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

Dedication: To all who have supported and encouraged my writing in so many ways. Thank you!

Thanks, Danae, for the wonderful beta work you do and for helping me improve my stories.

Tamed: A Christmas Story

by JET

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

Blair Sandburg hung the final ornament on the tree, then he stepped back and regarded their creation with a satisfied smile. Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Behind him, Jim Ellison bent down to plug in the lights. In an instant, the living room was bathed in a rainbow of colors. Jim straightened and nodded at the beauty of their handiwork.

"Looks good, Chief," he said approvingly.

Blair slid the last of the boxes over beside the front door to carry down to the basement storeroom later. He came back and collapsed on the couch, sighing happily. Tired, yet satisfied. One of Blair Sandburg's favorite feelings. "Yeah, it does. Definitely the prettiest tree we've had. I have to hand it to you; you really picked out a good one, Jim. Nice shape and really tall."

Nodding appreciatively, Jim joined his friend on the couch. Reaching over, he patted Blair's knee. "It's that sentinel eyesight, Chief. It definitely comes in handy with chores like this." He stared at the twinkling lights, bright and glowing against the deep, rich green. It was the night before Christmas Eve, and for once, Cascade was at peace. A rare calm in a too often turbulent sea.

It had been a hard year, Jim reflected, but overall, a good one. The unexpected release of Blair's dissertation and the accompanying heartbreak had almost torn apart their deep friendship the previous year. The tenuous friendship which had already been painfully reconstructed after Blair's death and resurrection in the fountain had barely survived intact. After those upheavals, this past year, even with its accompanying dangers and near catastrophes, had seemed relatively normal. At least, as normal as the Sentinel of the Great City could ever hope to achieve.

Images of the year gone by flashed through his mind like an old-fashioned, flickering film.

*Peru...Imaru and the Temple of Sentinels and Guides...experiencing Sandburg's life with all its pain and fears and triumphs, just as it had been lived by the young man he had come to cherish...a young boy, a mere child, yet so very much more, with deep blue eyes and the light coloring of his American detective father; a child born to the role he was destined to play, that of sentinel to the Chopec...the bonding ceremony which lashed his life, his heart, his very essence more powerfully to Blair than he had ever dreamed possible...their return from Peru, followed by Blair's kidnapping at the hands of Marcus Eaves...watching in absolute terror as his guide was shot and plummeted over the cliff into the raging river far, far below...not only sensing Blair's fear, but actually feeling it in his own body, in his own soul...the sheer joy and elation at finding his guide alive after all...his own flight from the deadly implications of his job into the mountains surrounding Cascade, and his eventual return when a freak accident nearly cost Blair his life once more, an accident totally unrelated to Jim's job or his destiny as a sentinel.*

And now, it was Christmas.

They were safely together in the warm cocoon of their home. The city was wrapped within the peace of the season, and for once, all was right in Jim's world. For James Ellison, who had come far too close to losing everything he cherished, the tranquility of the loft on this night was especially precious.

Blair glanced at the sentinel and felt a twinge of concern at his vaguely unfocused eyes and still features. He reached over and gently tapped Jim on the shoulder. "Jim? Hey, man, you're not zoning on the Christmas tree, are you?"

His reverie broken, Jim turned to his friend, his blue eyes luminous in the soft, colorful light. "No, Sandburg. Just thinking."

"Watch out, man," Blair joked. "That could be dangerous."

Jim slapped his guide's knee in mock anger. "Better watch that tone, Junior. As an official member of Major Crimes, you're under my direct supervision. Remember who has to write your quarterly evaluations, kiddo."

Blair grinned and fired off a snappy salute. "Yes, Sir, Detective Ellison, Sir!"

Elbowing him in the ribs, Jim grinned back, unable to keep up the facade of irritation any longer. "Knock it off, Chief." He leaned back, pillowing his head on the back cushion of the couch. Breathing deeply, he inhaled the comforting scents of evergreen and cinnamon. The scents of the season, he thought, enjoying the blanket of warm contentment wrapping around him. "When is Naomi arriving again?"

Blair slipped down to the floor and began inspecting the packages lying beneath the tree. "Tomorrow afternoon. I wish she had a little longer for her visit."

Jim Ellison gazed thoughtfully at the image of his partner stretched out on the floor trying to figure out the contents of his Christmas gifts. Over thirty years old with a hard won Ph.D. and jobs as a part-time assistant professor at Rainier University and official consultant to the Cascade PD, Blair still reacted to the anticipation of Christmas with the wide-eyed excitement of youth.

Even after all the years they'd been together, Blair Sandburg remained an enigma to Ellison. Sometimes Jim thought that if he and Blair lived well into their nineties, he would never have enough years to unravel the mystery that was his guide, his best friend, his teacher and brother. Still so innocent and almost childlike in some ways, yet Blair was the most courageous man he'd ever had the privilege to work beside. He was certainly the most intelligent person Jim had ever known and the most compassionate. He trusted Sandburg with his life and, perhaps more significantly, with his heart. That was an honor James Ellison had bestowed on few people in his lifetime. One of his greatest fears had always been that his job and its accompanying tragedies and injustices would somehow sap from Sandburg the exuberance and trusting heart which were at the core of his very nature. Jim sent up a quick prayer of thanks that even after all he'd been through, Blair was still...well, Blair.

Jim's thoughts returned to their holiday plans and he asked, "Where'd you say Naomi was heading after leaving here?"

Blair picked up a square package and shook it inquisitively. "No card. Is this one mine, Jim? Kinda light, isn't it?" he pointed out in jest.

Jim shrugged, fighting to hide his guilty smile, and Blair returned to his package inspection. "She's going to Colorado for a spiritual retreat with some friends she met at Woodstock. They plan to fast and meditate from Christmas night until December 31st. Then, they're going to hike up into the mountains and watch the new year come in from a mountain peak." Blair tried to peer through the red and green paper wrapping of the mysterious box, then gave up and replaced it beneath the tree.

Sensing the disappointment in his partner's tone, Jim tried to look on the bright side. "Well, at least she'll be here for a short visit, Chief. You didn't get to spend any time with your mom last year at all."

Blair smiled sheepishly and nodded in agreement. "True enough. Guess having Naomi light here for even one night is an accomplishment, isn't it?" Glancing at the kitchen clock, he added, "Hey, Jim, I don't know about you, but I'm starved." He selected another package for inspection.

Jim stood up and stretched. "How about we head out and get a bite? After all this tree decorating, I don't want to have to wash dishes tonight."

Blair slid the package he'd been shaking back under the tree. "Sounds great. I could go for Italian."

Reaching down, Jim extended a hand to his friend. Blair grasped it firmly, and Jim hoisted him to his feet. Wrapping an arm around Blair's shoulders, Jim headed toward the door, picking up his keys on the way out. Behind them, the Christmas lights twinkled and glowed in the darkness.

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

"Blair! Jim! Are you boys home?" The cheery voice of Naomi Sandburg filled the loft as Blair's mother used her emergency key. Immediately, she spotted two figures outside on the balcony, and she hurried to place her packages under the tree as the door opened behind her.

"Mom! You're here!" Blair greeted his mother with a hug and warm smile. "We didn't expect you until later in the afternoon."

"I got an earlier flight, sweetie! I just couldn't wait to get here and see my baby!" Naomi held him at arm's length. "Now, let me just look at you!" A second's inspection led to her evaluation of her son's appearance. "You look wonderful, Blair! I do think you've added a pound or two, but it suits you. Just look at you! My son, the college professor."

Jim Ellison joined his partner from out on the balcony. "And official Cascade PD consultant, not to mention my partner," he added with a grin. "Naomi! Good to see you." Reaching out, he gave Blair's mom a hug. "Glad you could make it."

Naomi smiled up brightly at the big detective. "Me, too, Jim. It's so good to be here." She turned to admire the tree. "It certainly looks festive. You've done a lovely job with the tree."

"Mostly your son's doings, I'm afraid. Blair did the majority of the decorating this time, not to mention collecting the ornaments over the past few years. I'm afraid I can't take much of the credit. All I did was help string lights and hang ornaments." Jim smiled affectionately at his partner.

Blair smiled at the compliment. "Mom, we thought we'd take you out to dinner tonight, then open the presents, since you won't be around long tomorrow. You did bring presents, right?" He grinned mischievously at his mom as he ducked a poorly placed swat from his partner. "Do you really have to leave tomorrow morning?" Blair turned beseeching eyes on his mother. He saw her so seldom, and only one night over the holidays just didn't seem enough.

Naomi pinched his chin and shook it gently. "You know I can't miss this spiritual retreat, Blair. I absolutely must begin the new year at one with nature. The karma simply wouldn't be right otherwise." She turned to Jim. "You understand, don't you, Jim?"

Ellison suppressed a chuckle. "Of course, Naomi. One wouldn't want to start the new year with negative karma."

"See, dearest? Jim understands." Sweeping her single, small suitcase into her hands, Naomi almost floated into Blair's small bedroom. "I'm in your room again, I trust, sweetie?" Without waiting for a reply, she closed the French doors. "Just give me a few minutes to change, then we'll see Cascade in all its Christmas glory!"

Immediately, Blair turned to give Jim a swat on the arm. The sentinel pretended to flinch in pain.

"Ouch! What's that for?"

"For taking my mom's side, you jerk. 'One wouldn't want to start the new year with negative karma' my ass! Since when do you understand about karma?" He glared accusingly up at his tall partner.

Jim promptly pulled his friend into a tight headlock. "I don't, Sandburg. Doesn't mean I can't learn 'Naomi-speak,' though." After a minute of laughing combined with thrashing by his helpless captive, Jim released the younger man and turned to check the fire before they left for dinner. "Face it, Chief. Your mom lives her own life by her own rules. She has plans for the rest of the holidays. Just enjoy the time she's here, okay?" He turned and studied Blair's face carefully, hoping his partner wasn't too upset at Naomi's early departure.

Blair sighed, then shrugged his shoulders with a resigned grin. "You're right. I know Mom doesn't mean anything by leaving so soon, but it would be nice to have her visit a little longer. Christmas is supposed to be a time for family, right?"

"True, Chief," Jim replied. "After all, I'm planning to spend tomorrow with my family."

For a moment, Blair was confused. Had Jim invited William Ellison and his brother, Steven, to the loft tomorrow? Then, with a sudden flash of insight, he understood. Moving closer to his sentinel, Blair looked up into the solemn blue eyes. "Us. We're family, too, aren't we?"

Reaching out, Ellison mussed Blair's soft curls. "You'd better believe it, Darwin. You'd better believe it." Then, Jim jerked his head in the direction of the French doors. "Better get ready, Chief. I think your mom expects to see the lights of Cascade tonight."

Blair's eyes shone. "After that, we open the presents, right?"

"Presents? What makes you think I got you a present, Sandburg?" In contrast to the gruffness of his words, Jim's voice was light and teasing.

Blair grabbed his clothes from the bathroom door where they'd been hanging. "You'd better have me something, man! Putting up with your house rules all year should earn me the best Christmas gift of all time!"

He darted into the bathroom just in time to miss the pillow thrown at him by one very accurate sentinel. Their laughter rang through the loft as the red, green, and gold lights on the tree sparkled and danced.

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

Christmas Eve brought with it an unexpected and gentle snowfall. Through the darkness outside the loft, small flakes danced in the air, and through an occasional break in the clouds, the stars twinkled down. The moon, when it peeked through, shone full and bright with a silvery fire.

It was late in the evening. Dinner had been delicious, and after riding slowly through the streets and neighborhoods of Cascade admiring the lovely lights and decorations, they had returned to the loft.

Quiet instrumental music provided a relaxing backdrop, the old, familiar carols welcomed anew on this night. Blair huddled under an old afghan on the floor in front of the tree, Jim sprawled loosely beside him. Naomi was relaxing on the couch, her smile thoughtful and tender. Each had a small pile of brightly wrapped gifts at their side.

Jim smiled at his friend. "You first, Chief."

"No argument there," Blair agreed with a delighted grin. He studied his gifts carefully, then selected a small box. "From Naomi with Love," he read. "Thanks, Mom," he said, smiling up at her.

"You haven't opened it yet, dear," Naomi reminded him. "You may not even like it."

"Not a chance!" He ripped open the wrapping with excited abandon and let out a delighted whoop when he saw the contents. "Yes! A Palm Pilot!" Reading the print on the box, he looked up and grinned. "I didn't know you even knew about high tech stuff, Naomi."

His mother did her best to look offended. "Just because I choose not to clutter my life with such things doesn't mean I don't keep up with what's going on in today's world, Blair." Then, she smiled. "I figured that as a detective's partner, you'd have lots of notes to keep up with, and your usual notebooks might be a bit bulky. Do you think he can use it on the job, Jim?"

Ellison looked at her and nodded. "Certainly, Naomi. It'll be very useful, for both of us. Thank you." Jim's eyes held hers for a long moment, their message clear. *Thank you for acknowledging your son's role in my life and mine in his; thank you for accepting it. For accepting me.*

Naomi's blue eyes sparkled in understanding. "You're welcome, Jim. On all counts. Now, it's your turn."

Jim selected the gift with Naomi's card on it. "Let's see here. You probably know I'd never figure out a Palm Pilot, so what could this be?" He unwrapped the paper neatly and methodically, as Blair peered over his shoulder, scooting closer to see.

Naomi smiled in wonder at the image. Her son's hand rested easily on Jim Ellison's broad shoulder as he leaned over to see the contents of the package. Jim glanced over at him and smiled, his affection for Blair evident in the warmth of his sky-blue eyes. Of all the places she'd ever envisioned her son ending up, at the side of a man like Ellison was one she never could have imagined. Now, however, Naomi couldn't conceive of Blair existing anywhere else.

Jim opened the top of the small box and studied the contents for a moment before carefully drawing out the tiny figures within. Without a word, he handed them to Blair who gently touched them in admiration.

Two small creatures were carefully carved from onyx and Picasso marble. A translucent strip bound them tightly together, side by side. The workmanship in the figures was easy to see, and the stones almost glowed with a nearly palatable energy.

At the same time, both men looked to Naomi, and she explained.

"I had those crafted just for you in Arizona, Jim. I guess they're really for both of you, not just for Jim. Blair, you know about Native American fetishes." At her son's nod, she continued. "These were carved by old Mr. Begay. He used to take you out riding, remember, sweetie? Anyway, one is the black jaguar, or mountain lion, in the Indian tradition. The other is the wolf. The cord binding them together is sinew. It is used for its beauty and its durability. They represent your partnership and symbolize its invincibility."

Naomi drew a deep breath. "I nearly destroyed your friendship once, and I am so very sorry. I will never get over the damage I did to you. To both of you. Jim, Blair, seeing you torn apart like that was the most heartbreaking thing I've ever witnessed, and to think that it was my fault..."

Naomi took a moment to compose herself. "I just want you both to know that I understand everything now. I finally read his dissertation, Jim. It was so beautiful. Yet, what he has with you is even more beautiful. I understand now why Blair never considered what he did a sacrifice, and I think I understand why you couldn't allow his sacrifice to stand. Why you made the sacrifice you did for Blair when you told the world about your secret."

Naomi's smile trembled slightly. "Blair told me about the wolf and jaguar, about how they brought him back after...the fountain. How you brought him back, Jim. I had this made just as a reminder, as a symbol, of the forces that brought you together in the first place and keep you together now."

Jim and Blair rose as one and moved to sit on either side of Naomi. "It's okay, Mom," Blair whispered giving her a hug. "Thank you for the fetish. It's perfect."

Jim squeezed Naomi's shoulders. "All's forgiven, Naomi," he said quietly. "It has been for a long time now. I hope you know that."

She wiped the tears from her eyes. "I do, Jim. I do. I just wanted you both to know that I understand at least something of what you two have together, and that I respect it.."

"Thank you, Naomi. It's very beautiful. I'll treasure it always." Looking over and smiling at Blair, he added, "We both will." Wiping away the small tear forming at the corner of his eye, Blair grinned. "More presents?"

Jim laughed at his partner. "You sure you're really a grown-up, Chief? Sometimes, I'd swear you're about ten years old. Yeah, more presents!"

Blair handed Naomi their gifts for her. From Blair, there was a new, leather shoulder bag, the huge, spacious kind she favored with room for all her traveling necessities. Naomi glowed with pleasure as her long fingers stroked the fine grained leather. Jim gave her a pair of warm leather gloves. "For that mountain peak in Colorado," he explained. Naomi slipped them on and pronounced them a perfect fit.

Next was Blair's gift to Jim. The younger man watched anxiously as his friend unwrapped the paper from the box. He'd worried for months about what to give Jim this year, the first year of their official partnership. It had to be something special, something unique. Then, it had come to him.

Jim unwrapped the rather large, rectangular box. When the festive wrappings fell away, he stared uncomprehending at the contents. Looking at his friend in confusion, he asked, "A laptop?" Jim shook his head. "Sandburg, I..."

Blair leaned over to turn on the power. Would Jim appreciate the gift? Sometimes the sentinel could be unpredictable when it came to matters of the heart. Things you'd think would touch him would receive only a cursory nod, while seemingly ordinary events such as a child's smile might bring a tear to his soft, blue eyes.

"It's not just the computer itself, Jim," Blair clarified. "It's what's on it. I know you don't think you're very talented when it comes to high tech stuff, but I know you can learn to use this. I mean, you're always working on reports and notes and stuff at home, and I figured this way, you could save them, then load the files onto your computer at work." Sandburg grinned wryly. "Open the envelope, Jim." He waited with nervous anticipation for Jim's reaction.

Jim read the neatly folded sheet of paper inside the envelope. "Good for a lifetime of free computer lessons and advice on demand from your partner and roommate. Love, Blair." Looking up, Jim smiled at his friend. "I'll learn, Chief. I promise. But isn't this a little much for you to spend?"

Blair shrugged. "Not really. I got a good deal. One of my students had bought it, but he ended up needing the money for tuition. It's only slightly used, but if that's a problem, Jim..."

"Not a problem at all, Chief." Turning his attention back to the laptop, Jim said, "Show me what you've done here, buddy."

Blair took the computer from his friend and brought up a screen. "It's a Power Point presentation, Jim," he explained. He looked up at his mother. "Let's move to the couch so Naomi can see."

After they settled in on the couch with Jim in the middle and Sandburg and Naomi on either side, Blair started the program. "Just watch," he said hopefully. "See what you think. It's not much really, but..."

By then, the screen had changed. Words appeared, in large, bright letters.

*James Joseph Ellison...*

*Son...brother...athlete...*

The pictures began. Blair clicked the play button on the CD remote control. Softly, a beautiful melody rose in accompaniment. A single, rich guitar soared to the music of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy".

*A young William Ellison, beside his beautiful Grace, standing on a beach with their first-born in her arms. The wind blew back her long, blonde hair, and she looked down at her son with adoring eyes. William, his expression tender, watched his wife and son, one arm wrapped around her shoulders, the other caressing the downy hair of baby Jim...*

*Jim and Steven in their Sunday best, stood in front of the family Christmas tree. Maybe six and eight, their eyes glowed with the excitement only the very young feel. Each held up his stocking, empty in anticipation of the impending visit by Santa, and their mother knelt beside them. Grace's smile was a mirror of her sons'.*

Blair heard Jim whisper, "That was our last Christmas..." His voice was a blend of regret and love as unexpected tears blurred his eyes. Blindly, he sought and found Sandburg's hand and held on.

The screen changed again.

*A young Jim Ellison was dressed in his high school football uniform. The local photographer had caught him in an unguarded moment. He stood alone at the edge of the field after a game. His gaze was on his teammates as they celebrated, his helmet clutched in his hand, his face and uniform dirty from battle. The wistful look on Jim's face was captured perfectly. It was a bittersweet image somehow, the high school hero after the hard-won victory, an integral part of the team, yet, somehow, not quite included, not quite belonging. A strong, handsome man-child, with the vitality of youth, but the sad eyes of one much older than his years.*

More images followed, each accompanied by the haunting melody.

*Jim and Steven together...playing touch football in the back yard...running down the beach, the sand flying behind their airborne feet...William posing with his sons at each of their high school graduations...Sally in her kitchen, her apron dusted with flour, smiling with both 'her boys' beside her at the big table...*

Another title...

*U.S. Army...Ranger...Special Forces...*

*Jim in his uniform, solemn and rigid, the picture of the perfect soldier...leaping from the open door of an airplane, his parachute strapped on, his mouth open in the cry of battle...Captain Ellison in his dress uniform, snapping to attention as the flag passed by...Jim in his familiar camouflage, his face painted, his rifle at the ready, eyes hard as steel...Jim posing with his outfit just before their ill-fated journey to Peru...the famous magazine cover with those lost eyes gazing out at a world that could never comprehend who, or what, he had become...*

*Detective Jim Ellison...Cop of the Year...*

*Photos of Jim in Cascade...standing alongside Jack and Danny...with Simon...with Henri, and Rafe, and Joel...receiving his award, movie star handsome in his tuxedo...running from a burning car with the youngest victim of the accident clutched in his powerful arms as the mother reached out in gratitude for her infant...standing at a crime scene, jotting down notes as he talked to a witness...*

*Jim...sentinel...friend...partner...brother...*

*Images of two friends, one shorter, one taller...one light, one dark...laughing...smiling...two pairs of blue eyes shining with trust and affection and friendship...arms entwined with shoulders...mountains and rivers as backdrops...portraits of friendship and brotherhood and love...*

The final image was of them last year right before the dissertation fiasco. Simon had been over, and he'd been in the kitchen warming up leftover pizza. Blair and Jim had been out on the balcony. The sun was setting low in the sky, and the colors were an exceptionally brilliant red, mixed with shades of orange and purple.

Simon had glanced out to see his two friends standing together, watching the glorious sunset. Jim had draped one arm casually across Blair's shoulders, and the other rested on the railing behind him. The younger man was looking up at Jim with a knowing smile on his face, as if all the secrets of the universe were at his command. Ellison's eyes were warm with affection as he looked down at Blair, his expression clearly one of a man who had found his answers, who held all he needed - his home and his friend - within the ccircle of his arms.

Quietly reaching for his camera, Simon captured the moment forever against the colorful backdrop of a Cascade sunset.

Now, the image formed the final frame of Blair's creation, and as it faded from view, he glanced up at Jim's face. "Jim? Is it okay, man? I mean, I know it's not that much, but I thought you might like to have some of your old clippings and photos preserved. Your dad helped me out, and so did Sally, and Simon and..." His voice faded away as Blair awaited his friend's response with a strange combination of dread and anticipation. Where his personal life was concerned, Jim Ellison could be dangerously unpredictable.

Jim's eyes were moist when they met his partner's at last. "You thought right, Chief," he said softly. "This must have taken you hours to put together."

Blair shrugged. "I enjoyed it. Kinda like living all those times with you, some for the first time, some once again. Did you like it?"

Without warning, Jim pulled the younger man tightly into his arms and whispered, "I loved it, Chief. Thank you."

Blair let his arms wrap around the broad back and returned the hug strongly. "You're welcome, man. I'm glad you like it."

For long moments, neither friend moved to break the embrace. When Jim finally released Blair, both men turned to Naomi with slightly embarrassed grins. She only wiped a tear from her eye and smiled brightly. "Who's next?"

Slipping back down to the floor, Jim retrieved the mysterious square package. "The rest are for Simon and Daryl. They'll be over tomorrow night after Daryl spends the day with his mom." Holding out the brightly wrapped package, he smiled. "This one's for you, Chief."

Blair hopped down to sit beside him. A card was now attached to the front of the box. Only one word long, it read, "*Chief*."

"Kinda strange gift, Jim," he commented, shaking the package gently. "It doesn't weigh anything at all."

Reaching out, Ellison tugged on a long curl with a mischievous grin. "Good things come in odd packages, Sandburg."

Realizing the hidden meaning behind the innocent words, Blair shook his head and smiled broadly. "Funny, Ellison, really funny. You're kinda odd yourself, y'know." He tore the paper from the gift, revealing a square, plain white box. Glancing curiously at Jim, he opened it to reveal a single page of paper rolled carefully and tied with a bright red ribbon. "What's this?"

"Read it, Junior," Jim suggested. His blue eyes twinkled in the glow of the Christmas lights as Blair slipped off the ribbon and scanned the words typed on the paper.

For a minute, Blair merely stared down at the sheet in his hand. "It's a deed," he stated in a bewildered tone. "I...I don't..."

Jim's face broke into a wide smile, and he chuckled happily. "I think I finally rendered him speechless, Naomi. A deed to what, Chief?" He winked up at Naomi, sitting in total confusion on the couch.

"The loft next door," he murmured. When he looked up at Jim, Blair's blue eyes were mystified. "In my name. Jim...?"

The sentinel slid closer to his guide, wrapping an arm around the slim shoulders. His voice was low and gentle as he spoke, yet it was almost rough with emotion. "It's been a rough couple of years, Blair. We've come close to losing...this...our friendship...too many times. I know that most of the misunderstandings, the arguments, have been my own fault, and I know how deeply I've hurt you. I don't deserve your forgiveness, your friendship, but I'm so grateful you've given them both to me."

Sandburg tilted his head to stare at his friend. "But, none of that explains what this is all about."

Jim closed his free hand over Blair's, still gripping the deed. "*This* is about our future, Chief. One day, maybe things will change. One of us will marry, or we'll feel the need for a little more space for some reason. I want you to know right now that I don't want that to ever change what we have."

He glanced up at Naomi again. "When your dissertation was released to the press, it came close to destroying us. I never told you exactly why I reacted as I did, Blair." His stormy blue eyes returned to Blair's face, and his arm tightened around the younger man's shoulders. "Part of me did feel betrayed, but a bigger part of me was running scared, Chief."

With those words, Blair's uncertainty doubled. "Scared? I know you were scared, Jim - of the press, of people finding out..."

Ellison shook his head emphatically. "I'm not talking about that, Sandburg." His intent blue eyes bored into Blair's. "I was scared to death of losing you. I figured with your dissertation complete, you'd have no reason to hang around me any longer. I thought it was over. Finished."

Blair opened his mouth to protest, but Jim's fingers stilled his lips. "Hush... Let me say this." He took the deed from Blair's hand, then dropped his arm from around his friend. Spreading the deed out on the floor, he explained. "I see this as an insurance policy. Almost from the first month, I took the rent money you've been paying and invested it for you, Blair. The investments have done well. Well enough for the down payment on the neighboring loft. Instead of paying me rent now, your pay at the department and the university can go toward your own place."

Sandburg's voice was stunned. "You're kicking me out?"

Ellison's laugh was a low, deep chuckle. "Didn't you hear me earlier, Darwin? I said that this was in case things ever changed in either of our lives. I've already got the place rented out, and that rent money will go toward the payments and taxes. When you get right down to it, you probably won't even have to use much of your own pay at all."

Shifting on the floor, Jim turned to Blair and placed his hands on his shoulders, squeezing gently. "I need you with me, Chief. This way, we'll always be close, no matter what happens in the future. I just wanted you to know that even if things do change one day, they'll never really change that much, y'know?" Jim waited, hoping that his friend understood the true significance of what he had done. When no response was forthcoming, he lamely added, "If we both remain old bachelors, or if you decide you're fed up with me and want to leave Cascade, then you can always sell the place. It's really a good investment, and..."

This time, it was Sandburg's fingers pressing lightly on Jim's lips which silenced the flow of words. "I get it, Jim," Blair whispered gruffly. "I've told you before, I'm not going anywhere, man." He indicated the deed. "But, this... Aw, man, this is just way too much. I mean..."

Ellison grinned. "It's your own money, Sandburg. I just made the investments for you and worked out the deal. You'll be paying for it all yourself."

"You've let me live here rent free, then," Blair challenged, his blue eyes flashing. "That wasn't our agreement, Jim. You've been letting me think the money's been going in your account all this time."

The sentinel shrugged. "So, I lied. Sue me."

For an instant, Sandburg sat speechless, then he broke into uncontrollable laughter. "You're too much, Ellison, you know that?"

Without waiting for a reply, Blair leaned into Jim, wrapping his arms around him and hugging tightly. The laughter abruptly ceased, as he grew serious. "You'll forgive me if I'm not in a big rush to move into my own place, right?" Blair asked, his voice breaking with emotion.

Bending his head, Jim whispered into the curl covered ear, "You don't ever have to move out, Chief. Remember that. But, if you do, I just don't want you getting too far away from me. This is totally selfish of me, kid. Got that?"

Blair nodded, too overcome with gratitude to speak. Jim was asking him to stay in his life permanently. Close by, within reach forever. No one had given him that kind of permanence before, and it meant more to him than he'd ever dreamed possible.

The brass ring would be his forever.

"Well," Naomi said with a satisfied smile, as the two men drew apart at last. "A wonderful Christmas all around. There's only one thing missing." She looked at her son with an expectant gleam in her eyes.

Confused, Blair shook his head. "I don't know..." Then, the light dawned and his eyes glowed in anticipation. "Mom, how on earth did you remember?"

"Mothers never forget these things, sweetie. You wait right here, and I'll be back." With that, she hurried into Blair's room. "On second thought, you boys might make us some hot chocolate, if you have any. And some big, fluffy marshmallows, of course!"

Jim grinned at his friend. "You heard the lady, Chief. Hot chocolate. Fluffy marshmallows." They scrambled up from the floor and moved to the kitchen, and by the time Naomi returned, three mugs of the sweet concoction were steaming on the table by the couch.

Jim looked quizzically at the book in her hands. "What's that?"

"An old Sandburg family tradition, Jim. On Christmas Eve, I always read Blair this book. Tonight, I think we should carry on that tradition."

Blair smiled in delight. "*The Little Prince*! That was my favorite book when I was a kid. She only let me read it once a year."

Naomi nodded. "That way, it stayed special, didn't it?" She slipped into the comfortable side chair next to the fire. "All right, you boys get comfortable. I warn you, I'm an excellent storyteller!"

Blair and Jim settled themselves on the couch, sipping on their chocolate. The tree lights lent a seasonal glow to the room, and the warmth of the fire was soothing.

Naomi's lyrical voice began.

*Once when I was six, I saw a magnificent picture in a book about the jungle, called 'True Stories.' It showed a boa constrictor swallowing a wild beast...I lived all alone, without anyone I could really talk to, until I had to make a crash landing in the Sahara Desert six years ago. For me, it was a matter of life or death: I had only enough drinking water for eight days...I was more isolated than a man shipwrecked on a raft in the middle of the ocean. So you can imagine my surprise when I was awakened at daybreak by a funny little voice saying, "Please...draw me a sheep..."*

Blair smiled lazily and sipped his chocolate. Glancing up at Jim, he whispered, "That's the Little Prince."

Ellison smiled affectionately and nodded. "Listen to the story, Chief." By that time, he was curious about how a boy had come to be in the desert, and frankly, Naomi's voice was mesmerizing.

Her eyes grew tender as she regarded her son and his friend. With a last look at them, Naomi continued reading.

*Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived upon a planet hardly any bigger than he was, and who needed a friend...Telling these memories is so painful for me. It's already been six years since my friend went away...If I try to describe him here, it's so I won't forget him. It's sad to forget a friend. Not everyone has had a friend. And I might become like the grown-ups who are no longer interested in anything but numbers...*

*"You confuse everything...You've got it all mixed up!" He was really very annoyed. He tossed his golden curls in the wind. "I know a planet inhabited by a red-faced gentleman. He's never smelled a flower. He's never looked at a star. He's never loved anyone. He's never done anything except add up numbers...It's not serious, trying to understand why flowers go to such trouble to produce thorns that are good for nothing? It's not important, the war between the sheep and the flowers?...Suppose I happen to know a unique flower, one that exists nowhere in the world except on my planet, one that a little sheep can wipe out in a single bite one morning, just like that, without even realizing what he's doing-that isn't important?...If someone loves a flower of which just one example exists among all the millions and millions of stars, that's enough to make him happy when he looks at the stars. He tells himself, 'My flower's up there somewhere... ' But if the sheep eats the flower, then for him, it's as if, suddenly, all the stars went out. And that isn't important?"*

Out of the corner of her eye, Naomi saw her son slide closer to Jim Ellison. The big detective's arm fell from the back of the couch to envelope Blair's shoulders and pull him close. Blair's head fell back to rest against Jim's shoulder and his eyes seemed to stare at nothing but the flickering flames of the fire. Ellison's head gradually tilted until it was resting against her son's curls.

*"Good morning," said the fox.*

*"Good morning," the little prince answered...Come play with me," the little prince proposed. "I'm feeling so sad."*

*"I can't play with you," the fox said. "I'm not tamed."*

*"Ah, excuse me," said the little prince. "What does 'tamed' mean?"*

*"It's something that's been too often neglected. It means, 'to create ties'."*

*"To create ties?"*

*"That's right," the fox said.*

*"For me, you're only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you have no need of me, either. For you I'm only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we'll need each other. You'll be the only boy in the world for me. I'll be the only fox in the world for you...If you tame me, my life will be filled with sunshine. I'll know the sound of footsteps that will be different from all the rest. Other footsteps send me back underground. Yours will call me out of my burrow like music."*

*The fox fell silent and stared at the little prince for a long while. "Please...tame me!" he said.*

Naomi stole another glance. Her eyes welled as she saw Jim lower his head to press a light kiss on Blair's temple.

The story continued, and the little prince prepared to leave forever and his new friend already mourned his loss.

*I realized I couldn't bear the thought of never hearing that laugh again. For me, it was like a spring of fresh water in the desert.*

"Little fellow, I want to hear you laugh again..."*

*"But he said to me, "Tonight, it'll be a year. My star will be just above the place where I fell last year..."*

*"Little fellow, it's a bad dream, isn't it? All this conversation with the snake and the meeting place and the star..."*

*"But he didn't answer my question. All he said was, "The important thing is what can't be seen...It's the same as for the flower. If you love a flower that lives on a star, then it's good, at night, to look up at the sky. All the stars are blossoming...People have stars, but they aren't the same. For travelers, the stars are guides. For other people, they're nothing but tiny lights...But all those stars are silent stars. You, though, you'll have stars like nobody else...When you look up at the sky at night, since I'll be living on one of them, since I'll be laughing on one of them, for you it'll be as if all the stars are laughing...you'll always be my friend."*

*"I won't leave you..."*

*"Tonight...you know...don't come."*

*"I won't leave you."*

*...Here's the place. Let me go on alone".*

*And he sat down because he was frightened. Then he said: "You know...my flower...I'm responsible for her. And she's so weak! And so naive. She has only four ridiculous thorns to defend her against the world..."*

*...There was nothing but a yellow flash close to his ankle...He didn't cry out. He fell gently, the way a tree falls. There wasn't even a sound, because of the sand...*

By the time Naomi had finished, her eyes were moist with tears. She gently closed the book, then looked at Jim and Blair and her heart tightened with emotion. Somewhere during the story, Blair had fallen asleep. He'd slipped down until he was curled into a small ball, his head resting on Jim's lap. Ellison was staring down at her son, one of his gentle hands threading through the thick curls.

"Jim?" she whispered. "Are you all right?"

The sentinel brushed at his eyes with his free hand. "That...was beautiful, Naomi." He looked at his best friend's mother, his eyes glistening. "I had forgotten." Jim's eyes grew lost, as if clouded by the fog of the distant past. "*She* used to read me that story. A long time ago. A lifetime ago." Jim glanced almost shyly at Naomi. "Thank you for giving that memory back to me."

For several minutes, they sat in silence. Naomi sensed that Jim needed the time to absorb his newly awakened memories and their accompanying emotions. In time, she spoke softly, a frankly curious look on her face as she stared at her sleeping son. "How did you do it, Jim? I raised Blair to be a child of the world, to seek out all the experiences and exotic place the planet has to offer. A free spirit. Now, look at him. He's so settled. So content. How did you do it?"

"Do what, Naomi?" Jim asked quietly, so as not to disturb his sleeping partner.

Naomi's reply was soft as the falling snow out the large, loft windows. "Tame Blair. How did you manage to tame my son?"

Jim's eyes moved back to the face of the young man curled so peacefully in his lap. A long time passed before his answer came, and when it did, his voice was soft and filled with wonder. "To be honest, I'm not really sure which of us tamed the other."

His hand moved from Blair's curls to gently stroke his back, rubbing relaxing circles against the softness of his sweater. Blair sighed in his sleep, a happy, contented sound. "He's changed me more than I've changed him. I'm not the same man I was five years ago, and it's all because of him. Because of who he is and the faith he has in me. The absolute faith he has in us." Jim's eyes closed for a moment as he added, "He tamed *me*, Naomi. He burrowed his way into my life, into my heart and tamed me. Not an easy task, I must admit."

She studied her son's best friend for several moments. "Do you regret the taming, Jim? There's been lots of heartache for you both. Do you wish things had..." She hesitated before adding, "That things had been different?"

"God, no, Naomi!" Jim's abrupt response disturbed Blair, who stirred in his sleep, whimpering softly. Immediately, the sentinel leaned over him, whispering quiet words of reassurance. His hand went back to stroking the soft hair, gently carding through the curls until Blair once more slept quietly.

"Do I wish some of the things that have happened to us had never been? Yes, of course. But, then again, those hard times have made us what we are now. I think we're stronger for them. More committed. But, do I wish I'd never met your son?" Jim's voice was rough, coarse with the emotion he was so clearly feeling. "Blair's the best part of my life, Naomi. The best part of me. He's given me the first...no...the only, unconditional love I've ever known in my life. I could never regret that. That's what my gift to him tonight was all about. Maybe it's selfish of me, but I can't let him slip away. I won't risk losing him again."

Naomi sighed deeply. "I worry about him, you know. I understand that you care about him, and that you'd do anything to protect him, but still...I worry."

Jim nodded. "I know you do. Frankly, so do I."

He looked up and held her eyes, his intently serious gaze willing her to understand the truth of what he was struggling to convey. "All I can do is swear to you that I will do whatever is within my power to keep him safe. I love Blair - very much. I swear to you, Naomi, that it hurts me more to see him in pain than if I was injured myself. I would die to protect him. I know that may not always be enough, but..." Jim shrugged helplessly, as he brushed his thumb across the soft skin of Blair's temple and marveled at the fragile beat of life he felt there. "In the end, it's all I really have to give him."

Words were insufficient, and Naomi Sandburg knew when to merely accept a gift from the heart when it is offered. She merely nodded, then getting up quietly from her chair, she moved closer to her sleeping son. Placing one hand lightly on Blair's soft curls, the other on Jim Ellison's strong back, she smiled. "He's all I have to give, also, Jim, and I entrust him to you. You have tamed my son, but only because he was willing to be tamed by you. He never allowed anyone else that privilege or that right, before. Blair is exactly where he belongs. With you."

She looked around at the loft and smiled. "You've given Blair what I never could, Jim. A home. Stability. The constancy of knowing that you'll always be right here when he needs you." A shadow of sadness veiled her eyes. "I guess I never knew how much he craved those things. I'm just thankful he found you and that you apparently needed what he had to give."

Taking a deep breath and squeezing Jim's shoulder, she smiled and looked at the tree one last time. "Good night, Jim. I'll see you both in the morning. Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Naomi," Jim said softly, his eyes moist. "Thank you for everything. Merry Christmas."

After the French doors to Blair's room closed quietly, Jim considered returning to his own room for the night. He could settle Sandburg quite comfortably on the couch. That was to be his bed during Naomi's visit anyway. He knew he would sleep better, yet, somehow, Jim couldn't bring himself to pull away from Blair. The words of the simple story were still ringing in his ears, in his own mother's voice this time.

Jim Ellison bent low to whisper into Blair's ear, "*But if you tame me, we'll need each other. You'll be the only boy in the world for me. I'll be the only fox in the world for you...If you tame me, my life will be filled with sunshine. I'll know the sound of footsteps that will be different from all the rest. Other footsteps send me back underground. Yours will call me out of my burrow like music.*"

Slipping carefully downward on the couch, Jim drew Blair with him until they were settled comfortably. Reaching up, he snagged the big afghan from the back of the couch and lightly spread it over them for added warmth. At the motion, the younger man stirred, snuggling his head more deeply against Jim's chest.

"Jim?" Blair's voice was husky with sleep.

Ellison held him a little closer, smoothing his hair back with one hand while the other anchored Blair to him. "Shhhh... I'm right here. Go back to sleep now. Everything's fine. It's after midnight, Chief."

Blue eyes flickered open and glowed up at him as wonder filled his deep blue eyes. "After midnight? Merry Christmas, Jim."

Ellison smiled softly as he felt warm lips press against his neck. Nuzzling his cheek against the soft curls, he whispered, "Merry Christmas, Blair."

Then, once more, the drowsy voice of his guide murmured from deep within his arms. "Thanks..."

The sentinel glanced down at the peaceful face. "For what?"

"For taming me. Being free is nice, but I think being tamed is better." The smile hovered around Blair's face as he drifted back into sleep.

"Being tamed is better," Jim repeated in a whisper. "Yeah, Chief, it is." Closing his eyes, he drifted into sleep, a softly satisfied smile curving his lips.

In the quiet world outside, the day of miracles slowly dawned, its magic already reaching out into the darkness to bring its much anticipated light. Inside the loft, two figures huddled together slept safely, secure in the knowledge that their world was right once more, and that the magic they had created together would endure through all the Christmases to come.

Finis...and...Merry Christmas!

Note: The book, The Little Prince, is by Antoine De Saint-Exupery.

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