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

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all in the TS Universe and beyond. Peace ... JET

Tidings of Comfort

by JET

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

He was going, and that was final.

After all, the plans had been made for over a month, right? Plane tickets purchased. Rendezvous plans confirmed.

Blair tugged the bright red ribbon tighter and for the countless time that afternoon he wished he had a third hand. Or a fourth. How did those smiling gift-wrappers at the department stores make it look so easy?

But he was on his last package, the special one for Jim. The one he'd worried over and scrimped and saved for since mid-summer.

Shame he couldn't be around when Jim opened it.

Blair didn't believe in opening gifts early. No Christmas Eve opening of gifts. It had to be on the big day itself. A tradition carved in stone.

Although he baffled when he paused to wonder why he should care. He was of Jewish heritage, after all. He dutifully celebrated Hanukah each December. Christmas was supposed to be just another day, right?

Except it wasn't.

Even if Blair didn't honor everything about the reason for the season, he worshiped mightily the ideals it all stood for.

Family and friends.

Peace and love.

Goodwill to all.

So ever since he'd moved into the loft three years earlier, Blair had celebrated Hanukah, enjoying the tribute to his own heritage. Then he joined in the Christmas festivities, merrily shopping for gifts, trimming the tree with Jim, wrapping gifts and mailing cards. Jim had grown up with his family's tradition of Christmas Day gift-opening, and somehow, the custom had taken root in the loft. Three years of shared holidays with Jim, and in the process, Blair somehow etched his best friend's traditions right into that stone.

Blair carefully tied a glittery gold card to the shiny ribbon, then he opened it to sign. His pen hovered above the blank card, one of those 'write your own sentiment here' types. It had seemed a good idea at the time, a card that would say what he wouldn't be around this year to say to Jim. Now that the time had come to put it down in black and white, however, all the carefully composed lines just evaporated like so much dew in the morning sun.

It was late afternoon, and the December sun slanted weakly through the loft's wide expanse of glass. It reflected on the tree decorations, their glitter and glass strengthening the feeble light into a shower of rainbow colors against the green. Beneath the tree, Jim's gifts were wrapped and ready. Each friend and family member had their own assigned paper - jolly Santas for Daryl...commanding gold for Simon...neutral green and red for William Ellison.

With a precision born of practice, Blair's sharp eyes picked out his own gifts under the tree. His packages were all wrapped in a brilliantly hued paper featuring every conceivable Jewish symbol: dreidels, menorahs, and Stars of David shone proudly from beneath the evergreen tree. Where on earth had Jim found that paper? The thought that he'd cared enough to look softened Blair's smile.

Yep...

Family and friends.

Peace and love.

Goodwill to all.

That's what the holidays, be they Hanukkah or Christmas, were all about.

Family...

There was the problem.

When Naomi had called, bubbling with excitement, to invite Blair to a friend's cabin in the Rockies to spend a week beginning with his arrival on Christmas Eve, it had seemed a terrific idea. Jim was slated to work, his name next on the holiday rotation roster.

"I won't be around anyway, Chief. Go on and meet Naomi. After all, she's your family, and you haven't spent much time together this year. Have fun. Relax. I'll be working, and you'll be back in a week, right?"

Blair stared down at the blank card, still waiting for his words. A good idea at the time was right. After confirming the plans with Naomi, who was overjoyed at his acceptance, Blair and Jim discovered that Ellison wasn't needed to work after all. Rafe had insisted on taking the holiday shift on both Christmas Eve and Day as his family was planning a belated Christmas/New Year's celebration when the entire family could gather in Cascade to be together. Then Henri joined the volunteer list when it turned out that his family wasn't going to be able to come to Cascade after all.

We'll cover for you, Jim. You go on and celebrate with Sandburg and the rest of your family. You can take it next year. Think of it as our present to you and Hairboy." Both men grinned broadly, obviously glad to be able to give the gift of a work-free holiday to their friends.

Neither Jim nor Blair had the heart to tell them it was too late, that other plans had already been made.

"I'll call Naomi, tell her things have changed. She'll..."

"No, Chief. I'll be fine. Maybe get together with my father and Steven. It's been a long time since we had Christmas together."

Yet Blair knew he wouldn't do it. The words were meant only to ease his guilt at leaving his best friend alone for the holidays. Jim would never say it, but Blair caught the look of loneliness in his eyes when his Sentinel thought Blair wasn't looking. And Naomi called every other day, making plans, excitedly going over who they would see and where they would go.

Blair felt hopelessly caught in the middle, sandwiched between the two most important people in his life, not wanting to disappoint either. And in the process, he was making himself miserable.

He wanted to spend Christmas at home.

He wanted to spend Christmas with his mom.

He wanted to spend Christmas with Jim.

Tonight was Christmas Eve, and his flight left in five hours.

"Hopeless, Sandburg," he muttered, sighing deeply. He picked the package up from the dining table, then Blair flopped down on the couch. He gazed at the twinkling lights on the tree. Why did a season that promised such happiness often seem to bear strife and turmoil? There had to be a resolution, an answer that would satisfy the needs of everyone involved.

A broad grin slowly stretched across Blair's face. Gently settling Jim's package beside him, he reached for the phone and dialed, his fingers dancing with excitement.

"Hello? Naomi?"

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

Jim jogged up the stairs that led to the loft, expecting to hear the sounds of a bustling Sandburg preparing for his departure to Colorado the next day, humming a catchy tune, slightly off-key. Maybe he'd catch a whiff of baking cookies or even the Sentinel's seasonal favorite - warm, spicy gingerbread.

Nothing.

No happy humming. No bustling sounds. No delicious aromas.

Okay, Chief. What's wrong?

Jim dropped his keys in their accustomed repository by the door, and without thinking, focused on his Guide's location. Blair was in his room, and the door was closed.

Definitely out of character, especially for Christmas Eve. After all, the kid's flight left in three hours. They'd have to be heading to the airport soon.

Stopping outside the shut door, Jim hesitated, his hand on the knob. It was quiet in there...too quiet. Concerned, he knocked. "Sandburg? Chief?"

Sentinel ears heard the deep sigh. "Hey, man. Come on in."

No suitcase. No clothes lying haphazardly draped across bed and floor. It didn't take a detective to add two and two. "You all packed?"

Blair was lying on his bed, one arm spread over his eyes. "Not going."

Jim's eyes narrowed. The kid's breathing was shallow, as if he was trying too hard to fight his own emotions. What had happened here?

Keeping his voice cautiously neutral, Jim moved to sit on the edge of the narrow bed. "That surprises me. I thought you were looking forward to spending the holidays with your mom."

"Things change."

There was an edge to terse reply, but Jim hesitated to push his friend too hard. There were too many unknowns when dealing with Naomi Sandburg. She probably changed her mind, deciding instead to flit off to Asia or Australia or Europe, blissfully unaware that she was hurting her son. Jim's anger flared as he envisioned the conversation they must have had. At the same time, his protectiveness toward Blair kept his voice gentle.

"I'm sorry, Blair." Jim rested his palm on Sandburg's calf and squeezed. "Anything I can do?"

"No, man. My head's hurting a little. Think I'll just rest here awhile, okay?"

His voice sounded distant, tinged with hurt, and inwardly, Jim cursed Naomi again. "Sure, Chief. Thought I'd make some chili for dinner. I've got enough for two, if you're interested."

Beneath the protective arm, blue eyes peeked out, and the hint of a smile ghosted the full lips. "Sure. Call me when it's ready?"

With a last comforting squeeze to Blair's leg, Jim slipped out, closing the door softly behind him.

******************** Three hours later

Overhead, in the velvet quiet night, a jet roared eastward with one empty seat left unclaimed.

Jim stirred his famous chili one last time. He'd stalled long enough, wanting to give Blair some alone time, a chance to regain his composure. But he was hungry and ready for dinner.

Before he could call for Sandburg, though, the bedroom door opened and a moment later, Jim heard the sound of water running in the bathroom. Anticipating his meal at last, Jim finished setting the table. "Hey, Chief," he greeted his friend when Blair padded into the kitchen, clad in sweats, mismatched socks, and an old Army t-shirt of Jim's, dotted with ancient holes, layered over a red Henley shirt.

Dinner passed in comfortable silence. When he was ready, Blair would talk. Of that much, Jim was certain. For his part, silence came naturally. Knowing when to push his partner to talk and when to allow him his rare moments of silence had required some difficult lessons, but over time, Jim had learned.

Tonight he would let Blair take the lead.

Soft music drifted from the stereo, but not the canned holiday music playing on radio stations across the country that night. Rather, Jim had selected an assortment of classical CDs featuring lush strings and piano.

"Leave the dishes." Jim slipped a plate from Blair's hand and relegated it to the sink. "They'll keep."

"You sick, man?" Blair feigned concern, feeling Jim's forehead for a fever.

Chuckling softly, Jim steered his friend to the couch, the Christmas lights blinking softly beside the fire. "It's Christmas Eve, Chief. Tonight, dishes can wait."

Outside, the streets were falling silent, and Jim didn't have to consciously dial down his hearing to tune out their neighbors. Most of the building sounded deserted, its occupants apparently celebrating their holidays elsewhere.

The quiet was wonderful. Sometimes, Jim forgot what it had been like to have normal hearing, not to be aware of each and every nuance of the entire world around him. Tonight, there was little else to hear save the crackling of the fire, the beautiful music, and the reassuring thrumming of his Guide's heart.

"Thanks for not asking." The words were soft, probably too quiet to hear had Jim not had his Sentinel hearing.

Blair was lying half reclined on the couch, staring at the tree. Or through it. Jim had the impression that his friend wasn't seeing much of anything at the moment.

"You can tell me...or not. Either way, it's still Christmas Eve. Tonight there's no danger, no violence." Jim stretched his long legs out, enjoying the sensation of his tired muscles relaxing. "This is nice," he murmured, more to himself than to Sandburg.

Still, Blair didn't look at him. "This afternoon, I called Naomi to invite her here for the holidays."

That caught Jim off-guard. Not sure what to say, he waited.

"I knew I should want to go, that the plans were all made and all. My head knew all that, but..." Blair tilted his head back, staring up at the ceiling. "I just didn't want to go. I mean, the whole time I was growing up, we spent Hanukah and Christmas and New Years in a different place each year. Other kids got all excited about being 'home for the holidays'. I didn't even know what that meant. Now, I do, and today I realized that I really wanted to spend Christmas here. At home."

Jim smiled in spite of the sadness that lay beneath Blair's words. At home...This is his home...

"Nothing wrong with that, Blair," he said quietly. "Didn't Naomi want to come here?"

"You could say she most definitely did not want to come here. Naomi doesn't get angry easily, but man, when she does..." A deep sigh. "We had a fight on the phone, Jim. She hung up on me...said I was selfish for even suggesting that she change her plans." Blair's shoulders shrugged slightly. "Maybe I am..."

"Stop it." The words held a definite air of command, but Jim didn't regret their harshness. "If there's anything in the world you are not, Chief, it's selfish. You changed your mind, that's all. You didn't shut Naomi out, you invited her here. And she would have been welcome. If she chose not to come..." He wasn't sure how to finish the thought.

A thought struck him. With a single fluid motion Jim was kneeling beneath the tree. He retrieved a single brightly wrapped gift. Moving to sit beside Blair on the couch, he handed the small box to his friend. "Open it."

Surprised blue eyes met his. "But we never open on Christmas Eve, man."

"Traditions are made to be broken, Chief. Besides, after just three years, I don't think any tradition is set in stone. I was going to give it to you for Hanukah, then decided I'd do it before you left." Jim was a little surprised at the slow grin that spread across his friend's face.

"Yeah, okay," Blair said thoughtfully, eyeing the package. "Why not?" Eager fingers began to rip into the paper.

Once the contents were revealed, Blair stared down into the small box. "Jim...I...I don't know what to say..."

Jim leaned forward and carefully removed a bracelet of multicolored beads. The pattern was familiar to Blair, he was sure, but he explained anyway. It helped fill up his Guide's emotional silence. "It's not what a lot of people would consider much of a gift, I guess, but this was Incacha's," Jim said softly, his sensitive fingertips touching the hand-carved beads respectfully. "It was the first thing I saw when I woke up in the Chopec camp."

Blair was watching him, blue eyes wide with wonder. He'd never shared this part of his time in Peru. Not with anyone, including his best friend and Guide. Maybe it was time.

"When my senses took over, I was...lost..." Jim stared down at the bracelet in his hand, rubbing the smooth surfaces and letting the memories so long denied return at last. "I guess I was closer to a wild animal than a man by the time they found me."

"They?"

"The Chopec. Incacha, actually. He made the first contact with me. The rest had probably been watching me for days, trying to figure out who I was and what my intentions were."

"I remember those days just in little snatches, you know? Like a jigsaw puzzle without most of the pieces. Anyway, it was just all too much - the smells of the jungle, the sounds...the colors. I remember wanting to end it all, to stop the pain. My head hurt so much, a constant, never-ending throbbing." Jim closed his hand around the bracelet, remembering.

A hand covered his. "It's all right. You're safe now." Blair's voice, as warm as his hand, brought him back to the loft.

Jim nodded, swallowed hard, then resumed the story. "When I opened my eyes, a hand was offering me water. A hand wearing this bracelet. It was Incacha. He'd brought me to the Chopec camp. He saved my life, Chief. If he hadn't found me..."

Blair squeezed his hand in understanding. "I know," he said simply. "I understand."

"Yes, you do." "Do you know what these colors represent to the Chopec?"

Ever the anthropologist, Sandburg studied the bracelet. "Not really. Some of them have meanings in various tribes and civilizations around the world, but I'm not that familiar with the nuances of Chopec..."

Jim laughed, and his friend stopped, smiling guiltily. "Was I rambling?"

"Just a little." Jim touched each bead as he explained. "Red represents the earth, the source of all life. It's believed that when you wear the red beads, you will be sheltered within the spirit of the earth. That you will be protected."

Blair's eyes found Jim's and shone with unspoken understanding.

"Blue stands for water - the most basic need of man. Where it flows, life can flourish. Wearing blue signifies the strength and continuation of the life force."

"Yellow is the sun. The warmth and the heat needed by all things to grow and thrive. One who wears yellow will always find shelter and the warmth of life's fire. It also stands for comfort."

"And the green?" Blair reminded him softly.

Jim fingered a single green bead, interspersed with the other hues. "The green bead represents strength and health. Like the rainforest trees, the wearer of green will reach to the sky." Jim drew a long, slow breath. "These are the words of Incacha."

He spoke rapidly in Chopec, then Jim gently turned Blair's hand in his, and in a single motion, slipped the bracelet over his wrist.

"What did you say?" Blair looked at him, wide-eyed, his wrist still held firmly in Jim's grasp.

"I said a Chopec prayer. Asked the spirits to bless the wearer of the sacred beads. To allow the power of the beads to pass to you."

Protection...life...warmth...comfort...health...

What more could he give his Guide?

He knew the answer as well as he knew his own soul.

He would give his very life.

In so many ways, he already had.

"You should keep this, man," Blair said softly. "It was Incacha's. He would want you to have it."

"No," Jim corrected him. "He would want you to have its power. To be protected by it. When the Guide thrives, the Sentinel is protected. Incacha understood that much better than I did, at least for a long time."

Beneath his fingers beat the pulse of life, and Jim paused for a moment, treasuring its reassuring cadence. "My life depends on yours. I don't understand everything about Sentinels and Guides, Chief, but I get that much. When you're good, I'm good. Incacha believed in this bracelet. He gave it to me when I left Peru. He told me I would know when it was right to give it to..." Jim stopped, remembering. "He used the phrase 'my brother'. I wasn't sure what he meant then. Now, I know."

Blair was staring down at the bracelet, and when he looked up, he was blinking back tears. "Thank you," he said simply. "This means..." Blair swallowed hard, obviously finding speaking difficult. "This means more than you know..."

Jim pulled him forward into a firm hug. "I should have given it to you sooner, Chief. You earned it a long time ago."

The Sentinel felt his Guide's soft laughter against his chest. "It's okay, man. Some things just take time to surrender."

Without warning, Blair pulled back as a wide grin illuminated his face. He lunged from the couch to kneel beneath the tree, snatching a brightly wrapped gift. Hurrying back to the couch, he presented it proudly to Jim. "I was going to let you open it while I was gone on Christmas Day. That's tradition, right? But since I'm not going anywhere, and we've already broken tradition with my gift, then you should get to open one, too. I mean, if you want to. If you'd rather wait until tomorrow then..."

Jim couldn't hold back the laughter any longer. It was good to hear Sandburg's rattling on and on again. This afternoon, he'd not been sure he'd hear the words flowing fast and furious again before the New Year. "Chief, would you just shut up and give me the box? If you'll listen for just a second instead of talking, you might hear something that would resolve your package-opening tradition dilemma." Jim hit the Stop button on the stereo remote, and the music stopped.

Silence fell, save for the crackling of the fire and the whisper of quiet breathing. Through the peace of darkness, the chimes rang...once, twice...ten...eleven...twelve...

"Merry Christmas, Chief."

Blair looked from the glowing tree to Jim and smiled. "Merry Christmas, Jim. So I guess you can open that legally now."

Ellison looked at the package in his hands. "I can wait. Morning's not that far off."

"No, open it." Blair's slender fingers caressed the bracelet now encircling his left wrist. I'd rather you had it now."

The paper was classic Christmas - evergreens with falling snow. Carefully, Jim removed the wrapping, easing the tape off so the paper wasn't torn. He glanced up to find that Blair was watching him with amusement.

"What?" Jim asked, suddenly aware of his friend's hidden laughter.

"Rip into it, man!" Blair's laughter rolled out uncontained. "It's Christmas! Be messy. Be a kid again!"

Jim's head cocked as he considered the idea. "A kid, huh? Sandburg, I was never a messy kid."

As fast as a striking cobra, Blair snagged the paper, ripping it gleefully. "See? Easy! Your turn, Jim."

Ellison eyed his friend, wondering if Sandburg had lost it completely. Then again, what did he have to lose?

Fighting the urge to grin, Jim tore the paper from the box and was surprised at the sense of pleasure the action brought. A slow movie rolled in his mind, and even across the decades, regret gripped his heart.

Two boys beneath the perfectly decorated evergreen...an array of designer-wrapped gifts...the urge to tear paper from package, to reveal the wonders inside...a father's rule...one by one...snip the tape...fold the paper...pass around each gift...display each one appropriately on the gleaming dining room table...now it's your turn...select a gift, Jim...one gift...don't tear the paper...

"Jim?"

Shaking himself back to the present, Jim found worried blue eyes watching him. "It's okay, Chief. Just thinking..."

Blair cocked his head, and his expression betrayed his concern. "Must not have been a very pleasant thought..."

He shrugged. "No, it wasn't."

Blair didn't push the issue. "So? You just gonna hold that box all night or are you gonna open your gift?" The anticipation glowed brightly around Sandburg like an aura.

I'm thinking like the kid now, Jim thought ruefully. 'Aura' indeed...

He removed the lid, placing it on the floor beside the couch. Folding back wafer-thin sheets of bright red and green tissue, Jim's fingertips touched something soft. He caught a familiar scent.

Wool...

A sweater.

Not the most original of gifts but certainly useful.

"Thanks, Chief. I can always use a good sweater and..."

Obviously unable to contain his excitement another moment, Blair interrupted, "No, man. Take it out and look at the pattern."

Jim's eyebrow arched as he drew the sweater from its box. It couldn't be...

"Look familiar?" Blair asked hopefully.

Jim's sensitive fingers explored the hand-woven designs that wrapped around the sweater. The sweater's background was the color of dry wheat, and the figures and symbols decorating it were muted tones that echoed his old shaman's bracelet, the one now encircling his Guide's wrist.

"They're Chopec. I don't recognize them all though." With a wry smile, he added, "I didn't learn that much about the Chopec's written symbols while I was there, Chief. That's more your department. I was too busy just dealing with the senses thing."

"Perfectly understandable. Let me show you then."

Blair scooted closer on the couch and spread the sweater between them, half on his lap, half on Jim's. "The colors I understand now. I never knew all that before." He fingered the bracelet appreciatively.

"Anyway, here's what all this represents..."

In a mixture of his teaching tones and Guide's voice, Blair drew a brilliant image of Chopec symbolism. He spoke of signs that represented honesty...the Chopec people...strength. There were human figures interwoven among the designs - Sentinel and Guide - surrounded by the symbols for friendship, courage, devotion, and loyalty. Every design represented something vital to the Chopec tribe and to its Guardian.

Jim heard the pride in Blair's voice and recognized the love in his eyes as he described the symbols and everything they represented. This was how he viewed Jim, as the embodiment of honesty and strength, courage and loyalty, friendship and devotion.

I can't live up to all you expect of me, Chief. I'm not the Chopec Sentinel of your dreams. I'm just me, faults and all. I hope that's enough for you, buddy. I hope I don't fall short of everything you believe me to be. I don't want to let you, or this city down.

He realized suddenly that Blair was no longer speaking. Instead, his friend was once again regarding him with frank curiosity. "Okay, man, this thinking thing can be dangerous, you know. Want to let me in on the secret?"

Jim shook his head and held the sweater up before him, admiring the talent it had taken to create such a unique gift. If all else fails, change the subject.

"Who made this anyway, Chief? The Chopec don't use wool in their weaving."

"It's the most amazing thing, man." Blair took the bait and ran with the hook, telling Jim a long tale of a Peruvian girl at Rainier. She and her family were weavers for as many generations back as anyone could remember. She'd been in Anthro 101, and she'd brought some woven items to show to the class. Blair hadn't been able to suppress his excitement when he'd seen ancient, traditional Chopec symbolism used in her original designs. He'd contracted with her to weave the sweater months ago, and they'd labored for hours to design just the right pattern - not too bold, yet filled with meaning.

At least ten minutes had elapsed before Blair ran out of words. When he did, Jim took the opportunity to express his gratitude. "Chief, it's beautiful. I can't believe you went to this kind of trouble, but I thank you. I'll wear it proudly."

"Try it on. See if it fits."

Jim acquiesced, standing to strip off his old red sweater. The new sweater settled perfectly over his broad shoulders, and fit around his jeans like it had been hand-tailored just for him.

Which it had.

"Perfect!" Blair announced happily. "I took her one of your old sweaters for measurements, but you never know. I mean, she'd never seen you or done an actual fitting, so..."

There was a knock at the door. Jim and Blair exchanged puzzled looks, then Jim focused his senses. A moment later, he opened the door with a smile.

"Come in, Naomi."

It was Naomi Sandburg's time to look puzzled. "How did you know...?"

"Mom!" Blair charged the door and hugged his mother. "What are you doing here?"

Naomi backed away slightly from her son then looked from him to Ellison. "You made it clear that you wouldn't come to Colorado for Christmas with me, and we've already missed Hanukah. I just felt terrible about not spending the day with you this year, sweetie, so I decided if Mohammed wouldn't go to the mountain, the mountain would come to Mohammed." She smiled brilliantly. "Probably not the best of analogies for this Christian season, but it seems appropriate for the circumstances. How are you, Jim?"

He never knew exactly how to take his friend's mother. "Fine, Naomi. Glad you're here. Where are your bags?"

"Oh, they're in the cab downstairs. I asked him to wait until..."

"You're staying here," Blair broke in. "I'll go pay the driver and get your bags."

Naomi turned huge eyes on Jim. "But sweetie, Jim may not want..."

"It's fine," Jim said, actually relieved to see that things had resolved themselves so easily. The tension between him and his own father was enough. He'd hate to see a wedge come between Blair and Naomi. Even if having her visit was going to be nerve-wracking for him. But he'd find a way to make it through her visit, for Blair's sake.

Just as long as she didn't bring out the sage...

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

It didn't take Naomi long to settle in. Years of living out of a suitcase had honed her ability to make a home for herself quickly, no matter where she lighted. She took Blair's room, and Sandburg insisted he would be perfectly comfortable on the couch. While Blair ran to the basement storage area for extra blankets and pillows, Jim poured Naomi a cup of decaffeinated herbal tea.

"I appreciate your hospitality, Jim," she commented, sipping her tea and staring into the fire's flames. "I know how you value your privacy."

Jim was standing by the windows, looking out at his city only a few hours from Christmas dawn. "You're Blair's mother. You're welcome here, Naomi."

"Why?"

The question was unexpected, and Jim wasn't certain exactly what she was asking. "Why...what?" He didn't turn around.

Naomi inhaled slowly. "Why is my son here? With you? I mean..." Her soft laugh was tinged with bitterness. "Blair never had friends who were athletic or macho, and you're certainly that. He was always friends with intellectuals, intelligent people sensitive to social issues. I'm sorry, Detective, but you just don't fit that profile."

He was so tempted to tell her, to end her judgmental attitude toward him once and for all. Yes, he was a cop, but Jim was certain that if Naomi knew he was also a Sentinel, she'd pardon him even for that unforgivable error.

But he couldn't do it, couldn't reveal his secret, not even to earn the approval of his best friend's mother.

The sweater felt so warm against his skin. When he concentrated, Jim could actually feel the variations in the different patterns. Was it the yarn? The dyes? Interesting. He'd have to tell Blair about that later.

"I can't explain it, Naomi."

That much was certainly true.

"You claim that Blair's never had a friend like me before. Well, it works both ways. I don't know why our friendship works, but it does. Your opinion means a lot to him, you know. It would make him happy if he knew you weren't sitting in judgment of me...and of our friendship."

"I never judge..." she began.

Jim whipped around. Those words stirred something in him, and he couldn't hold back the anger, even on this night of peace. "That's a lie, and you know it! Your whole 'live and let live' philosophy is a lie, lady! You claim to believe in it, but you don't live it. You judge me because of my military background and the fact that I'm a cop. You judge me because I've never taken part in a political demonstration, because I fought for our country instead of against it. You even judge your own son because he's found a home here with me. Because he's chosen to stay here and build a life rather than traipse around the world in search of some elusive Utopia."

"Blair told me that he'd never really been home for the holidays before he came here. When he was growing up, you never spent the holidays in the same place twice. Maybe it wasn't a big deal to you, but it was to him. And this year, you almost ruined this holiday season for your son because he wanted to spend them at home with me instead of with a bunch of strangers. That was unacceptable to you because I am unacceptable to you. That was you playing judge and jury, Naomi. So don't you dare stand here in my home and claim that you do not judge."

Sometime during Jim's uncharacteristic tirade, Naomi had risen to her feet. She was staring at Jim with wide eyes, so much like Sandburg's that Jim's heart tightened. How many times had he seen that same hurt in Blair's eyes?

Even as he watched, the familiar blue eyes softened. "You're right," she whispered. "My God, Jim, you are right." Taking a few quick steps forward, she touched the sleeve of his sweater, and Jim could feel her sincerity. "I've let my own personal prejudices taint how I feel about your friendship with Blair, and in the process, I've hurt my son. And you. I'm so sorry."

"What's going on here?"

Blair stood beside the tree, waiting. Jim and Naomi exchanged glances and passed a silent message. "Nothing, Chief. Everything's fine."

"I was just admiring Jim's sweater, sweetie. Isn't it marvelous?"

The uncertain look vanished, and Blair's face rivaled the Christmas tree's brightness. "I gave it to him, Naomi. It was handmade by a Peruvian student at Rainier, just for Jim." He hurried to them and began his lecture in earnest, carefully omitting the Sentinel symbolism. "See, the symbols are all from the Chopec tribe. That's the tribe that saved Jim when his helicopter..."

Over Blair's head, Jim saw the gratitude in Naomi's eyes. He wouldn't have told Blair about their conversation. That was private, a shared confidence that with a little luck and a lot of tolerance might grow into respect and friendship.

Christmas miracles can happen...

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

Naomi turned in shortly afterward. Jim lay awake for a long time, listening to the sounds of the loft at rest. It was late, and he knew he should rest, but it was nice to just lie there in his own home, knowing that at least for tonight, all was well.

Blair wasn't asleep yet. He could hear the younger man tossing and turning on the narrow couch, and Jim smiled. It wasn't discomfort keeping Sandburg from sleep. Blair had used the couch before when his mom had visited and had slept just fine. Something else was separating his Guide from his much-needed rest.

Jim propped on his elbow and called softly, "Hey, Chief. Get up here."

A moment later, footsteps padded upstairs. "You okay, man? Your senses bothering you?"

"No, my senses are fine. Or they would be if you'd settle down and sleep. Do you know how much noise you make when you're restless, Junior?"

In the darkness, Sentinel eyes picked up the flash of guilt. "I'm sorry. Really. I'll try to be still. I don't know why I can't sleep. It's just that today was an emotional roller coaster, you know? I mean, first I didn't want to leave and I was debating about all that, then..."

"Shut up, Sandburg," Jim said gently. "How do you feel?"

Blair perched on the edge of Jim's mattress but even then, his hands moved restlessly, and one leg swung like a pendulum. "Nervous. Like a cat. I can't get my mind to turn off. It just keeps running on and on like it's taking a ride on a perpetual motion machine or something."

Jim noticed he was still wearing the bracelet. "I want you to try something. Go lie back down. Think of each bead on that bracelet and what it represents. Over and over. Remember why Incacha gave it to me and why I've given it to you. See what happens."

Staring down at the colorful beads encircling his wrist, Blair said thoughtfully, "Kind of a meditation mantra? Positive thoughts and repetition. Hey, man, you really have learned something about meditation, haven't you?" He flashed a grin at Jim that was impossible to resist.

Jim smiled back. "Something like that." On impulse, he reached out and cupped the back of Sandburg's neck, squeezing gently. "I'm glad you stayed, Blair."

Sandburg covered Jim's arm with his hand. "Isn't that what the holidays are about? Spending time at home with family?"

"It is good that Naomi came, Chief. That was a nice surprise for you."

For a moment, Sandburg looked puzzled, then he shook his head with a gentle smile. "I wasn't talking about my mom, Jim. You're my family, man. You have been for a long time. I love Naomi, sure. She's my mom. But she's here for a day or two, then she's gone again. That's just Naomi. But you..."

He stopped, and Jim waited, feeling the warmth of Blair's hand on his arm. "You're always there, Jim. No matter what happens, you're there. That's what makes a family, man."

Blair held up his free hand, the one with the bracelet. "That's what this is all about, isn't it? Family."

He touched a red bead, slowly...reverently.

"Protection..."

Blair's hand moved to caress a single blue bead.

"The life force...flourishing...thriving..."

His fingertip lingered on a brilliant yellow bead.

"Warmth and shelter...comfort."

Blair found the single green bead and ran his finger gently over it.

"Strength...growth..."

Blair stared deeply into Jim's eyes and his hand increased its pressure against Jim's arm. "This bracelet is everything about us, Jim. It's all about what we've become - and what we're still becoming."

A current ran between them, a power Jim wasn't sure he'd ever felt before. "What are we becoming, Chief? Sometimes I wonder..."

His Guide's smile was gentle and wise. "Don't you know? We're becoming so much more together than we ever could have been apart. We're becoming everything Incacha wanted you to become. You're becoming a true Sentinel. Strong ... powerful ... controlled. And I'm a part of that, man, as I become your Guide. I don't understand how it's all happening or why it sometimes has to happen the way it does, but it's true just the same. We're family, Jim, and that word doesn't even go deeply enough, does it? Maybe we don't need to be able to explain it all or put it into words even. I think a lot of this Sentinel/Guide journey is about faith and trust...in each other and in whatever forces seem to be watching over us."

Jim considered Blair's words. As so much of what Sandburg said, it made sense. "You're a wise man, Chief." He yawned broadly. "Now go to sleep. It's going to be morning in a few hours."

Blair looked every inch the little boy as he grinned. "Christmas morning! And we have our special holiday breakfast to make, then it'll be time to start dinner before you know it, and Naomi hasn't opened her gifts yet." He sprang to his feet, then padded quickly down the stairs.

Jim monitored his friend's heartbeat for the next few minutes, listening as it gradually slowed. His Sentinel hearing heard clearly the murmured words ... Protection ... life ... warmth ... comfort ... strength ... health ... protection ...life ... warmth ... comfort ... strength ...health ...

Then just before Blair's breathing evened out..."G'night, Jim...Thank you, my brother..."

Jim turned on his side with a soft sigh. The night was quiet. His tribe was safe, at least for this one night. His Guide was home, slumbering securely below, and there even seemed to be a thawing in the icy relationship with Blair's mother. A warm flame of what might have been joy, had he chosen to name it, glowed in Jim's heart, and his soul was at peace.

As he slipped into arms of sleep, Jim heard Blair's whisper echoing in his heart ... Protection ... life ... warmth ... comfort ... strength ... health ...

Christmas Eve had truly brought tidings of comfort and of joy.

Finis...

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