Note: This story follows on the heels of my story "Roasting by the Fire", so if you have time, give that one a read first.

Warnings: None, really. Smarm, of course, but within context, I hope.

As far as a timeline goes, it needs to be set in December 1998, which would make it after the episode "Sentinel, Too" (taking place in May 1998) and my two stories "No Center Line" (June 1998) and "And Dream That I am Home Again" (Fall 1998). I personally have put the events of Season Four close to the time they aired, January - May 1999, so this is pre-"Murder 101", etc.

Merry Christmas, 1999, and Happy New Year 2000! Now journey back a year..


TOASTING IN THE HOT TUB



LRHBalzer






Saturday, December 26, 1998
1:45 a.m.

"Come on, Chief, drink some more of this juice." In a room lit only by the fire on the hearth and the blinking lights from the Christmas tree, Jim Ellison sat quietly on the edge of the couch and waited while his friend and partner, Blair Sandburg, swallowed the Tylenol, drank the apple juice, and handed him the empty glass with a half-hearted sigh.

"Thanks," Sandburg mumbled, shivering, eyes more shut than open, the ends of his shoulder-length hair in damp ringlets from his recent bath.

Ellison put the glass down and picked up the towel from the floor. "Here. Dry off your hair some more."

"Any chance of me convincing you I can take care of myself?" Sandburg asked, taking the bath towel that was handed to him.

"None whatsoever."

"I can, you know. Really."

"Right." Ellison waited for the cough, knowing it was coming. Sandburg talked. Sandburg coughed. Sandburg talked. Sandburg coughed. One followed the other, regular as the seasons.

~cough cough, cough cough cough, COUGH, cough, cough COUGH~

"Argh."

"Here," he offered solicitously, placing the tissue box in Sandburg's outstretched hand. He watched while the routine continued. Tissue, blow, crumble. Tissue, blow, crumble. Tissue, blow, crumble. Then Sandburg would gather the tissues and put them in the plastic bag Ellison had provided. "Feeling any better?"

"Actually, a bit," Blair admitted, wrapping the towel around his neck, his head falling back against the couch in exhaustion. "The bath helped. I still feel lousy, but not quite as sweaty and gross. Just pruny."

"You shouldn't have fallen asleep in the tub. You could have--" His words trailed off, and for the first time that night, he felt awkward. You could have drowned.

"It was just for a second or two," Sandburg said calmly, then reached for the Tylenol bottle, squinting at the label. "How long before these work?"

It took Ellison a moment to hear the question, then re-interpret it. "Do you still have a headache?"

"Yeah. From coughing probably." And the word sparked another cough.

"Twenty minutes, maybe longer. It'll help the fever, too." He took the pill bottle and stood, crossing to the kitchen.

"Ever wondered about the whole fever and chills thing?" Sandburg's voice drifted to him. His voice when he spoke was still scarcely a whisper, his throat sore from the virus and the coughing, but it was loud enough for Ellison to hear. "I mean, I'm huddled under these blankets shivering like it's going out of style, but my temperature is elevated. Then a few minutes later, I'm kicking off the blankets trying to cool down."

"Are you asking me why?" Ellison put the bottle on the counter and returned to the couch.

"No, not really," Sandburg admitted, shifting to make room for him again. "I know the answer; it just doesn't seem to make sense when it's happening to you."

Jim nodded, stifling his own yawn. "Can you lie back down? Try and get some sleep?"

"If I lay down, I'll just start coughing again."

"You're coughing sitting up, too."

"I'll cough more if I lie down."

"How do you know that, unless you try?"

Blair glared at him, his tone cross while his eyes smiled. "Are you trying to drive me crazy, or does it just come naturally?"

"Oh, I don't know, Sandburg. It's two in the morning. I think it comes with the hour." He smiled, trying to soften his words.

With shaking hands, Sandburg pulled the blankets closer around his shoulders. "This is so not cool. I ache in places I didn't know I could ache. I thought the pills were supposed to help. Maybe they were past date or something."

"They'll work. Give them time."

A bout of coughing ended with: "If I had known I was going to be sick, I'd have brought my own stuff."

"Try lying on your side," Ellison said, tugging gently at his arm, relieved when Sandburg didn't fight him, but allowed himself to be rearranged on the couch. Pillows were adjusted, blankets resettled, and Sandburg was half-asleep within a few minutes, the over-the-counter cough medication combined with the Tylenol beginning to work.

Ellison slipped one hand beneath the blankets and Sandburg's sweatshirt to get an idea of his temperature, but it still hovered around the 102 degree mark. With an ease born of recent practice, he listened carefully to Sandburg's lungs and respiration, satisfying himself that this was still in the 'cold and influenza' category and not pneumonia. Despite the bad chills and fever, the muscle aches and persistent cough, there were no other symptoms. No blood with the cough. No discolored mucus. No chest pain. No shortness of breath. No nausea or vomiting.

Ellison had become a self-taught expert on pneumonia these past months. It was the thing most feared with near-drowning victims when the lungs had been partially compromised by polluted water. Sandburg had been fine for six weeks after the May attack, then pneumonia had put him in the hospital for almost ten days, and Ellison had frantically learned everything he could about it. Bacterial pneumonia, viral pneumonia, mycoplasma pneumonia. He knew all the symptoms, the progression, the medication, the precautions. He had found out what to listen for, what signified fluid or damaged lung cells filling the air spaces in his partner's lungs, making breathing a difficulty.

A snap from the log in the fireplace drew his attention to the dancing flames. Ellison left his hand on Sandburg's bare back, rubbing in gentle circles as he coaxed his partner to sleep. A cough or two punctured the room's stillness. Four patient minutes later, Sandburg was snoring softly, Ellison smiling at his own skill.

Protector of the Tribe. Watchman of the City. Able to put a overactive, hyper, sick anthropologist to sleep in under five minutes.... He would have to add that to his resume.

He eased the blankets back in place and shifted slightly to stare into the fire again. It had been a long night, but a strangely peaceful one, too. He could feel his own defenses slowly crumbling yesterday as he had relaxed and let himself be swept minute by minute through the hours. The skiing had been wonderful. The air cold, crisp, achingly clean. The sounds had almost a crystalline echo, the steady scrape of skiis over the snow, the slight huff of breath from each man as they moved. The myriad of sounds of snow falling, settling around them. The snow reflecting his dark blue ski outfit and Simon's red one. Stopping and drinking hot coffee from their thermos, staring out across the valley, speaking rarely.

When they returned from skiing, there had been a frantic few moments when Blair collapsed, but a quick check showed nothing was seriously wrong. A more thorough exam, once Ellison's coat was off and his hands had warmed up around the outside of a hastily made mug of coffee, had confirmed that Sandburg was breathing fine and had slipped from unconsciousness into a restful sleep. And it seemed the most natural thing in the world to decorate the tree while the kid slept, surprising him with it later. Sometimes the smallest things brought such laughter to Sandburg, that Ellison (and Simon Banks) would go out of their way to bring it about. Laughter was healing, Sandburg always said.

It was easy to get lost in the multicolored flames, the darting tongues of fire flickering into the darkness. An hour passed as Ellison contemplated his life. Beside and behind him, sprawled in exhausted abandon, Sandburg lay sleeping, his beard-rough face still etched with the signs of fever and cold, cheeks flushed pink above the pallor, dark circles beneath his reddened eyes. Ellison reached out and touched the warm forehead. Despite the casual way he had handled the situation, he had not forgotten that Sandburg had been quite sick when they found him in the afternoon, his mental state confused, slightly delirious, feverish and cold. His partner had spent the evening sleeping or trying to sleep, too spent to do anything else. The influenza symptoms lingered even now, easing slowly, but the twelve hour mark had passed with no further progression into viral pneumonia with its increasing breathlessness and high fever.

Ellison let a peaceful smile drift to his chiseled features, softening his eyes, as he watched Sandburg's breathing ease. The lungs he had been monitoring so carefully all night, breathed in and out, exchanging air smoothly, no longer troubled by the looming threat of congestion.

Seven months now he had listened to Sandburg's lungs, analyzing each rattle, each hint of trouble. Three times he had taken him to his doctor to confirm an infection, and two of those times he had been right. Antibiotics were prescribed, and he waited anxiously until the all clear was given again.

Drowning did that to lungs. It made them vulnerable. It made Blair vulnerable.

Which made Jim Ellison vulnerable. And cautious.

The strange thing was that Blair had listened to him. Had gone to the doctor when he said to, had taken the medication without complaint, as if he acknowledged Jim's concern and his right to be careful.

A deep breath was inhaled and exhaled, a slight cough following it, but Blair didn't awaken. Ellison watched him silently, one hand still resting on the curved back.

Go to sleep, Ellison, he instructed himself. Let him sleep.

But he sat for another thirty minutes before relinquishing the moment. With a resigned sigh, he carefully stood from the couch, reaching back to adjust the blankets, tucking them securely around the sleeping man. He wondered at his actions sometimes, wondered why he treated Blair so gently when he was asleep and ill. Maybe because there was within the man, the child. The son. The younger brother. The one to be protected. There was within the young man, the old soul. The teacher. The wise man. The scholar. The one to be listened to.

The friend of his heart.


7:00 a.m.

It was still dark when Ellison rose from his bed and crossed down the hall to the living room. The fire had gone out, and while the room was warm enough, the symbolic warmth was missing. The tree lights still blinked on and off, lending a visual stillness to the room. Sandburg was sound asleep, half curled on his stomach, one arm hanging down to the floor.

He sat on the edge of the couch, gently touching Sandburg's forehead, then the back of his neck. Just the trace of a fever. Breathing was steady, clear. Lungs still uncompromised. Ellison tucked the arm back to the body, adjusted the blankets yet again, and returned to his bed.


9:30 a.m.

Jim Ellison looked up from his book as his friend and captain, Simon Banks, entered the living room. "Morning, Simon."

"Hey, Jim." Simon yawned, dropping the towel from around his neck to the countertop as he poured himself a cup of coffee from the half full carafe. "Need a refill?"

"Thanks." Jim put his book aside to get up from the armchair, but Simon interrupted.

"Stay there. I'll bring it to you." Simon started to walk through the living area, when he spotted the sleeping man on the couch, buried beneath several thick blankets. Footsteps exaggerated, he crossed the rest of the way to Jim with silent steps, hardly making a sound on the wool carpet. "How's the kid?" he whispered as he poured the coffee into Ellison's mug.

"Oh, he'll be fine. Fever's down at the moment. He coughed a lot last night. Had several bad spells."

"I heard him. You sure he's fine here? If we have to, we can drive back to Cascade, despite this snowfall. My car's got chains--"

"He's fine, Simon." Ellison sipped at the too-hot coffee, wisely placing it on the end table beside his chair. "He's been asleep for a few hours now. No coughing."

"Did you sit out here all night?" Simon asked, staring at the few wisps of hair poking out from beneath the blankets, all that identified the under-the-weather anthropologist.

"For a while. I went to bed around midnight, got up at 2:00 a.m. when he had the coughing bout, then went back to bed an hour or so later. He's been asleep ever since."

Simon chuckled as he returned the empty carafe to the kitchen. "I guess if you're going to be sick, having a nurse maid around to keep an eye on you is the way to go. Ever have a dog, Jim?"

Ellison followed him into the kitchen. "Why?"

"My mom always said, 'If you want a pet, you have to take care of them.' Surely a little dog would be less trouble than Sandburg."

Jim didn't smile. Instead he leaned back against the counter, his voice lowering as he spoke. "Jokes aside, it scares me sometimes, thinking about this year-- I wake up with the image of him lying dead at the university. His face waxy, gray-- No heartbeat--"

Simon shifted uncomfortably as Jim's voice trailed off and the man seemed caught in the terrifying memories of that overcast May morning. "He's alive now," he murmured, trying to remind himself as well.

"He's fine," Ellison repeated, quietly. "It's just a fever." But the images stayed in his mind. "Or I think of how I felt when he was missing, when he was kidnaped. Finding him in that trailer, the way he rolled out of it, into my arms when the door was raised, and he smelled of death. I remember the smell."

"So do I." Banks looked down at the food he had placed on the counter, the edge already taken from his appetite.

"But he's alive."

It was Simon's turn to walk out of the kitchen and stare down at the young man. Jim watched him, feeling along with the captain, knowing the ache that they would always live with. Blair stirred, and Simon reached down and adjusted the blanket.

"What can we do," the captain asked, quietly, "but keep on walking, one foot after the other?"

"I don't know," Ellison replied. "I wish I knew."


December 31, 1998
11:40 pm

Simon took the bottle of far too expensive champagne from the fridge and placed it on the tray. Jim had bought it. Jim who groused about money and overindulgence had picked up one of the most expensive champagnes available in the store. And paid for it, without a second thought, without blinking as he signed the VISA slip.

"Three tall, elegant, plastic glasses: check. New Year's themed napkins: check. Ridiculous party hats: check. Those loud obnoxious whistles: check. Extra large bowl of chips, bowl of cheesies, bowl of pretzels: check. Natchos, fully loaded--" ~ping~ The microwave went off. "Check."

Whistling, he collected the hot platter and added it to the already crowded tray. He was going to enjoy this.

He paused, tray in hand, before leaving the kitchen, then went back for a little candle holder that Blair had brought with him, but not yet lit. It was appropriate. More appropriate than anything else on the tray, for it truly symbolized his feelings and expectations for the new year. He carefully put it in one of the big pockets of his robe, along with the votive candle and some matches.

The phone rang and he reached across to pick it up. "Hello? Daryl -- Hey, everything all right?... Just calling to talk to your old man?... Well, Happy New Year to you, too, son... Yes, we're having a great time... Yeah, they're fine, other than Sandburg having a head cold. Hey, something funny happened. You know that new red snowsuit of mine?... Well, Sandburg woke up, all feverish and out of it and thought I was Santa Claus. No shit.... My reaction exactly... So where are you? I can hear a party happening..."


11:45 pm

Jim sat on the edge of his bed in his room, the door shut, fists clenched, trying to control the palsied shaking. He'd been about to step out the bedroom door and head up to the hot tub on the upper balcony, when the sudden reaction to a passing thought had hit him, knocking him to his knees.

"I can't do this."

He had mistakenly thought back to the previous New Year's at Joel's house, standing on the balcony with Sandburg. He had been so relaxed and calm, enjoying the party, being with friends. Things had been great between the two of them after a wonderful Christmas and a relaxed holiday. He had had such optimistic hopes for 1998. Such grand plans.

And he'd made such cruel promises.

The room was cold. His heart felt cold. We made it through by the skin of our teeth.

"Sorry, Chief," Ellison whispered. "I lied."

Next year will be better.

Five days after that promise -- five days -- Blair had been kidnaped by Crawford. Then Jim had gone undercover in the prison. Then one thing after another until he had thrown his partner out of the loft, and later stood over Sandburg's body as he had been pronounced dead.

Next year will be better.

Not even close. It had been a nightmare. Sandburg had endured more than anyone should have had to endure. Psychos like Chapel chasing him, catching him, threatening him. Smallwood, the killer after young Johnny Macado, catching Sandburg in the hallway of the Cascade PD, using him as human shield. Being kidnapped and abused on every level by Jurgen and Turnalo and the rest of the Internet snuff film gang.

Next year will be better.

What could he possibly say now? How could he possibly keep Sandburg by his side? His promises meant nothing.

Violations of trust and privacy.

That's what he had accused Sandburg of, after reading his guide's dissertation. Then ten days later had thrown him out of the loft, violating himself every aspect, every level of trust between them. And he'd done it publicly, in front of their friends. Without an explanation to the one person who'd needed to know what was happening.

Violations of trust and privacy.

Said after he had taken his partner's dissertation, without permission, and read it, knowing that Sandburg had asked him not to.

Violations of trust and privacy.

And so now, here he sat, the Great Sentinel, shaking, hunched over, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes to stop the tears. The bridge between them had been torn down and rebuilt many times and was still standing, but for how long this time?

What can I offer you, Chief? More of the same?

I can't do this, Sandburg. I don't trust myself, anymore. I have all these great intentions, great plans for how smoothly everything is going to go, then something happens, the rug gets pulled out from under me, and I react. That's not fair to you. It never is. How can I go up and toast a new year? What promises can I make that I won't break a moment later?

I can't guarantee that you won't miss any classes, much as I'd love to.

I can't guarantee that we can find a way to publish your dissertation.

I can't keep you safe from danger.

I can't keep you away from psychos.

I can't even keep you safe from me.

"I'm afraid of what will happen next year."

There. He'd said it aloud. The fear that had been building over the last few days. It seemed that as his protective instincts kicked in, taking care of his sick guide, so did the memory of every horrifying thing they had endured. And besides the things that were out his control, the worst was his own accusations against his partner. His loss of personal control, reacting against his guide, throwing him from his home. Violating their trust and privacy.

I can't even keep you safe from me.


11:50 pm

"Aahhhhh," Blair murmured, sinking into the warmth of the hot tub. "Oh, man, this is heaven, you know?" He went down as low as he dared, his chin resting just below the surface of the water. Despite the balcony the hot tub was on being sheltered from the wind and heated with two outdoor lamps like they used in restaurants, it was still below freezing outside so they weren't able to do much more than take the edge off the cold.

"Aahhhhh," he murmured again. So far, he was the only one in the hot tub. Simon was still puttering in the kitchen with something and Jim was rummaging around his room, looking for whatever. They had agreed to meet at 11:45 pm to welcome the new year and they were now officially late. Well, he'd been late, too, but they were later, so his lateness didn't count. It all evened out.

"Aahhhh." His aching bones loved this. His muscles loved it, too, now that he'd stopped shivering. The cold and flu had hit hard, wiping him out, but when he stopped to think about it, it had been okay. He'd slept a lot, which he had needed to do anyway and probably wouldn't have, and today he had even been well enough to go cross-country skiing in the morning. Of course, he'd then had 'just a short nap' and slept from two o'clock until eight o'clock, completely ruining the 'I'm perfectly recovered' line he'd been trying to use on the two older men.

Not that they ever believed him.

But that was okay, too. They had 'acted' like they had believed him and taken him cross-country skiing, knowing how badly he wanted to go at least once before they left the next day. By noon they had to be packed and heading back, as the next tenants were arriving at 1:00 pm.

Back to... Well, a few days off to get the reading done he was supposed to have done while on vacation but was too sick to contemplate. Then Rainier started up, and he'd whittled his schedule back to teaching two classes and four tutorials, expertly arranged to occupy only two mornings a week to optimize his time with Jim. At least, that's what he'd submitted to the university, but when the calendar had come out, it was clear they had screwed up his carefully arranged plans and rearranged his schedule to mess up every day. Monday class at 8:00 a.m., Monday seminar at 12:00. Tuesday seminar at 10:00 a.m. Wednesday class at 10:00 a.m. and seminar at 2:00 p.m. Thursday seminar at 10:00 a.m. And on Tuesday and Friday afternoons from 2:00 - 4:00 p.m, he had his own classes that he had to take.

It couldn't have been a worse schedule. No one liked a class on Monday at 8:00. His students were going to be half awake and hung over. And anything at 10:00 in the morning ruined the entire morning. There wasn't really time to go to the station before his class or after. The same with 2:00 afternoon classes. He was about ready to quit.

Except Jim had been pushing him to keep going, talking about it with him over the last few days. This semester, Jim was determined that Blair would not miss any classes due to injury, and that the university job would be totally separate from Blair's work at the station 'helping out'. University was to be the first focus.

Blair laughed. Right... Jim, you just don't get it, do you? You're my first focus, man. It was just hard for Jim to believe that someone cared for him that much. Funny thing, how a man could be so intelligent, yet not get such a simple thing as that.

"I love you, Jim," he said, softly now, not sure if the sentinel would be listening, but wanting to say it aloud suddenly, before Simon got there and the thought would evaporate in the merriment of the midnight hour.

He thought for a moment, then said it again. "Jim? I love you. You know that, don't you? That I care? That to be by your side is my highest calling, that I would not have traded my last year, no matter how much it sucked-- and there were some times that majorly sucked-- but regardless, I would not have traded it away if it meant I couldn't be with you. This is truly, really truly, cross my heart and hope to die-- okay, not die, but I would give my life for you, you know that..."

His hand glided through the water, tears dropping on the bubbling surface. "Uh, where was I? Oh yeah. I wouldn't have traded it and that's the absolute truth. No lies. No obfuscation. I love you, my brother, my friend. And 'Love covers a multitude of evils', and by that I mean that I know more crap will happen to us this year. I'm not stupid. Crap follows us, man. And I don't need any promises that it won't happen, because that's like, a given with us. That's the way of life, and the way of cops, and the way of Sentinels and Guides. But I'm prepared for that, okay? Whatever happens between us, whatever path we walk on, our foundation is firm. We're bonded, man. So we just have to brace ourselves when the storms happen, ride them out, and catch each other again on the other side. Just promise me you'll come looking for me when it's over, that's all I ask."

Blair ducked his face beneath the water for a moment, letting it swirl the tears from his eyes. At least the steam and the remnants of his head cold could be blamed for red eyes.

"Hey, ho!" Simon's voice bellowed on the balcony, as he stepped through th edoor from the den carrying the party favors. "Just talked to Daryl on the phone. He's at his girlfriend's house tonight with a few friends. Sounds like they're having fun." He grinned. "And her parents are there. Her dad came on and assured me there's no alcohol except for a tiny glass of champagne at midnight which I pretended I didn't hear him say."

"That's great, Simon. Hey, where's Jim?" Blair sat up straighter and glanced at the clock inside the den. "JIM!! TWO MINUTES, MAN!!!"

Simon dropped his robe on one of the chairs beneath the heat lamp and slipped into the pool, fussing with his tray of goodies on the table behind where he was sitting in the tub. "Here's your hat, Sandburg," he said, handing one to Blair, then putting one on his own close-cropped hair.

"I need a camera, Simon," Blair said. "HEY, JIM, BRING A CAMERA AND GET YOUR BUTT IN HERE!!"

Simon turned to the open doorwary. "NO CAMERA, ELLISON, OR THE NACHOS GO OVER THE BALCONY UNTOUCHED BY YOUR HANDS."

Jim appeared in the doorway, smiling, hands raised to show no camera. "Relax, Simon, do you think I'd do anything to jeopardize the nachos?"

Blair watched the sentinel shrug out of his robe, crossing the balcony and getting in the hot tub. Simon handed Jim a hat which he ignored, so Blair took it and put it on his partner, noticing that Jim wasn't looking at him. He didn't look angry or anything, just contemplative.

"One minute left," Simon muttered, handing them each glasses and fiddling with the cork from the champagne bottle.

Quietly, Blair started their own countdown, "Sixty, fifty-nine, fifty-eight..." while Simon popped the cork, laughing as it missiled away into the night. Glasses were hastily filled, as the count reached "thirty-six, thirty-five, thirty-four", then the rest of the count became muffled as Simon popped the whistle in Blair's mouth for what was supposed to be "twenty-two, twenty-one, twenty".

Simon lifted his glass and took the whistle from his own mouth. "May I say, before this year is up, that you two have added greatly to the flavor of my life. You have taught me the meaning of enduring friendship. Thank you for sharing this time with me. Happy New Year."

"Happy New Year," the partners echoed, clinking their glasses.

Around them on the side of the mountain, in the other chalets, they could hear the last count down. "TEN, NINE, EIGHT..."

"Blair," Jim said turning to him, holding the glass out. "Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. And I promise I'll come looking."

"What?" he started to say, then realized that Jim had heard him after all. "You better," he whispered, as midnight hit and they touched glasses with each other, then with Simon, then added their own cheers to the echoes of the mountainside.

"Before we start on the nachos, there's one more thing," Simon said, reaching back and getting the round floating tray that he put in the center of the hot tub. On it, he placed the candle holder, the pottery figurines of a small group clasping arms in a circle around the firepot.

"That's my 'Circle of Friends'," Blair whispered, as Simon lit the candle.

"Yes."

They sat for a moment in silence, staring at the tiny flame as it lit up the pottery faces, seeing instead the faces of each other reflecting beyond them.

"Legend has it," Simon said, reading from the little slip of paper that had been in the box with the holder, "that if you give a circle of friends to someone you care for the bonds of friendship between you will last forever." He placed the paper behind him, then reached out a hand to each. "I may not have bought the holder -- from what I understand Sandburg picked it out and you ended up paying for it, Jim, with the other supplies you purchased -- but I bring it here tonight, so each of us had a part to play." They held the pose for a moment, then broke it as Simon reached back for the nachos and other food.

Taking the opportunity, Ellison turned to Sandburg again, smiling at him for a moment, then gathering him into a warm embrace. "And I love you, my brother and my friend," he whispered into his partner's ear. "You are truly the wise one, my teacher and my guide. You've taught me the meaning of love and the meaning of endurance in love and friendship. You've taught me about what truly matters in life. I have no gift to offer in return, but my gratefulness that you are in my life. Totally selfish."

"Totally you, though," Blair replied. "Thanks, man," he said laughing, as Jim released him and Simon, judging it was safe to turn around, resettled himself in the tub with the food handed around.

Jim then cleared his throat, one hand gesturing to his captain as he dipped the tortilla chip into the salsa. "And Simon, in these close quarters, I know you couldn't help but hear what I said to Sandburg, but I need to say it to you, as well. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to have you as a boss, but more importantly as my friend. What would I have done without you during the last year, to yell at me, encourage me, sit with me through long nights, and point me in the right direction? Thank you. You went above and beyond the call of duty and friendship."

"You're welcome," Simon said with a warm smile. "I couldn't imagine it otherwise."

When things calmed down, and they had made a big dent into the food, Blair refilled their glasses with the last of the champagne. "My turn before you two mush-heads turn into drunk prunes and I fall asleep from those Tylenols Jim made me take."

He waited until they were quiet again, listening to him. He touched the 'circle of friends', his finger lingering over the rough pottery sculpture. "I am truly a wealthy man. Not by money. Not by success. But by the people I hold in my heart. When you open your heart to others, you accept all the love that comes with it, but you also accept all the pain, as well. As you both know, I am so not into pain, and so you might ask what compels me to sit here tonight, vulnerable and naked in a hot tub with two macho cops, wearing a stupid hat that dispels any dignity as my reddened nose drips and my eyes are swollen with tears? Knowledge, my friends. Knowledge keeps me here. For as I hold within me a part of your souls, I know that within you is a part of my soul."

Blair paused for a moment, looking at Simon. "Happy New Year? Yes. I wish you both a happy new year. And a prosperous one. And a fulfilling one. But I wish you love, too. In unexpected ways. In random acts of kindness. In deliberate acts of caring. Simon, you and Daryl are a part of my family, in a way that I have never known before. You are my uncle and my cousin of heart. You go beyond friendship into a permanence I've never encountered with my own scattered relatives. You have no reason to care for me, no bonds that make you keep close, and that is truly a gift to me."

He paused again, his eyes slowly meeting Jim's, looking for a moment at the reflection of candle light on the chiseled features of his friend. "And you, Jim, may be the sentinel to my guide, but you are also the father and brother of my heart. You have taught me the love of someone who cares for me and tends my wounds, who holds me in the night when I'm frightened and have come to the end of my resources. You have held me together as a father would his child, with all the compassion and love that entails. And you have walked beside me, linking arms with me, as the brother of my heart, helping me when I stumble, keeping me on my feet, encouraging me, teasing me, infuriating me sometimes, but beyond it all, through it all, you have been there when all else have fled. Even apart from you, I was not separate from you. We are who we are."

He raised his glass. "And so I say, Happy New Year. With everything that means to me. God bless us every one."

They downed their glasses, eyes brimming with tears, then Simon moved the candle aside and with a nod to Jim, the two men proceeded to tickle him and dunk him under the water. There was a brief moment of terror, of memories of the fountain and dying, then they were lost in the churning warmth of the water and the love surrounding him.

My family! My life! Blair thought, exultant as he broke through the surface, water sloshing over the edge of the hot tub, his head thrown back in laughter unafraid, as he fell back into his sentinel's arms.

~~ the end ~~


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