Jim Ellison started and looked up from the paperwork on his desk. Simon Banks was standing over him, scowling and tapping the face of his watch.
"Twelve-twenty, Ellison. You've been off-duty for twenty minutes."
"Almost done," replied Jim mechanically, returning his gaze to the stack of paper on his desk. He scanned the forms before him, trying to find his place, and wondered how his captain had managed to sneak up on him like that. He'd had no hint of Simon's approach. Great. Now I'm zoning out on paperwork. Sandburg would love this one. Jim frowned, suddenly annoyed at the thought. What did it matter what Sandburg thought about it?
Yeah, Sandburg always has something to say about my every move, doesn't he? Every little....
"You're done now!" snapped Simon, snatching Jim's pen. "For crying out loud, Jim, it's Christmas Eve! Get out of here!"
"Just the 24th of December," muttered Jim, but he knew better than to pursue that argument with his captain. Simon had a kid, so Christmas was a big deal for him. He just didn't get the idea that Christmas didn't mean that much to people without ... people who weren't tied down with family.
Simon shot him his most intimidating glare as he disappeared into his office. "Spare me the Grinch routine, okay? Go home."
Jim uttered something between a grunt of disgust and a sigh of resignation, then rose and yanked his jacket off the back of his chair. He strode through the nearly empty room, nodding to the skeleton crew still at their desks.
"Oh, and Ellison...."
Jim paused at the door and turned to see Simon poking his head out of his office. "Merry Christmas. You and Sandburg have a good one, okay?"
"Yeah, you too, Simon," returned Jim with a forced smile, then turned toward the elevators as his expression darkened.
Me and Sandburg. Me and Sandburg. Why does everybody around here talk about me and the kid in the same breath all the time? What are we, joined at the hip or something?
Jim stalked into the empty elevator and stabbed the key for the lobby with his finger, gritting his teeth. Somehow, without his even realizing it, the kid had managed to successfully infiltrate every aspect of his life: his work, his home.... He even put in his two cents about Jim's love life ... constantly, as a matter of fact. There was simply no escaping Blair Sandburg.
The elevator doors slid open with a pleasant chime.
"Oh, shut up," muttered Jim, striding through the garage at top speed.
It still amazed him how his fellow cops had taken to Blair. Cops rarely allowed outsiders into their world ... and more rarely still into their brotherhood. If anyone had told Jim two years ago that a New Age magpie on speed would be one of the chosen few, he would have laughed in their face. But damned if those lugs hadn't adopted the kid. Hell, Sandburg even had Simon eating out of his hand ... not that Banks would ever admit it, of course. But that didn't bother him, really. Not really. Jim was glad they liked the kid. Really.
What bothered him was what Blair's presence at the precinct had done to his reputation. Before Sandburg had come along, Jim had been thought of as a cop who could handle anything ... alone. Hell, he liked working alone. He did his best work that way. He didn't need any help to get the job done. And every cop he'd worked with or for had known it. But now....
Now he was part of Ellison and Sandburg ... the dynamic duo. And there had definitely been times when Jim felt that, in Simon's eyes, his was the shorter cape. If a cop can't do his job without some flaky grad student tailing along to babysit him....
Jim yanked open the door of his truck and climbed in, fumbling clumsily with the ignition key in his agitation.
Don't drive angry, Big Guy.
"Shut up!" snapped Jim, revving the engine defiantly. He peeled out of his parking space, out of the garage and down the street in perverse satisfaction. It was getting so he couldn't even drive the way he wanted to.
He shouldn't need Blair's help to do his job, dammit. Okay, maybe two years ago, when the Sentinel thing had first hit him ... well, sure. Someone had to show him the ropes. Fine. The kid had done that, and Jim appreciated it, he really did. But he had a handle on this thing now. It was under control. He didn't need a babysitter.
Jim changed lanes abruptly, ignoring the horns of protest behind him.
And then there was the home front. Sandburg was supposed to have stayed for a week. A week? No such luck. Two years and counting! Two years of dealing with Sandburg's food in his kitchen, Sandburg's music on his stereo, Sandburg's women on his couch, Sandburg's crap in his bathroom.... Jim looked back longingly to the days when he lived alone. The quiet, the predictability ... the order.
Jim never knew what to expect when he walked in the door these days. Bongos? Aboriginal dance music? Sandburg in a lotus position on his living room rug ... in the buff? Oh yeah, that had been a good one. A cop does not need to come home to some guy chanting naked on his living room rug. A cop needs peace and quiet. A cop needs to be alone.
Jim pulled up in front of the loft and parked, then took a moment to calm himself. Okay, so he was pissed off. But it wasn't the kid's fault. Well, yeah, it was the kid's fault, but he didn't mean any harm. Blair was just Blair. He wanted to help. Hell, Blair wanted to help everybody. He was a good kid. He just didn't understand that Jim was the kind of guy who was used to standing on his own two feet ... the kind of guy who didn't need a shoulder to lean on. Jim would have to get through to him on this, somehow. Maybe it was time for him to suggest that Blair spend less time tagging along with Jim and more time working on his dissertation.
Jim took a deep breath. Yes. That was the way to go. But he had to calm down first; he couldn't do it angry. He didn't want to hurt the kid. Blair would see reason. It would be better for both of them if they gave each other some space.
Jim got out of the truck and made his way inside to the elevator, counting to ten over and over again. Calm. Rational. Logical. No problem.
As soon as the elevator doors slid open, his sensitive hearing was rudely assaulted by the saccharin wailings of Jingle Bells being played at top volume. The strong scent of turkey and cranberry sauce, overlaid by that of some kind of incense, washed over him like a wave. Jim could hear Blair humming along with the carol amid the ominous rattle of pots and pans.
WHAT THE HELL?
One. Two. Three. Four. Five....
Jim strode to the door and pushed it open abruptly. Sight confirmed what hearing and smell had only hinted at, and Jim came to a halt just inside the door, stunned at the extent of the disaster. A Christmas tree of gargantuan proportions, as yet undecorated, stood in the living room. Decorations of varying description and taste were everywhere; Jim couldn't cast his gaze to any portion of the room without being affronted by angels, elves, bells, or reindeer. The reek of incense was overwhelming. The unlit menorah on the windowsill stood resignedly among the Christmas clutter with an air of gallant defeat.
The facts were indisputable. Blair Sandburg had committed felony Christmas.
In Jim's loft.
Without so much as asking him.
Screw the counting.
Jim slammed the door shut violently. "SANDBURG!"
"Jim?" Blair popped into view from the kitchen, grinning ear to ear. He had appropriated Jim's apron, and was smeared and smudged from head to toe with edibles of every description. He was bouncing up and down in excitement. "Hey, man, you're early! What time is it? Oh ... you're not early, are you? Must have lost track of the time. I wanted to have everything ready by the time you got home. But that's okay, that's okay. You can help decorate the tree. I'll bet you're ready for some Christmas dinner, huh? That's cool. That's great. What do you think? I mean, I know it's a little over-the-top, but it's only once a year, right? Do you like the tree? I could have gone a little smaller, I guess, but if you're going to do it, then DO IT, you know? You want some egg nog? Dinner's almost...."
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" asked Jim between clenched teeth.
Blair paused, looking startled. "What?" He stared at Jim for a moment. "What's wrong?"
"What's wrong? Who the hell said you could drag all this shit in here?"
Blair stared at him in obvious confusion for a moment; then his face fell. "I thought ... geez, man, it's Christmas. I thought you'd like it."
"I don't like it!" snapped Jim, ruthlessly squelching a painful pang of remorse at the sight of the boyish happiness dying in his friend's eyes. He was going to get through to this kid, one way or another. "I don't like leaving my place in perfect order in the morning and coming home to a shit-hole a few hours later!"
Blair's eyes widened, hurt fading to bewilderment. "Jim, what is with you? It's just some dec...."
"Clear it out!"
"Damn it, Jim," said Blair angrily, "What is your problem? What's happened?"
"Happened? You just came in here and trashed my home, that's what happened! Did I say you could dump all this crap here?"
Blair said nothing for a moment, his gaze sweeping over Jim with disturbing acuity. When he spoke, his voice was even and low. "This isn't about Christmas decorations. What's it really about, Jim?"
Jim tore off his coat and flung it on the couch, even angrier than before. Damn the kid! Where did he get off with his constant probing of Jim's psyche? And worse, where did he get off being right all the time? "It's about you, making yourself at home! Just whose place is this, anyway?"
Blair set his jaw and leveled a hurt but determined look at Jim. "I thought it was our place," he said firmly.
The "our" stabbed into Jim's anger like a harpoon, and he swung toward Blair, shouting at the top of his lungs. "There is no our place. There is no our anything, got it? You're a guest here! You're a guest at the precinct! You're a guest everywhere, got it? An unwelcome one. You've done nothing but get underfoot and in the way from the first day I met you! I want my life back, Sandburg!"
Blair seemed to freeze for a moment, and some small part of Jim knew that he had stepped over that fine line of what a friend could be expected to take.
"If I thought for one minute you really meant that...." began Blair unevenly.
"Oh, you think I don't mean it?" Jim listened to his rage as it screamed, dimly aware that things had gotten out of hand, but not quite able to regain his lost control. "I do, Sandburg. I'm being very sincere here. If you want to continue living in my home, then you'll do it on my terms."
"Your terms?" Blair exploded. "What the hell does that mean? Where is this coming from? If you had a problem with my living here, why the hell didn't you tell me before?"
"I'm telling you now!" snarled Jim. "I've had it with you constantly butting into my life! Are you going to toe the line or not?"
"Fuck the line," shouted Blair hotly. "And fuck you, too. I don't know what this is about, but I'll be damned if I'm going to stand here and take this garbage."
"You don't want to stand here? Fine. Then I'll see you out!" shouted Jim in return, enraged and bizarrely exultant. "Just let me know where to send your junk. The sooner I see the back of you, the better off I'll be!"
Blair's eyes filled briefly, then he yanked at the apron strings and flung the apron aside. "That's it. I'm gone."
Jim brushed past him on his way to the refrigerator, yanked the door open, and pulled out a beer. "You know where the door is."
He opened the bottle and took a sip, watching as Blair shrugged into his jacket and opened the door. Blair hesitated on the doorstep for a moment, then straightened his shoulders and disappeared, slamming the door behind him.
Jim strode to the stereo and stabbed the power button as the strains of Silent Night began to waft through the air. "Fuck you too," he muttered.
Jim found himself pacing the floor for what seemed like the twentieth time, and forced himself to sit on the couch ... again. He had spent the last three hours cooling off ... and pacing ... and poring over the things he had said to Blair, over and over again.
And feeling like the ungrateful shit he knew himself to be.
Three hours. Jim had no idea where Blair might have gone. The university was shut down for the holidays, and Jim found himself unable to remember the last names of the many friends Blair had introduced him to, friends who might know where he could be reached. Jim couldn't even get a message to him.
Jim stared at the phone, willing it to ring. It stubbornly refused to do so.
Dammit, why hadn't he just ... gone for a walk or something, gotten himself under control before he talked to Blair? There was no excuse for what he had said. None. What the hell had come over him? God, he was turning into his old man. Blair might get under his skin at times, but he was a friend ... a damn good friend, and he in no way deserved to be treated like that.
Jim sighed and leaned back into the sofa.
Ring. Ring, you bastard. Ring!
As if in answer, a soft, melodic chime sounded. Jim sat upright with a start. That was not the phone.
It sounded again; a soft, muted chime, so soft that most people would not have heard it. Jim realized in bewilderment that it was coming from his bedroom. He rose and took the stairs two at a time, then paused and looked around in confusion for the source of the sound. The chime sounded once more, then was followed by several more at different pitches. Jim stared at his bureau blankly for a moment. It was coming from his sock drawer. What the....
Jim yanked open the drawer and dug through the socks to the bottom of the drawer, where he found a small object wrapped in an old handkerchief. The chiming stopped the moment he laid his hand to it. Jim lifted it out of the drawer and gently unwrapped it, suddenly remembering what it was.
Of course. His great-grandfather's gold pocket watch. He hadn't looked at the thing in years. But how the hell had it gotten wound? It was showing the correct time, too. And it wasn't supposed to chime when it was closed. It never had before. Weird. Jim turned the thing over in his hands. His memory of receiving the watch from his grandfather was one of the few pleasant childhood memories he had. His grandfather had told him the story....
"Oh, damn," said Jim quietly with a sinking heart, opening the watch and reading the inscription:
Therefore be at peace henceforward,
And as brothers live together."
The quote was from some poem that Jim could never remember. The 'welcome home' ... well, that was a piece of family history, a piece that Jim vividly remembered being recited to him by his grandfather, who did so every time he caught Jim and his brother Stephen fighting.
Jim sank to the bed, staring at the watch. If his grandfather were here now, he would no doubt be winding up for yet another recital. Jim could see the old man in his mind's eye so clearly that it was as if he were seated beside him.
"Don't let the Ellison temper rule you, boys! Don't let it come between you, or you might learn your lesson the way your great-grandfather did."
Jim closed his eyes. God forbid. Not that way. If ever there were an illustration of the damage an uncontrolled temper could do....
"Okay, Grandpa," said Jim rather uneasily. "You've made your point."
He rose, wrapping the watch carefully and placing it back in his sock drawer. Jim wasn't a superstitious man, but this coincidence was ... weird. He could almost feel his grandfather's stern blue eyes on him, and he closed the drawer hastily and walked down the steps to the living room feeling as chastised as he had when he was a child.
Jim sank to sit on the couch, struggling to understand what had come over him. What had the kid done to set him off like that? Put up a few Christmas decorations? Cook him Christmas dinner? Blair must have spent all morning decorating and cooking. Jim shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. Yeah, well, that was it, wasn't it? That Blair had thought nothing of spending all those hours in an effort to ... well, to make Jim happy? That Blair thought of this as "our place"? That Blair's "our" was real enough and important enough to him to go to all that trouble?
Jim rubbed his eyes tiredly. He had told Blair that there was no "our". But there was. They were friends. Not because Jim needed Blair or anyone else ... just because ... well, hell, why were any two guys friends? He liked Blair. And he owed him.
Blair's hurt expression rose before Jim's mind's eye and Jim groaned aloud, launching himself from the sofa to pace the floor again. Why couldn't he have kept his mouth shut? Would it have killed him to say "nice tree" and "thanks for dinner" and to leave the declaration of independence for later, when he had cooled down?
"Brilliant!" snapped Jim. "Brilliant, Ellison!"
Jim's gaze fell on the tree, and the small pile of wrapped packages beneath it. They were all marked from Blair to Jim. Jim hastily turned away from the sight. He hadn't gotten Blair anything ... yet. Not that he hadn't intended to ... he just hadn't had the time.
And where had Blair found the time? Somehow the kid managed to fit teaching at the university and working on his dissertation around the impossible hours required for police work. He barely had time to sleep. But he had found the time for this.
"Shit!" Jim's voice echoed in the strangely empty loft. "SHIT! SHIT! SHIT!" He turned to the phone. "RING, DAMN YOU!"
It rang. Jim stared at it for a moment in surprise, then hastily snatched up the receiver. "Blair?"
There was a moment of silence on the other end. "Jim, it's Simon."
"Oh." Jim sank to the sofa again. "Simon." He pulled himself together. "What can I do for you?"
"I take it Sandburg's not there?"
Jim straightened as the tension in Simon's voice reached him. "No, he's ... out."
"Do you know where?"
"Jim, you'd better come down to the station."
Jim felt his stomach do a slow roll. "Why?" he managed.
"Just get down here as soon as you can."
"Does this have something to do with Sandburg?"
"Jim, I don't want to discuss this over the phone, okay?"
"Dammit, Simon, do you know where he is?"
"Then what?" shouted Jim, then swore softly and lowered his voice. "Has something happened to him?"
Simon sighed. "I don't know for sure. All I know is...." The man hesitated for a moment, then continued. "Look, Jim, some uniforms picked up a mugging suspect tonight. He had blood on his clothes and ... and Sandburg's wallet in his pocket."
Jim sat in silence.
"There is no 'our' anything, got it?"
"You're a guest everywhere, got it? An unwelcome one. "
"Jim, are you there?"
"You've done nothing but get underfoot and in the way from the first day I met you!"
"Jim, don't assume the worst."
"I want my life back, Sandburg!"
"I'm on my way," said Jim tonelessly. He broke the connection and let the phone fall from his unfeeling fingers.
"That's it. I'm gone."
Jim rose mechanically, picked up his keys and left without a backward glance.
Jim came out of the elevator and caught sight of a worn and somber Simon Banks striding through the empty bullpen. The drive to the station was already a blur of memory. Nothing felt real. Darkness was falling both outside and in.
"I'm glad you're here," said Simon grimly. "You okay?"
"What does he say?" asked Jim coolly, ignoring the question and idly wondering why he wasn't upset. He wasn't upset. His best friend was missing and probably injured, and he felt nothing at all. Just another missing person, another possible assault. Strange that he wasn't upset.
"He won't say anything," growled Simon, leading the way to the interrogation room. "We've been trying to get something out of him since he was picked up. The sorry son-of-a-bitch hasn't spoken a word."
Simon was obviously doing his best to maintain his business-as-usual manner. He wasn't succeeding particularly well.
"Has he been ID'd?"
"No. No luck there either. The only thing we found on him was Sandburg's wallet. There's no match on his prints." Simon paused, glancing at Jim warily as they approached the door to the observation room. "You're going to be okay with this, right?"
"No problem," said Jim without inflection.
"Uh-huh," said Simon skeptically, then continued. "Whoever he is, he's been living on the streets for quite awhile. He's nothing but rags and dirt." He opened the door to the observation room and ushered Jim inside, following him closely.
Jim blinked, adjusting to the dimmer light of the little room, and peered through the one-way glass into the interrogation room. Rafe was sitting across the table from an emaciated, filthy man in his mid-fifties, who, despite the urgent, even threatening nature of Rafe's tone, was completely ignoring him.
Jim peered at the man's face, then pulled back in horrified recognition as his olfactory sense was suddenly overwhelmed by a peculiarly familiar stench. "Simon, I know ... I know this guy...."
Jim's voice faltered as the prisoner turned his head to look straight at him. Straight at him, despite the fact that he could not possibly see Jim through that glass or even know he was there. He gave Jim a broad smile of decaying teeth and bleeding gums. "Hey, Jimbo. How's it going?" Rafe whirled to stare at the glass as Jim instinctively put a hand over his nose and mouth, trying not to gag. He wasn't able to pull his gaze from the red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes of the man on the other side of the glass.
"Jim?" hissed Simon.
"It's Virgil ... Virgil Jacobs. Colonel Virgil Jacobs," stammered Jim, backing away from the glass. "My ... my CO."
What was left of him, that is. God, what had happened to him?
"Your CO? How long...?"
"It's been ten years since I've seen him," gasped Jim, fanning the air in front of him and struggling to dial down his sense of smell.
"What's wrong with you?" demanded Simon, tapping on the glass to signal Rafe. Rafe rose and left the interrogation room with a puzzled expression.
Jim spared his captain a quick glance. "You don't smell that?"
"I don't smell anything but that cruddy sweatshirt you're wearing," growled Simon. "What happened to him? And how the hell does he know you're here?"
Jim shook his head silently, staring at the wreck of the man he had known. "I don't know what happened to him, sir. We lost touch. But even ten years shouldn't have inflicted this much damage on a man."
Jacobs cackled softly in the direction of the glass. "Whose ten years, Jimbo? Yours or mine?"
Jim sucked in his breath and took a step backward. What the hell?
Simon swore and checked the intercom, then turned sharply to Jim. "The intercom's not on. How the hell did he...?"
"Better get in here, Jim," crooned Jacobs softly. "Unless you want your next ten years to be like my last ten. Take it from me, Jimbo ... you don't want that."
"What's going on, Ellison?" demanded Simon, sotto voce.
"I don't know, sir," said Jim coldly, setting his shoulders. "But I'll find out." He turned to the door, but Simon caught his arm.
"You'll find out by the book, Detective," said Simon sharply. "Or I'll pull you the hell out of there."
"We're talking about Sandburg, Captain," said Jim harshly.
"The sooner I see the back of you, the better off I'll be!"
"If Jacobs knows where he is...," he continued, his voice growing ugly as his hands clenched involuntarily.
"By the book," repeated Simon in a steely tone. "Or Rafe goes back in and you watch from here. Are we clear on this?"
Jim eyed Simon in dull resentment. "Perfectly clear, sir." He yanked the door open and brushed past Rafe to the interrogation room door.
Jim slammed the door on the sympathy in Rafe's face and turned to face his former commanding officer, realizing as he did so that he had unconsciously assumed a military posture. Yes, well, the events of this afternoon proved nothing if not that old habits died hard. Jim examined Jacobs carefully, and was not surprised when Jacobs returned the favor.
"You're looking good, Captain," remarked the older man in a tone which implied that his words were not necessarily a compliment.
"And you look like hell ... sir," returned Jim icily. Jacobs' wasted, wizened body spoke of many hungry weeks spent without shelter. Bloodshot, yellow-white brown eyes peered out at Jim under a mat of filthy, matted silver hair that fell to the man's shoulders. His jacket, shirt and pants were covered with dirt and grease ... and with tiny splatters of what Jim's senses identified as fresh blood. His shoes were worn through in several places. His dirt-encrusted fingers sported jaggedly broken nails that rattled irritatingly against the table as he drummed his fingers. And he smelled ... he smelled like ...
Jim had spent time among people who by choice, illness, or misfortune lived on the streets. He was familiar with the smell of a body unwashed for months at a time. And that smell hung about Jacobs, too, but it was overpowered by another, stronger scent, one that Jim had encountered too many times in his life as soldier and cop: the smell of rotting flesh. He thanked whatever God existed, if any, that Blair had taught him how to dial down his senses.
"You've done nothing but get underfoot and in the way from the first day I met you!"
The smell of decay this man exuded was stronger than anything Jim had encountered before. Jim could think of several possible explanations for that stench, and he refused to deal with any of them. It should be detectable even by people without heightened senses. But Simon and Rafe didn't seem to pick it up at all. Maybe his senses were on the fritz again. Blair would know. Blair....
Jacobs laughed softly; it was an unpleasant sound. "Don't like the cologne, eh, Jimmy? You smell a lot of it where I've been lately." He laughed again, more loudly.
"And where's that, Colonel?"
"Here and there. You look like a man with something on his mind. Anything I can help you with, Jimbo?"
"Where'd you get the wallet, Virgil?"
"Oh, the wallet. Is that what this is about?"
"Yes, that's what this is about."
"I don't think so. This isn't about a wallet. What's it really about, Jim?"
Jim caught his breath. Blair had asked him that just a few hours ago, and he hadn't been man enough to give him a straight answer. "This is about a missing person whose wallet you had in your pocket."
Jacobs smiled faintly. "Yeah? You should transfer, Jimmy. You can do better than this. They don't appreciate you around here."
"Is that right?" Jim walked slowly to the table, turned the empty chair across the table from Jacobs around, straddled it and seated himself.
Jacobs nodded. "Oh, yeah. Imagine you, Cop of the Year, getting called out on Christmas Eve because some little nobody went missing."
Jim drew a steadying breath. He could hear Simon move toward the door, and knew that his captain was anticipating an explosion. But an explosion wouldn't get Blair's whereabouts out of this man ... at least not now. He controlled himself with an effort.
"What little nobody are we talking about, Virgil?"
Jacobs eyed him intently for a moment, expressionless. "You remember Elaine, don't you?"
Jim groped for understanding at the sudden change of subject. "Elaine?"
"Elaine," repeated Jacobs, leaning back in his chair.
"Your wife," said Jim, as memory provided the image of an attractive, friendly blond with a good sense of humor. What did Elaine have to do with...?
"She's dead, you know," said Jacobs matter-of-factly.
"Oh," said Jim uncomfortably. "I'm sorry, Virgil. She was a good lady."
"She must have been. But I didn't see it most of the time," returned Jacobs casually, as if he were discussing the loss of a valued pet. "She was always thinking I needed her, you know what I mean? Always trying to help. Always underfoot and in the way."
Jim stiffened at the familiar ring of the words.
"I wouldn't have it," continued Jacobs with a strange, chanting cadence to his voice, as if these were words he had spoken many times. "I let her know in no uncertain terms that I was a man who could stand on his own two feet. I didn't need her helping hand or anyone else's. Spent three years trying to teach her that. She wouldn't learn it. Always trying to get inside my head. Always trying to understand what didn't need understanding. Always trying to help someone who didn't need any damn help."
Jim knew that he had lost control of the conversation, but found himself transfixed by the man's chant. It all sounded so familiar ... too familiar.
"Well, she finally got the message. She was bright, you know ... just stubborn. But she finally began to suspect that I really didn't need her. So she left me."
Jim stared at the man wordlessly.
"She left me," repeated Jacobs softly. "I knew she'd come back, of course. It was just a power play. One last desperate attempt to make me come running after her, saying I needed her. Loved her. You know how women are. I wasn't going to be suckered into that. I could handle anything. I didn't need a babysitter. I didn't need anyone. You know all about that, don't you, Jimbo?"
"Colonel," said Jim firmly, trying to suppress the inexplicable panic rising within him, "You were found with...."
"So I waited for her to call. One week. Two weeks. Three weeks. Well, after three weeks I finally got a call. You know who it was, Jimmy?"
"It was a cop, a fine young police officer like you. He said he was very sorry. He said Elaine was dead. He said some drunk in a pickup truck had run her down in the street." Jacobs cackled hysterically. "Went downtown to identify her. Couldn't at first. Head was crushed, you know? She was still wearing her wedding ring, though. That came through with flying colors. Not a scratch on it. Takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'!" Jacobs' vicious laughter echoed off the walls of the interrogation room.
Jim, horrified at the sound, tried to speak and couldn't. He stared at the reeking ruin before him, trying to detect some trace of the man he had known. This man had been a loyal friend, a fine soldier, a good man. What in God's name had happened?
"That's the way it goes with us, isn't it? You and me, Jimmy, we were always the same. Cut from the same cloth, as Elaine used to say. And Elaine was always right. You remember her now, don't you, Jimmy? She was beautiful, wasn't she?"
"Beautiful. And brilliant. And she loved me. She stuck with me, stuck for three years of hearing how I didn't need her ... how it didn't matter whether she stayed with me or not. And all the time that drunk driver was getting closer and closer. We always think we have plenty of time, don't we, Jimbo? We're soldiers. We're tough. We're in control. But that's bullshit. We can't control the time we have. And we never know when the drunk driver will catch up with us."
Jim heard a heart pounding wildly, and realized it was his own. He tried to swallow to ease his dry throat, but couldn't. He fought an overwhelming desire to run ... run anywhere, as long as it was far away from this little room.
"But you know all this already, don't you, Jimmy? I know you do. I know you. I know you inside and out. You're just like me."
Jacobs leaned forward, his clawlike hands spread across the surface of the table, and Jim leaned back involuntarily, his breath quickening.
"They just got a little too close, didn't they? Made us feel things we didn't want to feel. Built doors in walls we didn't want anyone to get past. Made us start thinking that maybe we couldn't do everything on our own ... that we didn't want to do everything on our own. That there were hurt places and crippled places and even dead places inside us that only they could heal. Well, they should have known better than to try to heal us."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Jim rasped, feeling himself begin to shake.
Jacobs laughed softly. "Come on, Jimmy. You must know by now."
Jim rose from his chair and fought every instinct for flight within him to move around the table toward Jacobs.
"Know what?" he asked hoarsely.
Jacobs shook his head, laughing unpleasantly to himself.
"Know what?" shouted Jim.
Jacobs cocked his head to one side and favored Jim with a diseased grin. "I'm your drunk driver, Jimmy."
Jim froze, poring over the words for some meaning other than the obvious. He couldn't find one. "No," he said, his voice sounding eerily calm to his ears. "You're lying."
"You know, that's funny," said Jacobs softly, the bloody eyes searching Jim's face, "That's exactly what I said when the cop told me Elaine was dead. We are so much alike...."
Jim exploded into action, seizing the front of Jacob's tattered jacket and hauling him out of his chair. "I'm nothing like you! Where's my partner? What have you done with him?"
"Partner?" asked Jacob with a sneer. "Come on, Jimbo, you know better than that. He's a guest here. He's a guest everywhere! An unwelcome one. He's done nothing but get underfoot and in the way from the first day you met him. I've given you your life back."
Jim rammed Jacobs against the nearest available wall, subliminally aware that Simon and Rafe had burst into the room but not giving a damn. "WHERE IS HE? Tell me, or I'll break your damn neck!"
"Ellison, back off!" thundered Simon in his left ear. Jim felt hands tugging at his arms. "Let go of him, Detective! Now!"
"Come on, Jim, cool off!" came Rafe's voice from Jim's right, breathless and strained.
"WHERE'S MY PARTNER?" shouted Jim wildly as Simon and Rafe yanked him away from Jacobs.
"Where you wanted him to be," Jacobs returned in a sneering taunt. "He's gone. You've seen the back of him. Do you feel better off?"
"If you've hurt him, I'll kill you," snarled Jim, struggling to escape Simon's hold on him.
"Ellison, shut up and clear out!" snapped Simon. He gripped Jim more tightly as Jim tried to lunge forward.
"Hurt him? Oh, I spent hours hurting him," hissed Jacobs. He stepped forward with a feral light burning in his bloodshot eyes. "He died screaming for you, and you never came."
"You son of a bitch," snarled Simon as Jim recoiled, speechless, and stood unmoving with Simon's arm across his chest.
Rafe gave Jacobs a none-too-gentle shove against the wall. "You had better start talking now, Jacobs."
"I've said everything I came to say," returned Jacobs cooly.
"I'd reassess that position if I were you," said Simon in a voice of thinly veiled menace. "I won't always be nearby to protect you if some other friend of Blair Sandburg's should decide to take up the matter of his disappearance with you."
Jacobs settled his gaze on Simon with an mocking smile. "I won't require your protection, Captain. I'm the only one who understands what's going on here."
"I understand enough to know a confession to first-degree murder when I hear one," growled Simon.
"But you don't understand the officers under your command," returned Jacobs harshly. "Ask Detective Ellison who pushed his partner in front of this drunk driver. Ask him who's really responsible for whatever happened next."
"You sick bastard," said Rafe in a lethal tone.
"You and I were friends," said Jim desperately.
Jacobs met Jim's gaze for a moment, then hastily broke the contact. "Yes," he said softly.
Jim grasped at the first straw he spotted. "You're lying," he said fiercely. "Why would you hurt him? What could you gain by hurting him?"
Jacobs barked a foul laugh. "Define gain. Maybe I just wanted to do an old friend a favor. We know what you gained, don't we? No more unwelcome guests constantly butting into your life!"
"No," snarled Jim, stepping forward only to be restrained by Simon. He grasped at his last straw. "You didn't kill him. I'd know if he were dead. You hurt him and you left him there, didn't you?" His voice became more threatening. "DIDN'T YOU?"
Jacobs smiled and said nothing.
Simon took Jim's arm and steered him toward the door. "Stay with him," he snapped to Rafe, who nodded and cast a black look toward Jacobs. "And DON'T TOUCH HIM," Simon added as they passed through the door.
Jacobs slid back into his chair. "See you later, Jimbo," he called softly.
Jim spared his old commanding officer a searing look before the door shut behind them. "He's out there, Simon, and he's hurt. I've got to find him." Jim put all his waning energy into keeping his voice steady as he moved down the hall; he didn't do particularly well.
"You and Sandburg had a fight tonight," said Simon softly, restraining Jim with a hand on his arm.
"That stuff Jacobs was throwing in your face ... that stuff about unwelcome guests and getting underfoot ... you said that to Sandburg, didn't you?"
"Yeah, I said it," snarled Jim. "I said it and I'm a shit and there's nothing I can do about it. The only way Jacobs could know about it is if Blair told him ... if Blair was forced to tell him ..."
"Hold on, Jim, hold on. We both know that Sandburg isn't exactly the silent type. He could have been sounding off and been overheard...."
"And then Blair just handed him his wallet?"
"Does that guy look like he's above picking pockets to you?"
"And the blood?"
"Could be anyone's. Listen to me, Jim. I can't buy what this guy's selling, not yet. He's playing you. I think he'd say anything to get to you. Is there any reason you can think of that he'd hold a grudge against you?"
Jim noticed that his hands were shaking and he crossed his arms across his chest. "Dammit, Simon, we were friends. Close friends. The idea of Virgil Jacobs...."
"Jim, all questions of motive aside, we've got no definitive physical evidence so far that he's done what he says he's done."
"I don't give a damn what we've got," snapped Jim. "I'm not standing around here if there's the possibility that Blair is out there hurt. I'm going. Where was Jacobs picked up?"
Simon sighed. "Down on Johns and Longfellow, near the waterfront. Check it out. While you're doing that, I'll see what background I can get on the SOB."
Jim nodded and headed down the hall at a trot.
"Call me if you get anything!" Simon called after him.
Jim had spent the last two hours combing the dark, empty streets and deserted warehouses of the waterfront. There was nothing. No sign of an attack of any kind. No sign that Blair had ever been there. Hell, there was no sign that Jacobs had ever been there. Jim shivered, wishing briefly that he had remembered to grab his coat when he left the loft. The temperature had plummeted after sunset. His hands and feet were beginning to feel numb.
What the hell would Blair have been doing in this god-forsaken end of town, anyway? It was as far from his usual haunts as you could possibly get. Maybe Simon was right. Maybe Jacobs had just picked Blair's pocket and invented the rest.
But why? And how the hell had Jacobs managed to learn that he and Blair had quarreled? To quote Jim word for word? To describe their relationship so accurately?
"They just got a little too close, didn't they? Made us feel things we didn't want to feel. Built doors in walls we didn't want anyone to get past."
Jim flinched as he climbed back behind the wheel of his truck and slammed the door. It was true. Blair had done all that. Blair was closer to Jim than anyone had been since he was a child, and knowing that had scared Jim shitless. Ironic that Jim's fear of that closeness may have caused Blair's death ... that Blair had died never knowing how much he had meant to Jim.
No. No, he did not believe that. He would know if Blair were dead. He would feel it, sense it.... Wouldn't he?
If Blair were in trouble, where would he go? Before tonight, Jim knew Blair would have come to him. But now? Now that Jim had as much as told him that he didn't consider Blair a friend? No. He wouldn't go to the loft or to the station. Where would he go? Where could he go? The university was shut down. Most of his colleagues and friends were probably away for the holidays. But he knew Blair had keys to the anthropology building and his office there. Maybe he had decided to camp there for the night. It was worth a shot.
Jim started the engine and headed for Rainier.
Jim had flashed his badge and bullied the security guard into letting him in with some crap about search warrants on the way and obstruction of justice charges. It was all Jim could do to keep the man from handing over every key he had.
But Blair wasn't there. There was no sign that he'd been in his office that day. Jim moved about the room in a daze, gently handling Blair's books, his walkman, his pens, his lesson plans, the artifacts that cluttered every surface ... everything that Blair had touched. The whole place felt like him, smelled like him. Jim slumped into Blair's chair and stared about him, struggling to keep his balance, to think clearly. The memory of the first time he had been in this room came to him with sudden clarity: Blair bopping to his tribal music, Blair running off at the mouth with enthusiasm, Jim losing his temper and slamming the younger man against the wall....
Jim groaned softly and drew a hand across his eyes. God, didn't he ever learn? That was almost three years ago, and he was still the same selfish, impatient jerk with the hair-trigger temper that he'd always been. Blair had changed a little, though. He was ... a little sadder than he had been. Sadder because of the things he'd seen, the things his commitment to Jim had forced him to see. Jim would have given anything just then to give Blair back his innocence, his happiness.
But he couldn't. And when that boyish happiness had made one of its increasingly rare appearances several hours ago, Jim had ruthlessly cut it off at the knees. The memory of Blair's face at that moment was more than he could take.
"You bastard," Jim muttered to himself. "What a miserable little shit you are, Ellison."
Jim had lost that innocence in himself so long ago ... too soon for his own good, probably. He suddenly realized that it did him good to see it in his friend, to know it still existed somewhere. It counteracted the slow poison of constantly being exposed to the dark side of human nature, and tempered the cynicism that was the inevitable result of that exposure.
"That there were hurt places and crippled places and even dead places inside us that only they could heal. "
Jim caught his breath. Yes. That was true, too. Blair was good for him. Blair healed in a way that Jim found difficult to describe and impossible to define. Maybe it was because Blair made him talk rather than brood; God knows if Jim were left alone he'd pick over what bothered him like some dumb kid picking at a scab. Or maybe Blair's eclectic enthusiasm and energy were the transfusion he needed to resist becoming a hidebound, self-absorbed anal-retentive control freak like his old man. He only knew that since Blair had come into his life, life was a much less painful business than it had been.
Jim didn't want to think about how painful a business it would be if he lost him. He wouldn't lose him. He would find him. Somehow.... Jim's eyes fell to the clock on Blair's desk, and realized that almost three hours had passed since he'd left the station. Maybe Simon had found out something ... anything....
Jim reached for his cell phone out of habit, then realized that it was in his coat pocket. The coat that he was not wearing. Sighing, Jim seized Blair's phone and dialed Simon's number. Simon snatched it up on the first ring.
The stress levels in Simon's voice did not bode well.
"Simon, it's Jim."
"Ellison, where the hell have you been?" shouted Simon into the phone.
Jim winced and held the receiver away from his ear. "I...."
"Never mind! Have you found anything?"
"No," said Jim wearily. "Nothing."
"I want you back here now."
Jim's hearing picked up the sound of many voices in the background. Who the hell was that? The bullpen had been deserted when he left. "Simon, what's going on?"
"Our friend Jacobs is ... missing," replied Simon in a strained tone.
Jim bolted to his feet. "Missing? What the hell do you mean, missing? Are you telling me he wasn't locked up?"
"Of course he was locked up!" snapped Simon irritably. "That's the first thing they teach you in Captain School, Ellison. Lesson Number One: the bad guys get locked up. He was locked up, okay? He was in a cell, and the cell was locked."
"Then would you mind telling me how he got to be missing?"
"When I figure that out you'll be the first to know! The officer on duty outside the cells didn't see a damn thing. We're searching the building and I've issued an APB. I want you back here right now."
"Simon, if he has Blair somewhere ... if he's headed back there...."
"We don't know that he or anyone else has Blair!"
"I'm heading back to where he was picked up. If I spot him I'll call in."
"Ellison! You will report to me immediately and that is a direct ord-"
Jim slammed the receiver into the cradle and ran.
Jim slammed on the brakes and brought his truck to a screeching halt on the deserted corner of Johns and Longfellow, and, snatching the key from the ignition, threw himself out onto the pavement. He stood for a moment, breathless, and ruthlessly dialed up his senses as high as they would go.
Blair had to be near here, somewhere. He had to be.
But there was nothing. Nothing. Not a thing to be seen that wasn't dark and empty. Not a sound to be heard that wasn't silence, or water, or wind. Nothing.
Jim turned the corner and wandered uncertainly up Longfellow street, away from the water, his senses wide open and his mind groping desperately for his next step. He was vaguely aware that he didn't feel cold anymore.
There had to be something Jim could do. He was a soldier and a cop -- a cop with an edge -- and his partner was in trouble. He should be able to do something about it. Jim had saved dozens of lives in the past few years ... was it possible that the one life that had come to mean the most to him was beyond his ability to save?
No. No. No. It was not possible. If Jacobs had Blair at all, then it had to be nearby. Jim could do this. He could find Blair before Jacobs got to him. If he just had the time....
"We always think we have plenty of time, don't we, Jimbo? We're soldiers. We're tough. We're in control. But that's bullshit. We can't control the time we have."
Time. If he had just had more time with Blair. He'd wasted so much of the time he'd been given. If Jim had just used some of that time to tell Blair how much his friendship had meant to him the last couple of years, how grateful Jim was for his help. Five minutes was all it would have taken. God, if he could just have another five minutes....
Jim's thoughts wandered back to what his life had been like before Blair had come along to complicate it. The "order" that he had longed for so nostalgically a few hours ago now seemed barren and empty. He couldn't imagine wanting that life again. He wanted unpredictability, laughter, mess, and disorder, as long as it came in the form of Blair Sandburg.
"Don't let the Ellison temper rule you, boys! Don't let it come between you, or you might learn your lesson the way your great-grandfather did."
But Grandpa, it's not the same lesson.... Uncle John came back ... and Blair isn't going to. Blair's gone. Blair's dead.
Jim stopped dead in his tracks, an overwhelming sensory awareness yanking him abruptly out of his dazed musings. The smell. That damned stench of rotten....
Jim peered down the street in search of the source of that familiar reek, and caught his breath as he spotted Jacobs standing beside the well-lit basement entrance of a church a block and a half away. Jacobs nodded, smiling faintly, then turned and walked quickly down the steps and into the building.
Rage washed over Jim again, shattering the fragile emotional numbness that had engulfed him. Fine. If Blair was really dead.... Jim started walking.
If Blair was gone, then Jim would at least have the satisfaction of dealing with the man who had killed him ... of hunting the bastard down and choking the life out of him. And if that son of a bitch thought that either past friendship or holy ground would protect him from getting what he deserved, then he didn't know Jim Ellison very well after all.
Jim broke into a run. He ran full-out, barely feeling the icy wind against his skin and the taste of blood in his mouth. Even so, it seemed to take forever to cover the distance to the church door. He realized vaguely that he hadn't seen this church during his search earlier today. He must have wandered farther from the site of Jacobs' arrest than he had realized. Jim stumbled down the steps and through the half-open door, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the brilliant light.
He stood there, panting, dimly aware that his cold-numbed skin was stinging from the warmth. His olfactory sense was assaulted with scents, but this time they were pleasant. Food. Turkey. Potatoes. Apple pie.... He blinked again, slowly realizing that the huge church basement was crammed with people, all talking at once. Laughing. Eating. There had to be at least a hundred people seated elbow-to-elbow around a dozen or so tables, being served their food by a half-dozen rather hard-pressed men and women. Christmas music was playing somewhere. Jim realized that a lot of the people at the tables were shabbily dressed, and some were filthy. Probably homeless. Yeah, Virgil probably thought he could blend in here. And maybe he could have, if it were anybody but Jim looking for him. Hell, Virgil's smell alone would give him away.
But Jim couldn't smell him.
Jim scanned each face, walking the length of the room; grimly grateful that the diners were too busy eating and the servers too busy serving to take any notice of him. But Jacobs was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he had slipped through one of the doorways at the far end of the room. Jim turned and headed toward the closest doorway, then froze as an image ghosted past the corner of his eye. He heard a familiar laugh and a warm, teasing voice that seemed to rise above the babble of the crowd without being at all loud.
"Mrs. DuBois, I know you can eat more turkey than that. You ate twice that at Thanksgiving. Don't think I don't remember!"
Jim whirled, gasping, his gaze desperately sweeping the vicinity of that voice, and finally coming to rest on a young man with long, dark curls. Jim watched, grasping for comprehension, as the grinning young man pushed a plate full of food in front of an elderly black woman. The woman swatted his arm laughingly in protest, but accepted the plate and picked up her fork. The young man absently pushed his glasses further up his nose and lifted his head to look in Jim's direction.
"Blair," whispered Jim, unable to move.
"Jim?" Blair's eyes widened, and he squeezed between the tables, making his way towards him.
Virgil lied. He's alive.
"What are you doing here?" Blair came to a halt in front of him, looking up at him in annoyance. "Couldn't you even wait until I got home? Don't tell me, let me guess. My stuff's out in the truck, right?"
He's right here. He's all right.
Jim struggled to answer. He felt his mouth open, but no sound passed through his throat. He felt his eyes begin to sting, and his vision blurred slightly. He couldn't breathe.
Blair's annoyed expression wavered, then faded to confusion. "Jim?"
Jim groped for some coherent response, but found none.
The confusion in Blair's face turned to concern. "What is it? What's happened?"
"Blair...." Jim managed to choke out the name.
Blair's blue eyes darkened in alarm. He took Jim by the shoulders. "Jim? Come on, man, talk to me...."
Jim threw both arms around his friend's shoulders and hugged him tightly to him, burying his face in Blair's hair as the tears that had refused to come all night finally came. "Blair," he groaned brokenly, knowing he was making a complete fool of himself in front of a hundred strangers and not giving a damn. "Oh, God. Blair." He shut his eyes and held on for dear life, folding himself around the smaller man as if to fence out every human ill.
"Jim, what the hell...." gasped Blair in his ear, his arms circling Jim's waist. "Easy. It's ... it's okay."
Jim continued to cling to his friend, some part of himself aware that he was chanting Blair's name over and over again between hoarse sobs. He took a breath, drawing in Blair's familiar, cherished scent -- a scent strangely accented with evergreen and frankincense. He let his fingers stroke the curls, savoring the soft silk touch against his fingertips. The sound of Blair's quickening heartbeat sounded strongly and comfortingly in his ears. Jim pressed his lips to his friend's warm cheek, reveling in the faint taste of cranberry sauce that lingered there.
"God, you're half-frozen," came Blair's voice faintly, flatly, as if from some great distance.
Jim very slowly pulled away and stared through the distorting tears into deep blue eyes. So blue ... so deep ... you could get lost in those eyes....
"Jim? Jim? Oh, no, man, don't zone here ... stay with me, just stay with me...."
"Blair, we should call an ambulance."
"No! No, Beatrice, he'll be all right."
"Blair, I've seen petit mal seizures, and this isn't one. He's been like this for almost ... fifteen minutes now. And he's bordering on hypothermia. If he doesn't come to soon...."
"He will. I've always been able to talk him back before."
Scared. He's scared.
"Blair, you haven't told me everything, have you? This isn't...."
"Beatrice, could you give me a few minutes alone with him, please?"
He's desperate. He's in trouble. Blair?
Jim forced a word through his throat. "Blair...?"
"Jim?" Blair's voice came in a gasp. "Yeah, man, I'm right here."
Jim heard a door shut quietly nearby. He drew a deep breath and let it out, trying to remember the techniques Blair had taught him.
"That's it," said Blair in soft encouragement.
Jim slowly became aware of something soft and warm being tucked around him -- a blanket? -- and wondered vaguely why he couldn't see anything.
"Jim, open your eyes," said Blair a little shakily.
Oh. That's why he couldn't see anything. Jim opened his eyes with an effort, then looked around. He was sitting in an old overstuffed leather chair in the corner of a small office. The room was lit only by a dilapidated desk lamp, which lit the surface of the battered wooden desk at the other end of the room and little else. Blair was kneeling in front of him.
Even in the half-darkness, his friend's pale, disheveled appearance was clearly visible to Jim. Blair's glasses lay discarded on the floor beside him, and Jim wondered idly why Blair had taken them off. He searched his friend's face lovingly, every detail fascinating him. Slowly, every movement an effort, he reached out to touch Blair's hair, then stroke it gently.
"I thought you were dead," he whispered.
Blair's jaw dropped slightly. "What?"
"He said you were dead," said Jim dully. "He said he'd hurt you first. He said you died calling for me and I never came...."
"God, Jim, what the hell are you talking about?" Blair caught his hand and held it between both of his own. "Jim ... come on, man. Snap out of it. Are you with me?" The tremor in his voice grew more pronounced.
"Yeah," said Jim weakly. He shook his head, trying to dispel an overwhelming sense of disorientation. It was as if his brain were wrapped in cotton. "Yeah, I'm with you."
"Okay." Blair gently disengaged his hands and reached for something outside of Jim's range of vision ... something he would have had to take his eyes off Blair in order to see. Jim realized, as Blair moved it closer, that it was a mug of hot coffee. He smelled the rich scent of the coffee and felt the welcome heat radiating from the mug as Blair lifted it to his lips, but he ignored it, his eyes still locked on Blair.
"Come on, man, we have to get you warmed up."
"Warmed up," repeated Jim, struggling for comprehension.
"You're just this side of hypothermia. Drink it," said Blair more firmly.
"I need to tell you something," said Jim dazedly, ignoring the tempting mug hovering inches from his mouth. "It's important."
"You can tell me anything you want after you drink this," said Blair with a hint of exasperation in his voice.
"You'll stay?" persisted Jim stupidly, striving to hold at bay the irrational fear that Blair would disappear before his eyes as quickly as he had appeared.
Blair's eyes widened slightly, as if he were startled. "I'm not going anywhere, big guy," he said gently. "I'm here, okay? Now, please...."
Jim let his friend lift the cup to his mouth, then wrapped his cold hands over Blair's warm ones as he drank, shocked, now, at the depth of the comfort that physical contact brought him. It was several seconds before he even tasted the coffee or felt its warmth seeping through him. He paused to take a breath and Blair waited, making no effort to take the cup or his hands away. He met Jim's gaze and grinned wryly. Jim found a smile somewhere.
"It's ... good to see you, Chief."
Blair laughed softly. "You look like you've been having one hell of a night."
"You might say that," said Jim drily, his hands tightening slightly -- involuntarily -- around Blair's.
"Drink," said Blair softly.
Jim pulled the cup -- and Blair's hands -- closer, and finished the coffee. He had to force himself to let go as Blair took the empty cup away and set it on the floor beside him.
"Stay inside the blanket," said Blair, exasperated again as Jim tried to extricate one of his arms. He shoved Jim's arm back and yanked the blanket around him tightly. "Could I have a little cooperation here?"
"I need to talk to you," said Jim unevenly. "It's important. I need you to listen, Blair."
"Let me get you some more coffee first," said Blair hastily, his eyes sliding from Jim's. He picked up the cup.
"No!" gasped Jim a little wildly. He reached out and seized Blair's wrist tightly. "Don't go!"
Blair took a sharp breath. "Jim, that hurts," he said quietly.
Jim withdrew his hand instantly. "Sorry," he stammered. "Sorry, Chief. Look, I just.... So much has happened tonight. I really need to talk to you."
"Okay," said Blair in quiet resignation, putting the cup back on the floor. "What is it?"
Jim swallowed. "Look, about what I said ... I didn't mean...."
"Don't, Jim," said Blair in a strained voice. "You meant it. You may even be right. I shouldn't have...."
"I wasn't right! I lied. It was all a damned lie, every word," exploded Jim, unable to stand the look on his friend's face.
Blair looked up at him doubtfully. "Maybe we should get you to the emergency room."
"I don't need an emergency room! I'm just trying to apologize." Jim sneezed loudly.
"Jim Ellison apologize? That tears it," said Blair drily. "I'm calling 911."
Jim stared at the coffee mug, wondering bleakly if it was too late for apologies and explanations. How many times could you push someone away before they stopped caring?
Jim felt Blair's hand rest hesitantly on his arm. "Sorry, man," said Blair, so softly that even Jim could barely hear him. "I was only kidding. Apology accepted."
"You haven't heard the apology yet," said Jim, mildly exasperated.
"Don't need to. If it's got you this worked up it has to be a masterpiece," returned Blair laughingly.
"Jim, you don't need to say anything else. Believe me, I'm happy just knowing you don't want to throw me out."
"Throw you out...." Jim groaned inwardly, his words coming back to haunt him for what seemed like the hundredth time that night. God, had he really threatened to put this man out in the street on Christmas Eve? "Dammit, Chief, you don't understand. I have to say this. It's important. I need you to listen to this, Blair. Now."
Blair looked up at him oddly, then nodded and put his glasses on, as if somehow he could hear Jim better by doing so. "Shoot," he said seriously, looking Jim in the eye so intently that Jim cleared his throat in discomfort.
"Look ... I ... oh, shit."
"Good opening," observed Blair thoughtfully, adjusting his glasses on the bridge of his nose. "Concise, yet expressive."
"Sorry. I'm listening."
"I just want to say that nothing I said to you tonight was the truth. Okay? You're not ... underfoot. You're not ... in the way. You're ... I mean ... I mean, I'm a better cop because of you. Oh, hell, that's not what I mean."
"Look, just bear with me, okay? I'm not good at this."
"You don't have to...."
"I owe you a lot. And I've never thanked you. If it hadn't been for you, I'd be dead or crazy by now. But that's not what I mean either."
"Come on, man, calm down. You don't need to...."
"I guess I mean ... I mean that I need you. Not just as my Guide. If my senses went back to normal tomorrow, I'd still need you. Hell, probably more than ever. I don't know how it happened, Chief, but you've got to know that I depend on you for more than the Sentinel crap. You're all over the place ... everywhere in my life. That's what set me off. I've never let that happen before. I always handled everything myself. But you just.... I turned around and there you were, helping me. With everything. I fought it at first ... fought it like hell. I don't know when that changed. But all of a sudden I realized that I expected you to be there. I wanted you to be there ... needed you to be there. And that scared the hell out of me."
Jim addressed his last remarks rather desperately to the top of Blair's head. Blair seemed to be studying Jim's shoes with profound intensity; he neither looked up nor responded. Jim swallowed hard and forged ahead.
"You're not any of the things I said you were, all right? You're ... my partner. You're my best friend. You're family. You've got the best heart of any man I've ever known, and I'm a better man for having known you."
Jim paused, feeling flush-faced and frustrated. "Dammit, Sandburg, will you please say something?"
Blair was silent for a moment, then raised his face, sliding off his glasses as he did so. His face was wet, and he was smiling rather abashedly. "Ah ... no," he said a little huskily. "Don't think so. You stole all my best lines."
Jim watched dumbly as Blair wiped his face.
"Man, when you apologize, you don't fool around, do you? How do I top that?"
"Top it?" said Jim blankly.
"It's my turn, right? And what am I left with? Sorry, Jim, I should have asked before I put up the damn decorations? Sorry, Jim, I shouldn't have lost my temper? Geez, that's lame."
Jim tried to laugh, but only managed a rusty croak; his throat seemed unusually tight. "Chief...."
"What?" said Blair laughingly, putting his glasses back on. "I don't get equal time?"
"You don't have to...."
"Tell you that I'm a better man for knowing you? That you're my partner, my best friend, my family? That I need you?"
Jim felt the heat rising to his face again and found himself staring rather pointedly at that damned coffee cup again. His chest felt constricted and his vision was blurred. He heard a warm chuckle and had to force himself to look up.
"Yeah, that's what I thought," said Blair with his biggest grin, despite the new tears standing in his eyes. "The action hero can dish it out but he can't take it. Let's see if you've warmed up any." Blair laid his hand on Jim's forehead.
Jim sat wordlessly, overcome. How the hell did Blair do this? Talking about his feelings had always been difficult, if not impossible, for Jim. Hell, even admitting to himself that he had feelings was sometimes a problem for him. But Blair knew what he felt and just put it out there, and trusted the people around him to reciprocate. A guy could get hurt that way. But Blair knew that, Jim realized, as he watched Blair frown worriedly and draw the blanket around Jim more tightly. The bottom line was that Blair had guts.
"You're still cold. I should have gotten you that coffee. Hold on just a minute and I'll get you some, okay?" Blair let go of the blanket and snatched up the coffee cup.
"I don't need any more coffee, Chief," said Jim softly, knowing that he was lying, and that he was lying to keep Blair as close as possible. "I'll be all right in a minute."
Blair snorted as he got to his feet, looking down at him skeptically. "Uh-huh. For the record, tough guy, what the hell did you think you were doing? It's below freezing out there, and you're running around in a sweatshirt?"
Jim started laughing, unable to stop himself. It felt so damn good to see this man, hear this man fussing over him this way. No one else had ever had the nerve to try that. Not even Carolyn.
No. She did try. I stopped her. I never let her fuss over me. I've never let anyone fuss over me ... anyone except this damned smart-ass kid.
"What? What?" demanded Blair, waving the coffee cup dangerously. "There's something funny here? Hypothermia is funny?"
"Nothing's funny," laughed Jim helplessly, not even bothering to conceal his delight in watching his friend. "Nothing at all."
How does he do this to me? Hell, to everybody? It must be something like snake-charming. He's got an entire precinct of some of the toughest cops in the country wrapped around his little finger, for crying out loud. Even Simon ... oh, shit. Simon. He'll be climbing the walls....
Jim sobered abruptly. "Look, Chief, we'd better get going. We need to get to the station and get you your wallet."
Blair stared at him blankly for a moment, then shoved his free hand into his back jeans pocket. "My wallet's right...." He stopped as he found nothing, then began rifling his other pockets in alarm.
"Right in the evidence lock-up at the station," finished Jim gently. "Found it on a mugging suspect tonight. Simon's been worried sick about you, Chief."
"I didn't even notice it was missing," said Blair wonderingly. "How did he...?" Blair broke off and stared at Jim. "Does this have something to do with you thinking I was dead?"
Jim was prevented from answering by a knock on the door. Blair tore his gaze away from Jim and opened the door hastily. Jim recognized the elderly woman Blair had been serving when he entered the church. She was carrying a steaming mug of something, the scent of which Jim could not quite identify.
"Mrs. DuBois? What...?" began Blair in confusion.
"I hear your friend took a bad chill," said the old woman firmly, "and I have something that will fix him right up. Now, don't just stand there, child, introduce me."
"Oh ... yes ... uh ...." Blair looked from the woman to Jim helplessly, and Jim almost started laughing again. "Mrs. Esther DuBois, this is my friend, Jim Ellison. Jim, this is Mrs. DuBois."
"That's better," said Esther approvingly, entering with surprisingly brisk steps. "Now there's an old coat of my late husband's that I put in the donation box tonight. You run along and bring it here right away." She stopped at Jim's side and handed Jim the mug, then glanced over her shoulder at Blair, who was still standing at the door, obviously reluctant to leave.
"Did you hear me, young man?" Esther asked archly, with the air of someone accustomed to being obeyed.
"Yes, ma'am," said Blair hastily, edging toward the door.
"Then run along. I'm not so old that I can't handle one man at a time." Esther looked at Blair with raised eyebrows, daring him to construe her remark suggestively. Jim laughed softly as Blair's mouth fell open slightly.
"Ah ... I'll be right back." Blair gestured helplessly, grinned, and disappeared.
"It does you no good in the cup, 'friend' Jim Ellison," said Esther tartly. "Drink."
"Yes, ma'am," murmured Jim, tearing his eyes away from the door and lifting the mug to his mouth. "Do you ... mind if I ask what it is I'm drinking?"
"Something that's good for you," returned Esther sternly. "Drink!"
Jim sighed resignedly and lifted the cup to his lips. He took a whiff and grinned. Coffee, liberally laced with whiskey. "Thanks." He took a sip.
Oh, yeah, that warms you up all right.
"We're all very fond of Blair down here," said Esther firmly, planting herself in front of Jim with her arms folded across her chest. "He's a good boy, a truly kind soul."
"Yes, ma'am, he is," said Jim softly, looking up into her shrewd eyes in sudden understanding. This wasn't just a mission of mercy. This was a recon.
"We wouldn't take kindly to anyone hurting him," continued Esther, her dark eyes raking over Jim suspiciously.
"Neither would I," said Jim quietly.
"He was mighty low when he got here. He looked like he'd lost his last friend in the world."
Jim winced in spite of himself. "He hasn't lost anyone, Mrs. DuBois."
"Does he know that now?"
"Is he going to lose anybody?"
"Not if I have anything to say about it."
Esther studied him for a moment, looking him up and down so piercingly that Jim felt his skin begin to crawl. He quickly took another few sips of his drink. Damn, Simon ought to hire her to do interrogations. She'd scare the shit out of the most of the perps he'd ever run into.
"Are you going to take good care of that boy, Jim Ellison?" asked Esther in a soft voice that could almost be described as menacing.
Jim looked up to meet those fierce eyes, startled to recognize some part of himself there. "Yes, ma'am," he said instantly, without thinking. "I am."
"Here we go," said Blair cheerfully, bustling in with an armful of wool overcoat and his own jacket in his arms. "Hey, you look better. What's in that cup, Mrs. DuBois?"
"My grandmother's secret recipe, child." Esther's ferocity melted into motherly warmth at Blair's entrance. She turned and walked to the door, patting Blair's cheek as she passed him. "You take him home and put him to bed."
Blair's eyes widened and he looked at Jim, grinning ear to ear. "Ah.... Yes, ma'am."
Jim stared from Esther to Blair and back again, feeling nonplused and oddly pleased.
"And you remember your words to me, Jim Ellison." The old woman paused at the door with a piercing look in Jim's direction. "I certainly will. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, ma'am," said Jim respectfully, wondering how so much sheer menace could fit inside such a small woman. He fervently hoped she didn't own a firearm. "I'll remember."
Esther nodded and left the room, and Blair gave Jim a quizzical look. "So ... what was that about?"
Jim laughed softly as Blair came to stand in front of him. "The third degree. It looks like you've got yourself another Blessed Protector, Chief."
Blair assumed a pained expression. "Like I don't get into enough trouble with just one of you. What did she want to know?"
"I think she was making certain that my intentions were honorable," said Jim drily.
Blair's eyes widened slightly for a moment, then Jim was rewarded with the younger man's soft laughter. "Oh, man. You have had a rough night." Blair held out the coat, still smiling. "Come on, let's get you into this."
Jim shrugged off the blanket and stood up, then turned around and let Blair help him into the coat. Great folds of lined wool hung on Jim's ample frame; there was more coat than man to fill it. Jim stared at four inches of empty sleeve, shaking his head wonderingly, then turned to Blair. "I don't think I'd have wanted to meet Esther's husband in a dark alley. There's enough room in here for both of us."
Blair shook his head as Jim started rolling up the sleeves. "He was a cop, Jim."
"Oh. In that case, a dark alley's exactly where I'd like to meet him. Can you come to the station with me or are you still on duty here?"
"It's okay. Beatrice called in a couple extra volunteers."
"Then let's go see Simon before he turns out the whole force to look for us."
Blair started pulling on his jacket with a curious expression. "You are going to tell me what happened tonight, right?"
Jim paused on his way out the door, draping an arm about his friend's shoulders. "Chief, we've got two options. We could talk about it here, or we could talk about it in the truck. The advantage to talking about it in the truck is that Simon Banks might go slightly less postal if I produce a live Blair Sandburg sooner rather than later."
"Simon thinks I'm dead, too?" squeaked Blair, eyes wide.
"I think he's thought so all night, Chief."
"Race you to the truck," said Blair weakly.
"So ... he's out there now, looking for me?"
Blair's voice was a little unsteady and Jim gave him a sharp look as they came out of the elevator.
"He's out there. He's not going to find you," said Jim flatly, imagining with some satisfaction what he would do to Virgil Jacobs if he came within a mile of Blair.
"But why would he tell you he'd ... you know ... I mean, if you guys were friends, why?"
"Tell me, Chief, as a student of human psychology: should I be worried that I understood that question?"
Blair cast him his best long-suffering look, then ground to a halt. "Hey, I thought you said everybody had been called in."
Jim pulled his gaze from Blair for a moment. "What the hell?" The bullpen was dark and silent. The only light was from Simon's office. "Simon?"
"Ellison?" Simon immediately appeared at his door. "Where the hell have you been? When I order an officer to report he reports!" Simon's shout echoed off the walls.
Jim sensed Blair angling his way behind him and fought a grin as he hit the lights. "Sorry about that, sir. I had to pick someone up."
Simon blinked as the lights came up, then stared at Blair, who smiled nervously and waved. "Sandburg?"
"Hi, Simon. Uh ... Merry Christmas."
Simon strode through the bullpen toward Blair like a charging rhinoceros and Jim, knowing better than to get in his way, stepped aside with a grin.
Blair, clearly alarmed, backed away. "It wasn't my fault! I didn't know anything about it until...."
Simon threw his arms around Blair and pulled him into so massive a bear hug that Blair very nearly disappeared from view altogether. "Blair. Thank God."
Jim, still grinning, silently seconded the thanks, and filed away the scene for future needling. There'd be a hell of a lot of cigars in Simon's ashtray before he lived this one down.
Blair patted Simon's back awkwardly, looking taken aback ... and delighted. "Ummm, yeah, well, everything's okay now, Simon. Sorry I worried you."
"There's never a camera around when you need one," murmured Jim, deliberately audible.
Simon, glaring and bristling, immediately released Blair. "Where the hell have you been, Sandburg? Do you have any idea of the taxpayer expense in man hours that's been wasted tonight?"
"Bill me," said Jim drily. "He was at a church on Longfellow Street, serving Christmas dinner to the world."
Blair cleared his throat. "Just sort of ... working off my negative energy, you know?" He bounced nervously, watching Simon's reaction.
"I should have known," growled Simon. "We couldn't have the simple good fortune of having you really missing for awhile." He tousled Blair's hair affectionately.
Blair sighed resignedly and smoothed it down again.
"Simon, I spotted Jacobs going into the church," said Jim quietly, seeing that Simon was recovering his composure. "He must have left it immediately, but chances are he's still in the neighborhood. We should probably...."
"Jim." Simon's voice was somber, and Jim stopped in surprise. "You must have misidentified the man that was here. It wasn't Virgil Jacobs."
Jim stared at his captain, nonplused. "Simon, I knew the man for years. I know who I was talking to."
"Jim," said Simon in a strangely gentle voice, "Virgil Jacobs died two years ago."
Jim unconsciously took a step backward, feeling Blair put a hand on his arm. "That's not possible," he said incredulously. "There must be some mistake. Simon, I'm telling you I know that man!"
"He died of exposure two years ago tonight," said Simon softly. "They found him frozen to death on his wife's grave."
"Don't like the cologne, eh, Jimmy? You smell a lot of it where I've been lately."
Jim felt his stomach turn over. He felt cold again.
"Jim, is there any way you could have...?" began Blair.
"Chief, it was Virgil. He was my friend and my CO for seven years. There is no possible way I could mistake anyone else for him."
"Jim," began Simon, more firmly.
"Did you run the prints?"
Simon glared at him. "Let it go, Jim."
"Did you run the prints?" repeated Jim obstinately.
"Simon, have you figured out how he got out of his cell?" asked Blair very softly.
Simon assumed his most ferocious scowl. "Sandburg, if I understand where you're going with this, and I'm pretty sure I do, let me give you some advice. DON'T."
"The prints matched, didn't they?" Blair's tone was hushed. "It was Virgil."
Jim stared at him, unable to respond.
"Let me state categorically that under no circumstances was a deceased individual in custody in my station," snapped Simon. "It was a case of misidentification. But if you want to see the report...."
Simon disappeared into his office.
"The prints matched," said Jim wryly.
"He does official denial very well," observed Blair mildly. "I'm impressed. How soon do you think he'll be off to Washington?"
"Here," said Simon as he re-emerged with a folder in one hand and his coat in the other. He shoved the folder into Blair's hands. "Read it in good health. Enjoy. I shall leave you now. I am expected first thing Christmas morning, and if I start driving now I might just make it. No, no, Sandburg, don't feel guilty. I know you didn't mean to make my Christmas Eve hell on earth. I leave you with this parting thought. IT NEVER HAPPENED. Any of it. Understood, Detective?"
Jim nodded silently.
"Uh ... right, Simon. Never happened. Got it."
Simon smiled benignly. "Merry Christmas, gentlemen." He clamped a cigar between his teeth and strode off toward the elevators.
Jim and Blair stared at each other for a moment, then Blair cleared his throat.
"Can we get my wallet now?"
"Things just went to hell for him after his wife died," said Jim quietly, tossing the records he had just finished reading onto the coffee table among the re-heated remains of Christmas dinner. He turned to face Blair, who was seated next to him on the sofa. "His aide says he couldn't get past it. It just ate him up inside. He describes Jacobs' behavior as 'unstable'. Jacobs refused counseling. He started drinking heavily. Pretty soon he couldn't function as a soldier, let alone as an officer whose men's lives depended on him making good decisions. His superiors 'retired' him."
Blair sighed. "And then he really fell apart."
"Yeah. After that, I guess he felt he had nothing left to live for. He let it all crash. He lost his house and wound up on the streets. There are a few records in there from VA hospitals around the country where he would occasionally show up for treatment of some injury or other. But nobody knows for certain what his life was like after he started living on the street."
"I think we have a pretty good idea now," said Blair very quietly.
"I didn't know about any of this," Jim continued in a strained voice. "If I had known, I would have helped him."
"I know that, Jim. He knows it, too."
"Why didn't he come to me?"
"Because he didn't want help." Blair's voice was so low that only Jim could have heard it distinctly. "He wanted Elaine's forgiveness. That was something you couldn't give him, Jim. That was something nobody could give him."
"Looks like he was asking for it right until the end," said Jim bleakly, trying not to picture his friend slowly freezing to death in a deserted cemetery.
"He knows he has it now," said Blair gently.
Jim looked at his friend, startled. "You really think that?"
"Better. I believe it," replied Blair with a smile.
Jim felt his throat tighten, and hastily took another sip of his coffee. This day definitely ranked up there with the ten worst of his life. He was exhausted, and cold, and was beginning to suspect that he was in shock of some kind. He felt like hell.
And yet, somehow, he couldn't care less how bad he felt. Just hearing Blair groaning and tsking over the stone-cold sweet potatoes as he shoved them into the oven had been enough to make everything Jim had been through seem worthwhile; if he was coming down with pneumonia, so be it. He had gotten off easy ... thanks to Virgil.
Jim didn't entirely understand everything that had happened, but that didn't particularly bother him. He didn't understand a lot of things that had happened to him since his time in Peru. It was enough to accept it ... and to learn something from it. And he had learned this particular something, all right ... the hard way.
Well, God knows he'd been warned. Jim smiled faintly, remembering his grandfather's lectures. That old man would certainly have gotten a hell of a lot of satisfaction out of little Jimmy finally learning his lesson ... too bad he wasn't around to enjoy it.
That I know of, amended Jim silently.
He blinked into awareness as a brightly-colored package was thrust into his field of vision.
"Time for presents," announced Blair firmly.
Jim gave him a wry look, knowing perfectly well that Ma Sandburg was on yet another anti-brooding campaign, and took the package, setting down his coffee cup. Then he froze. Oh, shit. SHIT!
"Uh ... Blair. Look, I'm sorry, but I didn't get a chance to...." He stopped suddenly, inspiration striking -- for once and amazingly -- when it was most needed. "Wrap your present," Jim finished wonderingly.
"I'm shocked," said Blair drily. "Did you at least remember to scrape the price tag off?"
"No tags," said Jim softly, rising from the sofa. Setting his package on the sofa, he made his way up the stairs to his bedroom as quickly as his unsteady legs would allow. As he pulled open his sock drawer, his sensitive ears detected a single, perfectly-pitched chime. He smiled, pulled the handkerchief and its contents out of the drawer, and made his way downstairs again.
"Here you go, Chief. Merry Christmas." He put the little bundle into Blair's outstretched hand and sat down beside him.
Blair observed the wadded handkerchief for a moment, shook it gently, then sniffed it. Jim started laughing. "It won't bite, Chief."
"Just checking," said Blair with a grin, and gingerly unfolded the handkerchief. The last fold fell away, and the soft light of the candles on the coffee table caught the gleam of gold. Blair's eyes widened. "Jim...?"
"I know it's old-fashioned," began Jim hastily, fearing that perhaps inspiration wasn't all it cracked up to be. If Blair didn't like it....
"Jim, this is ... exquisite. It must be a hundred years old."
Jim sighed in relief.
Blair turned it over, then opened it. The chimes sounded sweetly, and with a delighted smile he began to read the inscription aloud. "Therefore be at peace henceforward, and as brothers live together. Welcome home." Blair's voice began to falter halfway through, and he was barely audible at the end. He stared at the watch, then lifted bright blue eyes to Jim in wonder.
"It was a gift from my great-grandfather to his brother," explained Jim softly. "My grandfather gave it to me when I was sixteen." Jim shifted, slightly uncomfortable, then continued in an apologetic tone. "There's ... um ... a story that goes with it. My grandfather said he depended on me to pass on the story with the watch."
"Considering what didn't happen tonight, I don't think it's a good idea to piss off your grandfather," Blair advised wryly. His voice was uneven. "You'd better tell me the story."
Jim cleared his throat in an odd mixture of relief and nervousness. "I wish my grandfather were here to tell it. He could really tell stories. I tell 'em like a cop."
"Like a cop is fine," said Blair with a faint smile.
Jim took a deep breath. "Okay. Well, my great-grandfather had a younger brother named John. He sort of brought him up, because their parents had died when the kids were really young. Now my great-grandfather was a real stickler for rules and the straight and narrow, and had one hell of a temper...."
"Genes," observed Blair succinctly, with a grin.
"Hold the smart-ass remarks until I'm through, okay?" growled Jim good-naturedly.
"Sorry. One hell of a temper, and...."
"And he came down on John pretty hard when he felt he wasn't living up to the Ellison standard. Well, one time he went too far, and said some things he shouldn't have ... things that maybe not even a brother could forgive." Jim's voice became strained and he paused.
Blair glanced down at the watch in his hands with a somber expression. "What happened?" he asked softly.
"John left. He packed his bags and left. By the time my great-grandfather realized what he'd done, John had enlisted in the Union army and was headed south."
Blair's eyes widened in surprise, but he said nothing.
"Well, my great-grandfather tried for months to find John. He knew he had enlisted, but he had no idea where he was or how to reach him. Over a year went by, the war ended, and still there was no word. It just about killed my great-grandfather. Despite all the bullshit he had put John through, the kid was everything to him. He just sort of ... fell apart. Couldn't work. Couldn't do anything. Just sat at home, brooding about what he'd done."
Blair sat very still, staring at the watch, listening intently.
Jim took a deep breath. "And then a man came to the house, saying that he was a friend of John's. He said that John was in a hospital in Washington. He and John had been prisoners together at Andersonville."
"Oh, God," muttered Blair, closing his eyes.
"Yeah, he was in pretty bad shape. But my great-grandfather came to life again. He went to Washington. He asked John to forgive him."
"And he did," said Blair with confidence.
"Yeah," said Jim quietly. "He did. And he came home again. The watch was a welcome home present." He paused for a moment, then continued, "The first couple of lines are from some old poem, but I can never remember which one."
Blair looked up in astonishment. "It's Longfellow, the Song of Hiawatha." His eyes were very bright as he recited. "'All your strength is in your union. All your danger is in discord; therefore be at peace henceforward, and as brothers live together.' You must be the only kid in the country that didn't have to memorize that thing in school."
"Just because it goes in doesn't mean it stays in, Chief," said Jim wryly. "It's always going to be tough to hang on to."
"The good stuff usually is," said Blair quietly.
Jim let his gaze fall to Blair's hands in grateful silence, realizing that his friend was not referring to poetry.
Blair ran his fingers reverently over the gold, then sighed softly. "Jim, this is ... beautiful, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate the gesture, but ... man, you can't give this to me. This is a family heirloom. You might want to give it to your kid someday...."
"What kid?" demanded Jim, slightly exasperated.
"Then you should give it to your brother."
Jim thought for a moment and then gently took the watch from Blair's hands. "Right. Good idea." He leaned forward and slipped the watch into Blair's shirt pocket.
Blair raised startled eyes to Jim's; they were filling with tears. He seemed unable to speak.
"Besides," added Jim gruffly, struggling against a tightening throat, "I've got a feeling my grandfather wants you to have it."
"You really think so?" quavered Blair uncertainly.
Jim smiled. "Better. I believe it."