Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Silent, Snowy Night

by Arianna

Sentinel Thursday Challenge 120: Bell, snow and holly

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He'd left himself lots of time to cruise the area and find the perfect spot from which to conduct his covert surveillance. Pulling around the corner a little more than half a block away from his target, he drew to a stop in the shadow of a large spruce that blocked direct illumination from the nearest streetlamp. Switching off the ignition, he sat behind the steering wheel, staring out at the thickly falling snow. There was next to no wind, and the air was mild, so the heavy, fat flakes fell straight down, blanketing the world with pure, pristine white, making everything seem clean and fresh, untouched. The feathery precipitation muffled the world, muting the sounds of the other vehicles that were drawing past and turning into the parking lot further down, and the steadily falling snow formed a translucent, not quite opaque curtain that glittered almost blindingly in the passing headlights, leaving him feeling uncomfortably isolated and alone.

His lips compressed, he raked his wild curls back, twisting his hair up to hide it under his gray woolen cap. Knowing that it was stupid, pointless to have come, he still hadn't been able to resist the urge to be there. Pushing open the car door, he got out to lean against the Volvo, a dark shadow against another shadow within shadow, barely visible behind the massive branches of the evergreen and the screen of snow.

Stuffing his hands in his jacket pockets, he hunched his shoulders against the damp chill as he settled into his watch. Snowflakes quickly gathered on his long lashes; he had to blink and occasionally swipe at his eyes to clear his vision.

The largest bell in the steeple of the massive stone church down the block began to peel with deep, clear tones that filled the night, calling the faithful to the traditional midnight service to celebrate the birth of the Christ child. Snow accumulated on his cap and shoulders as he stood completely still, patiently watching as more and more vehicles arrived. Their occupants hurried through the already ankle-deep snow that was beginning to drift over the stone steps leading to the richly-carved double wooden doors that gave entry into the vestibule and the sanctuary beyond. Yellow light spilt into the night from inside, promising warmth and welcome, refuge from the darkness and cold. More bells chimed in. Listening, he recognized the refrain of 'It Came Upon the Midnight Clear' and had to smile poignantly at the appropriateness of the selection, and he nodded appreciatively to himself when the melody changed to 'Oh Come, All Ye Faithful'. Whoever had chosen the music for the Presbyterian service had obviously given thought to the welcome the bells gave to those who came to worship.

Taking a breath, watching his exhalation billow in an ephemeral cloud before focusing again on the arrivals, he reflected once more at how ridiculous it was for him to be hovering in the shadows when he could be warm and dry at home. Warm and dry and alone - so not how he'd envisioned this Christmas Eve, the first Christmas Jim hadn't drawn duty in all the years they'd known one another.

Briefly, his memories flicked back over those previous Christmases and he sighed at how barren the first one had been. Jim, the inveterate loner and self-professed cynic when it came to anything the least bit sentimental, hadn't been interested in putting up a tree or cluttering the loft with a lot of seasonal decoration. Having moved in on sufferance not long before, Blair had contented himself with hanging his wreath, the only seasonal ornament small enough to carry with him from place to place, year to year, on the outside of their front door. Not large, it was a pretty thing of woven blue and green evergreen boughs intertwined with vines of glossy ivy leaves and cheerful, bright red holly berries. Each year, he made a personal ritual of renewing the treasured wreath with delicate, fragrant branches, and the pretty holly and ivy. While he wove fresh greenery or anchored new holly into the twisted frame of slim, bare branches, he reflected poignantly that the little decoration revealed his most deeply-held personal dream for those who knew the symbolic meaning of the plants, a dream he felt most keenly at this, the happiest season of the year. Pine stood for hope and fir for time. The smooth ivy represented friendship, affection and fidelity, and the holly promised domestic happiness. Taken altogether, they spelled 'home', something he'd never really had. Jim had sniffed at the sight of it, but hadn't commented. And that was pretty much all there'd been to that Christmas.

The second year, Blair had dragged his protesting roommate out to buy a tree and all the trimmings and, though Jim had groused about the mess the needles would make when they dried out and fell off, they'd had fun setting it up. There'd been no gifts between them that year, Jim muttering something about him being Jewish, so it wasn't like his holiday anyway, and figuring that Blair would share his disgust with the commercialization of the season. The third year, they'd worked up to small gifts, tokens of friendship, not expensive but meaningful - at least he treasured the sweater Jim had given him, 'to keep him warm', and he hoped Jim also continued to appreciate the hand-carved and polished stone black jaguar fetish Blair had found for him.

Since they'd always worked Christmas, there'd been no traditional Christmas dinner in the loft in any of those preceding years.

When Blair had learned Jim had the holiday off this year, he'd planned to go the whole distance and cook a turkey with all the fixings. He'd just finished at the Academy and would be starting his job as Jim's official partner in the New Year. Who knew when they'd both have another Christmas off to enjoy in traditional ways? He'd be a rookie, an unmarried rookie, who wouldn't rate the time off, maybe for years. So he'd really wanted this Christmas to be special.

Brushing the snow from his eyes, he grimaced and thought he probably shouldn't care so much. After all, it wasn't like he was Christian. Nominally Jewish, he wasn't particularly religious in terms of any traditional ritual or affiliation. He'd studied the cultures and religions of the world, both past and present, and found that he readily honored most of the core tenets of each of the philosophies. He saw value in the commonalities of the various interpretations and struggles to understand the mysterious, and man's relationship to a higher being or power, however it was defined. He supposed, ultimately, he was spiritually inclined in that - unlike most people, who thought the physical world around them was real and the spirit ephemeral, if it existed at all - he believed the spirit was real and the world's reality was mutable, subject to perception. He thought of the Big Bang as more of a Big Idea that had internal logic like all great ideas, logic that was called physics by the scientists, but that was, if not exactly imaginary, more a manifestation of spiritual power. He believed that all things, all people, everything, was connected, part of one whole, and that life as it was perceived was a kind of soul's playground and school of learning and growth.

So, he could readily credit the idea that one life, one man, could be born to be the embodiment of God or the Universe's unconditional love, but he figured that the Universe so loved all beings that the message of love, of life as a gift to be cherished and enjoyed, was so fundamental that it was a message given time and time again, in whatever way people could hear and accept it. In that respect, all religions had a common theme, a common base and purpose. Essentially, Blair believed everyone was a son or daughter of God and he'd come to think of Christmas as a time to honor and celebrate that love with those closest to him, with the family of his heart and soul.

And so he'd badly wanted to celebrate with Jim, his best friend. The best friend he'd ever had.

He stiffened as he saw the three so-familiar men stride from the parking lot toward the Church entrance, William in the middle, Jim on his right and Steven on his left. Jim's tentative reconciliation with his father and brother had taken a real beating in the media feeding frenzy and crazy hullabaloo following the illegal release of parts of his erstwhile dissertation. The fragile relationship might have crumbled back into total alienation, but William had decided to try again to strengthen the family bonds. He'd invited both Jim and Steven to join him for a traditional Christmas at home. As he watched them walk along the sidewalk, slowing their pace to match that of the others ahead of them on the now crowded snowy path, Blair recalled Jim's explanation that his father hadn't thought Blair would be comfortable sharing in the holiday, since he wasn't a part of the family and, as a Jew, a traditional Christmas wasn't something he'd want to celebrate anyway. Jim had seemed uncomfortable with the invitation, or maybe that he'd been excluded, but Blair understood, was even glad for his friend. He'd waved off Jim's questions about whether or not to accept his father's invitation, or if Blair minded being left alone. "Why would I mind?" he'd asked, avoiding a direct answer, hiding the truth that he did mind, very much actually, because what he felt didn't matter. "Go on, tell your Dad you'll be there. Of course, you'll be there. It's great that William wants to do this, wants the three of you to be a family again. It's important, Jim. Really important."

Really important, he thought again, wishing he and Naomi had been able to weather the dissertation mess as well. But his mother seemed caught in guilt and grief, remorse at the role she'd played and regret at the decisions her son had made about his career choices. She was currently visiting friends in Israel, observing Hanukkah in a more traditional way than they'd ever done when he was a kid. Sighing, he wondered if she was rediscovering her roots, or if it was just convenient to be on the other side of the world. Frowning worriedly, he feared she was in the process of detaching with love, something he'd dreaded would eventually happen but had hoped never would. But she really couldn't stand to think of him carrying a badge and a weapon, however much she'd smiled with approbation down at the station a few months ago. He supposed that he was probably a serious disappointment to her.

Sighing sadly, he blinked against the snow that blurred his vision and watched Jim follow his father and brother into the Church. He continued to watch and listen to the pealing of the bells until the last person entered and the doors were closed, shutting off the glimpse of warmth and welcome, and the last trembling tone faded from the still air, leaving only the silence of the snowy night. He knew he could go inside, take part in the service. But he also knew he'd be an interloper, that he didn't really belong there; not because it was a Christian institution, but because it was Jim's time to be with his family, and he didn't belong.

"Merry Christmas, Jim," he whispered hoarsely. Turning, he cleared the accumulated snow from his rear window and windshield, muttering sorrowfully, "'Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee' - well, not for me, not tonight." He climbed in and turned on the ignition. Slipping the Volvo into gear, he drove slowly home through the quiet streets made bright by the reflection on the new-fallen snow of the decorative lights on the houses and buildings along the way.

Back at the loft, he smiled wistfully at his wreath and lightly caressed an ivy leaf, fruitlessly seeking joy in the cheerfulness of the holly berries before letting himself into the dark, silent apartment. After shrugging out of his coat and hanging it up, he plugged in the tree lights and started a fire before wandering into the kitchen. Tea might be a staple of life and coffee a beloved elixir, but he felt the need of comfort as well as warmth. He felt the need of some indulgence. So he heated milk and added cocoa and sugar, stirring slowly as he patiently made himself hot chocolate. After he'd poured a mug of the rich libation, leaving the rest to simmer on low heat, he moved back into the living room to curl up on the sofa.

His thoughts returned to his own peculiar interpretation of the Universe as a sentient and compassionate entity, and the soul's journey through eternal infinity. He wondered, as he often did, just what his soul's purpose was in this lifetime. Why had he been born? Why had he been granted a second chance at life that day at the fountain, nine months ago now? For a good part of his life, he'd searched for a sentinel; he'd come to believe that his soul's mission in this life was to find that sentinel and somehow be of help to him or her. Sentinels were, in his view, special creations, kind of like physical manifestations of archangels in human form, bearing the sword of justice and protecting innocent souls, giving them a chance to learn and grow safely. He had believed passionately in their existence, despite years of disappointment in ever actually finding one.

And then he'd found Jim.

Smiling to himself, shaking his head bemusedly, Blair recalled their disastrous first discussion in his office. Somehow, he'd never expected to be slammed up against the wall by the first sentinel he found. Jim was some 'physical manifestation' alright - the power of his presence gave literal meaning to the idea of someone being 'larger than life'. Jim stood out in any crowd, his presence commanding, his confidence unassailable when he was taking charge, doing what needed to be done. He was everything Blair had ever imagined a sentinel to be and so much more, though Jim would snort with derision at being likened to a superior soul, an archangel of sorts, born to fulfill a particular destiny as a watchman, a protector. Jim was very aware that he had feet of clay, was tormented by very human griefs and uncertainties, and he was too familiar with the dark side of humanity to ever really fully believe that everyone had a core of purity within them, a spark of light.

For nearly four years now, Blair had firmly, even fiercely, believed he'd found his life's purpose. Whatever challenge or danger threatened, he was certain his mission was to do his best to help Jim in fulfilling his larger purpose, his more important role in the world.

But ... maybe he was wrong.

For the last year, there'd been one indicator after another that maybe he was imposing himself upon Jim and that he was, perhaps, on the wrong path. Jim's escape to Clayton Falls was the first really clear signpost that maybe Jim neither wanted nor needed him. Alex Barnes had been another, in a lot of different ways, from Jim tossing him out of the loft, to being murdered by her, to being abandoned by Jim repeatedly in Mexico. He'd thought the fact that Jim had called him back at the fountain, had restored him to life, had been a sign that they were meant to be together in this life. But, maybe, he'd only been granted a second chance to find his true purpose, whatever that might be. And his dissertation had sure been the source of several pretty clear signals that he was working on the wrong things, from Jim's hostility about the first draft chapter to the mess three months ago. But then Jim had tossed him the badge and he'd taken it as the most welcome of signs that he had grabbed the right brass ring after all, that he was doing what he'd been born to do, and that he was meant to be Jim's protector, as best he could. Not just because Jim was a sentinel. But because he wanted, more than anything, to be a continuing part of Jim's life; wanted to do all he could to keep Jim safe.

In his mind, his heart, he'd seen this Christmas as a kind of affirmation of their unique friendship, a true beginning of the lives they would spend together. Well, at least for the next fifteen or twenty years, until Jim retired and maybe wouldn't need him anymore. Blair didn't really know what he'd do when that time came. Go back to his academic career maybe. Continue learning. Maybe be of worth teaching other souls.

But Christmas was here and he was alone, and Jim was with his real family. Did that mean that he was wrong to believe that their souls were somehow linked? Did that make him wrong about his mission, or did it simply mean that he might have a role to play as Jim's partner in facing the dangers the world threw at him, but that they weren't family in some fundamental, spiritual way? Could how he feel deep inside be so wrong, so misguided? So one-sided?

Sipping on his hot chocolate, he supposed that's exactly what the Universe was trying to tell him. More, maybe he was being told to give Jim space to live his own private life however he chose, without the encumbrance of his work partner underfoot all the time.

Staring into the flames, weary in his soul, Blair felt sadness steal over him and he ached inside with the feeling of being lost and alone. Distantly, he heard the muted peeling of church bells, signaling the end of the midnight services all over the city. Sighing, he imagined Jim going home with his father and brother, retiring to his old room, warm and secure in the embrace of his family. He supposed he should make his way to his own bed, but he felt lethargic, lacking in purpose, disinclined to move. Briefly, his gaze drifting to the tree and the gifts under its branches, he wondered how he'd spend his Christmas, but the dreariness of a long day alone when he'd had such different hopes made such reflections unappealing. Impatience with his propensity that night for self-pity flared, and he told himself briskly he'd go down to the shelter and help prepare and serve the traditional meal to the homeless. There were souls in this world who had a much harder row than he had to hoe.

But still he lingered in the living room, staring into the flames and listening to the silence, searching for some sense of peace within himself. He'd been alone on other Christmases. It was really no big deal. Jim didn't have to be present for Blair to feel and celebrate his love for his friend, to be glad for him, happy to know he was with his family. Taking a breath, letting it out slowly, he was about to get up to clean up the kitchen and go to bed when he heard a key turn in the lock. Startled, he looked up in speechless surprise to see Jim walk in.

"Oh, hey, you're still up," his friend observed as he stripped off his coat and sniffed the air appreciatively. "Hot chocolate?" he queried, with a hopeful tone.

"Yeah, there's some still warming on the stove," Blair managed to reply. "I, uh, I thought you were staying at home tonight."

Shrugging almost diffidently as he wandered into the kitchen, Jim said, "I am home."

"You know what I mean."

Nodding as he poured himself a mug and a fresh one for Blair, Jim murmured, "Yeah, I know." Moving into the living room, he handed Blair the porcelain cup and then settled in his chair. For a moment, Jim gazed at the Christmas tree, his expression reflective, thoughtful. He blew on the hot beverage and took a sip and nodded again to himself before he looked at Blair. "I planned to stay at Dad's place but, well, when I got to the Church, I wasn't feeling really comfortable with the idea. I don't know. Just didn't feel right, you know?"

Blair frowned, and shook his head. "I don't understand. I thought you were looking forward to being with your family, to getting closer again, like you were beginning to do last year."

"Yeah, I was," Jim agreed slowly. His gaze dropped and he resumed his recounting of the events that had led him back to the loft. "We went inside the Church and found a place to sit. There was a moment of perfect silence when the bells stopped ringing and everyone waited for the service to begin. And I, well, I thought I heard you, wishing me a Merry Christmas." He looked up and it was Blair's turn to look away, embarrassed to think Jim realized he'd been there, in the shadows of the snowy night. "But then the choir started singing, and I wasn't sure, thought maybe I'd imagined it. Anyway," Jim continued, seeming almost tentative, "the preacher's sermon was about the importance of Christmas as a time of rebirth, of love of family and community, of hope and new beginnings. And as I sat there, I realized why something seemed so off, so, uh, wrong somehow. I was there with my family, but it didn't feel ... right."

Blair hazarded a look at him, concerned by Jim's uncertain, almost vulnerable, tone. "Hey, it's just that it's new, you know?" he offered, feeling a need to console his friend. "It's been a long time and there's still a lot of healing to do between you and William and Steven. But you're on the right track, Jim. It's all good, this reconciliation. This chance to rediscover one another, to care about one another again. They are your family, after all."

"Yes, they are, and I'm glad things are getting better between us," Jim agreed solemnly. "But while I was sitting in that Church, I realized that, well, they aren't my only family, not even my closest family." Shrugging uncomfortably, he went on, "You are, Chief. My closest family, I mean. That's what was wrong, what didn't feel right. There I was," he struggled to explain, his tone at first sardonic and then resonating with the hollow ache he'd felt, "supposedly celebrating family and hope and new beginnings and the joy of the gift of boundless, unconditional love - and you weren't there." He hesitated, and then added very quietly, "At least, you weren't inside with the rest of us."

Holding himself very still, Blair forced back the thick lump that had formed in his throat at Jim's words. He took a steadying breath and let it out in a shuddering sigh before he admitted hesitantly, "It was stupid, I guess." Looking up at Jim, he confessed, "I just, uh, I just wanted to share part of Christmas with you, sort of. So, yeah, I was there. Just down the street. It never occurred to me though, that you'd hear me or ever know I was there." A slight smile played around his lips as he added almost shyly, "You're, uh, well, you're my closest family, too."

Jim nodded soberly as he set his mug aside and leaned forward, his hands clasped between his knees. "I'm sorry it took me this long to figure it all out," he sighed. "I mean that it's about more than friendship, isn't it? It's about family." But then he straightened as he continued, "We've had a really tough year, but I think we're finally on the right track. I want to celebrate that with you, Chief. I want ... want to make this a kind of new beginning for us, a new start, you know? Where we're on the same page?" Looking around the loft, he sighed. "Between us, we nearly blew it, big time. But ... but you made it possible for us to find a way to make it work. And ... well, I'm really glad, you know? Not about the price you paid, but that you'll be my permanent partner from now on. Selfish, maybe, but there it is. I don't know what the future will bring, nobody does, I guess. But, uh, but I want us to plan to stick together. I mean, if that works for you. This place ... this place is too small and I think we should spend some time next week looking around for something bigger that would give you more room than that cupboard under the stairs." Shrugging awkwardly, he returned his gaze to Blair's. "I guess it's just that even if either of us gets married, or has kids, I'd like us to be in the same residence. Weird, maybe. But ... I can't explain it. It's just that I think we sort of belong together."

"Because of the sentinel stuff," Blair murmured.

"Yeah, and because, somehow, we are family, maybe the closest family either of us will ever have," Jim agreed, his gaze falling away, as if he was embarrassed. "Because it just ... feels right," he added, grimacing with exasperation about his inability to explain any more clearly. Sighing, he again lifted his gaze to Blair's. "Am I making any sense here?"

"Yeah," Blair agreed hoarsely, and had to clear his throat before he elaborated, "I feel exactly the same way. That we belong together."

Jim smiled then, slowly, as the tension in his body eased. "Okay," he murmured, seeming both pleased and relieved that, even when he wasn't sure he was making any kind of sense, Blair seemed to understand and, more, that Blair felt the same way. "Merry Christmas, Chief," he offered, his smile growing into a happy grin.

"Merry Christmas, Jim," Blair replied, his own smile widening, his eyes sparkling, his soul rejoicing that Jim felt it, too. A shared destiny of sorts, that their lives were inextricably entwined and that that was right, somehow.

"Oh, and Dad said to tell you that we're both invited back for Christmas dinner," Jim told him then. "He said, well, he said that he'd like it if the whole family could be there, together."

Nodding slowly, appreciating the emphasis that meant he was very much included, Blair replied warmly, "I'd like that, Jim. I'd like that a lot."

Reclaiming his mug, Jim lifted it in a toast. "To family and new hope and new beginnings."

"To family, and to new life and sharing our future," Blair added, feeling boundlessly happy, the shadows and doubts, the loneliness he'd felt banished by Jim's certain, unvarnished declaration that, whatever life might hold, their destinies were entwined, like the ivy leaves with the spruce boughs of his wreath. He felt joy well up inside, as sharply cheerful as the brilliant red holly berries that held promise of life and renewal even in the darkest depths of winter.

Sharing a sense of peace, quietly content to simply be together as the earth turned toward Christmas Day, they sat back to enjoy the glittering lights of their tree, warmed by more than the flickering fire's glow. Outside, the snow fell silently through the dark night, making the world fresh again, clean, pure and bright.

Finis

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