ROASTING BY THE FIRE



LRH Balzer






"Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh..."

He hummed softly, the notes barely vibrating in his throat while the music floated through the air around him. A smile flittered across his face as he wound his way through the mountain cabin, stockinged feet shuffling along the cool wood floor, the knitted threads catching on the occasional raised nail. If he'd had the energy, he would have picked up his feet more, instead of stumbling around like a drunk, but he was too tired to bother. Besides, there was no one there to see him, so what did it matter? It was too peaceful to ruin the atmosphere by worrying about such things.

Another catch jostled his arm, and he paused long enough to wipe away the tiny drops of tea he had spilled with the bottom of his foot. With three layers of socks, he wouldn't feel the slight dampness and he didn't feel like walking back to the kitchen to get a cloth. Two steps brought him to the thick wool carpet in the living room and already he felt warmer as he neared the hearth.

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."

Setting the almost-full mug of tea on the pine-knotted coffee table, he regarded the new logs he had placed on the fire, still humming along with the songs playing on his Christmas CD. He smiled again, remembering a winter night so long ago when he and Naomi had decided to roast chestnuts in their fireplace. That had been a disaster, as had so many of their undertakings, but there had been laughter and there had been love enough not to care that the chestnuts were the wrong kind and inedible.

"Jack Frost nipping at your nose..."

A laugh bubbled deep in his throat. Well, almost. He was cold, but he wasn't that cold. He had turned off the heat to save fuel, since he was only planning to be in the living room. Despite the chill he had noticed in the kitchen and in the back bedroom, it was wonderfully warm in front of the fireplace, the ample blaze heating the living room to a summer's comfort and relegating the wintery scene outside the wide picture window to a mere pleasant backdrop of an ambitious Christmas play. He smiled at his own imagery. The view was breathtaking and he had found himself drawn there many times over the afternoon.

"Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow, will find it hard to sleep tonight..."

Blair pulled his glasses off and set them beside his mug, then rubbed at the tension along the bridge of his nose. Maybe they'll have trouble sleeping, but I certainly won't. One hour of sleep in the last day and a half had not been enough. Despite the pleasant afternoon and the peaceful surroundings, his head was beginning to ache. He stretched his neck from side to side, then rotated his shoulders, trying to ease the tightness more than likely brought on from sitting for too many hours hunched over with his face in a textbook.

"Although it's been said, many times, many ways..."

He stifled a yawn, stared out the window again for a moment, then took a few steps closer to the fire. With a quiet sigh, he crouched down before it, the yawn escaping now. He had made the right decision, staying behind. It was nice here, in the cabin. The quietness was hypnotic, broken only by the occasional snap of dried wood in the fireplace and the soft undercurrent of music. He poked at one log, then the other, absently rearranging them. The heat gradually became too intense and he wiped the sweat from his brow.

"O, little town of Bethlehem..."

When he was thirteen, he had lived with his mother on a kibbutz in Israel for a few months, and at Christmas time, Naomi had taken him to Bethlehem, much to the consternation of the others in the collective. There had been throngs of tourists, a parade-type thing that he couldn't figure out, and too many over-emotional people singing carols. Vendors did a good business. Naomi had been disappointed and they had left early, returning to the kibbutz. The entire trip had confused him, as he couldn't figure out what Naomi had been hoping to teach him.

"Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by...."

He had returned there alone a month later, two days after his Bar Mitzvah. It was the first time he had traveled alone, and he had been surprised that Naomi had let him go without raising any objections whatsoever. It had been a strange time for Naomi. She had brought him to Israel because he was thirteen and because the religion of her parents haunted her sometimes. She had said nothing when he had made the choice to have a Bar Mitzvah, but had silently supported his wishes by arranging that the rabbi at the kibbutz would coach him through the preparation. They had stayed longer than she had planned, but he knew Naomi was ready to leave once the ceremony was over. He had quietly informed her of his plans to go back to Bethlehem and she had given him the money for the bus, a bit more for food, then the address of where to meet her in Jerusalem.

"The hopes and fears of all the years..."

The sky had been darkening as he stepped off the bus, and for two hours he walked through the quiet, narrow streets of Bethlehem, walking along stony paths where untold multitudes had walked before. It was a journey he took with them, in their shadows, wondering what they had been thinking, what it was they had been seeking. By the time full night arrived, he found himself outside of town, and he sat alone on the side of a hill and looked down upon the lights of the ancient little city. The air was crisp and cold, the stars bright and silent. No angels came to sing to him, but he left there feeling different. Grown up. A man. The next morning, he caught the bus and met up with Naomi in Jerusalem and they flew back to New York. She had never asked him about his visit, and he had never told her. He had never told anyone.

"I'll be so blue, just thinking about you..."

The sharp snap of a log brought his attention back to the fire, and he reached across and added another log. He missed Naomi. Not because Christmas had been an important time for him, or anything they really celebrated, but because of the memories that seemed to surface at this time of year. Maybe it was just all the talk about family around him, people at the university going 'home' for Christmas, prompting on the radio and on billboards of what to get for your 'loved ones'.

"Decorations of red, on a green Christmas tree..."

Not this year. Aside from a few cards perched haphazardly around the stereo and bookcase, there had been no time to decorate the loft, not like last year. Last year had been fun. This year, Christmas Eve had passed by in a blur of long, shivering hours on stakeout in Jim's truck, the windows cracked open to keep the truck windshield from fogging. Too much coffee. A freak snowfall that hampered the inevitable car chase when the perp finally showed. If it hadn't been for the cement blocks Jim had stacked in the back of the truck, there was no way they could have maneuvered through the abandoned, snow-covered cars along the roadside.

Four o'clock Christmas morning had found them stumbling into the loft, drenched by the wet snow, half frozen. They each took a hot shower, then fell into bed for an hour's rest before Simon came to get them at six a.m. to bring them to his time-share getaway. After five years of missing major holidays, this year Simon had finally drawn the week beginning on Christmas Day, and with Daryl away with his mother to visit his maternal grandparents in California, Simon was determined that Jim and Blair would go with him and help him enjoy the winter cabin. Christmas gifts had been deferred by mutual agreement and each man had used the money to buy ski clothes and rent cross-country skis for the week-long vacation.

So Simon had collected them, they'd driven up into the mountains, and after eating a big breakfast, Jim and Simon had set out, leaving Blair behind to read in peace and spend Christmas Day by himself. He had to promise them to join them the next day before they would leave, but they could see he truly was too tired to join them today.

"All is calm, all is bright..."

Satisfied that the logs were burning happily, Blair wandered back to the window, resting his forehead against the coolness of the pane. He stood that way for several minutes, his eyes closed, enjoying the sensation of icy cold on his hot skin. But even through closed eyelids, the sun reflecting off the snow was too bright and he sighed contentedly and returned to the monstrous, overstuffed couch where he had taken up residence during the past blessedly peaceful hours. The textbook lay beside him on the floor, untouched now as he gave his eyes a rest. That was why they were here, after all. That was why he was here. To rest. To read a few texts he wanted to finish. To catch up on sleep. Maybe have some fun and unwind. Simon had come prepared with boxes of food and supplies. He wondered briefly if he should get something ready for dinner, but the couch was too comfortable.

"Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace..."

The cabin was nice. Large enough that they wouldn't feel trapped with each other, but cozy at the same time. The ceiling above his head was open to the roof, the stonework fireplace crawling the room's eastern wall, the floor to ceiling windows facing south. The sun was angled now to shine on him as he sprawled on one of the couches. Icicles hanging from the eaves sparkled in a blurry shimmer, and as he lay there debating whether or not to reach for his glasses, he slipped instead into sleep.



"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."

He blinked awake, then rolled onto his side on the wide cushions and extended his legs along the couch. He rearranged the pillow beneath his cheek so that from where he lay, he could see out the window and see the reflection of the fire's glow in the panes of glass. Mid-day had passed while he slept, the light now beginning to diminish ever-so-slightly as night approached. Snow-laden evergreen boughs framed the view, which extended beyond his vision into a blur of white, the darkening blue sky crowned with pink-tinged gray clouds that were slowly massing together, heavy with the promise of more snow. The cold was actually visible, freezing temperatures sending a sparkle across the valley, shimmering crystals in the air, catching the subtle changes of light and the peach and rose beginning of sunset.

"To see if reindeers really know how to fly..."

He shook his head in amusement as another memory surfaced. He had stayed up all night when he was six, leaning on the window sill and keeping surveillance on the house across the street where Ivan lived. Ivan had told him all about Santa Claus and Rudolph and a sleigh full of toys. Ivan was convinced Santa was coming that night, and Blair was equally convinced there was no such person. Naomi had told him about the spirit of Santa Claus, and that he was just a nice, warm idea, a folk legend that was remembered at this time of year. Ivan seemed to think he was real, and that Santa was actually going to bring him presents. But sometime during the early hours of the morning, Blair had fallen asleep -- he must have, he figured, for a minute or two -- and in that short period of time, he must have missed something, because when he went over to Ivan's the next afternoon, he had seen the stack of gifts Santa had brought for Ivan, and together the two boys had studied the huge bite taken out of the cookie Ivan had left for Santa.

A shiver shook him and he looked across at the blankets he had kicked down to his feet while he slept. With a sigh he reached down and grabbed them, covering himself up. The cabin had gotten colder. The fire had died down but he didn't feel like getting up to add more logs. Maybe in a few minutes. Meanwhile the blanket was warming him up.

"Frosty the snowman...."

While they were here, he wanted to make a snowman. Maybe have a contest with Simon and Jim, if he could convince them to join him. A big one. Ten feet tall.

"With a corncob pipe..."

Or, in Simon's case, a cigar. Blair sneezed at the memory of the trip up and how the cigar's smoke had permeated the car.  Simon had put out the cigar when he and Jim got in the car, but that didn't mean the smell went away.  He had been sitting in the back with the window open a crack, trying to convince himself that he enjoyed the strong, cloying smoke that stubbornly lingered in the air. After all, what was the difference really between the particular scent of the cigar and the varying incenses he burned? He wished fleetingly that he had brought some with him. He had one scent in particular that worked well absorbing the odor of Simon's cigars. Almost a room freshener. And Jim wasn't allergic to it, which made it better yet.

"Thumpety-thump-thump, thumpety-thump-thump..."

His head throbbed in time to Frosty's disappearance, and he shivered again, his eyes pressed closed. Maybe they could put out a missing person's report. A missing snowman's report. Maybe he should put out a report on Jim and Simon -- they had been gone a long time now. How long had it been? How long did they say it was going to be? It was getting dark. Was that safe? How well did Simon know the area? He twisted slightly to look out the window. Everything was still a bit blurry, which was unusual since he really only needed his glasses for stuff up close. He could see fine at a distance. It was getting dark. Darker. He should get up and put some logs on the fire so Jim could find his way back to the cabin. And maybe turn on a light. Except he had a headache and the thought of anything bright wasn't going across too well right now. Maybe he should just relax and get over this damned headache before they came back.

"Santa Claus is coming to town..."

Too late. Been here, done that. At least somewhere, he had come. ... Santa had been busy making house calls while they were racing through Cascade after a murderer. Bouncing happily from roof to roof while both he and Jim slipped and slid through icy slush to bring down the escaped convict and his accomplice. Eating cookies and drinking milk while they drank coffee sludge at the station and filled out paperwork.

I'm cold. Blair sighed again and forced himself to get up and stumble to the fireplace. The fire had died while he was sleeping and musing on the couch, and the log he dropped onto the embers just sat there, the darkened pieces of wood around it hissing slightly at the interruption. Picking up the poker, he tried to move the log around and ended up losing his balance and falling against the stonework, smacking his knee hard. Pain ricocheted through his body. He dropped the poker onto the stonework ledge and it landed with a loud clank and rolled onto the carpet, leaving behind a charcoal trail on the woolen pattern. Blair scrunched up his face, biting back the oaths that came to mind -- it was, after all, Christmas.

"He knows if you've been bad or good...."

The CD had been playing all afternoon. If there had been more than one Christmas CD in his pack, he would have had more variety, but as it was, he had only the one.

And frankly, Blair no longer gave a hoot about whether or not Santa could see him or knew if he was good. "Fuck!" he yelled as loud as he could. He sat down heavily on the floor and gingerly massaged the painful kneecap, then bent it carefully, relieved that it appeared no damage had been done. No lasting damage anyway. He'd probably have a nice bruise on it. It took a few minutes before the throbbing stopped and he felt like testing everything out by standing up. One step. Two steps. Yeah, it would be okay.

"Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh..."

Some snow slid from the roof, falling just outside the window. Blair hobbled over a few steps to look out at the southern view. It wasn't fully dark yet, but it would be soon. Where were they? It wasn't safe to be out at night in the city. No. Not in the city, in the snow. It wasn't safe, right?

His knee had made his head hurt again. Or something like that. Whatever. His head hurt. "Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg..." he whispered, walking slowly around the coffee table. He picked up his untouched cup of tea, but there might as well have been ice cubes floating in it, it was that cold. He shivered and put it down, wrapping his arms around his chest as he kept walking. Back to the fire. He crouched down. Even if there was nothing seriously wrong with his knee, it hurt like hell to bend it. He tried poking at the embers. The log just sat there, unimpressed with his efforts.

'Jingle Bells' ended, signaling the end of the CD, but it circled back to the first track and began again, as it had all afternoon.

"Chestnuts roasting on a open fire..."

What fire? No fire.

"Jack Frost nipping at your nose..."

More than that, he was cold all over. Jim and Simon would be back soon and would be cold, too. He wanted to get the fire going for them. Kindling... he needed kindling or something to get this thing going again. There was kindling in the bucket. He needed matches now.

"They know that Santa's on his way..."

He glared at the compact disc player in the kitchen. "He's not on his way. That's all over with now. Santa doesn't give a shit. He's done his bit for mankind." Matches. He needed matches for the kindling. What good was kindling without matches? He wasn't a goddamned boy scout!

But maybe the embers were enough to get the kindling going. His fingers shook as he reached for the small twigs and short pieces of wood.

"Although it's been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas, to you..."

He dropped a handful of kindling into the fireplace. "Right. Merry Christmas. I know, I know. I'm deliriously happy. Santa missed me again. Don't need him. Never did. He never came before. He's not coming now. Naomi gave me a sweater when I was eight and Jim gave me a backpack last year and no one else gives a damn." The kindling began to burn as he stared into the tiny hypnotic flames, still shivering. "I'm cold," he whispered again and looked back to the couch where his blanket was.

"It'll be the perfect ending of a perfect day, We'll be singing the songs we love to sing without a single stop."

He rubbed at his forehead and looked back to the snapping twigs.

"At the fireplace while we watch the chestnuts pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!"

He winced. The chestnuts hadn't popped when they tried it. They had burned. They had stunk up the room. They had been unsalvageable. Naomi had laughed it off, the same way she had laughed off any disaster that had happened to them. Nothing mattered, really. In the long run, nothing really mattered. At least to her. It mattered to Jim, though. Things mattered to Jim, like whether or not there was a tree up for Christmas. Blair was reasonably certain that things mattered to Jim; he was just too tired or busy sometimes to do anything about it. Last year, there had been a tree and a turkey dinner and presents. This year, nothing.

Jim had kicked him out this year.

But that was a long time ago, he told himself as he dropped to the couch and grabbed hold of the thin blanket. That was seven months ago. Seven months since he had returned to the loft. Everything was back. It was all the same. It was supposed to be the same. He had really wanted it to be the same.

Damn it. He had wanted a tree. And the lights, and the wine, and the wishes, and the good feelings. And he had wanted to buy a gift for Jim, not spend the money on ski wear for himself. He had wanted to see a box with his name on it. Not falling in the icy sludge and being soaked to the skin and being shot at and missing it all. Santa had gone again without stopping at his place.

The shivering was worse. Why wouldn't it warm up in here? He was freezing. Why had they left him alone without matches?

A noise at the side door. Finally. He stood up too quickly, leaning forward to grab hold of the end of the couch to keep himself upright as a wave of dizziness swept over him.

He lifted his head and watched with horror and hope as Santa Claus opened the door and walked in the kitchen. "Santa?" It was Santa Claus. But where were Jim and Simon? How did Santa Claus get here?

"Blair?" Santa didn't come in any further, but stamped the snow from his boots, each sharp rap pounding through Sandburg's head. The red suit swam in and out of focus. Santa took off his hat.

Blair let go of the couch and took a few steps closer. "Santa? I didn't think you'd come. How'd you find me?"

"What?" Santa reached over and flicked on the entrance way light. "Why's it so dark in here? And what's wrong with the heat? It's colder in here than out there."

"Santa... I didn't know you were black. Wow."

The inky spots merged and the room suddenly got a lot darker, then disappeared altogether.


"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."

Blair groaned and turned his head, seeking the warmth of the crackling fire. Why hadn't he turned off that stupid CD yet?

"Jack Frost nipping at your nose..."

Actually, he wasn't quite as cold any more. He was starting to warm up. He could still feel fine tremors running though his limbs, but the spasms that had shook him earlier had calmed.

"Everybody knows, some turkey and some mistletoe..."

Eyes still closed, he sniffed the air. Something smelled good. Turkey? No. Maybe chicken soup. Who was making chicken soup? Besides the music, he could hear voices. Simon, giving instructions. Jim arguing. With a huge effort on his part, he managed to get his eyes to open. He was still on the couch, buried under at least thirty blankets. The fire was blazing, crackling and popping. It was brighter in the room. "Jim?"

Jim must have heard him above the sound of the music and the fire, for he came into sight, leaning on the back of the couch. "Hey. You okay?" Concerned eyes looked down at him, a large gentle hand reached to touch his forehead and the side of his face. "You're not as cold as you were."

Simon's head appeared beside Jim's and before Blair could get his hands out from under the blankets, another hand was on his forehead. "A little warm now, actually."

"You think?" Again Jim's hand touched his face, then around to the back of his neck. "Temperature's about 99 degrees."

"Could be the fire. Should we move him away from it?"

"Closer to. He's still chilled," Jim announced, hand on Blair's chest, the slight breeze causing an involuntary shiver.

"How can he be chilled? He has a temperature."

"That's not really a temperature."

"Guys..." Blair tried.

"It's higher than normal."

"But his temperature was lower than it should be earlier."

"Guys..."

"Jim, when we called, the doctor said--"

"The doctor wasn't here. He was just presenting a worse-case scenario. I'm sure Sandburg is fine. Nothing that some rest won't cure."

"Oh, I agree with you there. But the doctor did say we should bring him in if he gets a temperature."

"Guys..."

"This doesn't constitute a temperature. Maybe if he's up to 102 or more, then we call the doctor back."

"I dunno, Jim. I'm wondering if we should go back to Cascade before this snowfall hits."

"Simon, he'll be fine."

"Guys, I'm fine," Blair croaked, then grimaced at his voice. "What happened?"

Jim walked around the couch and threw a few logs on the already blazing fire. "You fainted."

"What?" Blair struggled to sit up, growling as Simon easily raised him and put two pillows behind his back. "I'm okay, Simon."

"Right..." Simon said. "That's why you fainted."

"I didn't faint. Girls faint," Blair heard himself say.

"You passed out, lost consciousness, took a header, collapsed into a lump of clothes on the carpet, just missing your head on the side of the coffee table." Simon adjusted the blankets that had slipped to one side. "You scared the hell out of me, Sandburg."

"Sorry," Blair muttered. "I probably just slipped and fell or something. Where were you guys?" he asked, staring up at them muzzily.

"We were skiing," Jim answered, with a worried smile. "Remember?"

"Of course I remember! We came up here to ski. I just was wondering why you were gone so long."

"We said we'd be back at four and we were back at four," Simon said. "What's the problem?"

"What time is it now?"

"A quarter to five." Simon stared down at him, hands on his hips. "You've been . . . sleeping."

"I was unconscious for forty-five minutes?" Blair asked, coughing on the last word.

"No. Jim insisted that you were sleeping, so we let you wake up normally."

"Oh. You were gone a long time."

"Well, if we had known you were going to get in trouble, we never would have left you alone for so long," Jim said, moving aside Blair's feet and sitting at the far side of the couch.

"I wasn't in trouble," Blair insisted. "I was fine."

"Which is why the heat was off, it was freezing in here, and you didn't recognize Simon when he walked in, then you promptly passed out."

Wincing under their scrutiny, Blair shrugged. "I don't remember any of that."

"So what do you remember?"

"I was reading my book."

"What did you have for lunch?" Simon asked, once again out of sight beyond the couch. There were suspicious sounds from the kitchen, pots and pans, banging noises.

"I wasn't hungry. I made myself some tea."

Jim leaned back and said to Simon, "That would be 'Exhibit A' on the coffee table. An untouched cup of cold tea."

"I had another cup before that. That was my second."

Simon laughed. "That was going to be your second. It doesn't count if you don't drink it."

"So what did you eat?" Jim persisted. "Simon and I ate a big breakfast before we left and you promised to eat something."

"You were both skiing. You needed your energy. I was just sitting here reading. My tea was perfect."

"But you fainted," Simon pointed out. The tall captain walked around the couch holding a bowl of soup. "Now eat this."

"What is it?"

"Chicken soup."

"Thanks, Simon." Blair resettled himself, sitting up a bit more. The soup looked good, actually. He really should have eaten earlier, but he had been too tired to make anything. He had planned on eating, he just hadn't got around to it. Neither argument would hold water with Simon or Jim, so he kept quiet and spooned the soup into his mouth, stopping now and then as a deep cough rattled his chest. Each time, he avoided meeting their accusing eyes. He hadn't done anything wrong, after all. If he'd gone with them skiing, outside in the cold air, exerting himself -- yeah, then maybe they would have a case. But he had stayed inside, curled up with a book, and relaxed, and he still was getting the 'you don't take care of yourself' look from them both.

"Santa Claus is coming town..."

He almost dropped his spoon, but held on to it tightly as he slowly raised his eyes and looked toward Simon. Who was standing grinning down at him. "What?" he asked, defensively.

"You called me 'Santa' earlier." Simon looked like a damned Cheshire cat. "Remember?"

Blair scrunched up his forehead, trying to look like he recalled the conversation. "Just joking with you, Simon."

Simon didn't answer, but disappeared back beyond the couch. More rustling noises. The music was turned up a crank.

"He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake..."

A dark hand appeared briefly, waving in his face and almost making him spill the last of his soup. Jim took the bowl immediately and disappeared out of sight into the kitchen, returning a moment later with some water and two pills. "Take these."

For a brief moment, Blair thought of trying to out-stubborn Jim, but it was obvious who was going to win any arguments. He could hardly keep his eyes open. He took the water, swallowed the pills, and handed back the empty glass. Jim fixed the blankets as he settled back on the couch.

"Jingle bell, Jingle bell, Jingle bell rock, Jingle bells chime in jingle bell time..."

Simon started whistling. It was bad enough that the CD was still playing, but now Simon was whistling to it. His nightmare would be complete if Jim started singing...

"Dancing and prancing in Jingle Bell Square, in the frosty air," Jim sang, Simon joining along.

Blair pulled the blankets over his head and went back to sleep.


"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire..."

Promising himself that the CD would soon be roasting on an open fire, Blair stirred slightly, becoming gradually aware of a gentle hand on his forehead. Now what? A damp, cool cloth replaced the hand, and he reluctantly decided that it felt good, which probably meant he was sick. Damn. This was so not what he had wanted to do for Christmas Day.

"They say that Santa's on his way..."

His shirt was opened, careful hands rested on his throat, then on his chest. He forced his eyes open to see the top of Jim's head as Jim the Sentinel bent over him, listening to his breathing, his lungs. A quick glance around showed all the lights out, just the fireplace sending strange shadows across the walls. Blair's eyes drifted shut. The hands continued to check him out, softly probing his abdomen and belly.

"I'm fine, Jim," he said, his words slurring.

"Yeah. It's just a fever." Jim's voice was relaxed and deep, gently turning him onto his side, sensitive fingers resting over, then probing his back, his spine, his kidneys. "You're fine, Chief. The doctor just mentioned to watch you in case the fever was a symptom of something else."

"I just got sick. I've had fevers before."

"I know." Jim eased him back and did up his shirt.

Blair turned his head to look out the room again. "What time--?"

"Ten-thirty. You've had a good sleep."

"Where's Simon?"

"He went to bed already."

"Sorry I ruined your evening."

"What makes you think you ruined our evening?"

Blair shrugged, tugging on the blanket. "Gee, Jim, I'm sick. Surely you didn't plan on that for your evening's entertainment. I thought we were going to play cards and stuff."

"We did. Well," Jim clarified, "Simon and I did while you slept. We ate dinner, played cards for a while, drank a few beers, talked."

"Oh. Good. I'm glad." He couldn't hide the disappointment in his voice.

"Feel left out?" Jim teased. "We've got plenty of holiday left, Chief. Your fever's gone down a bit; I'm sure you'll be fine tomorrow." He stood, pulling the blankets back as he did, ignoring Blair's squeal of protest.

"Ack! What are you doing?"

"You are going to visit the bathroom, wash up, brush your teeth, and then I'm going to tuck you in before heading to bed myself. Go on. I'll rebuild the fire."

"You're serious? You're making me brush my teeth?" Blair stared up at him in shock.

"Look at it from my viewpoint. If I know you've done all this before I head to bed, I won't have to worry about you getting up and staggering around in the dark, slipping and cracking your head open."

"It's still a little weird."

"Maybe." Jim shook the blankets out. "Get going. Or do you need help?"

"No, I'm fine." Blair pulled himself off the couch, wavering unsteadily as he quickly headed straight toward the bathroom. As soon as he had stood up, his bladder had sent urgent messages to his brain. Five minutes later, feeling significantly better, he turned off the bathroom light and stepped back into the main living area.

"Strings of street lights, Even stop lights, Blink a bright red and green..."

Except this was one huge Christmas tree. Lights twinkling, a star on top. As he slowly approached it, mouth open in shock, he recognized the decorations from the year before. Jim had brought the decorations with him. The tree was planned. Everything was planned. And when he bent over to look, he saw there was a gift for him underneath the tree.

"I thought we said no gifts," he protested.

"You're limping," Jim said, coming over to him. "What's wrong with your knee?"

"I bumped it when I fell."

Ellison groaned. "I missed that. Let's take a look."

"Silver Bells, Silver Bells..."

"Jim, there's a Christmas tree here."

"I know. Simon and I cut it down. Don't tell anyone." Jim got him to sit on a chair, then rolled up his sweatpants to the knee. "Sandburg, why didn't you tell us about this? You should have had some ice on it." He probed the swollen, bruised kneecap.

"Ouch! Careful!"

"In the air, there's a feeling of Christmas..."

"Jim," Blair said, a yawn interrupting, "this is cool, man. You and Simon did up this tree?"

"While you were sleeping." Ellison crossed to the kitchen and got some ice from the freezer and made up a cold pack. "Back to the couch, Junior," he said, returning to the living room. "Or would you rather sleep in your bed?"

"Couch is fine."

"In the lane, snow is glistening, A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight..."

Jim helped him back to the couch, propped up his swollen knee, and set the ice pack on it. Once he was settled beneath the blankets, Jim brought him the little gift. "It's nothing really. Something I bought before this trip came up. It was supposed to be a stocking stuffer."

Sandburg fingered the wrapping paper. "But you wrapped it?"

"Unwrap it. I'm beat. I'm going to bed."

He tore open the paper. Two pairs of black dress socks. With a puzzled look, he turned his head to see Jim smiling at him.

"About a month ago, you were going out for dinner and you couldn't find any dress socks. You ended up wearing an old mismatched pair of mine. The next time I was in the store, I grabbed a few pairs so we wouldn't have that problem again. I tossed yours in the Christmas box," he added with a shrug.

Blair smiled, his eyes closing. "Can you get my backpack for me?"

Jim glanced around the dark room, spying the backpack by the door. He retrieved it, brought it to Blair, then sat beside him on the couch. "Need anything else?"

Blair opened his eyes again, peering into the backpack, then fishing around inside of it. He found the plastic drugstore bag he was looking for and handed it to Ellison. "I bought you a card."

Jim took the bag and removed a card from it. "Holiday Wishes for My Mother," he read.

Blair grabbed the card from his hands. "Not that one. The other one."

The second card was removed and Jim carefully opened the sealed envelope. "There's no verse in it."

"I didn't need one."

It wasn't a Christmas card. Not really. Just a card of two men walking along the beach side by side, the sun setting behind them. Blair had written on the inside: "At the end of the day, at the end of the year, at the end of my life, I know where I want to be and who I want to walk beside." He hadn't signed it.

Jim stared at it for a while, lost in thought, then he rested one hand over Sandburg's heart. Blair could feel the echo of his heartbeat beneath Jim's palm.

"Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing..."

Blair smiled and rested his hand over Jim's. He could feel the fever still behind his eyes, could feel Jim's other hand on his forehead.

It had been a nice Christmas after all.


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