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

Notes: The two parts of the story are not sequential. "What Might Have Been" takes place sometime after the events of TSbyBS. "The Next Thousand Years" is AU in that it features Dr. Blair Sandburg. It follows the story line I established in "A Matter of Perception," and it might clarify a few things to read it first. These are not beta read.

Seasonal Serenade

By JET

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Part One: What Might Have Been

SCENE I

The snow swirled around Jim Ellison's face as he trudged down the sidewalk, clinging to his eyelashes and blurring his vision more than the gathering wetness in his blue eyes. As cold as it was, his heart was frostier than the frigid, cutting wind that had blown the freak snowstorm into Cascade that morning. To make things even worse, Jim's truck, never the most reliable form of transportation even in the best of weather, had stubbornly refused to start in the police garage as he left the station late in the afternoon on that dreary Christmas Eve.

He could have asked Simon for a ride.

He could have called for a cab.

He chose to walk. Chose to walk across town in the deepening snow, against the bitter wind.

The foul, freezing weather suited his mood.

Jim Ellison had never felt colder in his life. Inside, as well as out. It was the inner cold that was the most numbing.

It was Christmas Eve, and he'd never felt less like celebrating. Christmas was a time for joy, for brightness and lightness, for hope and peace.

Tonight, Jim felt none of those things. He deserved none of those warm feelings. He was cold, and coldness was all he felt he had earned.

He trudged on against the blowing snow, head bowed, shoulders hunched forward, with his icy, gloveless hands stuffed into the pockets of his heavy winter coat. His thoughts wandered miserably to what he knew awaited him in the loft. Nothing that would be so much different than on any other Christmas Eve over the past few years. The tree was decorated, partly with ornaments he'd had on Christmas trees with Carolyn during their brief marriage, and partly with the brightly happy, handcrafted ornaments from around the world that Blair had discovered in the little shops he loved to frequent. But what made the loft Christmas tree special were the decorations they'd bought together. Those were the ones that made the loft tree not Jim's, not Blair's, but theirs. Together.

His lips twisted bitterly at the thought. Together. What had that togetherness brought Sandburg? Nothing but hurt. Once again, his partner waited for him at home, injured and in pain, this time as the result of a punk Jim had busted for armed robbery. Intent on revenge, but too afraid to face Jim Ellison one-on-one, the coward had vented his rage on Blair instead. The culprit had cornered Jim's young partner late in the evening five nights earlier as Sandburg left the loft and had beaten him severely. The final insult had been to leave him battered and bleeding on the hard, cold sidewalk. He had left Blair there, as if the bright, caring young man was no more important than a piece of trash to be discarded without thought, without consideration.

Jim ducked his head deeper into the upturned collar of his coat as the wind picked up, buffeting his face with its stinging blows. A feverish guilt rose within him. How many times has Sandburg paid the price for my job? He should be living a safe, academic life, not landing regularly in the hospital because he had the misfortune to team up with a guy named Ellison. If not for me, that's the life he would have. That's the life he should have.

Jim was startled to glance up and see the front of his own building looming through the gray blending of snow and the dusky, dim light of late afternoon. He hesitated, staring up at the welcoming lights from the loft above, suddenly realizing that he was afraid. Jim Ellison was afraid to go home, afraid to confront once again the painful consequences of his chosen career, the consequences that Blair seemed destined to pay in his stead. A last minute shopper hurrying by with an overflowing armload of packages jostled Jim's shoulder, breaking the thread of his reverie with her mumbled apology. Glancing both ways down the nearly deserted street, he sighed deeply and stepped inside.

Shutting the door of 852 Prospect behind him, he gratefully absorbed the warmth of the loft and listened for his partner. Locating the source of the soft breathing, Jim moved quietly to Blair's bedroom door. In the dim light, the small figure of his guide lay burrowed beneath the layers of blankets and quilts. Small hitches in his breathing and the minute lines etched in his sleeping face bore silent witness to the pain from his broken ribs and the hand fractured while trying to fight off his much larger attacker. As Jim drew closer, he winced at the dark, ugly, purplish bruises that marred Blair's gentle features. Reaching out, he carefully brushed the hair away from the battered face, his heart constricting at the thought of the vicious beating the young man had endured.

Because of him. Always because of him.

The swollen lids slowly opened, and drowsy blue eyes peered up at Jim. A small smile twitched painfully at Blair's lips, and he whispered, "Merry Christmas."

Jim's fingers trailed through a long, soft curl as he slowly lowered his hand to Blair's shoulder and squeezed gently through the layers of covers. "How do you feel, Chief?"

He felt the small shrug under his hand. "Okay, I guess, considering. Hurts to take a deep breath, and I'm not going to win any marathons this week, but overall, I'm all right. Could have been worse." He tried to grin, wincing at the pain from his cut lips.

Of course, it could have been worse. It has been worse, Chief. Way too many times.

Jim forced a small smile. "Feel like some vegetable soup for dinner? I can have it heated in few minutes. I'll bring it in here, and..."

"On Christmas Eve? No way, man. I'll come in there. Might sit on the couch instead of at the table, though. If you can bend the house rule about eating away from the table, that is." Blair's eyes twinkled with amusement.

Tugging affectionately on a curl, Jim feigned exasperation. "Watch that mouth, Sandburg, or Santa may bypass your stocking tonight." He moved toward the door. "It'll be ready soon. Need any help before I go?"

Blair shook his head. "I'm okay. I'll wash up a little, then be right in. Thanks, Jim."

"No problem, Chief."

The evening passed quietly. After a warming meal of hot soup beside the glowing tree, Blair curled up on the couch. His protective instincts fully engaged, Jim tucked two afghans around his partner after settling a soft pillow beneath his head. It wasn't long before Blair slipped away into sleep, at last getting the rest he needed so badly, while Jim watched television with the volume turned almost off. The flickering black and white images cast a moving glow over the room. With his sentinel hearing adjusted to listen to Jimmy Stewart trying to save the old Building and Loan, Jim was uncomfortably aware of Blair's painful breathing. He found himself focusing more and more on that sound, and the words from the television faded further away into oblivion. He closed his eyes, shutting out the image of a desperate George Bailey standing in the snow on the bridge, contemplating diving into the freezing waters below.

As the snows of Cascade danced outside the window, reality faded into nothingness.

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

SCENE II

"Enquiri, it is time."

From the depths of his slumber, Jim tried to figure out the source of the familiar voice invading his dreamless sleep. Go away. Just leave me alone.

Insistent, the voice persisted, "Enquiri, it is time."

Jim opened his eyes slowly and focused on the figure standing before him. Incacha.

In confusion, he looked around the room. The television screen showed only static, and the snow still fell silently outside. Quickly focusing on his partner, he heard Blair's soft breathing and the steady beat of his heart. His eyes were closed, and his peaceful face seemed free from pain. All was well.

He turned his attention to Incacha, smiling at the sight of his old friend. The last time he'd seen the Chopec shaman in the loft had been only moments before his death and that memory remained a painful one. "It is good to see you, my friend, " Jim said softly. "But why are you here? Is something wrong?"

The shaman's eyes studied Jim's face carefully. "Why do you ask that which you already know, Enquiri? It was your own distress which summoned me here this night."

"My distress? I'm not sure I understand, Incacha."

"What do you fear?"

Jim sighed in resignation. He'd heard this question before, and he knew that Incacha would not be satisfied until he had searched for the truth and acknowledged it in his heart.

What do I fear?

Reaching over, he laid his hand on Blair's leg, absorbing the warmth that penetrated up through the covers. Too warm. His fever was back.

Jim sighed sadly. "It's the same fear, Incacha. I fear losing him...losing Sandburg."

Incacha shook his head, negating Jim's answer. "That fear dwells within you always, Enquiri. Tonight, I sense that the fear is different. What do you fear?"

A flash of anger swept through Jim. What right did this man...this spirit...have to confront him like this? He'd given his answer. Wasn't that enough? He stood up and paced to the window. The snow fell silently in the darkness. Studying the individual flakes closely, he was fascinated by the subtle differences between each one. It would be so easy just to let go, to zone...

"Enquiri!" This time, Incacha's voice was louder, more impatient. "What do you fear?"

Jim whirled to face the shaman. Suddenly, Blair whimpered in his sleep, the soft sound bringing Jim to his side in seconds. Instinctively, the sentinel reached to touch the too warm skin of his guide, gently brushing sensitive fingers across his face and into the soft hair that fell to the pillow beneath his head. Blair quieted immediately.

"What do you fear?" whispered the voice of Incacha from beside him.

Jim's hand lingered, softly cupping Blair's face. A shiver shook his body as the younger man leaned trustingly into his hand, his eyes closed in peaceful sleep once again. Jim's voice was a mere whisper when he finally answered Incacha's question. "I fear the truth."

"What is the truth, Enquiri?"

Slipping slowly to the floor, Jim knelt beside Blair, his hand still holding the sleeping face. Reaching out, Jim mirrored the gesture with his left hand so that he cradled Blair's face in his hands. His guide stirred, but did not awaken. "The truth? The truth hurts like hell, Incacha, but that doesn't make it any less the truth, does it? The truth is, he'd have been so much better off if he'd never found me." He laughed softly, bitterly. "Ironic, isn't it? Blair searched almost his entire life to find his sentinel, to find me, and look what it's gotten him. He's been injured so often, I've lost count. Damn it, he's died, Incacha, because of me! Then, after I got him back, I've done nothing but keep on hurting him. Me. The one he trusts so much to protect him, and I've given him nothing but pain." Jim's eyes filled with pain as he glanced at the shaman standing on the other side of the couch.

"And yourself? Would your life also be better had you no guide?"

Jim hesitated, staring at the beloved face lying so warmly between his palms. Better off without Blair? Coldly, he stopped the automatic denial. "It hurts, Incacha. It hurts to see him injured, in pain. And if I ever lost him... I'm not so sure I could survive that. Maybe I would have been better off the way I was before. Before Blair... "

Incacha's eyes widened in concern. "This is what you truly believe, Enquiri? Your guide would have a better life without his sentinel? You would have lived a better life without his presence at your side?"

Gazing at the young face, the lines of pain erased in healing sleep, Jim could only nod. His heart was too full of guilt for the words to come. He lowered his head and closed his eyes in pain.

Sadly, Incacha shook his head. "Then you must discover for yourself whether what you believe is true."

Without warning, a cold breeze chilled his body. Jim opened his eyes to find himself standing with Incacha outside in the swirling snow. A full moon was peeking through a break in the heavy clouds, lending its crystal glow to the light from a streetlamp a few yards away. Ellison's eyes darted around warily, and he automatically reached for his gun before remembering that it was lying on the kitchen table.

"Incacha, where are we? How the hell...?"

The shaman's reassuring smile removed Jim's fears, leaving only confusion it their wake. "Everything is as it should be, Enquiri. You have nothing to fear."

Jim's panic subsided, leaving his mind clear to take in their surroundings. "I remember this place. I came here once to interview the sister of a suspect. But she wasn't able to be of any help. This is the mental wing of the hospital, Incacha. Why are we...?"

"To seek the truth. We are here, Enquiri, to seek the truth. For it is the truth which you fear, is it not?"

Incacha led him inside. Jim watched the few people going about their duties around them. It was late, and apparently the hospital was functioning with a skeleton crew on this Christmas Eve. No one had noticed their presence; they were totally ignoring the Chopec shaman dressed in his traditional loincl oth and carrying his spear.

Jim stopped walking and grasped the warrior's arm, abruptly pulling him to a halt. "They don't see us, do they? What's going on here, Incacha?"

His old friend shook his head. "No, they do not see us, nor do they sense our presence in this place. We may safely observe without being seen."

Jim caught the implication in his friend's words. "The 'this place' part, I think I understand. But 'this time'...? What does that mean?"

His eyes caught a newspaper lying partially open on a table in the waiting area off to their left. In three strides, Jim had the paper in his hands, staring in disbelief at the date. "Four years ago? Incacha, this paper is from December 24th, four years ago!"

Joining Jim in the waiting area, Incacha nodded solemnly. "This is true. Did you not say that you would have been better off had you not met your guide? That is our purpose, Enquiri. To find the truth and understand it. For you will not fear what you fully understand. Come." Without waiting for Jim to reply, the shaman turned and walked down the hallway. After only a slight hesitation, Ellison followed, shaking his head in confusion.

They stopped before a door. A sign was posted with the warning, "No Admission. Staff Only." Motioning Jim to follow, Incacha disappeared through the door. Stunned, Jim stood still, then slowly reached out to touch the steel door. His hand slipped through, as if through thin air. What the hell?

Jim glanced up and down the deserted hallway. He reached out once more, and again, his hand slipped easily through the steel. Taking a deep breath for courage, Jim stepped forward.

With a feeling of slipping through clear, cold water, Jim moved through the steel. The sentinel gasped in amazement.

He could see the molecules which composed the solid steel of the door, could feel their movement as they bombarded his skin, could almost taste their mathematical precision and perfect beauty floating all about him. Almost as quickly as he immersed himself in their world, he was through to the other side.

Incacha was waiting for him and nodded in approval. "You learn fast, Enquiri." Then the shaman turned his attention to the single bed. A dull yellow light illuminated the small room through the heavy bars on the window. A still, silent figure lay on the small bed. Jim could see the restraints binding it to the bedrails. He glanced at Incacha in confusion. The shaman led him beside the bed. Jim glanced downward, and his eyes filled with horror.

His own dull blue eyes stared vacantly up at him.

A short gasp escaped his lungs, and he felt his heart rate skyrocket in panic. No! Not this! Please, I can't end up here, in this place. NO!

Then a familiar, comforting voice filled his mind. Easy, Jim. Deep breaths now, slowly...slowly. Concentrate only on me, on my voice. Calm down, now. Breathe deeply, slowly. Easy, Jim, easy.

The desperate panic subsided gradually, and Jim felt his breathing and heart rate approaching normal once more. Blair, you're not even here, yet you still have the power to reach me, to calm me. Thank you, buddy.

He forced himself to look at the pathetic figure lying in the small bed. It was an eerie feeling to look at his own face and barely recognize it. The Jim Ellison before him was a mere hint of the man he had once been, the man he really was. He was thin, pale, and the once defined muscles had withered away to nothingness. His gaunt face made the lifeless blue eyes appear much larger. The straps binding him to the bed seemed unnecessary; this man didn't appear to have the strength, much less the will, to move.

Unable to bear the sight a moment longer, Jim turned slowly to face Incacha. "Why? What happened to me?"

The shaman moved to lay his hand on the short, dull hair of the other Jim Ellison. "Why do you ask what you already know, Enquiri? Why are you here in this place, in this time?"

Jim moved to the window, gripping the cold bars to steady his shaking hands. "Because Blair wasn't there to save me. My senses came on line, and I didn't know what was happening to me. I had no control, no dominion over my own senses, and I slowly went insane." He whirled around to face Incacha and nearly shouted, "That's what was happening before Blair found me! I felt I was going mad! If Blair hadn't heard about me from that nurse at the hospital, if he hadn't bulldozed his way in to see me, if he hadn't refused to give up on me..." As the realization dawned, Jim's voice softened in awe. "This is where I would have ended up, isn't it, Incacha? I really was going insane. Blair saved my sanity, saved my life, just by being there, by making me listen when I was so damned determined that I didn't need anybody. That's why he's...why I'm...here, isn't it? Because I was too damned stubborn to admit that I needed help, to admit that I needed Blair. He did find me, didn't he? He found me in time, but I wouldn't listen. I sent him away, and this is where I ended up."

Incacha nodded in silent confirmation of Jim's words.

"Can we go home, now? I think I've seen enough for one night," Jim asked quietly, still avoiding looking at the figure lying in the bed.

"We have seen only part of what you need to see tonight, Enquiri. We have other stops to make on our journey." Incacha took Jim's arm, and they walked through the wall and into the absolute darkness beyond.

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SCENE III

Emerging on the other side, Jim looked around in wonder. The hospital had vanished, and in its place were the familiar walls of Hargrove Hall at Rainier University. Puzzled, Jim turned to speak to Incacha, but the sight that greeted him stopped him cold.

Slowly, Jim moved toward the door in front of him and stared at the nameplate.

Dr. Blair Sandburg

He felt Incacha move to stand beside him. "He did it, Incacha. Without me, Blair earned his Ph. D., and he became a professor. Just as he always dreamed of doing. He didn't sacrifice his career for me because there was no Jim Ellison to make that sacrifice for." Jim turned to look intently at his old shaman and teacher. "I was right, wasn't I? If Blair had never found me, he would have had the life he really wanted. I don't care if I did land in a mental hospital! It would have been worth it for Blair not to have suffered because of me, to have had the life he was meant to have all along. This life..." He gestured at the halls around them.

A sad smile crossed Incacha's face. "All is not always as it appears, Enquiri. Come."

They were inside Blair's office. Jim took in the difference between this place and the small, cramped quarters assigned to his friend as a teaching fellow and doctoral student. This office was relatively large and comfortable, with a spacious desk, comfortable chairs, plenty of bookshelves, and a computer station.

This could have been yours, buddy. This should have been yours. Then Jim's attention was drawn to the occupant of the blue leather chair behind the desk.

Blair...

The young man was holding a small tape recorder in his left hand. His right hand was in his lap, out of sight under the desk. Jim's heart sank at the sight of the tears trickling down the sad face. Before he could speak to Incacha, Blair hit the record button on the machine and began to speak. Jim barely recognized the familiar voice. Instead of the lilt of Blair's mellow, enthusiastic tones, Sandburg's voice was a dull, flat monotone. As he listened, Jim felt a cold deadness numb his heart.

Oh, God, Blair. What has happened to you?

"It is Christmas Eve, and I just don't want to be here any more. There's nothing sadder than a life that remains unfulfilled. I've achieved most of what I set out to do with my life, and yet, I feel so empty inside. It's like it's all been for nothing. The great light of my life, my research on sentinels, has been ridiculed throughout the profession. My inability to locate a modern sentinel has put an end to all my funding, and I've become a joke for insisting that Burton was correct in his theories."

"I'm just so damned tired. Tired of fighting for what I believe when everyone around me thinks I'm crazy. Tired of looking for something, for someone, who's not there, someone I'll never find. Someone who probably never existed at all. Tired of being alone, of being so lonely. Just plain tired of living. It's like there's part of me missing, a part of my soul that's empty and longing to be filled, but there's nothing, no one, there to fill it. So why go on?"

With a soft sigh, Blair stopped, turned off the recorder and leaned his head back against the chair, his sorrowful, blue eyes shut against the tears. Then, slowly, Blair withdrew his right hand from beneath the desk.

Jim stared in horror as Blair rested the gun on the top of his desk. "NO! Blair, don't!" He rushed behind the desk and tried to wrap his arms around his guide, but his hands swept through Blair, touching nothing.

The young man glanced up and looked around. "Thought I felt... Wrong again, as usual. Nothing," he muttered. "No one there. Like always..."

In desperation, Jim knelt down beside Blair, his anguished face tilted upward. "Please, Blair! You gotta hear me. Please!"

"He cannot hear you, Enquiri. We are only here to watch, remember?" Incacha's compassionate voice grew firm. "You believed that your guide's life would have been better, been happier, had you never met. How does his life appear to you now?"

Again, Jim tried to touch Blair, reaching out to hold his hand, but he grasped only thin air. His voice shook with agony. "He's given up, Incacha. He didn't find his sentinel...he didn't find me, and he's given up. Even though he achieved so much, he never found what was most important, did he? Please, can't I stop this?" Jim turned his anguished eyes toward the Chopec.

Sadly, Incacha shook his head. "In this reality, no, my friend. We should go now. It is almost his time."

"Blair, please..." Jim whispered helplessly as he watched his friend raise the gun to his temple. "No, Chief! NO!"

The blast of the gunshot followed him as he vanished back into the cold blackness.

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SCENE IV

"BLAIR!"

Jim felt the cry ripped from his throat, then he stood silently, gazing at the familiar scene around him. "Incacha! Where...?"

"I am here, Enquiri."

"Where...? What's happened here?" Jim looked around in confusion.

They were back in the loft, but something wasn't right...something was different. Incacha was standing before the fireplace, gazing into the crackling flames. He turned and faced Jim, a knowing smile on his face.

"It's the loft, but, it's not the same. The couch is the wrong color. The Christmas tree has different ornaments on it. What's going on?"

Before Incacha could reply, the door opened, and one figure slowly moved inside, carrying a bag of groceries. A loaf of wheat bread emerged from the top of the sack. Jim's eyes widened as he took in the graying hair of Blair Sandburg, now cropped shorter, but still with the tell-tale curls. Blair's face was etched with deep laugh lines about his eyes and mouth, but as he glanced at the decorated tree and the packages beneath it, the familiar Sandburg twinkle still warmed the night.

A second man entered the loft, and Jim stared at his own image, twenty or so years in the future. Still slim and muscular, his remaining hair was totally silver. His skin bore the wrinkles that come with years spent outdoors in the elements, but the weathered, rugged look suited the sentinel. His eyes were alert, taking in the loft, searching unconsciously for any signs of trouble.

"It's us," Jim breathed. "But, how? Incacha, I saw myself insane; I saw Blair... Oh, God, Incacha, I saw Blair kill himself. How can this...?"

The old shaman smiled. "The images I showed you tonight are only what might have been, Enquiri. Only one reality. What might have been. They were not of what was or of what will be. Your guide did find you. You chose to listen to his wisdom. The future is still there to mold, both his and your own. Your guide is beside you because that is the path he chooses. He knows the risks he takes to remain at your side, and he braves the dangers willingly."

Jim couldn't take his eyes off the figures of himself and Blair as they moved about the kitchen, talking and laughing as they went about putting up groceries, their movements unconsciously coordinated and in sync, as only those of two long time friends can be.

After a few moments watching the peaceful scene, he could not longer restrain himself from asking the question burning in his mind. "Is this...? Will we grow old together, Incacha? Will we both live to see this day?"

Incacha nodded. "The future is never a straight path, Enquiri. Many curves and twists hide the end from our view. But, as long as you both choose to remain committed to what you have become, you will be there to protect and guard each other. Your path will not always be easy, but you will be safe. He will be safe."

Jim watched his older self turn to smile at something Sandburg had said. He could see the affection radiating from his own eyes, older now, but overflowing with warmth and contentment. Blair laughed, his own eyes bright and filled with love as he looked up at his sentinel.

Ellison turned to Incacha and nodded. "This is right, isn't it? This is the life we are meant to live."

"Tell me what you have learned this night, Enquiri."

Jim walked over to the fireplace and stared at the flickering tongues of flame. "Blair has suffered because of me, but not nearly as much as he would have suffered had we never found each other. He needs to be my guide just as much as I need him there to guide me. I've learned that I could not have survived the onset of my sentinel senses without him, and that I still need him just as much today as I did back then. It may not be as obvious now, but he is still my control...my focus."

The sentinel turned to face Incacha and held his eyes. "We were meant to be together; it is our destiny. Whatever dangers we face, we must face them together in order to survive. I was wrong to think either of us would have been better off without the other. Totally wrong."

Incacha smiled his approval. "Very good, Enquiri. You have learned well. Now, you must see this special night as it is meant to be." He gestured toward the Christmas tree.

Jim turned to look back at their decorated tree which stood beside the glass door leading to the balcony. Two figures sat beneath its sheltering branches, Blair...the Blair of the present...his Blair...sitting alongside Jim, the fire's glow casting a warm, flickering light on their faces. Blair was unwrapping a gift, and his eyes were bright with joy. Jim saw his own face, contented, at peace, and smiling as he watched his dearest friend.

Incacha laid his hand on Jim's arm and spoke softly. "You must not fear losing him, Enquiri. You have been given many years together, a lifetime and beyond. Do not waste it worrying about what might have been or what could be. You are his sentinel. He is your guide. Nothing can change that. This is all that matters."

Jim looked away from the scene beneath the tree and met Incacha's eyes. "I'd like to go home now."

Silently, the shaman nodded, and the room disappeared into the swirling darkness.

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

SCENE V

Jim Ellison jerked awake, knocking the mug of cold tea that sat beside him on the table so that it teetered precariously, but remained upright. He shook his head, trying to clear his muddled thoughts. What a dream he'd had! It had seemed so real, so vivid.

He quickly glanced over at Blair. The young man remained curled on the couch, apparently not having moved a muscle since Jim fell asleep. Jim smiled softly, his eyes warming with affection at the sight of his partner.

You have been given many years together, a lifetime and beyond.

From the streets below, he could hear the sound of the early morning city noises, fewer of them on this special day, but ever present just the same. Through the window, the first sun rays pierced the few remaining storm clouds, casting a golden glow on the crisp, white snow which blanketed the city. The melodious sound of church bells floated through the air to greet the dawn.

Quietly, Jim stood up, stretching his cramped muscles gratefully. He walked over to the wide glass windows of the loft and peered out at the awakening city below. How clean and untouched it appeared, covered with its blanket of pure white. For a moment, the detective could almost forget the dangers, the risks, which lay beneath the pristine cover of snow. And for now, that was exactly what he intended to do. Forget the past, let go of the future, and be content to enjoy the present.

Presents...

A wide smile crept across Jim's face, and he turned around to look at the brightly lighted tree and the gifts waiting beneath it. With a stealth born of years of training, he crept without a sound up to his room, then into the small bathroom, to prepare for the day ahead.

After his shower, Jim dressed in a bright red sweater and his favorite jeans. He grinned at his own reflection in the bathroom mirror. Then he went to awaken his partner.

Bending over the sleeping form on the couch, Jim reached down to brush a wayward strand of hair from Blair's face. "Chief?" he called softly. His hand drifted down to the young man's shoulder, and he gently squeezed the afghan covered arm. "Blair? Time to wake up, buddy." Jim slipped to the floor beside the couch to wait.

Slowly, the deep blue eyes were revealed from beneath the heavy lids, and Blair rewarded his friend with a small, sleepy smile. "Hey," he whispered. "Merry Christmas, Jim."

The sentinel closed his eyes for a moment as his heart tightened with emotion. Then, looking into his own image reflected from Blair's crystal eyes, he returned the smile. "Merry Christmas, Chief."

The End of "What Might Have Been."

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

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

Part Two: The Next One Thousand Years

And they claim bad things happen in threes.

Personally, I'm not too sure about that. In my life, it seems bad things cluster in groups of fours, maybe even fives and sixes. Threes, I'd be happy with.

The last month of the last year of the old millennium was certainly no exception. First, I'm late getting my grades in for the end of the semester. My first semester as a full fledged Rainier professor at that. And I'm late with my grade report. The department head called me on the carpet about it. Nicely, of course, since I'm new to this real professor stuff, but I know when I've been called on the carpet. I've been there often enough.

Anyway, as if that's not bad enough, Jim and I get assigned to a real bummer of a case. A series of child murders. The poor victims were killed in the most horrible ways. I can still see their faces in my dreams. Some cases won't leave you alone, others keep up awake at night, and some...

Some haunt your dreams forever.

I'm afraid this is one of those cases.

Then, I get this awful cold. Not just any cold, but one of those octopus colds. You know, the kind that wraps all eight legs around you and refuses to let go, no matter how many kinds of cold remedies you try or how much chicken soup you drink. Here it is, the last day of the last month of the last year, and I've got an octopus cold.

So, that's the three bad things, right? Things should get better, now, right? Maybe for the rest of the world, but not for me. Not for Blair Sandburg.

The fourth bad thing hit three days ago. And, man, it was a whopper.

It all started with a phone call.

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

I grab the ringing phone as I rush out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped precariously around my waist, water dripping onto the floor from my sopping wet hair. Jim'll kill me for this, but then again, he isn't here, and what he doesn't know can't hurt me. Right? I'll clean it all up in just a few minutes anyway.

"Hello?" I know I'm slightly out of breath, but maybe whoever's on the other end of the line won't notice.

"Blair? Anything wrong? You sound like you've been running."

I grin as I tuck the phone between my chin and shoulder to tighten the towel before I embarrass myself in front of the windows. "Sherry? Hey, what's up? We still on for tonight?"

Sherry Wilkinson. A lady like no other. We've been seeing each other for about six months now, and I must admit, it's become pretty serious. I mean, I can actually see a future in this relationship. Besides being easy on the eyes, Sherry is intelligent, funny, and, to top it all off, a graduate anthropology student in her final semester of her doctoral work.

Ain't life grand?

She hesitates, and I sense the uncertainty in her voice. "Blair? We need to talk."

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

I meet Sherry at Antonio's, one of our favorite places for pasta. She's already seated, a glass of red wine in front of her, when I spot her from across the room. Man, she looks beautiful. Her dark hair falls loosely to her shoulders, and her warm brown eyes fill with affection when she sees me. We hug, and I whisper a quick "I love you" before we sit down.

The waiter is at our table immediately, and I order a chef's salad and a glass of wine. He disappears, and I look at Sherry. Her eyes are focused on the flowers decorating the table. She seems fascinated by the blue patterns imprinted on the small white vase.

"Penny for your thoughts," I ask teasingly. She actually jumps a little at the sound of my voice. I reach across and take her hand in mind. It's cold, and while she squeezes my hand, I have the sinking feeling that something is definitely wrong. "What is it? What's going on here, Sherry?"

Her hesitation hangs in the air. "Remember Dr. Cowart, my major professor back east before I transferred here to Rainier?"

I nod at the recollection. "You told me about her. Said she was a real mentor to you and a great teacher."

Sherry takes a moment before responding. "Right. Well, Blair, she called me last night."

This is definitely not going to be good.

Her eyes meet mine across the table. "She's received this major grant for a four year study of maternal and patriarchal societies on the African continent. It involves a major commitment of time and resources. And... Blair, she wants me to join her as her research assistant. She has already arranged for me to enroll as a post-doc student."

I know the stunned look on my face was exactly what she expected. She continues quickly, "But that's not all! Blair, she's read your work on sentinels and knows all about your research in other areas, too." A warm smile lights her eyes as she leans forward across the table. "Honey, she wants both of us! She's offered you a position as a site director, second in authority, right behind Dr. Cowart! We'd be working together, Blair!" An excited tone has displaced the nervousness of a few moments before. "Africa! Just think of it! I'm sure Rainier would give you a leave to pursue this, and it would be a huge step in your career. I mean..."

She trails off as she studies my face. Jim claims that I am an open book emotionally, that my eyes truly are the mirrors of my soul. If he's right, then Sherry must be getting a peek at that soul right this moment.

Her face falls. "Something's wrong, isn't it? Blair, talk to me. I thought you'd be excited about this, that you'd jump at the opportunity."

At that moment, the waiter brings my salad and Sherry's order of lasagna. The air around us has turned suddenly cold. He leaves, and I take a quick sip of my wine.

"Sherry... It's taken me totally by surprise, that's all. I mean, I just started this semester as a professor at Rainier. It's what I've worked so hard for, you know. I'm on a couple of committees, and..."

Her cool voice interrupts, "It's Jim, isn't it?"

Suddenly, the thought of eating that salad revolts me. I push it away, and tear off a small piece of bread instead, twirling it between my fingers. "Of course, I have to think about Jim, Sherry. We're partners, friends..." I look up at her, begging her with my eyes to understand this. "He needs me."

Hurt fills her brown eyes. "And I don't? Blair, I thought this relationship was going somewhere. I love you, and I thought you loved me."

"I do! Sherry, I do, but..."

The sound of that 'but' lingers in the air. She lays down her fork, takes a sip of her wine, then gently dabs her face with the linen napkin. Sherry's eyes meet mine and hold. "Blair. I am leaving in three days, on New Year's Eve, to meet Dr. Cowart in Boston. From there, we head to Africa. I cannot spend my entire career here in Cascade; that's not what anthropology is about for me. I love you, and I want us to be together, but if you cannot leave this place, leave Jim, to be with me, then..." Her voice falls to a whisper and catches on the final word. "It's over."

She stands up. "The plane leaves at 10:15 on New Year's Eve. I'll have your ticket waiting for you. If you're not there, I know what your answer is." Leaning down, she kisses my cheek, and I catch the whiff of her perfume. "Come with me, Blair. Let's build a new life. Together."

And she is gone.

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

By that evening, I'm a tangled bundle of nerves. I've worked myself into a frenzy going over and over my options, but in the end, it's simple. I have to choose.

I can go with Sherry, the woman I love, and have the career in anthropology I always dreamed of.

Or, I can stay with Jim, the brother I love, and have the career in anthropology I always dreamed of.

Simple, right? Like treading a mine field.

By the time Jim gets home, it's dark outside, but I haven't even started preparations for dinner. I pick up the phone and call for a pizza delivery, hanging up just as his key turns in the lock.

"Hey, Chief," Jim calls out. "Was that you I heard calling for pizza? What's the matter, Junior, no chef's special tonight?" From the teasing tone, I can tell he's in a good mood.

Boy, have I got some news that'll pop that bubble.

"Not tonight, Jim. Sorry." I move to sit on the couch, staring at the twinkling Christmas lights and the flames of the fire as they crackle in the dark.

Supper is a silent affair with neither of us knowing quite what to say. I know Jim's concerned about my silence, but I just can't bring myself to talk about it yet. After the dishes are done, we watch television for a few hours until it gets late. After the movie ends, Jim leaves the living room and goes into the kitchen.

"Hey, Chief," he calls to me. "You need anything from in here?"

I know that he realizes something's wrong. I've debated whether or not to tell him most of the afternoon. I told him about Borneo, and just look at the reaction I got there. Jim Ellison...total ice man. But this is five years later, right? I have to tell him. This affects us both, after all.

Finally, I answer him. "No, Jim. Nothing right now, thanks."

I hear the sound of a bottle of water opening, and a moment later, Jim joins me on the couch. He leans back with a grateful sigh, stretching his long legs out in front of him, and takes a long sip of cold water. "Okay, Darwin. What's going on?"

I can't answer. What do I say? That I'm thinking of leaving you? Going off to Africa to get married and start a new life?

If I can't even say the words, how the hell could I ever take the action itself?

He's getting worried now, and looks at me with those soft, blue eyes. "Blair? This has gone on all night." His voice is soft, concerned. "What's wrong, buddy?"

It's time. I have to say something. "Jim... I... I don't know how to say this."

Suddenly, I see the truth, yet to be revealed, already written in his eyes. A flash of fear, a streak of pain, fills those blue eyes for a moment, and he reaches out to lay a hand on my arm. "Talk to me, kid. Please."

It all comes out in a rush, a torrent of words that seems to take on a life of its own. I tell him about my feelings for Sherry, about Dr. Cowart, and about the job offer in Africa. As the words flow, I can see Jim shutting down, see the walls going up once more around his heart to protect it from the pain he knows is bound to come. The pain I now realize he has dreaded since the day he first accepted me into his heart.

Then, as suddenly as it began, the flood of words dries up. I've said it all, and now, I can only wait for his response.

He is silent for long moments, just staring at the lighted tree before us. Jim's been different this Christmas. He's been happier, somehow, more relaxed and joyous. Then, I go and throw something like this at him.

"What do you want, Sandburg?" His words take me by surprise. I was half expecting an answer like he gave me so long ago about Borneo, telling me to go, to do what was best for my career. The other half of me expected him to blow up, to go ballistic on me, to tell me that we hadn't been through so much these past few years for me to just throw it all away now.

I definitely didn't expect him to very calmly ask me what I want.

And I don't know how to answer him.

So, I give him the only truth I have. "I don't know, man. I just know that I have two days to decide. Her flight leaves at 10:15 on New Year's Eve, and there'll be a ticket for me there." I stop, then I turn to look at Jim's emotionless face, lighted by the dancing flames of the fire. "What do I do, Jim? I don't know what to do." I hate the helplessness in my voice, and even worse, I hate the sudden need I have for him to give me my answer. It is supposed to be my life, right?

A deep, sad sigh escapes him. Then, slowly, he turns to look at me, and I see the lost look in his eyes. At that moment, I hate myself and Sherry for putting him through this. "Chief..."

He lifts his hands as if to touch me, then lets them fall to his lap as though he no longer has that right.

Oh, Jim...

"Blair, I can't give you the answer to this one. You deserve to be happy, Chief, and all I can say is that I want you to make whichever choice will bring you the most happiness." He stops, then shakes his head slowly. "I won't lie to you this time, Blair. When you told me about Borneo, I lied. I acted like it didn't matter to me, like I wouldn't really care if you left. There's too much history between us for that now."

He reaches out and lightly touches a lock of my hair. I feel my heart constrict in pain, already feeling the loss of that familiar touch. "If I told you tonight that it doesn't matter to me what you decide, you'd know it's a lie. I do not want to lose you. But, I can't keep you here if you don't want to stay. This is your choice, Chief. I just..." His voice deepens suddenly, turning almost husky. "I just want you to know that no matter what you decide, you'll always have a home here, Blair, if you need it. I'll always be here for you."

I nod, my throat too tight with emotion to trust myself to speak. Jim manages a small, tight smile, reaches out to ruffle my hair, then goes to bed, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

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

The next two days pass in a blur. I think Jim's trying to avoid me, trying to give me time alone to make my decision. He's been staying at the office a lot. I've offered to come in, but he insists he has everything under control. He says I've been working too hard, and that I need to rest with my cold and all. Maybe he's right, because I feel awful. Must be the cold.

Or maybe I'm just heartsick.

I spend a lot of time out on the balcony. Yeah, it's cold and I generally hate being cold, but somehow, right now, it feels right. Somehow the piercing cold makes me realize that I am still alive, even when I feel so dead inside. So, I bundle up in layers of sweaters and coats and scarves and gloves, and I sit out on the balcony. For hours.

Tonight is my deadline.

Tonight, the only woman I've ever seriously considered asking to marry me is getting on a jet, and if I'm not there beside her, she'll be out of my life forever.

And, tonight, if I go, I'll be leaving behind the best friend I ever had, the one person I've ever met who completes me. Tonight, if I choose to go, I'll leave behind half of my very soul.

Tonight.

Damn.

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

I wander aimlessly into the station, immediately looking to see if Jim is at his desk. Our desks, now. My own nameplate sits atop my own desk, nestled in beside his. Partners at last. Just what I wanted. A position at Rainier and to be Jim's partner. A dream come true. Now, I have to decide whether to keep living that dream or give it up to follow Sherry to Africa.

Sometimes, life really sucks.

He isn't here.

I turn to leave, but a familiar voice stops me.

"Sandburg," Simon calls from the doorway of his office.

There was a time I could have chosen to ignore the command of "get in here" evident in his tone, but that was before I became a paid, official member of major crimes. Now, Simon's my captain, too, so I turn around and head toward his office. He closes the door behind us.

"Yeah, Simon?"

He stands over by the window, his unlighted cigar clenched between his teeth. Typical Simon. He cares, but he's unsure how to express his concern.

The cigar comes down, and he turns to face me. "Have you made your decision?"

It doesn't surprise me that Jim's told him. After all, before I came along, Simon was the closest thing Jim had to a friend. I ask anyway. "He told you?"

"Of course he told me, Sandburg. The man's strung tighter than a drum over this. I finally asked him what was going on, and he filled me in. I know this is none of my business, but it's affecting two of my best men, so I'm making it my business. Have you made your decision?"

For a moment, I consider telling Simon that he'll know when Jim knows, but something in his concerned brown eyes stops me. That's when I lose it. My eyes fill with tears, and I struggle to stop the trembling in my hands. "Damn it, Simon. I don't know what to do here, man." I look down, studying my shoes as if seeing them for the first time. "I love them both."

Simon Banks pulls up a chair and sits beside me. "Sandburg," he says quietly. "Let me ask you to do something for me. Will you try?"

I nod, looking up briefly at him through my tears.

"Okay. Close your eyes. Now, I want you to imagine staying here with Jim, going on with your job at Rainier, continuing to be Jim's partner here at Major Crimes. You don't see Sherry again. One day, in the future, you hear she's married someone else and is living happily half way around the world. You never see her again."

He stops, waiting. Unsure of what he wants from me, I keep my eyes closed and nod. "Okay," I answer softly. "I've got that."

"Now," he continues. "Remember how you're feeling at this moment. Then, let that image go. Now, imagine that you've left Cascade behind, that you're living in Africa with Sherry. You can only talk to Jim occasionally by phone and you exchange letters once in a while. It may be years before you see him again, before you are together again. Or, because of the demands of your work, you never see Jim again."

A tear slips from the corner of my eye, then another, and another. I open my eyes to see Simon back at the window again. I take a deep, ragged breath.

"You're dismissed now, Sandburg. Just think back on those two scenarios and how you felt. Then make the best decision you can."

I stand up to leave, but pause with my hand on the doorknob. "Thanks, Simon," I whisper before I go.

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

The airport is crowded with holiday travelers. I check the flight board and locate the number and gate of Sherry's flight to Boston. I'm not too late after all. I hurry down the concourse toward the departure gate, duffel bag in my hand.

There she is, standing by the window, gazing through the darkness at the awaiting plane. She is so beautiful, and my heart swells with love. I move in beside her, and wrap an arm around her shoulder.

"Hey," I greet her.

A glowing smile wreathes her face as she takes in the sight of me and my duffel bag. "You're here!" She wraps me in a delighted hug. "Oh, Blair, I'm so happy! We can get married in Boston, take our orientation training with Dr. Cowart, then head to Africa. I told her you'd come, that you'd never pass up an opportunity like this just to work with some detective in a two bit police department! All that sentinel stuff never was true anthropology, now was it? Now, you can do important work, work that will be accepted in all the best journals. I can't wait to tell Dr. Cowart. She'll be delighted, Blair!"

I feel my blood run cold at her words. Was this the way she's always seen my work with Jim? I tried to explain my friendship with Jim to her, bared my heart and my soul to her in an effort to help her understand his place in my life, and this was still how she saw him? Even after she learned the truth about Jim's abilities? Some detective in a two bit police department? Jim?

My face must reflect my sudden coldness, because her expression changes from one of delight to one of confusion. I drop the duffel at her feet. "These are some artifacts you'd loaned to me. I just wanted to return them before you left."

"You...? You're not coming with me? But, I thought..."

I shake my head. "I made my decision this afternoon, Sherry. My place is here, with Jim. I left behind what you call 'true anthropology' a long time ago. My specialty is sentinels, and Jim is my sentinel. And I am his guide. Nothing can make me leave him, Sherry, not even you. I love you. If you could stay here, stay at Rainier, then we could have had a life together. But that's not you. I realize that. Maybe..." I hesitate, but only for a moment. "Maybe, it was never right to start with, not if what you said a moment ago is how you really feel about my work. What I do is important, Sherry. Maybe it's not traditional field work, but it's the most important thing I've ever done or ever will do in my life. And, I'm happy."

"You...? You're letting me go for this sentinel thing? Is that what your life's all about now? It's all about this crazy research of yours on sentinels?"

Then, I surprise myself. I start to laugh. She's missed the point. Again.

"No, Sherry," I give her a quick hug, then release her, taking a step back to study her stunned face. "It's not all about research, or about sentinels, or even about anthropology at all." Suddenly in a hurry to get home, I turn to leave, then call back over my shoulder, grinning at Sherry.

"It's about friendship!"

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

I close the loft door behind me. Everything is dark, only the light from the Christmas tree, the moon, and the streetlamps outside lending their subdued glow to the living room.

The tree... Isn't it supposed to be bad luck or something to leave a Christmas tree up until New Year's? Gotta get that thing down tonight. We sure don't need any more bad luck.

I start to call out for Jim. I know he's here. His truck was parked outside, and his keys lie on the table by the door. Something stops me. Jim was supposed to go to the New Year's party over at Rafe's, so if he's here, that means something's wrong.

Then I see him, standing by the windows, silhouetted against the stars. He knows I'm here, but he doesn't acknowledge me, doesn't move at all, just stands there, a silent, and somehow lonely, sentinel gazing out over his city.

I shuck off my coat, letting it drop to the floor, and lay my keys down beside Jim's. Then I move quietly to stand beside him.

He doesn't look at me, just asks quietly, "Did you miss your plane?"

To the uninitiated ear, his voice would sound flat and emotionless. But I hear the concern, the uncertainty, and the fear lying just beneath the surface.

"My plane? Jim, man, what makes you think I was going anywhere tonight?" I risk a glance upwards at his face, but I see only the chiseled, unflinching face of a statue.

He shrugs, and I feel his shoulder rub against my own. "Dunno. Guess I just figured that since Sherry was leaving out tonight, you'd hop the flight and go on with her. Why wait, right?"

Then I get it. Man, how dense can I be? Jim thought I took the offer. He thought I was going to leave. If not tonight, then soon. Oh, man.

"Jim, buddy, there's something you need to understand here..."

He turns toward me, his face a mask of determined, unemotional stone. One hand raises tentatively to rest lightly on my shoulder. "Chief, I do understand. You and Sherry have a great thing going on. This offer... Well, it's too good to pass up; I understand that. You'd be crazy not to go, marry Sherry, and get on with your life."

I force myself to stare right back at him, but I don't try to control my own emotions. I allow the tears to fill my eyes, and I see the muscles in Jim's face tighten as he fights to maintain his own control as he looks at me. "There's only one problem with that whole scenario, Jim."

Jim turns back to gaze out the window, letting his hand drop from my shoulder. His voice is soft as he asks, "What's that?" I can hear the loneliness in his voice; he's already begun to let me go.

"My life is here."

For long moments, he is silent, and I begin to think he didn't hear me. Then, slowly he turns his head to glance at me. "What are you talking about?"

I continue to stare out at the city. A light snow is falling now, and the streets are almost empty. "Jim, five years ago, finding Sherry, the offer of the site directorship, a long term study like that...it all would have been a dream come true for me. But now..."

Jim's voice interrupts me. "You love her, Chief."

My heart constricts in pain at those words...just a little. "Yeah, I do. But I love you, too, Jim." How can I make him understand? Reaching up, I grasp his shoulders and gently guide him to face me. Our eyes meet, and I instantly see the unmasked pain he hasn't had time to hide. "I love you, man, and I've already made a commitment to you. A commitment to be your guide...to be your friend...your partner. Think of all we've been through together! Life...death...life." I grin at him through my tears. "You don't just throw away a friendship like this. At least I don't. It's too important."

When he doesn't answer, I reach up and lay one hand over his heart. I can feel it beating, maybe a little too fast, like a small bird that feels cornered and is afraid of the future. I stare at my hand resting on his chest for a moment, then I smile and look back into Jim's clear blue eyes. "Jim, man, I went to tell Sherry that I can't go with her, that there is no future for us. She wants the life of a field anthropologist, wants to travel the world in her work. That's not what I want anymore, and she deserved to know that." I leave out her words about him, about our research. There's no need to go into all that.

"But... Blair, I saw you leaving. I was parking the truck down the street and saw you as you left the loft. You were carrying your duffel. I figured..." His voice trails off in confusion.

"I was returning some of Sherry's artifacts that I borrowed. Oh, man, you thought I was gone, that I didn't even say goodbye, didn't you? Ah, Jim..." I chuckle softly, torn between my frustration at him and the affection filling my heart. "When will you learn, man?"

A large hand reaches up to cup my neck, and I feel gentle fingers weaving their way into my hair. "Learn what, Chief?"

I look up at him and my smile fades. "To trust me, Jim." I stare directly into those blue eyes, willing him to finally understand this simple message. "I've told you before, I'm not going anywhere."

With a sudden movement, Jim pulls me to him, fiercely, desperately. I nestle my face against his shirt, feeling the strength of his arms holding me and the warmth of his silent, grateful tears as they trickle from his face to my neck. I start to rub his back in slow, long strokes, and whisper soothingly, "I'm not going anywhere, Jim. I promise."

I feel his nod against the top of my head where his cheek rests, and his embrace tightens just a little. I close my eyes and allow my thoughts to wander. I am home, right where I belong. This friendship, this partnership, is right for me. It completes all those holes in my life. Jim was the missing piece that I'd searched for forever. Maybe, one day, I'll find someone willing to share in this life with me, someone who won't insist on my leaving it behind to be with them. Until then, this feeling, this love we share is enough.

At last, Jim releases me, letting his hand trail slowly down my arm as if he is reluctant to break the magic of the connection. I glance at the time on the VCR clock. "Hey, Jim! It's almost midnight, man. Let's break out the champagne!"

As the clocks all over Cascade chime twelve and the ball on the television screen begins to fall, we stand on the balcony overlooking our city. Sentinel and Guide, brothers...partners...best of friends. All is as it should be. For once, I don't even feel the cold.

He wraps an arm around me and pulls me close to his side. I drape my arm around his waist and lean in against him, resting my head against his arm.

Jim lifts his glass to mine in a toast to the new year...the new century...the new millennium.

His eyes meet mine, shining with happiness and love. "Happy New Year, Chief!"

I clink my glass against his and return his smile. "To the next thousand years, Jim. Together."

We drink to new beginnings.

Finis...

Happy New Year, Everyone!

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