Disclaimer: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Bilson and DeMeo.

Acknowledgements: I'd like to thank Angela Field for writing Like A Firefly. Her wonderful story inspired this one and she was kind enough to allow me to use that inspiration for a Sentinel story. I can only hope that I have done her original justice. I'd also like to thank Rivanna Michaels for letting me borrow a little from her tale and her mountain, Rocky Top.

Thanks also go to Melanie and Tonya for the beta read and to Robin, Angela and Linda for the feedback.

Note: Even though the story takes place around Christmas it's not really a Christmas story. Oh, who am I kidding? It is. In a way. Consider it a Christmas episode as opposed to a Christmas story. I'm splitting hairs, I know. I started this around Christmas and admit that I am one of the slowest writers!



Jim Ellison's breaths had become almost harsh pants as he struggled through the knee-deep snow. Each step that cut through the icy crystals was accompanied by a soft grunt as his foot sought the solid ground underneath. He knew that he should probably stop to rest. He had been pushing himself all morning, but his destination was almost in sight. He wanted to make Rocky Top by early afternoon.

The lonely cry of a wolf brought his trek to a halt as he stopped to listen. The detective had always thought the lilting call was one of the more beautiful sounds of nature. He had never understood how others could describe something so haunting and majestic as being mournful, but that morning the sound pulled at his heart. Shielding his eyes against the reflection of the sun's glare off the snow, the sentinel scanned the area around him, hoping for a glimpse of the animal. There wasn't much in the way of cover on this side of the mountain. The strong winds and shallow soil had stunted the growth of the trees. The tall and sturdy pine and spruce that covered the valleys barely reached six feet on Rocky Top. They hardly provided enough shelter or cover for the shy animal. The wolf had long been missing from the mountains of Washington, a victim of over hunting and hysteria. There had been talk of them moving back into the north Cascades, but none had ever been spotted. Maybe one had made the long, hard journey across from British Columbia. Jim shook his head as he finished his search of the area. He doubted that any wolf would make this place its home. The barren rock wouldn't support enough wildlife for the animal to survive. Shifting his backpack to a more comfortable spot between his shoulders, he shrugged. The lone howl of the wolf had most likely been the wind. Pulling in a deep breath, Jim set his sights on his goal. The crest of the mountain loomed up ahead. As his foot sank into the deep snow, he heard the wolf's call once more, making him wonder if the wolf was truly alone and if it would ever again hear an answering cry.

Swallowing back the cold darkness that had taken up residence in him, the detective concentrated on his hike. The act of putting one foot ahead of the other consumed his thoughts. He had to keep his mind a blank. It would be the only way he could do what he had to do.

Snow had started to fall when the sentinel finally reached his destination. Large flakes floated on the wind, swirling on the updraft that swept between the peaks. Jim stood at the edge of the rocky flat, oblivious to the winter wonderland that was spread before him. The snowcapped peaks that stretched into a cerulean sky, mixing their whites with the clouds, may as well have been cheap cardboard imitations. Ellison's world had lost much of its beauty. His hands hung limp at his sides as he remembered the first time he had stood on that spot. It had been a personal quest, an "I can show you" that had been directed at his father. The old man's challenge had hung over his head for too many years. Jim Ellison the man, and Jim Ellison the young boy, had both stood victorious on that mountain that day. Blair had been there with him, sharing what should have seemed like an empty victory to anyone else but the detective. But Sandburg had understood. He had understood that the climb up Rocky Top hadn't been made to prove something to William Ellison alone. A lot of self-doubt and self-recrimination had been left on the trail behind them. It had been on that day that the sentinel had understood what it meant to have a true friend. He could list the many friends he did have, but none would have understood or truly shared his joy as Blair had.

How many times had they made the long trek up that mountain in the last few years? Four? Five? This was the first time that Jim had made the journey alone and he knew that this would be the last time he would ever again make the climb. It would never be the same. The backpack that he had dropped at his feet slid in the snow, nudging at his shins, reminding him of why he had come. Taking a deep breath, he looked away from it to stare once again across the mountain vista.

"You know what, Jim?" Blair's voice sounded so clearly in his mind that he turned to look at the rock the two of them had sat against the last time they had camped out on the mountain. The winter snow seemed to melt away to be replaced by fragrant moss and patches of grass. He saw himself sitting there, shirtsleeves rolled up, eyes closed and head tilted back, enjoying the sun and fresh air. His partner was perched on the rock but slid down to join him on the soft ground. As much as he didn't want to, Ellison let his memory relive that afternoon.

"I doubt I could ever guess, Chief." He cracked an eye open to grin at his friend. "Why don't you just tell me."

Blair smiled as he sat cross-legged, his arms resting on his knees. "I was thinking that when I die I want my ashes spread right here. I wanna be a part of this."

Jim opened both eyes now and sat a little straighter as he considered the younger man. "Oh, I don't know, Sandburg. Sixty, seventy years from now, this could be some swank ski resort. I'm not too sure they'd approve."

"Huh," Sandburg laughed a short, surprised laugh. "I hadn't thought of that." He stretched his legs out before him and leaned against the rock. "Ski resort. Where all the beautiful people hang out." He nodded to himself and then graced the detective with a mischievous smile. "Oh yeah, I definitely want to be a part of that."

Not being able to keep a straight face, Ellison laughed. "You would, but there are laws about that sort of thing." He raised an eyebrow, waiting for his friend's response. The one thing he could always count on from his partner was never being able to predict what the younger man was going to say. It was never dull.

"Ah, you're a cop," Blair chuckled as he punched him in the arm. "You wouldn't deny me an eternity of hanging out with beautiful women, would you? You'll think of something."

"Me?!" The detective returned the punch. "I seriously doubt I'll be around to still be fighting your battles, Sandburg. And if I am, I'll probably be living in some Sentinel old folks' home using my heightened sense of smell to determine if it's going to be steamed broccoli or carrots on the menu that night and if I want to show up for supper."

The younger man laughed out loud and leaned against his friend, giving him a gentle shove. "Maybe, but I know you won't let me down," Sandburg smiled, then paused. "You know, I keep forgetting what an old guy you really are, Jim."

Ellison feigned a hurt expression, but couldn't help grinning back at his guide's laugh. "Why don't you go make lunch."

Pushing himself up to a standing position, Blair smiled down at the detective. "Yeah, why don't I go and do just that."

"It wasn't supposed to be like this," the Jim Ellison that stood in the deep snow whispered as the scene faded into the dancing flakes. Slowly closing his eyes, he bowed his head. "It was never supposed to be like this."

Another howl split the air. This time it felt much closer, but the sentinel still couldn't spot the wolf. Its tone had changed though, it sounded more insistent, almost pleading. Some instinct deep inside the detective said that this wolf was waiting for one particular answer. He silently hoped the animal got it. The mountain now seemed a cold and lonely place to be. Dropping to one knee, he reached for the pack, and with shaking hands, brushed away the snow that had gathered in the zipper and buckles. Steeling himself, he opened the bag and pulled out the carefully sealed box.

"There, that wasn't so hard was it, Ellison?" Simon's deep chuckle came from behind him. With a startled gasp Jim spun around on his knee, almost dropping the package cradled in his hands.

Squeezing his eyes shut, the sentinel prayed that the view around him would remain the bleak, snow-covered mountain. "Please, I don't want to have to live through this again. Please." But the sound of children's laughter and the squeak of rubber soles across a wooden floor told him that he wouldn't be spared. His mind was determined to make him relive each moment. Slowly opening his eyes, he once again saw himself. This time he, Blair and Simon Banks stood almost huddled in the corner of a large room as children gleefully called to each other as they darted around them. Both his friends wore broad smiles in response to his steely glare.

Clutching the box tighter to his chest, Jim Ellison stood rooted in the frozen landscape, forced to witness again the scene that had shattered him. Sinking to his knees in the snow once more, he watched.

"I don't think it was any of the kids who got hurt, Captain, I think..." Blair paused and turned when he heard his name being called. Taking a step in the direction of the child running towards him, he smiled at his partner. "Don't worry, Jim, I'll protect you from this one."

"'Tective Sanburn! 'Tective Sanburn!" The little boy's squeal echoed through the gymnasium. "This is bad! It's my brother's!"

The sentinel heard his guide's sharp intake of breath and the staccato pounding of his heart just seconds before the gun blast. He saw and heard the bullet that tore through his partner's chest and his world suddenly narrowed to the body that had collapsed into his arms. He was only dimly aware of the children's screams and almost chaotic movement around him. He didn't understand what his captain had shouted at him, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered except helping his friend.

"Blair!" Ellison let Sandburg's weight take him to his knees. Placing his hand behind his partner's head, he gently lowered the man to the floor, his eyes taking in the bloodied sweater and damage. He grabbed at the flannel shirt that his friend had tied around his waist, balling it into a pressure bandage. He was desperate to stop the alarming flow of blood. "You're going to be okay, Chief." His hands and voice shook as he pressed the cloth into the wound, trying to harden himself against the pain-filled moans. He had to stop the bleeding.

"The paramedics are on their way."

Simon's words registered from far away as the mind-numbing surety that any help would be too late consumed the sentinel. His heightened touch could feel the broken bone and ruined flesh that shifted under his hand. And there was so much blood. Too much. But it was Blair's eyes that had stopped Jim's heart cold. His guide hadn't spoken a word, but his eyes held fear, and shock, and pain. Leaning closer, Ellison took one of his partner's hands in his, holding it tightly. It felt like ice. "Blair, look at me. You have to fight. You have to hang on." He waited as Blair's eyes blinked slowly and finally focused on him. "That's it, you just keep looking at me. You're going to be all right." His voice faltered as he saw his friend's gaze begin to grow distant. "Please, Blair. You have to fight."

The wail of sirens reached the sentinel's ears, making him glance away briefly. Relieved that real help had finally arrived, he looked back to find his partner's eyes gazing into his. The fear was gone and the pain seemed to be easing away. Jim felt a band squeeze around his heart as he realized that Blair was slipping away from him. His friend's smile was slow and gentle and Jim was sure that his own soul couldn't take any more pain as he felt his guide's fingers tighten around his. How could he possibly say goodbye to the one person he couldn't love more than if he were his own flesh and blood?

"It's time to let me go." The words were halting and weak and more than Jim could bear to hear. But the ones that followed held more strength and were softly said, meant only for the sentinel's ears. "People rarely get to live their dreams. Thank you for letting me live mine." The younger man's fingers wrapped more tightly around Jim's as he fought for a breath. "Please, don't forget me."

The sound of a gurney's wheels and hurried footsteps echoed in a stairwell, but Ellison knew that they would be too late.

"I love you, Blair. You're my brother." Jim released his hold on the shirt, knowing that the fight to save his guide was over. Instead he cupped his hand along the side of his friend's face and stroked his temple with a thumb. He watched as Blair's blue eyes closed for the last time and listened as his final breath escaped in a sigh. "I could never forget you."

"How could I?" Hot tears spattered the box he held in his hand and Jim absently brushed them away. It had happened so quickly. In a matter of minutes his life had been forever changed. Standing slowly, the detective moved to the edge of the precipice. He finally allowed himself to take in the beauty that surrounded him. The chiseled peaks of the mountains were as elegant as any cathedral spires and the sun glinted off the snow, creating a kaleidoscope of colour. His eyes followed the hawks and eagles that soared and swooped down into the valleys below. Extending his sight, he spotted a herd of elk moving across a mountain pass. There were rabbits, deer. This place was alive. This was the place his friend had wanted to become a part of. Slowly running his palm across the top of the small container, the sentinel knew in his heart that there could be no other place as perfect for the free spirit his brother had been.

Sandburg had been right, he wouldn't let him down.

"Enqueri, why have you come here?" Ellison stiffened at the words. Turning slowly, he came face to face with Incacha. The shaman's expression was stern and his words sharp. "Do you know why you are here?"

"I'm here for Blair. To do this one last thing for him." The emotional strain of the past week had taken its toll on the detective. He felt so weary and defeated. All he wanted to do was give his friend one of the few things he had ever asked for. "Please, just go. Let me do this for him. Maybe then we'll both find some peace." His eyes dropped down to the small package still clutched in his hand.

"You talk as if things are over. There is much more that you can do for him. And he for you." The shaman had taken hold of the sentinel's arm, drawing him nearer.

"No." Ellison shook his head vehemently. "He's dead. I thought he would be with you." Brightening, Jim looked at Incacha. "Is he with you?"

"Why do you search for him among the spirits?" Incacha's face softened. "Do you not understand what you have seen? Where you are? You have been shown what may be, Enqueri."

The meaning of the shaman's words gradually penetrated the sentinel's despair. "What may? Then..." His gaze quickly dropped to his now empty hands and a slow smile spread across his lips as he once again regarded Incacha. "He's alive." But the sheer joy of that knowledge was replaced with panic. If he failed he would lose his friend again. Forever. "When will this happen? How will I know?"

"You will know." The other man turned to leave. "Remember all you have seen and heard, Watchman."

"Please," Jim held out his hand in entreaty. "Can't you tell me more? I need to know if I'm going to be able to save him."

The shaman's form began to lose its substance. "Can you not hear the wolf calling you, Enqueri? There is much fear in his cry. Will you not answer him?"

"Jim, c'mon man, I don't know what to do!"

The snow-covered mountain began to fade as the furniture of his room in the loft took shape. It was with an almost bewildered wonder that Jim looked at his surroundings. None of it seemed to have the same stark clarity of Rocky Top. His mind still reeling, he wasn't sure if it was the mountain or the loft that was part of a dream world. Taking a deep breath, he slowly closed his eyes and the scents and sounds that signalled home began to envelop him. He could now feel the softness of the mattress he was sitting on and the warmth of the fire blazing below. There was a faint scent of spruce in the air. Taking a personal inventory, he realized that he was exhausted and weary. His tired muscles begged to lie down, but his hand... his hand hurt! Pulling it back instinctively, he realized that it was in the firm grip of one very alive Blair Sandburg.

The younger man was kneeling on the floor beside him, trying to wrap what looked like a shredded pillowcase around the sentinel's hand. "Don't fight me, Jim. I... I..." Blair's head snapped up, his eyes wide with surprise. "You're back!" His face broke into a wide grin. "I don't whether to hug you or slug you. Man, you gave me a scare."

Ellison's grin matched his friend's for brilliance. The sadness and sense of loss that had been so strong during his dream or vision still lingered, but the warmth of the hand wrapped around his wrist and the bright, concerned eyes that stared up into his were real. They were all the reality he needed at that moment. Resisting the urge to crush Sandburg in a bear hug, he contented himself with giving the younger man's shoulder a squeeze.

"I checked out for a while, did I?" Jim tried to smile reassuringly and grabbed one of the corners of the pillowcase in an effort to help. "What happened?" Shattered glass mixed with drops of blood on the bare wooden floor by his feet.

"You tell me!" Blair's voice was still tight with worry. "You came up here about twenty minutes ago to get the star. You thought it was up here." Satisfied that the bleeding had slowed, he sat back on the floor. "I was putting the lights up and listening to the music. I guess I lost track of time. I called up to see if you needed any help. When you didn't answer me I panicked, I came running up. I knew you were tired and I was hoping that you had just fallen asleep. But..."

"Hey, Sandburg," Jim laughed softly. "Slow down, you're rambling."

Running his hands through his hair, Blair sighed. "Yeah, I know. Sorry. But Jim, when I got up here, you were standing in the middle of the room, staring at nothing. I thought you were zoned on something at first. Nothing I tried worked. I called you. I punched you. Man, I even pinched you. I just couldn't reach you." He breathed in a shaky breath. "Do you know what it was? Are you feeling okay now?"

"Except for my hand, yeah, I feel fine." The detective looked at the mess that surrounded them. "I guess I found the star."

"I tried to get it out of your hand, but there was no moving you." Blair picked up one of the shards of glass and turned it in his hand, watching as it caught the light. "This wasn't a zone, was it?"

The question was more of a statement. Jim knew that his partner would expect the truth, but he needed time to process everything that he had seen first. How did you tell someone that you foresaw his death? Studying Blair's face, he could only imagine what his reaction might be. Perhaps earlier in their partnership he could have counted on Sandburg to accept it with his usual academic curiosity, but not now. Not so soon after he'd already been forced to face his own mortality at the hands of Alex Barnes. Ellison knew he couldn't do it. He couldn't tell him. Not yet. His guide's life had been turned upside down too often in the recent past. Barnes, the dissertation, surviving the academy. How much more would he be willing to take? For a person who could talk incessantly when he wanted to and wore his heart out on his sleeve about most things, Blair had become a master at hiding the things that bothered him. Right now, his partner seemed happy and content. They had fallen back into a comfortable pattern, and Jim could see the return of the young man that had turned up at the hospital those years ago. He couldn't knock him down again.

The touch of Sandburg's hand on his wrist startled him. When had the kid stood up?

"C'mon, let's go." Blair now had him by the arm and was pulling him up.

"Go? Go where?"

Exasperated, the younger man could only shake his head. "Man, you are really out of it. I'm taking you to Emergency where a doctor can inspect the cut. You really sliced up your hand with that glass. There might be some pieces still in it. I'm not sure I got it all out."

The sentinel opened his mouth to argue the point, but his partner stopped him with a raised finger and a stern look. "Don't tell me that you can see it as well as any doctor could. I know that. But are you going to stitch it up, too?" Blair suddenly grinned. "Forget I asked! I don't know that I want to sit through one of your 'I survived in the jungle on my own long before you ever came along' stories." Sighing dramatically, he pulled his partner to a standing position. "Move it, Ellison."

Underneath the joking, Jim could see that his friend was still a little shaken. He also had to admit to himself that even though Blair was there, standing in front of him, the images and feelings of his vision were haunting him. Going with his earlier impulse, the sentinel pulled his friend into a fierce hug. "I'm sorry I scared you, kid." He held onto him a few seconds longer before giving him a pat on the back and releasing him. He could feel his partner's questioning eyes on him. An open display of affection was not the normal Ellison move. "Awww, you looked like you needed a hug." God knows I did. "And if you think you're driving my truck, you can just forget it, Chief."

Smiling broadly, Sandburg finally seemed to relax. "I am if I get to the keys first, old man," he called over his shoulder as he went down the stairs.

As Ellison stood in the centre of his room, listening to his partner's retreating footsteps, his smile began to fade. Incacha had called him the watchman and that was what he would be. He would watch and wait. What he had been shown would never come to pass.

Sandburg proved to be as good as his word. By the time Jim made it outside, his partner was seated behind the wheel of the late model Ford. Ignoring that fact, the detective began to walk to the driver's side but stopped at the sound of the horn. He raised an eyebrow at the younger man, who was pointing to the passenger side with a jerk of his thumb. Resignedly, Ellison changed course and headed for the other door. Sliding inside, he did his best to ignore the cheshire grin that was being directed at him.

"You're getting really pushy, Chief," he grumbled and reached over to grab the seatbelt. The protest that his hand made had him wincing.

Leaning forward to turn the key in the ignition, Blair swiveled to look at his friend. "I learned it all from you, partner."

Adopting his best scowl, Jim folded his arms across his chest and stared out the passenger door window. "You learned it a little too well, if you ask me." Sandburg's low chuckle was his only answer.

Leaning his head against the cold glass, the sentinel lazily watched the blinking and coloured lights that adorned the shop windows and houses that lined the streets. Christmas was a little more than a week away and it looked as if Cascade was ready to welcome in the holidays and the new millenium with all the festivities it could muster. Police divisions across the country were being put on special alert as reports from around the world detailed investigations into doomsday and millennial cults. He and his partner would be on call throughout the holidays, but so far things seemed quiet. Nothing suspicious had caught anyone's attention. Doomsday cults. Millennial cults. People intent on destroying themselves and as many as they could take with them. Huddling in a bit more against the door, he sighed. Maybe they knew something the rest of them didn't? Maybe it was the end of the world, as they knew it. But for all the insanity or religious fervor, his world was going to be threatened by a young child eager to do the right thing. The fear and apprehension would be with him until that day presented itself. Part of him didn't want to wait to face it. He wanted to remove that threat from his friend's life. Part of him dreaded the day. Incacha had said he had been shown what might happen, but he hadn't missed the underlying message. It would happen if he failed to change that course of events. For some reason he had been given the chance to do this. If this was to test him, his being a sentinel, then why had the cost of failure been set so high? How was he supposed to live with this knowledge and for how long?

"Hey." Blair gently shook his shoulder. "We're here."

Jim watched his partner's face fall when he turned to look at him. He knew that Blair had caught him in an unguarded moment and that even the darkness of the truck's cab couldn't have hidden his expression or the turmoil he felt. The next few days were going to be a challenge. One he prayed he would be up to. Sandburg held his gaze and Jim could almost see the thoughts that were going through his head. The kid knew he was probably the only expert around at reading Ellison on pretty much any given day. Looking away, he concentrated on undoing the buckle of the seatbelt and getting the door open. No mean feat with the amount of cloth bandaging his hand and the piercing agony if he flexed it. Blair was probably right in thinking that some glass was still embedded in the cut.

"Yup, we are. Let's go get this over with."

"No, she doesn't." Ellison whispered.

"Yes, she does. You just watch the next time she comes in here to call someone." Sandburg was enjoying himself. "She'll walk in and stand in a strategic position so you can't miss her. Then she'll look around the room as if she's trying to pick out the person who's next. And then," the younger man chuckled. "And then, she'll pause ever so briefly and give you the once over. She's done it every time. I don't know how you can possibly miss it."

"Because it's all happening in that empty space between your ears, Chief."

"Maybe, but I don't think so." Blair suddenly sat up straight, jabbing his partner in the ribs. "Watch. Watch."

The nurse from the front desk strolled into the waiting area with a clipboard held against her chest. She slowly lowered it to read a name and then scanned the patients waiting to be called. The sentinel felt his face flush slightly as she caught his eye and smiled shyly. Quickly looking down at her chart again, she called the name of the person next in line.

Waiting until he was sure the woman was out of earshot, Sandburg poked his partner in the ribs once more. "Oh yeah," he laughed. "That is one woman who'd definitely like to get you in her examining room."

Ellison could only roll his eyes at his partner and look heavenward. "What did I ever do to deserve this?"

"I don't know what it was, but I sure hope you enjoyed it." Deciding that he had ribbed his partner enough, Blair reached for a magazine only a year or two out of date and began flipping for an interesting article. Sighing, he held a page out for his partner to look at. "Poor kid. Imagine having to live with that. I remember when that happened."

Jim felt a trickle of ice run down his spine as he read the title printed boldly across the top of the page. 'Children and Guns'. He, too, remembered the tragic story of the young boys who had discovered their grandfather's gun. Scanning down the page to the picture of the two smiling children, he wondered how, and if, that little boy survived the tragedy of the accidental shooting. Before he could comment, a gruff voice called his name.

Ellison and Sandburg both rose and followed the male nurse to the corridor, but as Jim turned left to the examining rooms, Blair turned right.

"Hey, wait a minute, Chief, you're going the wrong way."

"I'm going to go and grab a cup of coffee while I'm waiting." Digging deep into a pocket, Blair dug out some change and bills. "Hope you don't mind, but watching a doctor dig around in your hand and then stitch it up isn't my idea of a fun evening. Besides, I think I saw your nurse head this way. I want to catch up with her so I can give her your phone number." He took another step and smiled at his friend wickedly. "But she already has that, doesn't she? I'll just let her know you're available."


"I'll meet you back in the waiting area, Jim."

The waiting room had emptied by the time Ellison returned. Blair lay sprawled on his stomach on the only couch, with his jacket bunched up under his head, sleeping soundly. A cold, half- finished cup of coffee sat on the floor next to him and it didn't take sentinel senses to guess why. The brew smelled foul from across the room.

"Let's go, Chief. You'll sleep more comfortably in your own bed." Crouching down, he stifled a yawn and gently gave his partner's shoulder a nudge.

Blair's eyes blinked tiredly before focusing on his surroundings. When they finally settled on his friend, he smiled sheepishly. "I don't even remember falling asleep. Everything okay with your hand?" Groaning as he sat up, he checked his watch. "What took so long?"

Shrugging, the detective extended his good hand to his partner to pull him up. "Lots of little pieces of glass that needed to be dug out."

"Spare me the grim details, please." Sandburg's face screwed up in disgust as he searched his pockets for the keys to the truck. "I never did catch up to your nurse, you know."

"I know," Jim smiled smugly as he dangled the truck keys in front of the younger man's face. "I was listening." Draping an arm across his friend's shoulder, he yawned again. "Let's get out of here while one of us is still awake enough to drive home."

"Just gotta get my jacket." Reaching down for the crumpled coat, Blair stopped and then slowly straightened. "You were listening? For how long?" He felt his cheeks start to redden.

"Long enough, Sandburg," Jim laughed. "Long enough to hear you hit on a nurse and a physiotherapist, I think. Oh, and then I heard you when you bumped into that woman and her baby. You know, you can make the..."

Throwing his hands up in frustration and surrender, the younger man headed for the exit and the cold winter night. "Enough! Enough, already. You shouldn't be listening." He spun on his partner and stuck a finger in his face. "I do deserve some privacy."

"Sandburg, somebody's got to watch out for you." Ellison stopped and turned when he realized he was talking to empty air. His friend stood in the near empty parking lot, mouth slightly open and definitely lost in thought. "Chief?"

Snapping his mouth closed, Blair looked excitedly at his partner. "Man, we have got to do more testing with your hearing!" He quickened his pace to catch up to the sentinel. "You could follow me throughout the hospital? I travelled pretty far in that half hour or so."

The detective's brows furrowed. "So? What's the big deal? We already know that I can hear across some pretty long distances."

"But this was different, Jim." Sandburg grabbed the handle to the truck's door, yanking it open. "Sure, you've been able to pick up conversations from far away, but most times these were isolated voices. You know, an empty warehouse, another room across a hall." Hopping into the passenger's side, he waited impatiently for Ellison to get in. "But this time... this time it was in a busy hospital, full of noises and voices. You know where I was when I was talking to that lady and her baby?"

Sighing, Jim turned the key in the ignition. "No, where were you?"

Missing the sarcasm in his friend's response, Sandburg continued. "I was on the seventh floor on the other side of the hospital. It's in a whole other complex of buildings. And you tracked me through that?!"

"I guess that does set a new record." The detective checked his rearview mirror and slowly backed out of the parking spot. "I'm just too tired to get excited about it, Chief."

"Okay," Blair laughed softly. "I'll let you off the hook for now, but we are definitely going to be setting up some tests. Your senses may be changing. Getting stronger. I just think we should be ready, you know?" He drummed his fingers against his legs. "Right after the holidays. We'll have some time coming to us. No cases, no interruptions. Just you and me. And no arguments."

"You sold me, Sandburg. Right after the holidays." Shooting his friend a quick smile, the sentinel turned his attention back to the road. It felt oddly comforting to make plans for the future. He would suffer through any tests his partner could devise if it meant what he had been shown would never become a reality. I'm going to hold you to that, Chief.

It had been an Academy award performance. He could hear the announcer's voice clearly. Accepting the award for a sentinel in the role of an almost convincing liar, Jim Ellison.

With a frustrated groan, the detective gave up all hope of ever falling asleep. The argument played out in his head every time he let his thoughts drift. He knew that Blair would want an explanation of what had happened. He had had plenty of time to come up with a story while the seemingly sadistic doctor picked pieces of glass out of his hand. But his thoughts, his state of mind, lay in more fragments than the shattered tree ornament.

The conversation had begun innocently enough, but then that's how they usually did with Sandburg. His partner had a way of angling into a subject that often caught Ellison by surprise. Deciding that they would finish the now three-year-old tradition of decorating a Christmas tree later, Blair had taken up his teasing about the nurse while he returned the ornaments to their boxes. Somehow, with deft maneuvering and skilled subtlety that would make any politician envious, Sandburg had brought the topic back to the earlier events.

"I let you avoid the question before, Jim, because I wanted to get your hand looked at, but you never told me what happened."

"Nothing to tell, Chief. I zoned. Simple as that." Standing with his back to his guide, it had been an easy lie to deliver. Ellison had kept his voice conversational, unconcerned. And, of course, Blair hadn't bought it.

"It wasn't a zone."

Taking a few seconds to school his features, Jim slowly turned. "I think I'd know when I've zoned. It's not like it's the first time it's happened." He saw his friend's face go tight, ready to argue the point. "What makes you think it wasn't a zone?"

"Because when you zone, that's exactly what you look like. You get this vacant look, like you're almost catatonic." Blair's eyes seemed to darken. "That's not what happened this time. It was like you were somewhere else, living some other time. When I first got upstairs, you were holding that star in your hands, cradling it. You looked so tired. I tried to get you to respond to me."

"That sounds like a zone to me." Ellison looked away from his partner's penetrating stare.

"You didn't come out of it. What were you seeing that was so horrible?" The younger man's voice rose slightly. "I called you again. You gasped and took a step backward. Then you crushed the star. You looked scared, almost frantic. And then," Blair put his hand on his friend's arm, making the sentinel turn to look at him. "And then sad. More than sad. Can't you tell me what happened? What you saw?"

"Nothing happened. You're acting like I had some kind of vision. It was a zone. It's like you said, Sandburg," Jim countered, adopting a guileless expression. "I was really tired. I remember hearing some people arguing and then I guess I focused too hard trying to listen to them. No mystery."

"It wouldn't be the first time you had a vision. The last time you didn't tell me I " Blair's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "Okay, if that's what you insist happened, I can't argue with you." He dropped the last of the boxes on the pile. "I guess that's all the straightening up we can do tonight. I'm turning in. I'll see you in the morning."

To say that Blair had slammed the glass door to his room would have been a gross exaggeration. The door had been firmly closed with controlled anger. Jim knew that he couldn't convincingly lie to his partner. Not about the sentinel things. It would be easier to lie to himself.

It wasn't until the detective had wearily climbed the stairs to his own room that it occurred to him what had bothered him most about the argument. He was upset with himself for lying to his partner, but that wasn't it. This was something else. It was something that hadn't even consciously registered. There had been no "g'night, Jim". Blair had said it almost every night for the last three years. No matter how tense the air might get or how heated the argument, he always said it. This one small omission had the sentinel wondering if he had done the right thing by keeping secret what he had seen. He knew that Sandburg was more than angry with him. He was afraid he had hurt his friend. He knew Blair well enough to know that his partner would questioning just what it was Jim hadn't trusted him enough to share.

Heaving a sigh, Jim rolled over onto his stomach and gave his pillow a punch. When it was over he would tell Blair all of it and his reasons for keeping silent. When it was all over. Swallowing back against the bile that churned inside him, he listened to the rapid beating of his heart. He was afraid. Perhaps the most he had ever been. He could admit that to the dark. Squeezing his eyes tight, he buried his face in the deep folds of the duvet. Dear God, what if I fail?

"Can't sleep?"

Jim slowly set the now cold cup of coffee back on the table. "Nope." He gave his friend a rueful smile as he watched Blair shuffle sleepily to the table and take the chair across from him. "I gave up tossing and turning for a little while. Thought I'd make myself a coffee. I didn't wake you, did I?"

"No." Blair ran his fingers through his matted tangle of hair. "I couldn't really sleep either. Your hand bothering you? Is that the problem?"

Great. 4:00 a.m. and here we sit making small talk. But at least it's talking. "No, my hand's fine. I've got a firm hold on those dials, professor." Relaxing when he saw a smile tug at the corners of Blair's mouth, Jim decided to try to smooth things over. "Listen, Blair, about earlier..."

"So that's what's been bugging you too?" Sandburg's smile widened. "I've been thinking. It's okay, you don't have to tell me." He paused for effect. "Now, that is. I'm just going to have to trust that your reasons are good ones and that you'll tell me when you can."

"You don't believe my zone explanation?"

Barking out a short laugh, Sandburg shook his head no. "For a good poker player, who can bluff with the best of them, you sure are an awful liar, Jim." Leaning his elbows on the table, he rubbed at tired eyes. "But be warned, Ellison, until you do tell me what's going on I'm gonna be watching you like a hawk. Got it?"

"Got it, Chief." Breathing a sigh of relief, the sentinel reached across the table to take hold of one of Blair's wrists, making him look up at him. "You know this has nothing to do with my trusting you?"

"I know," Sandburg replied, nodding slowly. "I guess I was more pissed off because you're leaving me out of the loop. I still don't like it, but I'm willing to wait."

"Thanks, Chief."

"Don't thank me yet, Jim. Just wait 'til you have me dogging your every step for a couple of days. You'll be begging to tell me." Slowly pushing back his chair, Blair yawned. "I'm going back to bed. You think you're going to be able to sleep?"

"Yeah, I'm going to go up in a minute. I just want to rinse out my mug. You think you'll be able to sleep?" Ellison raised an eyebrow at his partner's almost embarrassed grin.

"I think I can now. I'm glad we talked." Rising from his chair, Blair started to leave but hesitated. "My mom and I, we made this pact that we'd never end the day angry with each other because you never knew if you'd have a tomorrow to fix things. And, well, you know what we do for a living. Sometimes I..." Shrugging, he looked down, uncertain if he should continue. His partner was never too comfortable with these heart to heart talks.

"I think your pact sounds like a good one," Jim said softly, considering the young man standing before him. Could his guide have been anyone more his opposite yet so completely his match? In his vision the sentinel had called Blair his brother. He had admitted his love for him. He promised himself that one day he would gather the courage to say those words out loud. It shouldn't seem so hard a thing to do. Just one more gift from growing up in the Ellison household where it was ingrained that displays of affection and sentimentality were weaknesses. Perhaps if he had known someone like Blair in his youth he would have seen what strengths they were. But he was learning. It was becoming easier to acknowledge those feelings and give in to them. He had a good teacher, a teacher who looked like he was about to fall asleep where he stood. "Why don't you go get some sleep. In another couple of hours we're going to be fighting to see who gets the shower first." He watched as a slow smile crept from his friend's mouth to reach his eyes.

"Just leave me some hot water this time." Turning to head back to his room, Sandburg gave his partner a backward wave. "G'night, Jim."

"'Night, Chief." Waiting for the light to go out in his friend's room, Ellison put his cup in the sink.

The quiet darkness of the loft wrapped around him along with the warmth of his guide's presence. Their conversation had barely lasted ten minutes, but in those short minutes he had been given forgiveness, understanding and trust. True gifts, the detective knew, because his friend would never ask for them back. Extending his hearing ever so slightly, he listened to Blair as he slept. Normally, the soft, deep breaths and slow, relaxed rhythm of his heart were soothing, tonight they tightened the bands around the sentinel's heart. He was very afraid that he might lose what he cherished most.

Major Crime Division had been placed on alert once the reports had been released that this particular holiday season might ignite violence and some hysteria. In keeping with the orders that had been passed down from the mayor's office, decorating of the precincts and departments of Cascade emergency services were to be subtle, preferably non-existent, to "keep the men focused".

"Ah, Captain," Henri Brown's voice boomed across the room. "Not even this?" He held up a sparse sprig of mistletoe, waving it at Banks and winking at Megan Connor. "What about staff morale, sir? After all, it is the season."

Simon Banks put his hands on his hips and studied the worn linoleum flooring. It was hard to remain the hard-nosed captain this time of year. Especially with the antics of his detectives. He took a deep breath, which he hoped sounded threatening, and prepared to deliver his "you have your orders, detectives" speech. Just as he was ready to start he heard a startled yelp. Looking up, he saw that Megan Connor had grabbed both of Henri Brown's ears and that they stood toe to toe. Pulling him closer, and wearing a smile that hovered between wicked and seductive, she kissed him. Watching all of this with open amusement, Simon wondered if it were truly possible for a man's eyes to pop out of his head. Brown's were certainly wide enough.

Releasing Henri's ears, Megan gave them a gentle pat and, with an angelic look, turned to regard her captain. "I think I've taken care of Detective Brown's morale, sir." Connor's grin seemed self-satisfied as she enjoyed listening to her friend's surprised spluttering and the catcalls from the rest of the group. Things had been too quiet for her liking.

"Is that what you call it?" Blair's chuckle came from behind the group as he followed one step behind Ellison into the Bullpen. "Hey, Jim, how's your morale been? I know mine's been lagging." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively at the Australian.

"If the Keystone Kops are done for now?" Simon Banks dry retort cut short Jim's reply. "Can we get back down to business?" His hand was on the door to his office when he noticed the white bandage encircling the sentinel's hand. "Is there anything I should know about your hand, Detective?" He held up his own, pointing to the palm.

"No sir, just a little accident at home." Jim thought that would be the end of it, but saw a slow grin spread across his captain's face. He knew that his own answering smile must have been a sick one. He had seen that smile on Simon's face before, and if he had been asked to describe it he would have said that the man was doing a very good impression of the cat that ate the canary. It was with a sinking feeling that he saw Banks wave him into his office. This couldn't be good. "C'mon, Sandburg," he sighed, dreading whatever it was they were going to be drawn into.

"No, no." Simon's grin became almost predatory. "Not you, Sandburg. You have some follow up to do with Connor on the Popovich case, I believe. I only need our wounded friend here." He opened his office door wide and waited for Ellison to enter. "And Connor, let's keep the morale building to a minimum."

Blair couldn't contain his laugh as he watched his friend, who stood behind the captain, mouth the words 'help me'. He tried to look sympathetic as the door closed on the two men.

"Jim, are you all right?" Simon was genuinely concerned. "Are you feeling sick?" He had known that his friend would not be too happy with the assignment, but he hadn't expected this reaction. The man had actually paled. He pulled a chair over from the conference area. "Sit down. Do I need to get Sandburg in here?"

Gratefully accepting the chair, Jim shook his head no. "I'm fine. Just got a little dizzy for a minute." He saw Banks reach for the phone and put a hand out to stop him. "You don't have to call Blair. It's passed. Besides, he already warned me that I might still have some lingering effects from the painkillers they gave me when they stitched up my hand." He rubbed at the back of his neck. "I guess he was right."

"You're sure?" Simon still wasn't convinced. Ellison had looked stricken, not ill. Maybe keeping this from Sandburg wouldn't be a wise thing to do. "I'm going to call your partner in here."

"Look, Simon, don't do that." Realizing how sharp that had sounded, the detective took a deep breath and started again. "You know what he gets like if he thinks I'm sick. Especially if he thinks it's because of the senses. He won't give me a moment's peace. If I start to feel worse, I'll tell him. But I'm okay." He smiled reassuringly; hoping that Simon would drop it.

The captain's features slowly relaxed. "Oh, I get it," he chuckled. "He's already been giving you grief about it. I'll let it pass, for now. But if I see a recurrence, Ellison, Sandburg hears about it and you're gone for the day. I don't need my detectives passing out on me." He jabbed his unlit cigar stub in the air. "Am I making myself clear?"

"Yes, sir, very clear." Jim made a mental note to apologize to his partner for allowing Simon to believe that Blair's concern was ever thought of as hovering or unwanted. Regardless, he thought fondly of just how true that could be at times.

"Well, you're smiling, at least. That has to be a good sign." Leaning forward to fold his hands on his desk, Banks beamed his most winning smile. "Now, let's get back to our little assignment, shall we?"

Andy Jamieson stood unnoticed in the shadows of the tall brick building. Wiping away a large tear with the back of his hand, he quietly watched as his older brother basked in the awestruck attention of his friends. Every so often he could hear one of them beg to touch it or hold it. He heard them ask if it was real.

It was real, all right, and he didn't know what to do about it. Chris had told him to keep his mouth shut. Chris could be mean sometimes. Chris really scared him most times. Sighing, Andy picked up his backpack and headed for the school door as the final bell rang. He didn't want to be late and he didn't want Chris to know he had been watching him.

"Hey, Andy!" Chris' shout stopped him. "C'mere."

The seven-year old considered ignoring his brother's call, but was afraid that Chris would deliver one of the smacks he always used to threaten or punish him. Turning slowly, he watched as his brother waved to his friends and then trotted over to where he stood.

"I... I didn't see anything, Chris... honest." Andy felt very small as his brother towered over him and snatched the backpack out of his hands. All of the grade five kids seemed like giants and Andy usually did his best to stay out of their way. Most kids stayed out of Chris' path, even the big kids.

"I don't care what you saw, geek," Chris sneered and shoved the opened pack at his brother. "Here, hold this."

The younger boy took the bag and nearly choked as his brother tucked his treasure in among the books and peanut butter sandwich. "No! Don't! I don't want that!"

Ignoring his brother's protests, Chris Jamieson zipped up the pack and held it out. "You'll take it and you'll shut up about it." He bent down into the smaller boy's face, making him back up a step. "If you tell anyone what's in there, I'll tell them you brought it to school."

His eyes glued to Stone Cold Steve Austin, whose snarling face stared out at him from the backpack, Andy could only shake his head no. Chris couldn't make him do it. No one would believe his brother, anyway. Chris was always getting into trouble. Suddenly his older brother grabbed him by the coat and shook him. Hard.

"I'm not asking you to do it, Andy. I'm telling you." He slung the bag across his brother's shoulders. "Just hang it at the back of your room with your coat and no one's gonna know. Don't be such a freakin' baby." He spun the smaller boy around and gave him a push towards the school.

Before Andy could protest, Chris had started across the schoolyard for the portables used by the older grades. The backpack hung heavy across the little boy's shoulders, slapping against him as he walked. Choking back a sob, he pulled open the school's door and shuffled down the now empty halls. The weight of his father's gun was too much for him to carry.

Blair dropped into the chair in the break room, his face a mask of shock. "He wants you to do what?"

"A school assembly." Jim pulled out the chair next to his partner and sat. Slouching back in his seat, he pushed a steaming cup of coffee at the other man. "You drink this. I don't think I can keep it down."

"Hey man, don't worry, you'll be great." Sandburg couldn't help but smile. The image of Jim Ellison standing in front of a school full of children struck him as funny. "You can give them that glare you do so well. After that, none of them will give you any trouble."

"This isn't funny, Chief."

"Yeah, Jim, it is," Blair chuckled. "But this sounds more like something that Simon'd ask me to do. How'd you get so lucky?"

The sentinel held up his injured hand, waving it between them. "Our fearless leader thinks that I should rest it for the day and this is what he came up with. Something about the force wanting to be more visible in the community." Folding his arms on the table, he laid his head down with a groan. "Why me? What do I say? They're just kids."

"Aw, you're being too hard on yourself, partner. I've seen you with kids before. I don't know why, but they respond to you." Sandburg grinned when his friend's head snapped up at the last comment. "I meant that in a good way, Jim. Let's face it, you can look kinda intimidating sometimes. And besides, these are little kids. They still think cops are cool for the most part. High school kids'd eat you alive."

"You're getting a real big kick outta this, aren't you?" The detective straightened in his chair and crossed his arms against his chest. "You're gonna be here safe and sound while I'm out in the trenches facing down a room full of kids." And it was that fact and that fact alone, Jim admitted to himself, which kept him from heading for the nearest men's room to heave the contents of his stomach. Blair would remain at the station. Far away from children and gymnasium floors. The sounds of their screams and their running across the gym floor stayed with him with nightmarish clarity. Ellison knew that day would be coming soon, but not today. Today his partner would be working with Connor.

"You want me to go with you? As backup? Emotional support? I can ask Simon."

"You can ask Captain Banks what, Sandburg?" Simon stood in the doorway to the break room, coat in hand.

"He wants to know if he can come with me as back up," Jim answered. "But I really don't think I need one more kid snickering at me from the back of the room. Thanks anyway, Chief." Rising, he pulled his leather jacket from the back of the chair. "You about ready, sir?"

"You're both going?!" Once again Blair looked shocked. "Oh, this I wish I could see."

"Don't worry, Blair." Simon gave Ellison a knowing look. "Your day will come." Banks' smirk changed to a frown as he caught the sentinel's expression. The man had paled again. He wasn't well.

The plan had already formed in Captain Banks' mind by the time he and Jim had reached the police garage. He'd call Sandburg from the school and have him meet them there as soon as he could get away. If Jim wasn't feeling well, and it was because of his senses, he wanted the man's partner nearby.

The students of Emerald Lake Elementary School fidgeted nervously. The early recess bell of the morning would be ringing in a few minutes and two hundred and fifty pairs of eyes kept darting back to the clock. The two policemen had finished their talk about school and street safety and were now standing uncomfortably at the head of the gym, fidgeting almost as nervously. The silence that always accompanied anticipation hung heavy in the room as the loud click, click, click counted down the time until freedom.

Finally, that silence was broken with the scrape of a chair. School principal, Theodore Deere, squeezed himself in between the two men to reach the podium and microphone. With an embarrassed smile at both police officers, he reached up and pulled the mike down to a height that was better suited to his mere five and a half feet.

"Well, children, I think that both Captain Banks and Detective Ellison have given us all some very useful information. I'm sure that we will use it, especially over Christmas break. Now..."

The squeak of the large doors opening at the back of the gymnasium drew everyone's attention. Excited whispers and muffled giggles rippled through the crowd. The children seated waved madly at the group of even smaller children that were being led into the room. They poured in by rows of two by two, each wearing wide-toothed smiles. Ellison's jaw dropped open when he saw the person leading the group.

"Simon, what's Blair doing here?"

"Judging from the smiles on those children's faces, I'd say a very good job." Banks waved at his young detective. "I called him in since you still looked ill. He's been over talking to the kindergarten and first graders."

The young children were quickly seated at the back of the room as Deere banged on the microphone to gain everyone's attention once more. "It seems that it's too wet for outdoor recess this morning. Miss Talbot? I believe that it's the K and first grades' turn to use the gym for recess?" The young woman standing next to Blair nodded in agreement. "All right then, teachers, if you could gather up your classes? The bell should be ringing at any moment."

Shouting over the noise of children's yelling and the teachers trying to be heard over them, the principal held his hand out to Banks and Ellison. "Gentlemen, I'd like to thank you for this morning's presentation. We've set up a small appreciation tea for you and Detective Sandburg in the teachers' lounge. If you could give us about five minutes to settle the children, I'll send someone in to get you."

In the far corner, at the back of the gym, a young boy with a bowl haircut and large brown eyes tugged at Miss Talbot's sleeve. Kneeling down to hear the boy better, she nodded and then opened one of the heavy double doors. Before running back to his classroom, the boy took one more look at the policemen who stood talking. Detective "Sandburn" had told them that the police were there to help and Andy Jamieson knew he needed help.

Hoping that Simon would decline the offer, Jim turned to search for his partner amid the chaos of the gym. Blair was slowly making his way towards them, stopping to answer children's questions and tie up the odd shoelace. At any other time, the scene would have had the sentinel smiling. The kid looked in his element. But not today. He wanted Blair beside him and he wanted him there now. A hand on his arm stopped him from going to collect his partner.

"Will you relax, Ellison?" Banks had noticed his detective's almost panicked expression. "We'll stay, have a coffee, eat some hopefully digestible homemade squares, and then politely excuse ourselves and return to the safety of the precinct. It'll all be over soon." Looking over Jim's shoulder, he saw Sandburg approach. "Thank goodness, here comes your partner. I think he should take you back to the doctor, Jim. You're a nervous wreck."

"Hey, Jim! It looks like you survived." Sandburg's smile lost some of its mirth when he saw his partner. "Wow, I was worried about what would happen to any of the kids that acted up, but I don't think that it was any of the kids who got hurt! I think..." Blair paused and turned when he heard his name being called. Taking a step in the direction of the child running towards him, he grinned at his partner. "Don't worry, Jim, I'll protect you from this one."

"'Tective Sanburn! 'Tective Sanburn!" The little boy's squeal echoed through the gymnasium. "This is bad! It's my brother's!"

Jim's heart stopped when he heard the boy's cry. It was happening. He had no time to think. He could only react and every sentinel instinct screamed at him to move. Pushing Simon down to the ground and hopefully out of harm's way, he saw the little boy reach into a backpack. The child had the gun raised and it was pointed at his guide. With the agility of a cat, Jim launched himself at his partner. "Blair!"

Ellison and Sandburg crashed to the floor with a jarring thud. Over the sound of the gun Jim heard the children's screams and felt the chaos all around him. In his panic and fear, he couldn't focus his senses enough to listen for his friend's heart or feel the rise and fall of his chest. His own pulse was beating in his ears so loudly that he thought the drums might burst. Quickly rolling off of his partner, he realized that Blair hadn't moved. With a silent prayer, he gently turned him over onto his back.

"Blair... buddy?" The sentinel's eyes scanned for any signs of injury and found none. "Chief?"

Slowly opening his eyes, Blair looked up into the relieved grin of his partner. With an exaggerated gulp, he searched for his voice. "That kid, he... he had a gun, didn't he?"

"Yeah, he did," Jim answered softly. He put his hand under Blair's shoulders, helping him to sit up. "Are you okay?" His partner leaned heavily against him and seemed almost bewildered. "You hurt anywhere?"

"No, just had the wind knocked out of me. I think I hit my head, but I'm okay." Sandburg looked around the now near empty room. Simon had taken the little boy off to the side, and Blair could hear the child's sobs as the captain hugged him. "You..." Blair once again gazed into Ellison's face and blinked slowly. "You knew, didn't you? You knew what was going to happen." His voice was hushed and he sounded almost awed. "You were running to push me out of the way even before I saw that gun. How did you know?"

"Just a lucky hunch, Chief," Jim lied. "C'mon, let's get you out of here. I want to make sure you're all right. We can talk about this later."

The faint smell of cigar smoke reached the sentinel's nose seconds before Simon reached his side. Crouching down next to them, Banks gave both of his detectives the once over. "Gentlemen, that was as close a call as I'd like to have in a very long time. Are you all right, Sandburg?"

"He bounced his head off the floor when we went down, Simon. I think he should get checked out." Jim gently ruffled his friend's short curls. Sandburg was being just a little too quiet.

Nodding, Simon craned his neck to look behind Ellison. "It looks like I'll be taking you both for a ride to Emergency. That's going to need a stitch or two, Jim."

Blair was on his knees in an instant. "You were hit? Why didn't you say something?"

It wasn't until he shrugged that Jim became aware of the pain. "I didn't know, Chief. I didn't feel it. But I sure do now," he hissed as Simon applied a handkerchief to the wound. "Ouch."

Darkness had fallen, leaving the flickering light from the television the only light in the living room. Blair was stretched out on one corner of the sofa in a cocoon of flannel and cotton; his feet propped up on the coffee table. A bowl of popcorn was perched on his lap, the dinner of choice after a grueling day.

In the kitchen, Jim Ellison stirred some extra marshmallows into his steaming mug of hot chocolate, listening to the nasally tones of the Muppets as they sang Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. The words of the song were old and familiar and he quietly hummed and sang along. It was as they began the second verse that the sentinel stopped to really listen. The song was about friends and family being together through the years. It was the line that followed that hit home. If the fates allow. There was so much about the last two days that he didn't understand. Did he have some "fate" with a capital "f" to thank for being allowed to see his and Blair's future? Had it all been some test? Had it been Incacha's doing? He knew that he would probably never get the answers to those questions. Not in this lifetime, at any rate. Did the answers really matter? With a soft laugh he realized that they didn't. The sentinel still had his shaman and Jim Ellison still had his friend. And in this reality that was all that mattered. Dropping the spoon into the sink, he went to join his partner.

"How's the headache?" The detective slowly eased himself onto the couch next to his friend. He could feel the stitches pull with every move. He had been lucky. The injury had been a minor one with the bullet digging a short and shallow furrow across one shoulder blade. It was the first time that Ellison could cockily announce to his friends that it was "just a flesh wound."

"Just about gone." Blair reached for the remote control and turned down the sound of the movie just as a furry, blue creature threw an arm around his companion to sing another carol. "How's the shoulder?"

"Feels pretty good. Not as stiff." Ellison felt that his partner was still being too quiet. Blair had hovered and fussed at the hospital. He had griped and complained at the station when Jim had insisted on filing the report so the case could be officially closed. It was the silences in between that were too silent. "Sandburg, I think I'd like to talk about what you asked me at the school. About knowing what was going to happen."

"You did know, didn't you." Blair shifted on the couch to give his partner his full attention. There was no anger or accusation in his tone. It was a statement of fact. "It wasn't any hunch."

Swallowing, Jim nodded. "Last night, you were right. I didn't zone. It happened again." He could feel Blair's eyes on him, wide and questioning, but he continued to watch the silent characters on the television screen. "I had this vision." His laugh was humourless. "At least I think that's what it was. I was climbing up a mountain in the snow. I was alone. When I got to the top I knew that there was something I had to do. Something I had to do for you." The detective massaged the back of his neck, wondering how much of the vision he should reveal. "Remember that time you and I camped out at Rocky Top for a few days? The time you told me that's where you wanted your ashes spread?"

"I remember."

"When I reached that ledge on Rocky Top, I saw that day all over again. It was like someone had made a movie of it. I knew that was why I was there." The sentinel swallowed again, trying to ease the tightness in his throat. "I knew that's why I was there alone." Clearing his throat, he continued. "I was getting ready to... to do what you asked me to do when I saw it."

Blair's voice was gentle. "Saw what, Jim?"

"Today. I saw today. The school. Everything. Except that... you died, Blair. I couldn't save you."

"You saw that?" Sandburg moved closer to his partner, taking hold of his arm. "You've been carrying that around with you? Why didn't you tell me?"

"I couldn't." Ellison looked at his friend for understanding. "I was afraid to. I had been shown what was going to happen. Exactly what would happen and there was no doubt in my heart that it would happen. What if I somehow changed what I knew by telling you? I couldn't take the chance. This way I could watch and wait. I would be there." Sighing, he turned away to stare at his hands. "Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I should have told you. I'm sorry."

"Aw man, don't be sorry. I'm not angry or upset. I just can't believe that you could handle knowing what you knew. I don't know if I'd be strong enough to do that." Blair's hand went from Jim's arm to knead his shoulder. "You saved my life, Jim, and you could have lost yours doing it. That bullet grazed you, but it could have killed you. I haven't been able to stop thinking about that." With a frustrated groan, Sandburg gave his friend's good shoulder a firm squeeze. "Will you please look at me? I'm trying to tell you something."

"Yeah?" The sentinel raised his eyes to meet his guide's. "So, I'm looking at you. What are you trying to say?"

"What I'm trying to say is thank you for thinking that I'm worth the sacrifice, for thinking that my life is that important." Sandburg let out a shaky breath. "But, please, promise me you won't ever do that again."

"I'm sorry, Chief," Jim sighed. "That is one promise you will never hear me make or keep because, my friend, you are that important." He lifted his uninjured shoulder in a half shrug. "What can I say? There aren't that many Shamans of the Great City hanging around Cascade. I have to protect my investment." The sentinel grinned as his friend's eyebrows shot up and he sat back against the cushions, pretending shock.

"Oh, I'm an investment." Sandburg slowly munched on a piece of popcorn. "I'm afraid to ask how much you think you've invested. You probably have it all marked down somewhere in a book."

"It's all written down, Chief, but you're not going to find it in any book." Reaching over for a handful of popcorn, Ellison popped more than half of it into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. He washed it down with a drink of hot chocolate before continuing. "But I think, all in all, it's been a very sound investment. Judging from the returns."

Blair's face broke into a lopsided grin. "That's really good to know, Jim." He sank deeper into the couch cushions and raised the volume on the television just slightly.

"Y'know, Sandburg," Ellison said dryly. "When people sit there with big goofy grins on their faces for no apparent reason, like you are now, they're usually visited by men in white coats."

"I'm not worried," Blair smirked as he tossed a piece of popcorn into the air and caught it in his mouth. "As soon as they get here they'll know they've got the wrong guy. Just send me a forwarding address, Jim. I'll want to know where to send the bills." He started to get up. "And besides, I have reasons. Lots of them. Mom gets here tomorrow night, Christmas is only a few days away. I got you this killer gift. I can't wait to see your face. And... oh wow." He dropped back onto the couch.

Catching the bowl of popcorn before it bounced off the cushion, the sentinel looked at his friend in concern. "Chief, are you feeling all right? Did you get dizzy?"

"No, no, I'm fine." Sandburg waved him off. "It just occurred to me how much we have to do before the twenty-fourth. We have to finish decorating the tree, do some major shopping. I have gifts I have to finish wrapping. We're still going to go over and visit Andy Jamieson, right? Poor kid feels awful." Getting up again, he stopped when Jim grabbed his sleeve to pull him back down.

"Sit down a minute, Blair. With the exception of seeing that little boy, none of the other things are important or will make the day any less special if they don't get done. Tomorrow your mom gets here and we're going to get caught up in all the running around and excitement like we do every year. I'm not complaining. I enjoy it. But right now," Ellison gently urged, "let's take advantage of the downtime."

"Sure, Jim," Blair said softly. "You're still pretty shaken up by this, aren't you?"

Jim smiled ruefully at his partner. "I think I would feel better if I understood it better."

"Maybe it's something we're not supposed to understand, but something we just accept as part of what and who you are."

The sentinel looked up sharply. "It's part of what and who we are, Chief. You're just as much a part of this as I am and just as important. Don't ever forget that."

The fierceness in his friend's voice brought an affectionate smile to Blair's lips. "I won't forget it."

The two of them sat in silence for a few minutes. With a small chuckle, Blair reached over the arm of the couch. "Well, if we're going to sit and relax tonight, I should warn you. I cleaned out the video store of Christmas movies. What do you want to watch next?" He held up two boxes.

"I don't think I'm ready for Rudolph just yet," Jim laughed.

Tossing the animated classic to the floor next to him, Sandburg got up to change videos. "A Christmas Carol it is, then."

Jim felt some of the tension ease away as the grainy black and white movie began. Deciding to go with the wisdom of Blair's words, he would accept and not question his vision. If this was all part of who and what they were, he could accept it as long as they faced it together.

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