New Arrivals
Author-Sheila Paulson

A Christmas Miracle
by Sheila Paulson

Disclaimer: Standard apply.

Summary: It's Jim and Blair's first Christmas together but Jim is playing the part of Scrooge. Rated G.

Author's Notes: Originally published in Holiday Sensations.

"So, what do you do about Christmas?" Blair asked, pushing his glasses up on his nose and glancing up from his notebook computer. "Make a really big day of it or hope it goes away?" His face was bland and uncommitted; whatever Jim said he'd accept.

It was the day after Thanksgiving, a day Jim had been required to work, although not on any cases that would require him to use his senses. Blair had taken the opportunity to catch up on a paper he was writing and had spent the whole day making sense out of his notes. To Jim's surprise, he'd come home on Thanksgiving night to find the loft smelling deliciously of roasting turkey. Blair had grinned like a little kid. "It's easy to make turkey, Jim. My mom made the best turkey I ever tasted and she taught me how. Turkey's a healthy meat, if you don't eat the skin, and wait'll you taste the stuffing. I won't even tell you all the great herbs I put in it."

"As long as they're all legal, I'll live with it. You'll make some lucky girl a wonderful wife someday, Chief," Jim had replied, but he'd been glad of the dinner, even if the most concession to the holiday was eating it in front of the TV so they could watch football. Blair hadn't even mentioned Thanksgiving beforehand except to ask if Jim had to work. And he'd been delighted when Jim praised his cooking, instead of complaining about esoteric goodies that 'normal people' wouldn't eat on a bet.

But Christmas now, there was a different matter. Jim didn't have a lot of happy Christmas memories. His dad had used it as yet another lesson in the ongoing battle between himself and Steven, rewarding the son in favor with bigger and better presents until the two of them were ready to turn on each other during the entire month of December. Moving out of there and joining the military, Jim was glad he didn't have to worry about Christmas any longer. True, Carolyn had wanted to make a big production of it, but it was easy to go along with the surface trappings because she liked it. When they had divorced, he'd put it behind him again. He'd had no contact with his father and his brother for years. It was an event that didn't matter in the overall scheme of things, except that a lot of people became crazy around the time of the year, and crime increased.

He'd figured this year would be no different. Sure, Sandburg acted like a big kid at times, and if anybody would like Christmas it would be an openly enthusiastic type like him. But Sandburg was Jewish, at least Jim assumed he was, and probably didn't celebrate Christmas. Not that Sandburg had given any evidence of practicing religion in any form in the months since Jim had come to know him. But he probably hadn't been raised in the Christmas tradition. That meant Jim didn't have to spend another Christmas pretending to like it.

He wasn't a Scrooge about it, though. He always gave Simon a tie. And he'd picked up a small gift for Daryl the last few years, a new Nintendo or Game Boy adventure, easy to select without effort. If there was a party at the office, he attended, but he was just marking time when he was there. He'd conform on the surface, but Christmas didn't mean anything to him, just another day. If he thought about it too much, he'd have to remember the year he'd wanted that sled so bad and Stephen had been the chosen one. The sled went to him and Jim's gifts were underwear and socks. Or the year Stephen got a new stereo system. Or the year Jim had been favored with a portable TV for his room and Steven hadn't spoken to him for a month. No, Christmas was more trouble than it was worth. Jim didn't think he actually hated it. He didn't go around saying, "Bah! Humbug!" But he didn't see anything special about it either.

"Christmas?" he echoed in response to Blair's question. "I don't do anything. It's just an excuse to eat too much and see relatives you can't stand and wouldn't put up with at any other time of the year. Besides, I already told Simon I'd work. I don't have a family to spend it with, and most of the other guys do." He saw a flash in Blair's eyes and added, "But you don't have to come in. If you know people from the University you want to party with, that's fine. I'll even do my own paperwork, in honor of the occasion."

"Oh. Okay, Jim." Blair didn't say anything else. Instead he applied himself to his computer again. "One last paper and I'll be nearly caught up. Nice to have a long weekend."

He looked tired. Jim eyed him consideringly, automatically registering his heartbeat and the rate of his breathing. True, he was still fairly new to control over his senses, but since Sandburg had been coaching him, he'd caught on to a lot of things. One of them was that he automatically checked for Blair's heartbeat when he came home at night, if they hadn't been together during the day. Sandburg spent a lot of time with him at the station and out on cases, helping him with his senses and keeping him from zoning out, but he still had his own studies and the classes he taught to deal with, as well as ongoing work on his thesis. Lucky he was so young. Another five years and he'd be past burning the candle at both ends like that. Jim remembered his own college days, how he'd learned to manage with next to no sleep and still feel energized in the morning. Sandburg might be a teaching fellow and Jim's official police observer as well as a student, but he balanced it all and so far had shown no traces of losing his grip on it.

"You don't mind about not doing anything for Christmas?" Jim asked.

"No, it's okay, Jim. I can always use some downtime. The work keeps sneaking up on me if I'm not on it all the time. No biggie, man." He started typing rapidly. Jim instantly adjusted his hearing to tone down the click of the keys. He switched on the television, and just as the sound came up, he thought he heard a faint, wistful sigh from his partner.


"Just worrying about the length of this stupid paper," the kid said instantly. "Graves likes us to turn in papers at least twenty pages long and he goes through with a big red pencil and marks out every word he thinks is padding. The noise gonna bother you, man?"

Jim shook his head. "No, I'm gonna watch the game. The noise of that bother you?"

Blair shook his head. "I'll wear my earphones. I've gotta pull this into shape tonight."

When Jim glanced at him again, he was typing very quickly, glancing over at his notes every few minutes, and swaying faintly in tune to the music. Probably jungle chants or heavy metal stuff. Jim's taste in music and his Guide's didn't mesh, or at least not very often. He didn't bother to focus on it. No point in punishing his ears.

"'So this is Christmas, and what have you done,'" the tape sang in Blair's ears as his fingers put words on the screen without a direct connection to his brain and his eyes lingered on his partner, who sat brooding at the television screen. Just call him Scrooge, Blair thought sadly. He could tell from the way Jim acted that he had a major attitude problem about Christmas. Too bad he couldn't turn his mom loose on Jim for the duration. Naomi was good at helping people work out bad attitudes.

Blair's mother had been raised in the Jewish religion but when she left home to join the commune, she had left her old life behind her. She had beliefs and considered herself a spiritual person but she'd taken what she liked from a lot of religions, juggled it around, and made it into a philosophy she could live with. Churches had been part of the establishment she despised so she did without organized religion. That didn't mean she never took Blair to church, but she did it at random, letting him see what the different religions had to offer. "Whether you believe in a universal god or an energy or a way of life, that's your choice," she'd told Blair. "What matters is that when you choose your code of ethics, you live by it. Buddhist, Catholic, Pagan, whatever. You find a belief system and you abide by its ethics."

Christmas might be a Christian feast, but Naomi had always enjoyed the sense of love and brotherhood that went along with it. She'd felt she'd been denied something good as a child because her parents didn't celebrate it. She knew other children who didn't miss it, but for her, she wanted it. So she celebrated Christmas as a day to 'Love One Another'. She and Blair always decorated the tree together, and if she had one of Blair's 'temporary fathers' in residence, he would be allowed to help. Blair had never outgrown his love for Christmas trees. And for the spirit of the season. Naomi liked to go out into the crowds wherever they lived at the time and project love and brotherhood -- sisterhood -- at the people. "Goodwill toward all, Blair," she would tell him. And even in the midst of maddened shoppers bad- temperedly struggling to buy their last minute gifts, she was a serene center of joy. He remembered most of the presents she gave him being homemade and not a 'product of gross commercialism' and suspected now that she had gone among the shoppers simply to project love at them. When Blair was little, he used to watch her, and notice how the sight of her quiet cheer inspired those around her. For a little while, those people recaptured the Christmas spirit. He remembered how proud he was of her.

This year, Naomi and he wouldn't be together for Christmas. She was spending the entire month of December in an ashram in India. "It's a cleansing thing, sweetheart," she'd told him the last time they'd talked on the phone. "I'm sorry about Christmas, but you have your friend now. Even if he is a pig, you make it sound like he's a good pig. Remember, think love and goodwill. And I'm sending you a big box of goodies for the holiday."

"Think love and goodwill," Blair muttered under his breath, casting a wistful look at his 'good pig'.

"You say something, Chief?"

Blair shook his head. "Planning my paper, Jim. Sorry to bother you."

But when Jim returned to the game, Blair stared down at his paper and found he'd typed a whole paragraph with his right hand on the wrong keys. Gibberish stared back at him.

"I don't have a family to spend it with," Jim had said. That might be part of his problem. Blair knew nothing about Jim's background that wasn't in the Time Magazine article. No mention of any family. Maybe Jim really had no other blood kin. But what did that make Blair, chopped liver? He was here, he and Jim were partners. He'd thought they'd grown pretty close here. A part of him knew Jim's remark had not meant to disparage him, to undermine their growing friendship. But it was hard not to take it that way. Don't expect too much, Blair thought stubbornly. Don't take it wrong, Blair, he told himself. Jim only meant he wasn't spending the day with his blood relatives. And he was quick to say I didn't have to go in and work on Christmas. But Jim's words did hurt. He'd already told Jim his mom wouldn't be around for the holidays. That meant he'd be doing it on his own. Sure he'd had a Christmas or two before on his own, when he was in school, once when he was on a research project in Fiji. But this year, knowing Jim had no family contact, he'd assumed they'd hang out together on the occasion. Now it sounded like, for Jim, there wasn't an occasion to hang out on.

Blair redid his paragraph absently, his eyes drifting to Jim. He couldn't read his face; even after working together and sharing an apartment for awhile, there were times when the man was so inscrutable he didn't have a clue to what he was thinking. This was one of them. But one thing Blair did know was that when Jim's face became this unreadable it meant he was bugged. Not angry; he could read Jim angry with no trouble, thank you very much. But this time the non- expression probably meant Jim hated Christmas. So much for his hopes of decorating the Loft.

Blair kept on typing, but he bent his head over the keyboard, letting his hair hide his face. If Jim knew how eagerly he had been waiting for Christmas, he'd probably live with it, allow a tree, but it wouldn't be the same. Blair would rather have decorations privately in his room where he'd appreciate them than force anything on Jim. After last week when Jim had complained about the pile of laundry in the middle of his floor, he kept the door to his room shut. Jim wouldn't have to know if he strung up decorations. Then at least he could think about it on his own.

Project Goodwill To All, Blair. He could almost hear Naomi saying it. But it was hard to project goodwill when Christmas had just been squashed and Jim was going off to work as if it was just another day. "I don't have a family to spend it with." Okay, so that hurt. But Jim hadn't meant it to hurt. That was just how he saw it. Fine. Blair would do Christmas himself and he'd project his goodwill to people who appreciated it.

And maybe he could get around Simon and find out if there was a way to make Jim interested in the holiday after all.

"I'll be home for Christmas," sang the tape in his ears. "If only in my dreams."

He yanked off the earphones and pushed the 'stop' button. When Jim lifted an eyebrow at him, he said, "Too distracting," and concentrated on his paper. Jim's hearing hadn't been focused, he hadn't heard the music, at least not consciously. Just as well. If only in my dreams, Blair thought wistfully as he typed. If only in my dreams.

Jim didn't think about the Christmas conversation for at least another couple of weeks. He and Blair had been busy over a drug dealer shipping in his supplies on an oil tanker, which had resulted in a very messy gunfight at the docks. Jim was hip deep in wrap up paperwork, a lot of which he delegated to Sandburg, who could type much faster than he could and had a knack for organizing. He didn't mind doing it either. When Simon had asked Blair about it once, he'd said it never hurt him to learn as much as he could, to know how bureaucracies functioned. Simon had been rather surprised to be called part of a bureaucracy, but he'd merely shaken his head and gone on his way.

Jim was deep in paperwork when Joel Taggart staggered into the bullpen from the direction of the elevator reeling under the weight of a Christmas tree nearly as big as he was and towing behind him a huge garbage bag full of cardboard boxes that probably held ornaments. He stood staring around the room, trying to decide where to put it, while various detectives congregated around him.

Blair went past Jim like lightning striking. "Cool," he exulted. "That's a great tree, man. Where are you gonna set it up?"

"What about over here?" Brown jumped up and pointed.

"Sure, right next to your desk," Taggart objected wryly.

"How about over here in the middle," Blair offered, gesturing extravagantly. "Come on, Joel, try it there. It's not gonna be in anybody's way -- well, maybe Simon's when he's heading for the elevator, but he can live with it." He grinned outrageously, slanting a glance at Captain Banks' closed door to make sure he hadn't been overheard although, knowing him, he probably wouldn't have cared.

"Sounds good to me," Taggart agreed and set it there, already in its stand. He heaved a relieved sigh. "Man, that thing weighs a ton."

"Ornaments?" Blair prodded, trying to get at the garbage bag like a kid who thought it concealed candy and cookies. "You gonna decorate it now?"

"I've got a report to do first," Taggart said. "You know, that pipe bomb incident at East High School." He smiled down at Blair a minute. "You can start without me. Get Brown here to help. He doesn't look too busy. Make Ellison type up his own reports for once." He cast a teasing smile in Jim's direction.

"I think it's an official police observer task, Hairboy," Brown agreed, favoring Blair with a sympathetic grin. "We should all be so lucky. What do you say, Jim?"

"Sure. Go for it." He watched Blair digging into the bag and stacking the ornament boxes on the edge of Jim's desk. Just for a second, Ellison saw sheer delight in his Guide's eyes. The kid was enjoying himself tremendously. So why had he told Jim he didn't care if they did Christmas or not? What kind of mixed signals was he sending here? Jim decided enough was enough.

"I've gotta interview another witness to the shooting," he said, stuffing the papers he'd been working on into their folder. He wanted to get out of here. The tree was not welcome to him, and Sandburg had directed Taggart to place it where he couldn't miss seeing it constantly. "You coming, Sandburg?" he asked, obscurely irritated by Blair's enthusiasm over the tree.

Blair's face fell, but he covered it in an instant. "Sure, Jim."

"No fair, Ellison," Taggart intervened. "You can handle an interview without the kid; it's only a witness. Let him stay. We need help to decorate the tree."

"You want to stay?" Jim asked. Not everyone in Major Crimes had completely accepted Sandburg yet, certainly not as much as Brown and Taggart had. Even Simon still had his doubts, and he knew about Jim's hyperactive senses. Jim wouldn't have thought Blair would choose to be here without him -- outnumbered.

"No, that's okay, Jim, I'll come." He stacked the boxes neatly on the desk, replacing the ornament he'd just taken out. Jim couldn't read his face at all. For a man who tended to let his emotions hang out for everybody to see, his face as closed up as Jim's could be. Of course Jim had learned Blair was not always as open as he appeared. The inner Sandburg was, on occasion, completely inscrutable. This was obviously one of those times.

But Blair grabbed his coat and came with him without a backward glance.

"If you really wanted to work on the tree, you could have stayed," Jim observed in the elevator.

"No, I just knew Joel wanted it up really bad but he didn't have time for it. I thought I could help." He hesitated, then added seriously. "For a lot of the guys you work with, I'm still an outsider, Jim. The police force is a closed society, with its own rules, and secret handshakes, and passwords -- well, you know what I mean. Everybody else is 'them' to your 'us'. I like to think a few of the guys have accepted me but I know I'll never really be one of them. It's nice to have a chance to help, and maybe fit in with the guys."

He sounded completely sincere, and it was probably true; any outsider would stay that way unless they were part of the 'thin blue line.' Jim grimaced at the expression, but there was a truth to it. Some in- groups welcomed outsiders, others shunned them. The police force was of the latter type. He should have let Blair help with the tree. It might have done him good.

But that didn't explain the sheer elation he'd seen in his friend's eyes as he fussed over the tree and hung those first three ornaments.

"I can buy a tree for the loft," he offered halfheartedly.

"No, don't do that, Jim. We wouldn't have time to decorate it."

"Sandburg, are you sure about that? A tree's no skin off my nose. I had a tree when I was married to Carolyn."

"Betcha she decorated it and you walked around it like it wasn't there," Blair observed.

"You reading my mind here, Sandburg?" That was exactly what he'd done. What he would do in the bullpen. What he'd do around street Santas and carolers. Pretend they weren't there. Did Sandburg want more than that? Did he want Jim to go through the motions? Why? It wasn't even his holiday. What was the big deal?

Blair went on and on about his 'closed society' theory, all the way to the car, explaining examples out of history, tribal cultures, fraternal organizations. "Look at the Masons," he concluded. "No, breaking into a closed society gives an anthropologist a chance for a great paper, Jim, even a book. And I've gotta publish more things. They university expects it. Publish or perish, they say."

"Sandburg, level with me," Jim said impatiently, gesturing that away with an impatient hand. "If you want to do Christmas, say so. We can do it."

"Don't worry about it, Jim," Blair insisted. "It's cool, man. All the Christmas I want, I'll see on TV. We'll have Christmas specials nearly every night until the big day. You can't escape it. I'm cool."

Jim couldn't shake him on that. They reached the witness' home with Blair going on and on about a tribe he'd once stayed with for three months in Brazil, how he'd gotten them to accept him.

"And I had to smoke this awful stuff; I was scared it was something worse than hashish but it turned out to be really nasty tobacco. It was so foul I puked for the rest of the day."

"Thanks for sharing that delightful image, Chief."

Blair grinned. "Why should I be the only one to suffer about it?"

"Why should I have to?" Jim shut off the truck. "We're here."

The interview was a real bust. The witness could give them nothing to go on that they didn't already have. He'd never stand up to cross- examination in court. Jim led the way out, more than a little exasperated.

Sandburg didn't appear to mind. He appeared anxious to return to the station. Remembering his eagerness to work on the tree, Jim grimaced. Well, Sandburg was going to have to get his jollies from that tree if he wanted one. Jim didn't have any intention of doing Christmas, not if the kid wouldn't push for it. Even then, he knew a part of him would have resented it. Did resent it.

Bah, humbug, Mr. Scrooge, Blair's imagined voice mocked him. But he couldn't warm to the holiday. Pretending he liked it would be worse than ignoring it. What did the kid expect of him? Just because he was staying at the loft, helping out with controlling Jim's senses didn't mean Jim should fill the loft with a lot of fake decorations and pretend to like a holiday that he didn't care about, should it?

As if he sensed Jim's mood, Blair started talking about a girl in one of his classes. Jim let him rattle on; if truth were told he had a habit of that, going with the flow while Sandburg talked. Sometimes he didn't even listen, just enough to pick up the thread so he could make an appropriate comment here and there. The funny thing was, he'd come to realize he'd miss the kid's endless chatter if he weren't there any more. He'd miss Sandburg. Crazy. Jim Ellison, quintessential loner, had taken in a friend whose very presence was starting to matter to his own personal comfort.

So, did Christmas matter so much to Blair that his personal comfort was caught up in it?

Jim pushed that thought to the very depths of his mind. He wouldn't be much good to Sandburg if he turned into a hypocrite and started faking it with Christmas. The kid was too sharp for that. He'd know right away. No, better to keep on the way he was going. At least he was leveling with Blair. Never mind he wasn't going to tell him why, not about Stephen and his dad and those ghastly Christmases when he was a kid. Nobody knew about that, not Carolyn, not even Simon, who had known him longer. And they never would. He and Stephen had avoided each other successfully for years and would continue to do so. That part stayed private.

"So anyway, Jim, she's having this big Christmas party next week," Blair was saying. "And I can't get out of it, but if you want to come, you can."

"A college party, Sandburg?"

"She's a teaching fellow, Jim, not an undergraduate. It's not gonna be a bunch of kids."

"Your kind of thing, Sandburg. You go."

Blair's face held disappointment but he masked it instantly, coming up with a grin. "We don't talk about prehistoric man and cultural differences between ancient tribes when we party, Jim."

"Oh, no? I remember that thing you dragged me to for Halloween, Sandburg. An old lady with blue hair pinned me in a corner and talked to me about... what was it? Cultural diffusion in Micronesia. For forty minutes!"

Sandburg's eyes twinkled. "That's Dr. Spangler, Jim. She never talks about anything else. She won't be at the Christmas party. She'll be away for the holidays. I swear you'll be safe." He was laughing, flinging out a dare.

But Jim shook his head. "Thanks for the offer, Chief, but I think I'll pass."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Scrooge, sir," Blair teased him, cocking an eyebrow expectantly.

"I said, I'll pass," Jim snapped involuntarily, resenting the 'Scrooge' comment, even as he wondered if there was truth in it.

All the fun went out of Sandburg's eyes, and Jim felt mean. Knowing he was in the wrong tended to make him want to take his guilt and anger out on the nearest handy target, but he stomped down the impulse. "Sorry. Look, Sandburg, I just don't do Christmas. Don't try to 'redeem' me or turn me around. As far as I'm concerned, Christmas is just another day. Celebrate it all you like, just don't try to make me part of it. I'm not trying to be a jerk about it. I just don't do it. Fair enough?"

Blair nodded. "Sure, Jim," he said quietly. "No problem."

But there was no sparkle in his face, and he was far quieter than usual all the way back to the station.

Simon Banks was sitting in his office staring out at the undecorated Christmas tree and frowning to himself when Sandburg wandered into the bullpen on his own. Simon watched Blair trail in, his face as expressionless as he'd ever seen it. Then the kid noticed the tree was just as he left it, and his eyes lit up. Taggart jumped up from his desk and beckoned Sandburg to join him and Blair tossed his coat toward a chair and hurried over. The two of them conferred eagerly, Sandburg with a lot of gestures, then they started hanging ornaments on the tree, pausing to comment to each other or to replace an ornament in the box and produce another one in its place. They were like two kids in a candy shop. Well, Sandburg was a kid as far as Banks was concerned, acted like he wasn't much older than Daryl half the time. And Joel Taggart had a heart as big as the rest of him. He thrived on events like Christmas. Maybe it would be good for both of them. After all, knowing Ellison, Sandburg wasn't about to receive much Christmas cheer at home.

He strode to the door and opened it. "Sandburg! In my office."

Blair's face fell but he smoothed away his disappointment and hurried over. "What did I do now?" he asked cockily as Banks closed the door behind him.

"For once I've got no complaints."

"I'll run up the flag," Blair returned and Simon had to struggle to hide a smile. Sure the kid annoyed the hell out of him much of the time, but he was starting to enjoy him, even if it would never do to admit it.

"Sandburg, about Christmas..."

"What, about the fact that my partner's real first name is Ebenezer?" Blair asked. "Got it. What's his problem, Simon?" He waved a hand to erase the question. "Sorry, don't tell me if you know. Jim can tell me if he wants to. He must have had rough times at Christmas. If he doesn't want me to make a big deal of it, I won't."

"I've seen him go through the motions," Simon replied. "He tried when he was married to Carolyn, but she told me she'd rather he hadn't. I don't know why he hates it, he never said anything to me, even in confidence. I just know he tightens up when the season comes around and avoids whatever he can, like the office Christmas party. Always works on Christmas."

"Yeah, he said he had no family so it didn't matter."

Ouch, thought Simon. "He didn't mean..."

"Yeah, Simon, I know," Blair replied. "I told him no biggie. I'm not into the religion part of Christmas, but my mom was heavily into the Peace and Goodwill parts of it." He grinned a little too brightly. "Okay, you want me not to push Jim? I asked him to come to a Christmas party I'm going to in a couple week and wound up shot down in flames. I'll let it ride, man. Too bad. He'd have a great time."

Simon doubted it. Jim wasn't the party type anyway, and he sure wasn't the type to enjoy the parties Sandburg attended. "Listen, Sandburg," he said, "I've got Daryl for Christmas Day. He's still a little sticky since Joan and I separated. You want to have Christmas dinner, you can come over and keep us from getting on each other's nerves."

Blair's eyes grew enormous. "That's great, Simon," he cried, so enthusiastic Simon felt compelled to add:

"To help me out with Daryl." He didn't remind Blair to call him 'Captain Banks' either.

"Sure, Daryl's a great kid. Thanks, Simon. I really appreciate it, man." His heartfelt tones made Simon want to give Ellison a swift kick. Maybe he could read Jim a lecture later.

"Go on, get out there and help Taggart with the tree," Simon said, making impatient, shooing motions toward the door. Blair turned in the doorway, favored him with a blazing smile, then rushed to resume his decorating.

"Ellison, you're an idiot," Simon said under his breath. Sandburg still bugged the hell out of him but he meant well. He was trying. Very trying? No, not today.

He stood in the doorway of his office watching Blair lure Brown over, and pretty soon a couple of others joined him. He could hear Blair urging them that it would be really, really cool to sing carols, heard Taggart mutter, "Not if you knew my voice."

"It doesn't matter at Christmas if you can sing or not," Blair told him. "Anybody can sing Christmas carols."

"Oh yeah?" challenged Brown. "I've heard this guy sing, Hairboy, and I swear, you ought to listen to him. You'd change your tune in a minute. The Budweiser frogs can sing better than he can!"

Taggart grabbed Brown in a chokehold while everybody called encouragement to one or another of them and Blair bounced around like a demented flea, supporting first Taggart and then Brown. Every now and then he cast a grin in Simon's direction as if encouraging him to take part in the fun. Banks knew if he went out to join them he'd break it all up, so he retreated a step, allowing the moment to continue.

The arrival of Jim Ellison in the doorway with a couple of folders under his arm caused an end to the goodnatured roughhousing. Silence descended and Blair wiggled between Brown and Taggart as they pulled apart, and went over to Jim's desk, snatching up his coat that had slid from the chair, and folding it over his arm. Simon stayed where he was, wanting to observe their interaction.

Jim's expression was completely unreadable as he thrust the files at Sandburg. "You want to type up the report on that witness?"

"Sure, Jim," Blair replied and plopped down in front of the computer.

Simon noticed that all the others left the tree and returned to their desks. Interesting. So they wouldn't finish it without Sandburg. The kid was finding a place here, beginning to fit in. Sure, he bugged the hell out of Simon most of the time, but he was making a place.

Now what the heck was Simon supposed to do about Scrooge Ellison over there?

Simon pondered the issue over the next week and a half. During that time, Sandburg and the men of Major Crimes sneaked in ten minutes here, twenty minutes there finishing up the Christmas tree and strewing other decorations around the bullpen. Sandburg produced several packages of Christmas lights, brand new, fresh out of their packages, and strung them up around the windows of Simon's office. An anonymous squad member brought in some mistletoe and hung it in a place where the coffee lady always stopped her tray. The guys became adept at avoiding walking under it, but once when Brown forgot and stopped under it, the guys kidded him that he was in for it now while he dodged to safety behind his desk. Ellison didn't pay attention to any of their seasonal byplay, but his steps automatically took him around the tree and he never passed near the mistletoe. As the days passed, his face hardened as if his grim determination would protect him from the holiday.

Simon couldn't remember other years like this. Christmas had never been a big production in Major Crimes. Sure, there'd been decorations. But for some reason, this year the Christmas spirit had taken up residence in Major Crimes -- except for one dissident. Other years the decorations were just there, and Jim hadn't had to work at avoiding them. This year he'd come in and find Brown caroling away to the accompaniment of the radio he had on his desk or Taggart sporting a tie with reindeer on it and showing it off to anyone who cared to look.

Banks wasn't sure how he'd done it, but Sandburg seemed to be at the heart of it all. If anyone had anything to say about the holiday, he was involved. He never made the slightest attempt to involve Jim in the process, sliding away when he spotted a holiday treat like the cookies Wallace's wife had sent in with him one morning, producing a new decoration or suggesting they set up a CD player in the corner and play unobtrusive music. "Puts people in a good mood," he'd told Simon.

"We don't want suspects in a good mood," Simon had growled.

"Even criminals like Christmas," Blair said. "Makes 'em lower their guard. Come on, Simon, it'd be cool."

"This is a police station, Sandburg, not Santa's Workshop."

But the CD was there, playing away in the background, a continuous selection of old Christmas standards and modern seasonal offerings. Detectives compared notes on what to buy their wives and girlfriends, and Sandburg was in there offering suggestions, and they were usually good ones. He became so caught up in people's plans for gifts that Simon made a note to pick up something for the kid and give it to him when he came to Christmas dinner, from him and Daryl. 'Although Simon didn't have a clue what to get Sandburg, Daryl might know what Sandburg would like. He'd recruited his son to think of the right present, and his son was thrilled with the task, maybe even to be involved in a minor conspiracy with his dad. In spite of the divorce, in spite of being deprived of his son's company much of the time, Simon started to feel better about Christmas himself. Daryl phoned two or three times a day to try out ideas for Sandburg's present. Calls from his son were a special treat. As the week passed, Simon mellowed amazingly. Jim Ellison's mood seesawed between deliberate indifference toward the holiday and occasional bursts of annoyed resentment that didn't manifest in outward explosions but that showed itself in the tightness of his jaw as he watched Blair. Sandburg might have been a Christmas elf, but Jim was an understudy for the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. At any minute Simon expected him to burst out with a sour 'bah humbug'. Something would have to give.

As the month progressed 'Scrooge' Ellison found himself in a continually increasing foul mood. He didn't know what it was about Sandburg but he'd changed the atmosphere at the station, at least in Major Crimes. He'd never seen those bozos acting like kids before, but every one of them was so full of the Christmas spirit it was sickening. Blair had helped them decorate the tree in snatches when Jim was out of the room, and he had strung up all those colored lights on his own too. Jim knew he'd done it but they didn't talk about it any more than they talked about all the decorations that had found their way to Blair's bedroom. Jim knew he was listening to Christmas music on his Walkman; he could focus on the sound with little effort and tell, even if Blair kept the sound turned down.

It made Jim feel guilty, and that made him irritable. What right did Sandburg have to come into his apartment with this holiday crap? But that wasn't fair. He could hardly tell the kid not to decorate his own bedroom. He was pretty considerate about not inflicting it on Jim, either. He didn't ask pushy questions about why Jim hated Christmas and he only watched his Christmas programs when he didn't think Jim would mind. Ellison let him watch them. The kid liked all this stuff, and besides, there were other things to do. He took to retreating to his own bedroom with the portable TV or a radio to listen to the Jags games, but even they had Christmas in them. Commercials full of Santa Claus. It was everywhere. Elevators played canned Christmas music, total strangers wished him a merry Christmas. As Blair would have said, it sucked, man.

Worst of all, he was sure Sandburg was planning to buy him a Christmas present. He didn't want a present. Presents were symbolic of all those lousy Christmases he'd had as a kid. He knew Blair would buy him a present he honestly thought Jim would want, but even the sight of a brightly wrapped package caused a knot in his stomach. Damn it, he'd ignored Christmas successfully for years, pretended, played the game, even when he was married. Why was it so much harder to hold it at bay this year?

And then there was the image that stuck in his mind. Blair, bounding up on Christmas morning, eyes bright, emerging from his room -- to find no present from his best friend. He'd probably say it was cool, that he didn't need anything, and maybe he didn't, not actual gifts anyway. But he did need recognition from his friend on a holiday that meant so much to him. And that boxed Jim in a corner. He was stuck with shopping for Blair. There was no quick and easy way out of it. He could hardly go to Simon to pick up his gift for Sandburg, the way he'd done for Carolyn. It was easy with a woman anyway. You gave them a lacy nightie or frilly underwear or perfume. But what would you buy for a man like Sandburg who had the weirdest taste Jim had ever seen? He heaved a great sigh of resignation, knowing he'd never feel right about himself if he didn't give in, at least that much.

Okay, so he'd have to break down and buy a Christmas present. But he didn't have to like it.

When finally Blair went off to his party, Jim ventured out and hit a couple of specialty stores, searching for the right present to give the kid. He snapped at the clerks who tried to help him. It wasn't as if he understood enough about Anthropology to choose an appropriate book in the field, and he wasn't about to buy that godawful music that Sandburg liked so much.

Frustrated, muttering to himself, he left the store and stalked down the street in the chilly rain. It had been a bad idea anyway. Sandburg had presents. Right after he'd left to meet a couple of his university cronies for dinner before going to the party -- "Sure you don't want to come, Jim? We'd be glad to have you." -- a giant UPS box had arrived from Blair's mom, dragged up the flights of stairs by a disgruntled UPS man who was glad to dump it on Jim's floor. So he had presents, and Simon and Daryl were conspiring together on what to pick up for the kid. Weird. He'd never thought Simon Banks would even consider a Christmas present for his pet annoyance. Yet he was.

Jim stopped for the traffic light and found himself outside the window of an antique shop. He didn't go into such places, though Carolyn, who had collected old fashioned carnival glass dishes, had dragged him antique shopping a few times. Hardly the place to find a gift for Blair. Turn of the century clothes and jewelry, old .78 RPM records, broken furniture. But Jim went in anyway.

The man behind the store resembled a character out of Dickens, and right then Dickens was out of favor with Jim Ellison. Dickens reminded him of A Christmas Carol, and that reminded him of Blair calling him 'Scrooge'.

"How may I help you, sir?"

"I want a present."

"Naturally, sir. And you have good taste, obviously, shunning the beaten path and coming here to the home of the unusual, the strange, the outr’. Lady or gentleman?"


"Is your gift intended for a lady or gentleman?"

"For my partner. He's an anthropology student, a teaching fellow. He likes to visit remote tribes and study them. Actually, I think he likes everything. For a man so young, he knows things normal people never hear about." Sandburg's eidetic memory and the facts he could produce at the drop of a hat could be intimidating, but Ellison was proud of his friend. Never mind that his friend could suddenly turn into an eager twelve-year old at the thought of a treat. The dichotomy that was Sandburg was fascinating, but not when he was trying to shove Christmas down a reluctant Ellison's throat.

"Ah, a modern renaissance man," the clerk purred. "I have tribal masks here."

"He already has tribal masks," Jim said, irritated. He didn't want any more of them, preferably cheap rip offs anyway, around the loft. Sandburg believed that the proper place for any given item was where he let it lay.

"Of course he does. Here." He gestured over and held out an item, a brass tube, etched with strange designs and symbols. "An antique kaleidoscope. Rare, entirely. Notice the wheel." He displayed the circle set with leaded glass attached to one end. "Blues of such a rich shade are rare today, rare and costly. This is four hundred years old. Look at it."

Jim didn't want to touch it. It probably cost more than his annual salary. But he held the lens to his eye and spun the circle. A myriad of colors whirled and merged before his eyes in exotic patterns. Okay, so it was beautiful. He handed it back. "Above my price range."

"A mere hundred dollars, sir. And I'd negotiate if you wanted other items."

Jim set it on the counter. He knew Sandburg would love it. He had an endless fascination for things like that. But instead, Jim prowled around the store. He found a tiny terra cotta figurine that could have been pre-Columbian. "Mayan," said the clerk. A big nosed man wearing a strange headdress, his earlobes decorated to suggest earrings, the stone an intriguing texture beneath his fingers.

"Genuine or fake?"

"Genuine, sir. Yes, I have fakes. We all sell them. Cheap and gimmicky. Over there." He waved at rows of shelves full of uninteresting, mass produced items. Jim ignored them and set the Mayan figure next to the kaleidoscope. He returned to his search. There were old books, some very old. He prowled among them, sneezing when dust rose from them, his eyes watering. The place stank of age and mildew, but the books had leather tooled covers and a number of them were old enough not to have copyright dates.

One of them, a huge tome, was entitled, Visionaries of the Bush and Jungle, written in a style of the past century, with vivid drawings and stiffly posed old photographs and endless pages of text. Jim skimmed it and discovered a whole section on Sir Richard Burton, he who had theorized the Sentinel concept. There was something weird about finding the book, an eerie coincidence as if he had been meant to come here. Blair had probably seen this book, probably knew everything in it already. But Jim dusted it off, sneezing again in the process, and placed it on the counter.

The shopkeeper beamed unctuously and said nothing at all.

This was crazy. One present, just to keep Sandburg from getting bent out of shape. That was what he was here for. He already had three. Yet he turned and resumed his search. Why was he doing this?

An item caught his eye and he reached out a hand to lift it from its stand. "A crystal ball?"

"Genuine, I guarantee it, sir," the salesman said. "Of course one must have a gift to use it as intended but it makes a lovely knickknack. The ebony stand comes with it."

The ebony stand was carved with occult letters and symbols that Jim didn't want to understand. Blair would probably recognize them and know what they represented. He had a couple of books about symbolic designs both among primitive tribes and in the modern world. Jim had skimmed one of them when he'd nearly sat on it one day last month.

Jim set it on the counter beside the other items.

And that was enough.

"Do you want me to ring it up, Sir?"

Jim eyed the items, checked the price tags, and groaned. "Yeah, ring it up," he said.

"The true Christmas spirit," the clerk said surprisingly, winning a scowl from Jim. He added hastily, "It's better to give than to receive. I always think the best part of Christmas is finding the ideal gift, anticipating the recipient's pleasure. Society today is a 'gimme' society. But you go to the true heart of any good man or woman and you'll find the joy of giving. For me, the best part of the entire holiday will be when I watch my grandchildren's eager faces as they open their gifts. The wonder in their eyes helps me recapture my own sense of wonder." He pushed buttons on his old-fashioned cash register. "I'll give you a discount, sir, for buying several items. Will that be cash, check, or credit card?"

Jim paid, then waited while the old man bustled around finding boxes and tissue paper to hold the kaleidoscope, the crystal ball, and the Mayan figurine. "Books can take care of themselves," he said. "There you go, sir, and if I can be bold, watching you shop has been a pleasure for me."

That made Jim stare at him in surprise. "Why? Because you raked in the bucks?" he asked.

"No, because you enjoyed it."

Jim returned to his car feeling slightly dazed. Okay, so maybe he had enjoyed it. But that was because it was about Sandburg, not because it was about Christmas. He wanted that to be very clear. He wasn't a fan of Christmas. He never would be. But Sandburg was his friend.

He stopped on the way home to buy wrapping paper and a bag of bows. This was crazy. The gifts should have been enough. Blair wouldn't care about fancy paper, and Jim sure didn't. But he bought it anyway, wondering at himself.

But by the time Blair returned from his party, Jim had been forced to endure two Christmas specials on TV and a halftime of the Jags game complete with Christmas music, and the Scrooge feelings had begun to return. The memory of that pleasure lingered, though, and he bore up to Blair's extravagant description of the good time he'd had without much complaint. Maybe that was a start. He wasn't sure he could sustain it, though. Probably not.

Blair poked his head into Captain Banks' office one morning when Jim had stepped away from the bullpen on an errand. "Got a minute, Simon?"

"Sure, come in, Blair."

Sandburg's eyebrows lifted at the name. He was rarely 'Blair' to Simon. "What did I do to wind up on your good side?" he teased. "I'll have to remember it next time you want to give me one of your little lectures."

"Sandburg, my lectures are never little," Simon told him. "See that you remember that."

Blair sketched a sloppy salute and pulled himself to what he fondly imagined was a rigid, military attention. "Aye, aye, Captain Banks, sir."

"Sandburg..." Banks groaned. "Okay, what is it?"

"Jim's present. I know he doesn't want one but I've gotta give him a present. I can't not give him a present. He's my friend, Simon. Sure he hates Christmas, but I can't buy gifts for people around him and not buy anything for him."

"Come on, Sandburg, you don't need to give us presents. You already bought those Christmas lights and the rest of the decorations." He knew teaching fellows made next to nothing, comparatively speaking, and police observer pay was a joke. Jim gave him reduced rent for helping to clean the loft but money was still tight for him and would be until he achieved his doctorate.

Blair grinned. "You don't need a lot of money to give presents, just a lot of imagination. And I have a great imagination, man."

Simon knew that was true. "No matter what you do, Sandburg, Jim's not gonna like Christmas. You buy him a present, don't make a big deal of it. Just, oh, I don't know, set it on the table on Christmas morning and let him find it. He doesn't buy presents. I remember he had me pick out things for Carolyn when they were married. He just doesn't get into it."

"That could be a challenge, you know."

"Don't make it one, Sandburg. You'd only set yourself up for a big fall. I don't know why he hates Christmas, but he hasn't changed in all the years I've known him."

Blair heaved a sigh. "I thought maybe all this Christmas spirit might break through to him, but all it does is make him mad. We don't have one shred of decoration in the loft, just in my bedroom where I keep the door shut, and if I want to watch Rudolph or It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, he goes up to his room and listens to a Jags game on the radio. He says he doesn't mind if I do Christmas, but he doesn't want to." Shoulders sagging, he added, "Okay, I'll handle the present like you say. Thanks, Simon," and returned to the bullpen.

Based on that conversation, Simon found himself plotting for a chance to corner Jim Ellison. He chose the Wednesday before Christmas when Sandburg was at the University. Classes would end that afternoon for the holidays. Ellison was at his desk, annoyedly typing a report that he would have delegated to Sandburg under normal circumstances. He hadn't done that in the past week. Maybe he felt guilty about his attitude toward the holiday.

Come to think of it, he hadn't growled at anybody for several days. He still avoided the tree, he made no concession to the holidays. He hadn't warmed to them. But he'd stopped snapping at anyone who mentioned Christmas in his presence. Simon didn't think he was coming around. But maybe he was trying.

"Got a minute, Jim?" Simon said when Ellison returned from the forensics lab and passed Simon a report he'd been waiting for. He dropped the folder on his desk and gestured Jim into a chair.

"Sure, Simon. Have you heard any word from the Feds on Gruenwald yet?"

"Not yet. You know how quick they are to share anything with the local P.D. They may not get back to us before January. Never mind the Gruenwald case. I want to talk to you about Sandburg."

Jim groaned. "What's he done now, Simon? Come on, you know he likes getting on your case. You almost make it too easy for him."

"Sandburg hasn't been getting on my case, Jim," Simon replied. "You have."

Jim stiffened up. "If it's about all this holiday garbage..."

"It's about Christmas, yes, Jim. I know you hate it and I'm not pushing about all that. It's just, if ever anybody was made to like Christmas, it's the kid. He's really trying hard. I don't know how he did it, but he's turned the men in Major Crimes so jolly I should issue them red suits and fake white beards. They're almost ready to boil you in your own pudding with a sprig of holly through your heart, or however that went. The one good thing I see in this whole mess is that Sandburg is finally being accepted. Well, there are a few holdouts, there always will be. But a lot more people are ready to accept him as part of the squad than there were before Taggart showed up with that tree out there."

"I've noticed that, sir," Jim admitted. "How I celebrate anything is my own business. It's not part of your job description to tell me what to do about it."

"No, but morale in this department is in my job description. And Sandburg's part of this department."

"His morale improves any more you'll have to tie him down," Jim said.

"All show. Yeah, he loves it but you should have seen him when I asked him to have Christmas dinner with Daryl and me. Like I'd given him a knighthood."

"Sandburg's going over to your place for Christmas dinner?" Jim asked involuntarily. He almost sounded disappointed.

"Not likely he'll have a big spread at your place, is it?" He pushed the door closed. "Jim, you always had me pick up things for Carolyn. Want me to grab something for Sandburg for you?"

"No, I bought his presents last week," Jim admitted.

Simon's eyebrows lifted and he stared at Ellison in surprise. "Presents? Plural?"

"I figured he'd have a few for me so it was only fair to return the favor," Jim said reluctantly. "It's not a big deal, purely self defense." Suddenly excitement crept into his voice. "Wait till you see what I found for him, Simon." Then he pulled the excitement in again. "Found this old antique shop and grabbed a few things. I've gotta say, I don't have a clue how people wrap presents and make them look good. You'd think with my senses I'd be able to make them straight and tidy, but I don't have the knack."

Simon forced down the smile that ached to emerge. "Don't worry, Jim. Leave them just the way they are. I guarantee Blair won't mind."

"His mom sent a giant box of stuff," Jim said. "He opened the box and there were about twenty presents in there, every one wrapped fancy like women do it, with cardboard protectors around the bows. He lit up like a spotlight and then he carried them all into his room and hasn't mentioned them since."

"He's trying to get it right, Jim. Don't push him."

"I just don't understand it," Jim said involuntarily. "This Christmas thing. It -- I don't remember a good Christmas in my entire life." His face closed away to that stubborn, expressionless stare he'd perfected.

"Okay, Jim, so you had lousy Christmases. If it wasn't important, you wouldn't have minded, would you? They weren't great, but who says from now on they can't be. Carolyn tried, Jim. I know that didn't work out, but she would have given you good Christmases while you were together if you had given her the chance. Listen, Ellison, this is the time of year even guys can be sentimental and get away with it. You remind me of a kid who wasn't invited to a party so he pretends he doesn't want to go to any party, ever. If Christmas was really just another day, you wouldn't have to work so hard at it."

"Is that all, Captain?" Jim's voice was utterly devoid of any expression at all. "I've got work to do."

"All right, Jim, go do it. But if you don't let yourself enjoy Christmas this year, you're an idiot. This could be a good one. Let it be. Take the risk. Turn this thing around."

Jim left without looking back, his shoulders utterly rigid.

"I think you screwed that up, Simon," Banks told himself.

Blair wasn't sure what to do about Jim. Okay, so Simon had said just put out the present and let Jim take it. He wouldn't refuse it, no, he'd say all the right things. But now it was not just one but several presents, because Blair had caught Jim chuckling over a Dave Barry column so he'd picked up one of Barry's books for him. And he'd found a really cool pair of sunglasses with a special polarizing lens that would help Jim when he tried to focus his vision and prevent any undue strain on his eyes. Jim was hard to buy for. He was the first really conventional friend Blair had ever had, and he didn't have a lot of eclectic interests to make him easy to shop for. You could hardly walk into a store and say, "I want a gift for my buddy and he's really anal, and besides, he hates Christmas, so what should I get him?" He'd tried that with that luscious blonde in the novelty shop, and she'd tried to talk him into buying Jim a sundial to sit out on the balcony, only it was way out of Blair's price range and the balcony was in shadow too much of the time to make it work. She'd suggested jewelry, but Jim wasn't a jewelry kind of guy even if he'd once had a pierced ear. Buying clothes for him didn't work either. She'd finally suggested car accessories and Blair had picked up a road atlas for him and a Santana tape Ellison didn't have. Jim would like them, once he worked past the Christmas part. And he found a couple of neat fishing lures. Jim liked fishing. He'd get a kick out of that.

These last few days he'd been grouchier than usual, too, but Simon had shrugged and shaken his head. "I gave it a shot, Sandburg. I don't think it worked. I pushed him too hard."

Maybe it was the prodding, maybe it was just the season, but Jim, who had shown a flash or two of tolerance, withdrew still further into his deliberate avoidance of the season. Blair watched him, trying his best not to overdo his enthusiasm.

Then on Saturday, two days before Christmas, Blair had finally lost it.

Jim had done well for awhile, but as the day drew closer he started to stiffen up again. Blair knew he wasn't going to come around, and his disappointment started to build. He hoped it didn't show; he couldn't ram the holiday down Jim's throat. He wouldn't want to. That would defeat the whole purpose. Projecting goodwill to all worked only so far when the most important part of the 'all' didn't project any back. He supposed he was just too disappointed to be tolerant. Time was running out and it didn't look like Jim would ever come around.

He and Jim didn't talk much around the loft. Blair kept his earphones on, needing the sound of Christmas music, trying to keep out of Jim's way. He was even starting to long for the holiday to be over so life could return to normal. And that wasn't right.

He'd come out of the seasonal atmosphere of his room to a living room that bore no shred of decoration and it hit him harder than normal. Jim, who was watching a tape of an old movie that didn't have a thing about Christmas in it -- looked like some Steven Segal thing -- looked up at the sound of Blair's approach. Spotting the headphones, he said, "Are those things growing to your head?"

"Probably," Blair returned. He didn't see any tolerance or understanding on Jim's face. A part of him knew Jim was fighting the holiday so hard because it had turned on him, but that didn't give him an excuse to turn it on Blair. Deliberately he turned up the sound a notch. He knew it was a mistake as soon as he did it, but he was too unhappy to care.

"Man, you bug the hell out of me," he exploded when Jim winced at the sound of "We Three Kings" from Blair's earphones. "I'm gonna quote to you from a TV show I like a lot. 'Lots of us have had Christmases that weren't the best, but if you give up you just end up denying yourself what you are so mad about never having had before.' Think about it, Jim."

"So what are you, Sandburg, the Christmas guru? You go around with a magic wand, making Christmas better for a world of miserable people? What if they don't want it in the first place? You ram it down their throats? Back off."

Blair could feel his face fall. "Okay, fine, Jim. If that's what you want. I'm not gonna be here on Christmas Day anyway. I had a better offer." He stalked off to his room. "Tomorrow's Christmas Eve, Jim. Two more days and everything returns to normal. Focus, the way you do with your senses. Just think, two more days and it's over." He went into his room and banged the door, flinging himself down on his back on his bed. He frowning up at the tree he'd managed to sneak in when Jim was out, the blinking lights, the glowing Santa, the electric candles... "Merry Christmas, Sandburg," he muttered. "I guess this is as good as it's gonna get."

"Damn it, Sandburg," Jim muttered, retreating up the stairs to his bedroom. "What does it matter anyway? What's the point?" If he accepted Christmas, he'd have to accept what he'd long known anyway, that his own father had never loved him. One of the reasons he made a point to avoid contact with his dad.

But he knew that anyway. Maybe if he didn't start buying into this Christmas thing, he'd let the old grinch win.

After all, he'd gone past all that. Okay, so maybe he and Stephen would never be friends, and maybe that was beyond fixing. But Jim wasn't a small boy trying to balance on the tightrope of his father's precarious approval and disapproval. He was a capable adult who had grown beyond all that and made a life for himself. Okay, so his father hadn't loved him. Maybe he'd been emotionally manipulative. But Jim had stopped buying into such crap years ago.

Or had he?

"Lots of us have had Christmases that weren't the best, but if you give up you just end up denying yourself what you are so mad about never having had before." Trust Sandburg to have a quote for his attitude toward Christmas. He had quotes and facts for every other situation known to man.

Damn it, Sandburg was right. If he hated Christmas, it meant he was letting his father win.

But what could he do about it? If he went down there and said, "Okay, let's do Christmas," Sandburg probably wouldn't believe him. He'd think Jim was faking it.

Then he remembered the presents he'd bought for Blair. The old guy in the antique shop had said it was better to give than receive. A clich’, sure. But then Christmas was full of them, wasn't it? Only most people didn't care. They went out and had wonderful times anyway. They were there for each other. Sandburg was his partner. So far he hadn't exactly been there for his partner this Christmas season. Joel and Brown, and even Simon inviting Blair to Christmas dinner had been there for his partner more than Jim had this past month.

Jim focused his hearing and directed it to Sandburg's bedroom. He could hear Blair's heartbeat, steady and normal, but he could also hear music playing softly. "... so this is Christmas..."

"Yeah, right," he heard Blair whisper to himself. "So this is Christmas. A heck of a holiday. One in a million." And the bitterness in his voice cut through Jim like a knife.

Blair was gone when Jim came down in the morning. He'd left a note on the kitchen table. "Gotta run errands today, Jim. See you later." Probably couldn't wait to escape from the house of Scrooge. Jim didn't blame him.

But during the night he'd come to a decision. He held the note a minute, frowning at the hasty scrawl of Blair's words, the way the pen had dug into the paper as if it were an enemy. Then he replaced it on the table and went to Blair's room, opening the door. For a minute he stood there, shaking his head at the decorations that turned the cluttered room into the very embodiment of Christmas. Not one shred of it had spilled out into the rest of the apartment, but Blair had probably felt he was pushing his luck even to watch his Christmas programs on TV.

"You're right, Sandburg, I'm a world-class jerk," Jim said.

Blair heaved a sigh. He'd stayed out as long as he could, popped in on people, dropping off little presents he'd bought or made to his college friends who were in town for the holidays. He'd had a lunch at his favorite health food place, wandered around looking at decorations.

It was late afternoon when he returned to the loft and then it was because places were closing and there wasn't anyplace else to go. He wouldn't paste himself onto someone's family uninvited on Christmas Eve, so there was nothing to do but go home. He wasn't up for a movie, not on Christmas Eve, not alone.

His steps lagged as he climbed up to the third floor and trudged down the hall. Jim was home; the truck was parked outside. Christmas Eve, thought Blair wearily and wondered if the ashram in India had a telephone and what Jim would do if he said he wanted to make a call to the other side of the world. It didn't bear thinking of.

Someone in the building was playing Christmas music. That made it worse. Blair went down the hall toward the loft and the music grew a little louder. It couldn't be Jim. He wouldn't play Christmas music if you paid him, would he? Nah. Had to be an acoustical trick.

But when he fitted his key in the door and flung it open, the music burst out at him, engulfing him in the sound. Glowing lights adorned one of the biggest Christmas trees Blair had ever seen, and there were presents under it, all the presents Naomi had mailed him along with a few others Blair hadn't seen before. Pine-scented candles were burning, and that had to be a major concession because Jim hated stuff like that. He'd had fits over those vanilla ones Blair liked to burn when he studied, saying it drowned out his sense of smell. But they were burning now.

Jim was sitting on the couch; he'd evidently been waiting; the disadvantage of living in the same house with a Sentinel was that you could never sneak up on him. Jim would have heard him at least a floor down. Now he was waiting, a strange expression on his face, half embarrassed, half doubtful, as if he wasn't sure Blair wouldn't choose to punch him out instead of entering the seasonal atmosphere that suddenly pervaded the loft. He rose to his feet and waited while Blair took off his coat. Then he went to the kitchen and returned with two glasses that smelled like hot cider. He passed one to Blair.

"Are you the same Jim Ellison I thought I knew?" Blair tried. Jim winced slightly at the question, a momentary guilt flickering across his face, but he didn't seem to have an answer.

Blair wasn't sure what to say. And then an answer came to him, already written in the script. "Merry Christmas, Jim." He didn't understand it, but there wasn't enforced tolerance in Jim's eyes. There was the willingness to try, and that was all Blair had ever asked for.

"Merry Christmas, Chief," Jim replied. The words were a little stiff, but he sounded like he meant them.

Blair wasn't sure what to say next. "You don't mind... all this?" He gestured around the living room.

"I can live with it. Even if you have to clean up pine needles for weeks afterwards."

"Me clean up pine needles," Blair railed him, starting to smile. "It's your tree, man. You brought it here."

"It was your idea," Jim reminded him, still awkward but beginning to smile. "Waving it my face for weeks. I had to put up a tree. It was self defense."

"This isn't self defense, Jim," Blair replied. "You're really gonna try it, aren't you?"

Jim was silent a minute, then he raised his cider glass and clicked it against Sandburg's. "Okay, yeah. Listen, Sandburg, I don't want to talk about it, but when I was a kid, Christmas was like medieval torture. I never had a good one in my life." He paused as if about to speak further then caught himself. "Maybe one day I'll tell you about it."

Blair's eyes widened but he knew better than to push. "Okay, Jim. But that's no reason not to start making it better. My mom always says to take control of your life, to make it work. If something's lousy, don't leave it lousy. Make it better. Usually about that point she starts singing, Hey Jude, but I can live with that. Anyway, she's right. You don't just wallow in it like it's supposed to stay lousy. Too Adlerian for me."

"Adlerian?" Jim sounded like he didn't want to know.

"A shrink who pretty much said your life was what you asked for, no matter what it was. Anyway, never mind Adler, Jim. Let's make this a super Christmas. Simon says if you ever changed your mind you could come to dinner tomorrow, too, or if we decided to stay here, that would be okay. I'm not walking out on you for Christmas, Jim. Count on it."

The tensed muscles in Jim's shoulders relaxed fractionally. "Sandburg, I've been a real jerk this month."

"True," Blair said, but warmly so Jim would know it was okay. "But don't worry about it. You got it together in time, after all. Anyway, I hear you about the lousy Christmases. This one's not gonna be lousy. Wait till you see the goodies I found for you. Wish it could've been more, but I've been a little strapped for cash."

"I'm not surprised, Sandburg. If there was one Christmas item for sale this month you didn't buy I'll be astonished. Let me tell you, though, if you bought me a Chia Pet, I'm probably going to tie you down and shave your head."

"Oops, better dump that present before you open it," Blair teased. He felt like a million dollars. Jim was being Jim again and the world was right side up. "So can we do presents now?" he wheedled. "Mom and I always did them on Christmas Eve. She knew I wouldn't sleep a wink otherwise."

"And you probably still won't," Ellison returned with a tolerant and affectionate smile. "Okay, we can do it tonight."

"Let me bring out my stuff for you, Jim," Blair cried excitedly. "Wait right there and don't go away." He started for the bedroom, racing back with his arms full.

They sat down on the floor beside the tree, and dug in. Jim made Blair open his presents from his mom first. She'd knitted him a new muffler. Blair grinned, ignoring a couple of dropped stitches. She'd made it herself, that was what counted. There was a box of Darth Vader bookplates, a package of her special fudge, New Age music tapes, packages of special herbs she knew Blair liked with instructions for their use on little calligraphied cards, odd little items she'd seen that had probably made her think of Blair. Everything she'd sent had been chosen specifically with him in mind and he was touched, as he always was, by her presents. He knew he was grinning like a kid when he finished with them.

"Oh, man, this is great," he exulted.

"You forgot a couple, Chief," Jim said, pointing out two still- unwrapped packages.

"She sent those for you, Jim," Blair insisted.

"She doesn't even know me."

"That doesn't matter. Besides, I've told her about you. Go ahead, open them."

Jim did. The first one was a video tape of the Keystone Kops that made Blair howl with laughter. "She's got you pegged, Jim," he chortled.

Jim opened the second one warily. It was a beautiful photoprint of Macchu Pichu. "She knows you've been in Peru, Jim," Blair explained. "Naomi always tries to find things that ties to a person. She doesn't know you yet so she has to do what she can."

"I think she did a good job, Chief," Jim replied, remarkably pleased that Blair's mother had actually thought of him and had taken the trouble to personalize presents instead of sending him conventional gifts like a tie or a money clip. "Now open this."

He passed over a big, unwieldy parcel that looked like it had been wrapped by a man who had never tried to use Christmas paper before. "Jim! You wrapped it yourself!" Blair crowed in realization.

"What did I do, put on a sign?"

"You didn't have to, man. I love it." He stroked his fingers across the paper, touched beyond words.

Blair tore the paper off like a kid, dug into the box and discovered the kaleidoscope. His eyes widened. "Oh, wow, man, I have always wanted one of these. I had a cheap one in a cardboard tube when I was a kid and it was great, but this --" He couldn't find words. It was beautiful. He caressed it with his fingers, then raised it to his eye, squinting down the tube at the myriad of colors. "It's incredible." He handed Jim his presents. Watched Jim open the Dave Barry book and saw his face light up.

"How'd you know I like his stuff, Chief?" he demanded.

"I'm your guide. I'm supposed to know these things."

"This is great," Jim burst out, sounding almost like a kid himself. "Nobody ever took the trouble to find out what I would like at Christmas before." His voice sounded hoarse as if he was really moved. Blair gestured at him to keep going.

Jim liked everything he gave him. Blair could tell. There was just a light in his eyes. He might not have the world's most expressive face, but he couldn't keep the delight out of his eyes. "Chief, you didn't have to do all this..."

"I know I didn't have to, Jim. I wanted to. That's what Christmas is about."

Jim passed over the rest of his presents.

Blair was utterly dumbfounded. Cool, a genuine crystal ball -- and check out those occult symbols on the base. He'd have to track them down, find out what they meant. Incredible. He could use that to help Jim focus; it'd be an ideal object for it. That would be so great! And the little Mayan figurine; god, it looked genuine. Where the heck had Jim discovered it?

And then he opened the book, and he saw the title. His eyes widened in disbelief. "Jim, oh, my god, I've been trying to find this book for two years! Where did you find it? I can't believe it, man. This is so incredibly cool!"

"A little antique shop," Jim said. "I found it by accident but it made me think of you."

Blair stroked the leather of the cover, then he set the book aside and lunged at Jim, hugging him around the neck. For a minute, he thought Jim would stiffen up again, but instead Jim went with it, let his impulse take him, and he returned it full measure. For a second, they sat there on the floor, holding on for all they were worth, as if their friendship was the best present either of them could ever have. Then Blair let go and sat back on his heels, grinning like an idiot.

"Oh, man, Jim, this is a great Christmas," he blurted out.

And Jim's face was alight in return. "Just so long as you don't start quoting Tiny Tim here, Chief."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Blair said with a wide smile -- and a great deal of mendacity.

"So where'd you come up with that quote you threw at me last night?" Jim asked as if to distract him from 'god bless us every one'. "You know, the one about denying yourself what you never had in the first place?"

"On a cartoon I like," Blair said immediately as if he'd just been dying for Jim to ask.

"You're giving me philosophy from a cartoon!" Jim blurted in astonished disbelief. "Give me a break, Sandburg."

"If it works, it works." He bounded up to his feet. "Hey, come on, Jim, I don't know about you, but I haven't had anything to eat for hours. Did you think about dinner or will we just hang out and starve."

"Starve? I don't think either of us is in danger of starving, Sandburg. But as it happens, there's dinner in the oven. I called Simon earlier and he said you could bring me tomorrow as long as I was a 'good little boy' and played nice with the other children."

Blair gave a snort of laughter. "This I have got to see," he said as he reached down to give Jim a hand to his feet. "This I have got to see."

It was three days later, after the best Christmas that Jim Ellison could ever imagine that the final bit of magic touched him. He and Sandburg were driving home, and because they'd stopped to question a relative of a suspect on the way, they took a different route than usual. It led them down the street where the antique shop Jim had patronized was located.

"You've gotta see this place, Sandburg," Jim told him. "The curator's like a Dickens character, and the place is like stepping into the 19th Century. You'll go broke in there in ten minutes, I guarantee it."

"We've gotta stop. Just don't let me spend a cent till payday," Blair agreed.

But when Jim reached the block where he'd found the shop, he pulled to a stop and stared in disbelief at the shop's location. In its place was an ordinary office building that must have been there for a good ten years. He could see clerks closing up files for the day, and secretaries shutting down their computers as they finished their last tasks. But of the antique shop, there was no sign.

"It was there," Jim said dazedly. "I know it was. I went in and the guy asked me what you were like and the next thing I knew I found those presents. It was like it was meant."

"Maybe it was, Jim." Blair stared at the storefront office, fascinated. "You know what I think it was? Your own personal Christmas miracle. It was there because you needed it. Christmas can do things like that."

"You don't believe that crap," Jim replied uneasily. Surely he hadn't been mistaken about the street. He knew Cascade too well for that. It had been less than two weeks ago, after all. And the holiday slap in the middle. The place could not have been redecorated that quickly. "Besides, I have their business card. The guy gave it to me with the receipt. I'm probably just on the wrong street." He dug into his wallet and produced the card, then he stared at it in disbelief.

It read:

Stunned, he passed it to Blair, who goggled at it in utter fascination. "Magic," he said.

"There's no such thing as --"

"As magic? Don't you believe it, Jim. There is magic. I've been all over the world, I've seen things most people can't even imagine. Maybe it isn't always called magic, but that's what it is. You'll see. One day it's going to touch you again. I know it is."

"I won't hold my breath waiting," Jim replied, but he couldn't help a frisson of uneasy anticipation.

What if Blair was right?

Because this year he had been given an even better Christmas miracle, and it was sitting right here beside him in the truck.

A smile crept out as he put his foot on the accelerator and started for home.

~ End ~