looking from him to Gabe, who had begun to chant what I was certain was ancient Aramaic in his sing-song whisper. Lifting his gaze to mine, Gabe switched to English. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God."
What? The seventh beatitude? Was he saying what I thought he was saying? Law enforcers have long been known as keepers of the peace and, where necessary, they 'made' the peace by removing those who would defile and shatter it. I hadn't thought of the police that way before but, yeah, okay, it kinda fit. But then, I also thought sentinels could be descendants of the ancient Watchers, sent to earth to care for humans. Watchers who were angels; angels who were also children of God before human beings were created – or so we're told in myth, legend and a number of ancient texts, including the Bible.
But he wasn't waiting for me to divine his meaning and was talking again. "Be not afraid and fear no evil," he said breathily, "for my rod and my staff shall shelter you from your enemies."
I felt a shiver ripple up my spine and my mouth went dry; a paraphrasing of the Twenty-first Psalm, about walking through the valley of the shadow of death? "What are you saying?" I rasped, terrified that he meant Jim was dying. Or, God help me, already dead. Or did he mean that Jim was going to be alright, that ... well, that some higher power in the universe was watching out for him, protecting and shielding him. Actually, given the risks Jim took, the close calls, the near misses, I could believe Someone's rod and staff were sheltering him from his enemies.
"There are many mansions in our Father's house, and he should not fear, for there is room already prepared for him." He smiled and added, "And for you, too."
O-kay, that didn't sound good. Well, in the long term, 'eternal' sense, it was good, even great, but not in the 'I can't bear to think about a world without him in it' sense. Seriously rattled, I stepped back and shook my head, not wanting to hear it. Jim ... Jim had always doubted that 'Heaven' was real and had, more than once, indicated he didn't expect to end up anywhere good – or anywhere at all, for that matter. 'Had doubted'? No, no, not past tense; couldn't be past tense. Jim doubted anything he couldn't see or touch or smell or taste or hear, and even when he could, he was wary. Oh, man, Gabe wasn't telling me Jim was going to die, was he?
"Blair, what's wrong?" Simon asked from behind me as he gripped my shoulder. I appreciated his strength; helped me get the shakes under control or at least make an effort in that direction.
"I don't ...." I couldn't continue, I was too choked by dread and fear.
But Gabe kept smiling his gentle smile. "There is room, but he has no need of it yet. There is much work to be done; not only angels make miracles seem like accidents."
Oh, God. Thank God. He was saying Jim would be fine. The breath left my lungs in a whoosh and I felt dizzy and weak-kneed with relief.
"It's okay, I think," I gasped, patting the air to wave Simon back. "Right?" I challenged Gabe. "He's alright; he's going to be fine?"
Gabe sidled closer and, with a quick glance up at Simon, he bent even closer still and lowered his voice to such a faint whisper I could barely hear him. "There is much darkness to come, but be not afraid. In the midst of death there is life," Gabe murmured, once more scaring the shit out of me. Okay, maybe he's just a crazy, homeless guy but ... but what if he is an angel? What if he knows –
"Sometimes great sacrifice requires a great lie," he whispered in a confidential tone, nodding to himself. "He'll listen and finally hear; he'll know that great sacrifice also requires great love."
Ah, geez. What did that mean? Sure, Jim wasn't all that forthcoming about his personal Christmas traditions, but he didn't outright lie about them. And, yeah, he expended a considerable amount of his hard-earned cash to do what he did, but he was a frugal man who didn't spend much money on much else. I wouldn't say he was making a 'great' sacrifice. "Gabe, please, man, I don't understand," I begged. I wanted so desperately to believe that he was saying Jim was going to be okay, but all the talk of death and darkness and great sacrifice was scaring the hell out of me.
Before Gabe could say anything more, I again heard my name called. It was Diana, and she was waving me through into the treatment areas beyond the double doors. I turned toward her, terrified and desperately hopeful all at the same time. But Gabe gripped my arm with surprising strength, holding me close as he rasped in my ear, "Whatever comes, remember this: a watchman needs a companion, no matter the pride, the denials. In his heart, he trusts you to be there for him."
Well, finally, a message I could understand, and one I needed – and even desperately wanted – to hear after the fight we'd had over the first chapter of my diss. We'd gotten past it, sort of, but I knew things were rocky and had been for some time. Truth is, I was only working on the paper – finally, after years of dragging my ass – because I was wondering if my time as Jim's unofficial partner was running out. I didn't want it to ever end but ... but I wasn't sure Jim felt the same way. In fact, I was pretty sure he was getting sick of me dogging his heels. But Gabe's clear, innocent gaze held my eyes, searing his words right into my soul.
My chest tightened and I could barely croak out, "I'll remember. Uh, thanks."
"We see through a glass darkly, but then face to face," Gabe chanted in his odd whisper. "But these three things abide: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love." He studied my face and then nodded to himself; seemingly satisfied, he released his iron grip on my arm and stepped back.
Diana's commanding voice brought me back to the immediate reality. Wheeling around, I hastened toward her. "Jim, is he...?"
"He's going to be fine," she assured me with a wide smile. I felt tears sting my eyes and I couldn't help pulling her into a tight hug of gratitude. Patting my back and then stepping away, she went on, "He woke up in X-ray and has a monster headache, and he's a little groggy, which is only to be expected. He's asking for you."
"What about, what about where he was hit by the SUV?" I asked, barely able to speak, so great was my relief.
"Jim was very lucky. He'll be stiff and sore for a few days, and the bruises will probably be spectacular, but nothing's broken. Come on, I'll take you to him."
"Thank you!" I exclaimed and hugged her again, as if she, personally, had wrought a miracle. "That's the best news ever!" Turning to Simon, I gestured at the sacrosanct realm beyond. "I'll just see how he's doing."
"Go on, Blair. We'll wait out here," Simon allowed with a warm smile. "I need to call the office to let everyone know he's okay."
I was grateful he didn't exercise his prerogative as Jim's boss to usurp my place by his side or, as a minimum, insist upon going with me. Not sure I can explain it, but I'd been so scared, and Jim was so incredibly important to me ... well, I needed a chance to just reconnect, to reassure myself he was fine without contending with anything or anyone else. I glanced toward Brody and Gabe – but Gabe was nowhere to be seen. Nobody else seemed to notice his sudden absence and I didn't have time to worry about his propensity for appearing and vanishing without fanfare – hell, without warning. He was just there, and then he wasn't. Who knows? Maybe all angels do the same thing and nobody ever notices any of them.
Yeah, yeah, I know. Jim says if my mind were any more open, my brain would fall out. But I'm inclined to believe that there is a whole lot of stuff about this world, the next, and alternate dimensions, that exists beyond our current comprehension and imagination. Hey, I'm an anthropologist. When disparate cultures from widespread parts of the world, which would have had no contact with one another, end up with very similar mythology, well, then it makes me wonder if it's more than myth and storytelling – or if, just maybe, there might be truth within the legend. Troy was a myth until it wasn't. Sentinels were a myth, just as were guardians and watchmen, who all have their roots in the stories of fallen angels.
As we walked down the long corridor, with curtained or empty treatment cubicles on our right, Diane's amused voice drew me out of my distracted musings about angels. "He's grumpy when he's in pain, isn't he?"
"Aren't most people?" I countered, immediately defensive on Jim's behalf, and then realized she was just trying to ease my anxiety. "Sorry," I apologized, chagrined. "I've just been really worried. He was unconscious for so long ...." Frowning, I wondered how much pain Jim was suffering.
"I know, and it probably felt like forever, but he wasn't out for more than twenty minutes or so. Not great, scary as hell, but not all that uncommon when someone is knocked senseless," she returned with a smile of understanding as she lightly touched my arm. "He really is fine, or will be, once his headache subsides. There was a time when we would have kept him overnight for observation, but no longer. In any case, Jim was clear to the duty doctor about wanting to go home. You'll just have to monitor him every few hours."
"No problem. I learned that drill a long time ago. Half the time, Jim acts like he's as indestructible as Superman. Like today, throwing himself in front of that SUV –" My voice caught and I had to draw a deep breath to calm myself down and banish those memories from my mind.
"He's a good man," she soothed. "He puts others first."
"Yeah, yeah, he does, and he is a damned good man," I sighed in agreement, knowing it was, in part, why I admired Jim so much, respected him – and feared for him and his wellbeing. He was a hell of a cop, but half the time I was scared shitless that he was going to get himself killed.
"And you're a damned good friend," she replied, patting my shoulder. "He's okay, Blair. He really is fine and he just needs to go home and rest."
"I hear you." And I did. She was telling me not to fuss, to calm down. She was right; fussing around like some mother hen drove Jim nuts.
"Alright, then," she said as we approached the cubicle where I'd last seen Jim lying on a gurney. "I'd better get back upstairs. Don't worry, I'll call the other hospitals, let them know there's nothing to worry about, that Jim's fine."
"Thanks for getting me back in here," I replied with utmost sincerity. "And thanks for coming down to see how he was."
With a grin, she replied, "Gotta take care of our own personal 'Secret Santa', right?" When I smiled and nodded, she waved me into the cubicle before briskly wheeling around to return to her duties.
When I pushed the curtain back, I found Jim sitting on the edge of the gurney. Garbed only in a hospital gown, head bent, eyes clenched shut, he was rubbing the back of his neck and he looked like he was in a lot of pain.
"Hey, shouldn't you be lying down?" I asked in a deliberately low, soft voice. When he flinched, I knew his senses were seriously out of whack, aggravating what already had to be the headache from hell. Drawing the curtain closed, I moved closer and whispered, "Your dials are seriously messed up, man. Let's start with touch, okay?"
Jim's jaw tightened and he reached out to grab my arm, to ground himself, and then he sighed. "Everything's too loud, too bright. What the hell happened?" he demanded, but I could see he was focusing on his dials, bringing them back into line.
"What do you remember?"
He scowled. "We were leaving the bullpen, going home early. Uh, I think we were going to go to the coffee shop across the street first."
"That's right," I assured him. "On the way, you saved a little girl from being run down by an impatient driver who was speeding past a stopped bus."
"The little girl ...?" he urged, fear for a child he couldn't even remember darkening his eyes.
"She's fine. Like I said, you saved her; but you got clipped by the fender and hit your head pretty hard. Must've needed quite a few stitches."
"Stitches? No, no, I've just got a bump on the back of my head," Jim told me, shaking his head and then, from the tightening of his eyes, evidently thinking better of it.
"But ..." I began as I shifted to look at the back of his head, and then I was struck dumb. He was right. There was no blood, no cut or gash. Stunned, I stammered, "But you were bleeding – a lot."
He shrugged. "Wasn't me," he said, stating what he thought was only obvious.
But he had been bleeding, heavily. Looking around the cubicle, I spotted his clothing stacked on the chair where I'd put it when I'd helped the nurses undress him. But I'd tossed the blood-sodden woolen cap on the floor beneath the chair. Hunkering down, I retrieved it, and gingerly holding an unstained rim, held it up to show him.
"What the hell ...?" he grunted and gaped at me.
Standing, I tossed the cap into the hazardous waste bin. We'd never get the stink of blood out of it, and I didn't particularly want to ever see it again. I picked up his jeans and, yeah, the blood was still on them, too, but he needed them to get home. And then I thought about Gabe, about the messages he'd given me, that there was still much to be done and that Jim wouldn't be claiming his room in one of God's mansions anytime soon. I glanced at his leg and the short gown didn't hide much. There were plenty of bruises darkening his skin, but no gash, nothing to show why there was blood on his jeans.
"Chief, what's wrong?" Jim demanded. "You've gone white as a sheet."
"Uh, I'm fine," I replied, though I felt shaken. "But, but you were bleeding, Jim. Both your head and your leg – you can see the bloodstains for yourself."
Impatience flickered over his face and he shrugged. "What can I tell you? Obviously," he gestured at his leg and then his head, "wherever that blood came from, it wasn't from me."
I was about to protest, but I didn't want to fight with him. He was tired and beat up, and as I well knew, when it came to weird stuff like this, Jim would argue logic and believe what he wanted to believe.
"Nevermind," I muttered, but if I'd ever had any doubts about Gabe and his claims of being an angel, they were vanquished in the face of what felt like a miracle. What maybe <em>was</em> a miracle. Because I knew damned well that Jim had been hurt a lot worse than he now appeared to have been. However, this wasn't the time or place to discuss it. "Let's get you dressed," I said to distract myself from the overwhelming awe I felt, and to focus on immediate necessities. Jim might not be badly injured now, but he was still obviously hurting, and the stimuli of the busy Emergency ward was stretching his ability to control his senses to the limit. "You need to be home, away from the noise and smells and bright lights of this place."
"Good plan," he agreed, willingly distracted from the small mystery of the bloody cap and jeans.
When he stood up, he winced when he put weight on his bad leg and his balance seemed shaky. I urged him to sit back down on the gurney and helped him dress. Though his boxers had nearly dried, his jeans were ripped, stained, and still very damp from lying in the street, and he grimaced at the feel of them. His shirt and sweater were okay, but his coat was still pretty wet on the outside. Luckily, it was weather-proof and dry inside, so it would keep him warm on the short journey home.
"Okay, let's blow this popstand," he rasped once he was dressed, eager to be gone, even as his rough voice testified to how much pain he was still suffering. But I didn't argue with him as I steadied him on his feet, because I knew as well as he did that he'd be a whole lot more comfortable back at the loft. He looped an arm around my shoulders for support when he stood and, limping slowly, he leaned on me as we navigated the long hallway back to the waiting area.
"Helluva day, huh?" Jim grunted as he hobbled along.
Looking up at him, I knew what he meant, and I was sorry he was hurting. Sometimes it really seems it's true that no good deed can go unpunished. But I had no room in my heart for any kind of complaint. He was alive and moving under his own steam, if a bit unsteadily; it was a good deal more than I had dared hope for. Memories of blood-soaked slush and his ashen face flickered in my mind and my chest tightened. Jim was in far better shape than I suspect his initial injuries would have allowed, and for that I'll be grateful to the Universe for a long, long time.
"Could have been worse," I replied and smiled in delight that it wasn't.
He huffed a laugh and nearly unbalanced himself by reaching up to ruffle my hair. "Yeah," he allowed with a weary sigh. "I guess it could've been."
When we pushed through the heavy double doors, Simon looked up in surprise, and then a wide smile wreathed his face as he hastened toward us. "Jim!" he boomed, startling the others in the waiting lounge from their lethargy. I really don't think the man realizes he has the parade ground voice of a sergeant-major. "Man, it's good to see you on your feet! You had us worried."
Jim blushed at the attention we were drawing and just gave a small nod of acknowledgement. I told Simon, "He didn't even need any stitches."
Simon blinked at that. "What? But ... the blood?"
"No wounds," I supplied. "Weird, huh?"
"Uh, could we just get out of here?" Jim asked, his tone testy.
"Oh, sure, sure," Simon agreed, gesturing toward the lobby. "My car is out front."
As we passed the hot chocolate and apple cider, 'Peace and Goodwill' kiosk, I saw Simon give it a thoughtful look. As if it had reminded him of something, he said, "Brody had to get back to the shelter, but he said to tell you to just rest up and take it easy. And he also said that he'd call Stan Cramer at St. Jude's Hospice, to let him know that whatever he might hear on the news, you're okay."
There was something in Simon's tone and his expression that made me realize, somewhat belatedly, that leaving him alone with Brody might not have been the wisest thing I've ever done. But he didn't say anything else, just led the way outside where he helped Jim into the front seat of his sedan. I slid into the back and when Simon got in behind the wheel, he said, "Okay, I'll have you home before you know it."
"Home?" Jim challenged. "No, no, just take us back to the PD. My truck's there."
"What do you need your truck for when you're supposed to be resting at home?" Simon asked. "Besides, I can have someone drop it off for you later."
"The PD is closer," Jim argued. "There's no need to take you so far out of your way."
Simon caught my gaze in the rearview mirror, and I shrugged. But, as designated peacemaker, I soothed, "Jim's right, Simon. The PD is practically on the way to the loft, just a slight detour. You can get back to Major Crime and let them know he's really okay, and I can drive him home."
With a grimace of defeat, Simon nodded. Then he frowned. "That homeless guy. Tell me that wasn't the same guy who was shot the night of the strike."
"Sorry," I demurred. "I cannot tell a lie. That was Gabe. And he sure seemed fine, didn't he?"
"Gabe?" Jim echoed. "You don't mean the guy who claimed he was an angel?"
"The very same," I confirmed, and hurried to explain his presence there. "He saw the accident and told Brody about it." I really didn't want to get into everything Gabe had said to me, not in front of Simon, anyway. And I wasn't even sure how much I should tell Jim about it. He'd probably scoff, and I still felt enough awe over the mystery of Jim having no serious injuries that I didn't want to be mocked for believing Gabe really was an angel.
"The two of you sure know an interesting mix of people in this city," Simon mused, and I again heard that odd tone.
"What?" Jim asked, sounding confused.
"Well, you know how it is, Simon," I obfuscated for all I was worth, "we're all over the city when Jim is carrying out investigations. I've been amazed at all the people we've gotten to know over the years."
"Uh huh," Simon grunted, but he let it go. Then I saw him cast a speculative glance at Jim a few moments later, and I wondered if I wasn't indulging in wishful thinking. Simon was smart, and whether he'd learned of Jim's Christmas Day tradition at Harbor Lights from Brody or not, his curiosity had been aroused. And while he might ride a desk these days, he was also a helluva detective. The man knew how to string clues together.
"Joan's father was in St. Jude's the year before we broke up," he shared then, his attention back on the rainswept street. "The staff there are incredible. They made him as comfortable as possible, you know, in managing his pain. And they were a comfort to Joan, too. Hard to lose a parent any time but especially around Christmas. I remember that he could never seem to get warm, until Christmas morning when he woke up under an electric blanket. Nobody seemed to know where it came from, and there were mysterious gifts for other patients, too. I remember his face, his expression of profound peace and quiet joy to finally be warm again. Me? I've always figured it's the same guy – that former soldier – who I bet also supports those Christmas kiosks and who leaves things for the kids in hospital over Christmas. Always wished I knew who he was, so I could thank him properly." He paused, and cut a sideways look at Jim, but he was staring out the side window and seemed oblivious to the conversation. Given how bad his headache was, that's probably not surprising. When Jim was unresponsive, Simon went on, "You're right, Blair. Doing this kind of work, even just through the course of life, you meet the most interesting people, people who aren't always what they seem, who have hidden depths ... damned fine people. But then, I guess you already know that."
When he glanced again at Jim, and then at me in the mirror, I thought, He knows. Or at least he's figured out some of it, and he's wondering why Jim never told him. I wish Jim could be more open, or feel less of a need to keep his personal affairs secret even from his closest friends. But the man has his reasons, good ones, and I wasn't about to rise to the bait Simon was dangling. If he wanted to know more, he could ask Jim himself, but I didn't think he would. Simon knew Jim well enough to also know that Jim always had his reasons for behaving the way he did, and he respected and liked Jim more than enough to let Jim include him or not in his own good time.
When we got to the PD, Simon helped Jim into the truck. "Now, you go home and you rest, you hear? And take it easy tomorrow. If you need more time, you let me know."
"I'm fine," Jim assured him, his tone tight and dry. The man sure hated anyone fussing over him, and he couldn't stand the idea that he might seem the least bit vulnerable.
Simon just gave him a fond smile and stepped back from the truck. But before he closed the door, he said, "If I don't see you tomorrow, Merry Christmas, Jim." Not waiting for a reply, he nodded at me and turned to head into the building.
Odd thing to say, really, since we'd never made any plans to see Simon on Christmas Day, but I let the thought slip away and cranked on the engine. "Let's get you home," I said. "On the way, sit back, close your eyes, and check your pain dial. I think it's still too high."
Jim sighed his displeasure at being told what to do, but he complied, and after a bit, the lines around his eyes and mouth eased, and he dropped off to sleep. When we arrived, I woke him and helped him into the building. Once we got into the loft, I took him straight to the bathroom and ran a hot bath. If he didn't have a good soak, he'd be stiff as a board in the morning. When I tried to help him undress, he batted my hands away and muttered he could manage things himself; he has to be the most determinedly independent human being I've ever known. I've often wondered if that's a personal trait or whether it has something to do with being a sentinel; and I've long accepted that that is no doubt one question for which I'll never have a satisfactory answer.
Twenty minutes later, I brought him an old fleece sweatsuit and found him sound asleep in the cooling water. "C'mon, Jim, time to dry off," I murmured softly, not wanting to jolt him awake.
He scowled and then blinked groggily. "Was just resting my eyes," he claimed.
I snorted. "Yeah, right." His leg was sore enough that he mutely accepted my help to stand and get out of the tub, but he waved me out of the bathroom while he toweled dry and clothed himself. Tough guy, so proud, so unwilling to accept help even if he needs it. But what am I going to do with him? That's Jim and I love him anyway. When he came out into the hallway, we briefly debated couch or bed.
"Bed's more comfortable," he whined wearily, clearly at the end of his tether.
"Bed it is," I agreed, and supported him up the stairs. Once I got him settled on the side of the bed, I checked his pupils and was glad to see they looked normal. "What day is it?"
"Christmas Eve," he replied, with an impatient huff. "I'm fine."
"Okay, but I'll be back in a couple hours to check on you."
He grunted his grudging agreement and waved me away. He was crawling under the blankets when I headed downstairs, where I got myself a beer, turned on the soft lights of the Christmas tree and selected a soothing CD of environmental sounds that I played so low that I couldn't hear it. Wandering to the balcony doors, I stared out at the dark, rainy afternoon and thought about what Gabe had said. Most of it didn't make a whole lot of sense, but then, in my albeit limited experience with him, Gabe was often obscure. But I didn't need to understand it all to know we'd been granted something of a miracle – maybe even two. Sure, we thought it was just an accident that Jim happened to be in the right place at the right time to save that little girl's life, but was it really an accident? In my heart of hearts, I have always believed that nothing random happens in the Universe; that there is always a purpose, even if we don't see it or understand it.
But, chewing on my lip, I decided not to bother Jim with it all; even the reality of his bloody cap hadn't really registered with him. He probably just thought he'd happened to fall into a patch of blood-stained slush; after all, he didn't have any open wounds, right? So, he'd argue that, logically, that meant he couldn't have been the one who had been bleeding all over the damned place. I couldn't explain what had happened, not in rational terms anyway, so that was an argument I was never going to win with him. Maybe, someday, he'd experience the mysterious for himself, really experience it, and feel the kind of awe and gratitude I was feeling as I looked up at the sky and whispered, "Thank you."
As it turned out, other than rousing when I checked on him, he slept through the evening and all night, so there was no chance to tell him anyway.
I was not thrilled early the next morning, when Jim – sounding disgustingly cheerful and well-rested – called, "Rise and shine, Sandburg. We've got a busy day ahead." Having been awakened by my alarm every two hours to check on Jim until well after midnight, and then having had trouble getting back to sleep because memories of the preceding day kept whirling in my head, I would have appreciated being left to sleep at least until dawn.
"Come on, Blair," he called again from the doorway to my room. "We need to get down to the shelter."
"Aw, man, you're supposed to be resting and taking it easy," I complained, but I pushed myself up to sit on the edge of the bed.
"We'll get lots of rest when we're dead," he retorted. The man has no mercy. "But if you really don't feel up to it, then fine ... I can go on my own."
Great, now it's guilt. "No, no, you know I like doing this, too," I acquiesced and lurched to my feet. "But I need coffee. Strong coffee."
"You got it, pal," he agreed with a grin, and handed me a steaming mug on my way past him to the bathroom. God, he can be annoying, and yet, you gotta love the guy.
Less than an hour later, but still well before dawn, we trooped into the kitchen at Harbor Lights. I was trailing after Jim and nearly banged into his back when he stopped dead in front of me.
"Simon?" he said. "I ... uh ... didn't expect to you see you here."
Somehow not at all surprised our boss was there, I poked my head around Jim and waved. "Merry Christmas, Simon!"
"Merry Christmas to you, too," he returned with a warm smile that morphed into something like a Cheshire grin when he turned to Jim. "Daryl's with Joan today and I didn't have any other plans, so when Brody mentioned what a busy day it was going to be, I offered to help out."
"Oh," Jim replied as he shrugged off his coat and pulled a white apron over his head. "Great."
"And aren't you supposed to be resting?" Simon asked, his tone arch as he lifted a disapproving brow.
"I'm fine," Jim asserted. "Doesn't take much effort to stuff turkeys, peel potatoes and chop up vegetables."
Brody bustled into the kitchen from the cafeteria-style room beyond. "Hey, guys, I'm glad you showed up!" he greeted us, though he gave Jim a searching look, evidently satisfying himself that Jim was well enough to be there, before turning to the massive industrial-sized refrigerator to haul out the first of many thawed turkeys. "The veggies are in the cold room," he called over his shoulder. "You know the drill. We've got a few more guys coming in half an hour, so set up eight work stations on the counters. We'll take turns cleaning the vegetables, potatoes and sweet potatoes – otherwise, someone's hands would freeze in the cold water long before we did them all."
In minutes, we had washed our hands and organized ourselves into a work detail. Simon positioned himself on the other side of Jim to help Brody stuff the turkeys and get them into the oven, while I took the first turn at scrubbing the veggies clean and pushing them down the line.
"I see there's one of those 'Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men' banners out in the hall," Simon observed, his tone one of studied innocence. Here it comes, I thought and cringed a little, wondering how Jim was going to take being outed as one of the most generous patrons of Christmas in Cascade.
"Uh huh," Jim grunted.
"I remember there was one at St. Jude's Hospice, too," Simon went on. Jim kept his head down and didn't respond. "I was telling Sandburg yesterday that I heard years ago that an ex-soldier asked a banner like that be hung in the Pediatrics ward at Rainier's Health Sciences Hospital ... and I heard he brought in gifts for the kids, but he didn't want anyone to know who he was. You know, that was the first time we met, in the hospital lobby on Christmas Eve."
Jim stiffened a little, but otherwise was putting on a good show of being generally disinterested.
"That Diana – the head nurse at Cascade General's children's ward, mentioned you know the woman who told me about the soldier. I guess he makes a real effort to get gifts that are individualized, not just a bunch of tinker toys for the boys and Barbie dolls for the girls."
Jim finished his bird and put it in a roast pan. "That so?" he muttered, as if barely feigning interest as he turned away to put the pan in one of the many pre-heated ovens that lined one wall.
Simon glanced over at me and shook his head. I did my best to keep a deadpan expression. No way was I going to get in the middle of this. It was Jim's secret and I was just an elf to his 'secret Santa', so I was not going to give anything away. Jim took another bird from the pile on the work table, and got busy stuffing it.
Chuckling, Simon rolled his eyes. "You know, Ellison, I think Conner had you nailed yesterday when she called you 'Scrooge'."
"Simon," I complained, thinking the comment especially unfair when I was certain he'd figured it out. 'Scrooge' Jim definitely was not.
"Oh, I don't mean anything bad by that. In fact, I doubt Conner has a clue about how well she nailed you," Simon went on with a wide smile. "How did the end of that story go? Something about Scrooge being as good a man, and as good friend, as the good old town ever knew? And if any man could be said to keep Christmas well, Scrooge did. Yep, if anyone deserved to be called Scrooge, I'd definitely have to say, Jim, that man is you."
Jim went still, and I saw a flush creep up his neck to his face. For a moment, he just stood there, and then he looked up at Simon. Swallowing hard, he nodded tightly, finally acknowledging that Simon had figured it out. "I ...I guess I should've told you," he began, sounding vastly uncomfortable.
But Simon lifted a hand to cut him off. "You don't owe me or anyone else anything, Jim. I'd say it's just the opposite. A whole lot of people in this town owe you a lot."
"Oh, no," Jim demurred, waving off the very idea. "And Sandburg helps a lot," he added, trying to deflect the praise and credit he'd never had any interest in having.
"I'm sure he does," Simon allowed. Brody was grinning to himself but, like me, he was otherwise pretending to ignore the conversation.
Sighing, Jim held up hands coated with dressing. "I just don't want to make a big deal of it. It's not about me."
"I know," Simon replied, his voice oddly gentle. "It's about peace on earth and goodwill toward men."
That shy smile curved Jim's lips and he nodded with evident pleasure and relief that Simon so obviously understood. "Yeah," he breathed. And then his smile widened. "I'm glad you're here, Simon," he said. "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas to you, too, my friend. And, well, if you ever need an extra elf, I'd be glad to help out. Anytime."
Jim grinned at him, and nodded vigorously. "I'd like that a lot," he agreed. "Next year, you can plan on being pretty busy. Thanks."
Smiling to myself, hard-pressed to keep from snickering as I imagined Simon's reaction, I knew who'd be getting the green felt hat with the sewn-on elf ears and the curly-toed shoes in next year's 'Secret Santa' gift exchange. I'd have to ask Megan where she'd found mine. Wouldn't want to hurt her feelings by letting her think I was recycling the gift she'd given me.
Elves had to have their own gear, after all.
Jim caught my eye, and I'm absolutely certain he knew what I was planning, because he broke into such gales of laughter that he had tears in his eyes before he got himself under control.
Or maybe it was just that I'd slipped my own elf hat onto my head in honor of the day.
"Merry Christmas, Sandburg," he called.
"Merry Christmas to you, Jim. And many, many more."
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