THE BOX



LRH Balzer






December 21, 1997

If he stood on the balcony door ledge he could see it up in Jim's bedroom, a large box against the back wall. Brown cardboard, no markings, about eighteen inches by eighteen inches by two and a half feet, he estimated. It had his name on it, scrawled in big letters in felt pen in Jim's handwriting.

It had to be his Christmas present.

It beckoned to him. Come up here and open me . . . it sang to him.

Beside it were other plastic bags, but he couldn't see enough to read the company names on the outside. If ever Sentinel abilities were needed, now was the time.

His own gifts to Jim were safely in his bedroom under the bed, mixed in with items of various scents so that he was fairly certain Jim wouldn't figure out what they were. As if he could tell from the ink on the paper. Well, maybe he could; it was worth a thought.

The trouble was, he had bought six gifts for his friend, not knowing which to give him. He'd have to take some of them back by tomorrow, but he just didn't know how Christmas was going to be played this year.

But there was definitely a box up there. And his name was on it.


December 23, 1997

Blair entered the loft, tossed his jacket up to land on a hook and deposited his keys in the basket -- and listened. Loft quiet. Jim not home yet. No jacket, no keys.

Big gift upstairs.

With a little laugh, Blair vaulted for the stairs to the loft bedroom, halting only when he got to the third step from the top.

Go back, Sandburg. Life is too short to be caught in Jim's bedroom snooping around. They had never come out and declared their bedrooms off-limits to the other, but when you shared a place, there had to be some lines of privacy drawn somewhere. Blair at least had doors he could shut now. Jim had to rely on Blair's sense of fairness.

There's a reason why we don't rely on my senses, Jim, he thought, with a wicked laugh. All is fair in love and war.

No, that wasn't true. Much as he wanted to rip the box open, it wasn't his yet, and he wasn't about to violate Ellison's trust in him.

He leaned against the railing, arching his neck, checking to see, at least, if the box was still there. That wasn't cheating, was it? . . . And it was still there. The bags which had been around it were gone, though. The box had been turned slightly so he could no longer read his name on it, and Jim's blue pullover was lying across the top. There was a picture of some kind on the far side of the box--he could see the smallest glimpse of it. If he just went and turned the box slightly, he could read it.

Still he stood on the third stair from the top, peering over the edge of Jim's bed to the wire cubes holding Jim's clothes and the box. Sitting there. Why hadn't Jim folded his sweater and put it away? He always did. Did Jim think his roommate would be so uncouth as to sneak into his bedroom and open the box? No way.

Well, he hadn't planned on opening the box. Just looking at it.

Life was a balance, with gifts. He had to see if what he got Jim was equal in value and feeling to what Jim had bought for him. Things always got uncomfortable if the gift was of sub-value, or over-value, or too practical versus too sentimental. And he couldn't quite get a reading on how Jim was dealing with all this Christmas stuff. Jim hardly seemed to notice it at all, as though it were no big deal. The few times Blair had mentioned the holidays, Jim had shrugged and said he hoped to sleep in on New Year's Day, since he wasn't scheduled to work that day. Not necessarily 'Bah Humbug Ellison', but he certainly was laid back about the whole 'Tis the Season'.

Blair leaned against the bricks and stared around the loft. It always looked different from up here. The blinds were drawn partway on the balcony windows, letting in end-of-day light. There was a tree in the corner, resting up against the wall, still not set up yet. It had been there for two days now and desperately needed water. An old cardboard box sat nearby, holding past years' Christmas decorations.

Last year, the first year Blair had been living at the loft, they hadn't bought a tree and the box of decorations had never made it upstairs from the basement storage locker. Blair had been in the loft for eight months by that point, but there had been a lot of ongoing cases and the Christmas holidays had left them scrambling doing paperwork and covering for a lot of cops who had families and deserved some time with them. Blair had been dating a Linguistics TA during December, and managed to fill his meager spare time with her. It was all just a reaction to Maya showing up again the month before Christmas and breaking his heart again, and Jim knew it, and he knew it, and unfortunately by Christmas, Pam knew it, too.

In fact, Blair couldn't remember what he got Jim for Christmas that year or if Jim had bought him anything. Christmas Day he had slept in, then worked on his notes for a paper due in January, while Jim went into the station and did a double shift. Had they even had dinner together?

Blair trudged back down the stairs and over to the tree. At least he could water the thing. Not that it was alive anymore, but Jim would freak if the needles started dropping all over the floor and carpet.

Well, it was too late, anyway, to do anything about the gifts. He had bought what he was going to give Jim, and that's just what he was going to have to live with. He had kept what he couldn't return, and had taken the other gifts back. They had been stupid, anyway.

What could be in a box that size?


December 24, 1997

"Hey, Chief. I'll be back in five."

"Okay," Blair mumbled, then sat up at his desk a little straighter. "Hey, Jim. Are you going to the store?"

"Yes." The closing front door reopened. "Do you want anything?"

"We're out of bread. I ate the last slice this morning."

"Already on the list. Anything else?"

"Are we okay for coffee? Milk?"

"I checked all that. What about tomorrow?" Jim asked, appearing in Blair's doorway. "Do we need anything else for dinner tomorrow? The stores will be closed Christmas Day, so think about it now. I don't want to do another run tonight."

"What are you making? Turkey, potatoes, stuffing, right? We've already got that stuff and I bought the salad ingredients and vegetables this morning at the market."

"Simon's bringing the pie and ice cream."

"Is Daryl coming?"

"No. He's with his mother this year. Simon is spending a few days after Christmas with him though."

"Okay, then, maybe some wine?"

Jim nodded. "I'll pick some up. Good thinking."

Blair watched him go, then closed the text he was reading. He'd been at his desk all day and a little change of scenery would do him good. He walked out of his bedroom and stopped short at the sight. The tree was decorated, lights blinking quietly on and off. Jim had been busy, all right. There were blue and white lights strung on the tree, so it was peaceful looking. Blair moved closer to it, staring at the red strings of cranberries and white strands of popcorn that threaded across the tree. At Blair's urging, Jim had bought them from a corner craft merchant after complaining about the tackiness of the old decorations that Carolyn had abandoned to the locker.

There were wooden carved animals hanging from gold threads and Blair vaguely remembered his partner grabbing a handful of them at another vendor that specialized in products made in Third World countries as a self-help program for the people there. Instead of an angel, a Star of Bethlehem was wired onto the top of the tree, the light behind it making it glow.

It was a nice tree, Blair decided, stepping back and looking at it again from a different angle. He blinked.

The box. Was under. The tree.

He moved closer, edging over to it. It had to be the same box. Same size. Same dimensions. Different look. It was wrapped in red and green Christmas paper, and there was a little tag on the top that said simply, "Chief."

Yes!

He knelt down in front of it, fingering the tag, as he looked at the two other gifts, one that said "Simon" and one that said "Daryl." All in the same paper, with their names on it.

He didn't realize how long he had sat there until Jim opened the door and Blair guiltily jumped backwards.

"Hey, Chief. No shaking the gifts," Jim said with a laugh as he put the bags of groceries onto the counter. "Put these away, will you? I've got another load in the truck."

"Sure, Jim. I was just looking--" But Jim was gone already. Blair opened the refrigerator and put in the milk and eggs. He hadn't gotten around to picking the box up yet. He'd just looked at it. Stared at it. No longer thinking about what was in it, just that it was there. With his name on it. From Jim.

He left the rest of the groceries on the counter and went into his room, carefully pulling his gifts out from under the bed. There were three for Jim, one for Simon, and one for Daryl. After a moment, Blair added his gift for his mother to the pile and carried them all out to put under the tree. Maybe Naomi wouldn't be here, but at least he could pretend.


December 25, 1997

Simon put down the phone and joined them in the living room. There had been a murder that morning, and he was on call as the investigation happened. Both Simon and Jim were working the late shift at the station, but they still had six hours before they had to be there.

"Sorry about that." Simon sat down and picked up his cup of coffee. "That turkey's smelling good, Jim."

"How much longer?" Blair asked, grinning as his partner rolled his eyes at the question he had asked thirty times already.

"Another hour."

"Good. Let's open our gifts." Blair was sitting on the couch farthest away from the tree so he wouldn't look too anxious, but he knew both Jim and Simon knew how important this was to him. Not because he was the youngest or anything like that. Not because the whole Christmas tree, turkey dinner, and a crackling fire scenario was something he hadn't had a lot of in his life before this. Not because-- Well, maybe. Yes, all of those things. But this was different. This year the loft was home. Last year it was almost home, but this year it was home. He had been here a year and eight months. He had known Jim for over a year and nine months. That was his room behind him.

"You first, Chief," Jim said.

Blair stared at the big box, then reached for the gift from Simon. He carefully peeled back the wrapping paper and stared at the brightly colored computer box for a moment before he realized what it was. A new modem for his laptop. And twice as fast as the 28,800 that he had on it. "Hey, Simon. Thanks. This is great."

"Well, Sandburg, I heard you enthusing about the new ones at the station and figured for the amount of work you do around there--and here--for us, the least we could do was chip in and get you a decent modem for your computer."

"We?"

"Look at the card. It's signed by a lot of the guys from Major Crimes, too."

"Wow. Hey . . ." Blair stared at the card trying to make out the scrawled signatures, then studied the box again before passing it on to Jim to look at. It always surprised Blair when the cops in the bullpen did something like that for him. Maybe he'd pick up a box of oranges or something for them. Chocolates maybe. Nah, Jim would eat them all first.

Simon opened his present from Blair--a box of his favorite cigars-- and then Jim opened one of the gifts from Blair, a couple of pairs of plaid flannel boxers. They joked about their laundry chores and Jim happily put the gift aside.

Again the large box beckoned and Blair ignored it. Daryl's gift to him sat unopened. He'd wait until the kid was visiting. "Jim, why don't you open another of your gifts? That last one was just a small one."

Jim shrugged and reached for the package Blair was holding out to him. He pulled the paper off the framed picture and stared at it for a long time. "This is beautiful." He ran his fingers over the old wood of the frame, then lightly touched the edge of the ancient photograph.

"Who is that?" Simon asked, leaning over to look at the picture.

"It's a Sentinel. I take it this is one of Burton's original prints?" Jim asked, looking over at Blair--who could only nod dumbly in response. It was one of the original photographs taken from Burton's plates, a copy of the same print he had showed to Jim on that first meeting in his basement office at the University. The plate in the monograph had been faded, but this one was in excellent condition. Almost two years ago, Burton's estate had agreed to release one of the photographs to him, in consideration of his interest in the explorer's work. It wasn't expensive--no one really saw any value in it, but it had taken him ten months to make the arrangements to have it sent to him in Cascade in time for Christmas. All during that time he had searched through flea markets and antique stores for just the right frame to put it in, only to end up using the actual frame the photograph was in when it arrived, one as old as the picture was.

His own Sentinel glanced up after a moment and met his eyes, then cleared his throat and turned to Simon. "Your turn," he said, but Blair saw that Jim still held the picture. It had been a gamble. He wasn't sure which way Jim would go on it. Either he would just nod and smile and say thanks, or else the picture would touch him somehow. Blair watched the touch-sensitive fingers gently stroke over the wood, even now as Jim apparently was watching Simon open his gift.

Simon was laughing at something to do with the fishing box Jim had given him. It was filled with lures and things that Blair knew little about, but Simon seemed to appreciate it all, pulling the feathered hooks from the little individual compartments and talking about them.

It was his turn. And it was the big box.

He reached for it, not sure why his hands were shaking. It was just a Christmas gift. It was stupid to read too much into it. He fumbled with the little card, carefully removing it from the box and setting it aside. His hands peeled back the paper and he finally stared at the outer box.

It was a new backpack. A nice one, mind you, but a backpack. Jim had gone for practical. Okay, fine. Practical is good. He certainly needed a new backpack; he just hadn't got around to buying one. "Hey, Jim. This is great. I've needed a new one." He opened the box and pulled the leather --leather?-- backpack from the carton. "Wow, this is really nice." It must have cost a fortune. Okay, practical and expensive.

Jim reverently put his picture aside and joined him on the floor. "Let me show it to you." He took the soft leather pack from Blair's hand and zipped it open. "See here-- this is where your laptop goes. It's got a special compartment for it." He pulled out a long thin battery. "And here's a backup for your laptop."

Blair's eyes opened wider. Not an inexpensive item to just toss in. But Jim was still talking.

"I added a few other things, as well. Here's where your cell phone goes, in the outside pocket, and there's a place for your spare battery, too. No more getting caught without it. Open this."

Blair opened the zippered compartment by the phone and pulled out several quarters, a calling card, and a Jags ten-dollar phone card, featuring none other than his favorite player.

"In case the cell phone doesn't work," Jim said, with an embarrassed laugh. He took the items back and replaced them carefully. "There are some other things in here. For your protection." He unzipped another compartment and withdrew a small cannister of pepper spray, a bottle of Vitamin C, some aspirin, a small first aid kit, evidence bags, and a few condoms.

Blair laughed at the latter, glancing over at Simon. "My Blessed Protector thinks of everything. Takes his job too seriously," he joked.

"Well, someone has to take responsibility for you, Sandburg," Simon laughed.

They both looked at Ellison, but he wasn't laughing. Quite the opposite. He looked almost stone-faced, as though the relaxed emotions of the afternoon had been ripped from him. He hadn't zoned, but there was that same focused/unfocused stare that was startling in its intensity.

"Jim?" Blair leaned over and touched the Sentinel's arm.

Pulling himself back from wherever he had been in those long seconds, Jim's eyes fastened on him.

"What is it?" Blair asked. "What's wrong?"

"I'm just not sure how to say this without it sounding wrong." Jim shifted the backpack, staring down at it. "I just realized what this was all about, why I did all this, why I put all these things in it." He unzipped another flap. "Here's an extra key to the loft. And there's a bank card here, in case you're stuck for money. And there's a notebook in this inner flap that has all my numbers, in case you forget, and it has other emergency numbers you might need." Jim looked at the objects he had pulled out. "What I'm doing here is trying to tell you is that I need you to come home in one piece. I know we joke about the Blessed Protector thing, and you complain that I hover too much sometimes, but I'm starting to realize that I can't always be there to--" Jim sat motionless, leaning back against the couch, holding the backpack against his chest, his arms wrapped around it. Eyes closed. The lights from the tree flickered, reflecting on his face.

Blair wiped at his eyes and moved closer to his partner. "I get the idea, Jim. I'll be careful. Thank you for all this. It's awesome, man." Blair felt himself wrapped in a hug and leaned into the embrace, grimacing as Jim tousled his hair affectionately. He wondered fleetingly how Simon was doing watching this sentimental trash.

Jim let him go finally, so suddenly that Blair had to scramble to get his balance back. A swipe of his sleeve across his eyes and Ellison was back in form, leaning over to pick up the last of the gifts, the third present from Blair. He held it for a moment, then took a deep breath and opened it. It was a photo Simon had taken that summer, when they had been at the river, the time when Blair had the Golden flashback. They were sitting together, side-by-side on a log. Blair was talking about something, his hands caught in mid-gesture, and Jim was leaning sideways, his head angled toward him, listening, a big grin on his face, his arm draped over the younger man's shoulder.

There was a note with it. Blair had written it by hand on a scrap of parchment paper he had found and had wrapped it up with the picture.

Ellison unfolded it and started to read it out loud. "To Jim -- the best partner and friend in the world." He stopped suddenly, glancing up at Blair and then over to Simon and back to Blair.

It was Blair's turn to shrug. "Sure, go ahead. It's okay. I mean, Simon knows all this stuff anyway. It's not a secret or anything."

Jim nodded and started again. "To Jim -- the best partner and friend in the world. You're there when I need you. You listen to me and take me seriously. And there isn't any place I'd rather be than at your side. You have been protector and teacher and father and brother to me, but mostly you're just everything all wrapped up together in one person so I don't have to go looking. You have shown me what it means to love someone unconditionally. Merry Christmas, 1997. Blair."

Jim carefully folded the note and put it in his shirt pocket. "Thanks. That's great. I'll put this picture on my desk at the station, and maybe we could find a place for the Burton print here in the loft somewhere, okay? Great." Jim smiled and cleared his throat, and got up to check the turkey.

Blair and Simon gathered the wrappings and put them in the box that the backpack had been in, then moved the box closer to the door. They put the other opened gifts under the tree. Blair took a deep breath and stared at them, trying to relax and breathe out some of the residue tension. Feelings were put way back on the top shelf. He'd pull them out and look at them later, but now apparently wasn't the time. 'Thanks. That's great??' That was the response to him baring his soul?

Simon disappeared into the bathroom and Blair went to see if there was something he could do in the kitchen. Jim had the turkey out and was busy rushing around doing final preparations. He started to ask if he could help, but Jim turned to him, blue/gray eyes again intense with emotion.

"Jim?"

"Thank you," Ellison said softly, leaning on the counter and staring at the cluttered surface. He reached into his shirt pocket and took out the note, looked at it for a moment, then refolded it carefully and put it back. "Thank you. For being here. For the gifts. For everything."

"Hey, I'm the one that should be thanking you for--"

For the second time that day, Blair found himself wrapped in Jim's arms, but this time he returned the crushing bear hug, his knees weak with relief, his face pressed against Jim's neck as he tried to breathe normally. Just as quickly, he was released and Jim had turned and was scooping the stuffing out of the turkey.

"Jim?"

"Is the table set?" Ellison asked, dumping the stuffing into a bowl.

"Jim? Before Simon comes out, I want to say something."

Ellison stopped moving. "We can exchange the backpack if you want--"

Blair interrupted him. "What? You sure make these weird leaps sometimes, Big Guy. I love the pack, man. It's the best. And, well, so are you. The best. I mean it. Thanks." He shrugged, then looked up at his partner.

Jim nodded back, neither man knowing what to say.

The door to the bathroom opened and Simon came out, glancing over to them and rubbing his hands expectantly. "Almost ready?" he asked, hopefully.

"Set the table, Chief," Jim said with a laugh.

"Yes, oh, yes, this looks good." Simon got the bottle of wine from the refrigerator and opened it, pouring the glasses as Blair lit the candles.

Ten minutes later, the feast was ready and they settled in the chairs. There was an awkward pause as they stared at the food.

Blair mumbled something and Simon turned to him, "What was that?"

Jim took his napkin, unfolded it, and placed it on his lap. "Say it again, Tiny Tim."

Blair glanced up at Simon and then at Jim, then closed his eyes for a moment. "God bless us every one."

"Amen to that," Simon said softly.

"To friends and family." Jim held up his glass for a toast and waited for the other two men to join him. "It's easy to say Peace on Earth, but in our business, it takes on a new meaning. So this is not a flippant wish for Peace on Earth. I mean it. And for us, individually, a measure of peace in our own lives, despite the troubles around us. May next year find us together again."

Blair felt the wine go down his throat, and he let the heady warmness relax him. He looked across to the tree, the light of the star on the uppermost branch, and the gifts beneath it. The lights all blurred for a moment. He put his glass down, met his partner's quiet gaze, and smiled, feeling it all echoed back to him.


Merry Christmas.

December 1997


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