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Jingle all the Way?

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Jingle all the way?

December 1st, Cascade WA:

He was in Hell. As a hardened detective in Cascade PD’s Major Crimes Unit, and a veteran of several years’ service in the military’s covert ops, Jim Ellison should know, and this was surely it. What with smells so powerful they made him gag, and lights so bright that his already watering eyes squinted miserably behind his wraparound shades, he didn’t need the extra torment of noises loud enough to send spikes of agony through his cringing brain as if someone had taken an ice pick to his skull.

Hell indeed, otherwise known as Cascade’s Grand Central Mall. At Christmastime.

If someone was insensitive enough to ask Jim to list his ten least favourite places to be, this would be right up top, even above amateur karaoke nights and the Cop of the Year Awards. Heck, he’d take a lone stakeout any day rather than suffer this torment, but he hadn’t been given the option, sad to say. He was here because he had been ordered to be, and in fairness, he couldn’t blame his boss and friend, Captain Simon Banks for not taking his excuses and complaints seriously, because he sure as hell didn’t understand them himself. But that didn’t mean that he had to acquiesce gracefully, not with the top of his skull about to blow off at any second.

The problem was that there had been a series of anonymous calls to the PD threatening various acts of disruption and mayhem for shoppers and businesses alike, all of whom were geared up to make the most of the festive season; the busiest time of the year. Threats ranging from simple power cuts to bomb scares couldn’t be ignored, even if the Mayor was determined that the mall should remain open in order to profit from the increased revenue. As far as he was concerned, the boost to the local economy couldn’t be put at risk which was the reason why he had tasked the PD to deploy more uniformed personnel to enhance the usual ‘rent-a-cop’ security guards’ presence. Unfortunately, he also insisted on sending in some of Simon’s people to go in undercover to carry out covert surveillance, particularly the recipient of last year’s Cop of the Year Award, one Detective Jim Ellison. His Honour was convinced that such precautions would be adequate enough to allow the general public to remain in more or less happy ignorance; continuing to shop as merrily and unrestrainedly as indeed they had been doing ever since Thanksgiving.

But as far as the suffering ‘Grinch’ Ellison was concerned, he wished that the whole place could be shut down for the duration and have done with it, loss of revenue notwithstanding. Who needed Christmas anyway?

As he fought a losing battle to concentrate on his surroundings, Jim was forced yet again to ponder on the onset of his peculiar symptoms, and the repercussions they were already having on his career as a cop and indeed on his very lifestyle. If he couldn’t come up with some real help, and fast, he thought morosely that both his job and his sanity were doomed. He might well wish for another lone stakeout rather than this purgatory, but it had already occurred to him that his strange ‘condition’ had actually manifested during his last such assignment. While taking part in an investigation to identify and arrest a serial bomber who called herself ‘The Switchman’, aka Veronica Sarris, his senses had suddenly become so acute that he had actually been incapacitated on occasion at the worst possible moments. The upshot was that although he did manage to take Sarris down when she had wired a tour bus to blow, he hadn’t been able to rescue all the passengers. He had been hailed as a hero, but felt nothing but guilt over those few he had been unable to save.

And since every medical doctor and shrink he had seen since then could find nothing wrong with him; barring a few snide suggestions that it might be some form of PTSD or even malingering; he was in despair.

And now he had to suffer this torture here at the mall. His life truly sucked.

As he winced from yet another painful spike caused by the overly-jovial ‘Ho, ho, ho-ing’ from yet another motion-activated animatronic Santa, he suddenly became aware of another sound which instantly seemed to sooth and calm the agony in his head. What the heck? For a few seconds, he simply rejoiced in the unexpected relief, but then he knew he had to locate and identify the source of his deliverance.

There! That voice! Jim turned to see a group of what looked like students approaching, and he easily picked out the owner of the siren tones.

The group laughed and joked, responding to the antics of one of their party who was presently entertaining them with his animated chatter. A young man was bouncing along, walking backwards at times in order to engage his friends better, his hands waving eloquently in counterpoint to his comments.

Fascinated by the sight, and captivated by the voice, if not the content of the young man’s cheerful exposition, Jim studied him intently, greedily absorbing every detail. He was several inches shorter than Jim’s buff, 6’2” physique at around 5’6” – 5’7”, his compact body encased in several layers of thrift shop chic. Facially, the kid was stunning. He had a wide, smooth brow, strong chin and neat nose, with well-defined, high cheekbones. Huge, blue eyes sparkled with intelligence and glee, and the full-lipped mouth just had to be one of the lushest Jim had seen in many a day on either man or woman.

And then there was the hair. Long, shining dark auburn curls fell to his shoulders, dancing in the festive lights, and Jim found himself picking out different shades in the individual strands. So many different shades. So very many he could almost lose himself in them…lose himself…LOST.

“Hey, Blair! Watch where you’re going!” Polly Swenson called out in warning as the young man bounced ahead, facing backwards once again.

Too late, the young man bumped into what felt like the proverbial immovable object, and he immediately swung around to apologise.

“Oh, hey, man, I’m sorry! My fault. Wasn’t looking where I was going…” he chuckled ruefully with a disarming grin, only to tail off in bemusement as he registered the total lack of animation in the tall figure with whom he had just collided.

“Uh, you OK, man?” he murmured, peering up into the handsome but expressionless face. There was no response, so he waved his hand in front of the wraparound-covered eyes.

“Is he blind or something?” Mike Travers muttered, nodding surreptitiously at the shades.

“Uh, I don’t think so,” his friend replied, wide brow wrinkling in thought as he contemplated the still figure.

“Epileptic?” Sammy Wylowski suggested brightly, yelping indignantly as Polly nudged him none-too-gently in the ribs with her elbow.

“Shhh!” she hissed. “He can probably hear you!”

“Actually, he probably can,” agreed Blair. “But right now I think I ought to try and help him. I think I know what’s the matter,” he added thoughtfully, a serious expression replacing the carefree one of moments before. “I’ll try and wake him up before we get too much of an audience!”

Reaching up, he patted the tall man’s face gently, gripping a powerful bicep in his other hand.

“Come on, Big Guy,” he crooned. “It’s OK to wake up, man. Listen to my voice--”

And that’s as far as he got before the bigger man galvanised into action, shoving Blair away from him so roughly that the young man ended up on his butt.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing, you neo-hippy witchdoctor punk!” hissed Jim venomously as he glared ferociously at his fallen saviour. How dare this kid manhandle him like that!

However, the reaction his fear-induced anger provoked wasn’t exactly what he might have expected. Even as the young man glared indignantly back at him, his friends exclaimed in accusatory accord.

“What the hell was that for, you Neanderthal thug?”

“He was only trying to help you, you ingrate!”

“What’s the matter with you, man? You some sort of sicko?”

The kid himself climbed to his feet, getting right up into Jim’s face as he growled, “Ease up, Joe Friday! You want to keep making like a statue, feel free, man! But if you want to understand what’s going on with you, let me know!” and he thrust a business card into Jim’s hand before turning away, his surprisingly wide shoulders stiff with affront.

Perplexed, Jim stared at the card, then at the group’s departing backs, shaking his head in confusion. What just happened there? He hated being out of control, and the realisation that he had been completely out of it for whoever knew how long was truly frightening. But even stranger was the fact that suddenly he felt so much better. His headache was gone and his hypersensitivity seemed to have levelled out.

And apparently it had something to do with that young man.

Removing his now unnecessary dark glasses, he looked at the card again, knowing that he was going to follow up on this lead, if for no other reason but to reassure himself that he wasn’t going mad after all. Blair Sandburg, M.A, huh? OK, then, Blair Sandburg. I’ll bite. But if you’re trying to get one over on me, you’re making a big mistake, punk! Harassing a cop could get you into real hot water, kiddo, however attractive you are.

--------------------------------

The following morning found Jim standing outside Hargrove Hall on Rainier University campus, eying the card clutched in his hand with some misgiving. He had asked his boss if he could report for duty at the mall a little later, saying that he wanted to take a couple hours’ personal time in order to look into another possible treatment for his ‘condition’. And if Simon believed that his subordinate’s vague explanation implied that it was through another regular medical procedure, Jim didn’t disabuse him of the notion. He was probably wasting his time anyway, but recalling how comfortable he had felt immediately after coming into literal contact with this Sandburg character, he knew he wouldn’t rest until he found out more about the compelling young man.

Entering the building, he eventually found himself standing outside a door labelled ‘Artefact Storage Room 3’, with a hand-written card taped beneath proclaiming Sandburg’s presence. Even more suspicious now, Jim nevertheless rapped on the door, entering on the cheerful invitation coming from within.

The room in which he stood was a cluttered area, the space not actually used for storage having plainly been converted into a makeshift office. Piles of papers, books and artefacts covered every flat surface, including a lot of the available floor space, and the OCD-afflicted Jim winced internally at the mess. However, he was soon distracted by the room’s occupant, who was beaming at him, plainly pleased to see him.

Today, Sandburg was wearing well-worn jeans ripped at the knees, hiking boots, and a billowing white shirt underneath a brightly coloured vest, and he looked mouth-watering. Mentally admonishing himself for his instinctive reaction as his libido sat up and took notice, Jim frowned instead, trying to maintain his cool.

“I should introduce myself, Mr Sandburg,” he began formally. “I’m Detective Jim Ellison, from Cascade PD’s Major Crimes Unit. And I want to know just what you meant when you accosted me at the mall yesterday!”

Sandburg’s eyebrows rose in astonishment, and his lips rounded in an ‘Oh’ of surprise before he frowned in response. “Uh, it wasn’t me who did the ‘accosting’, Detective, if I remember rightly,” he snipped. “You were making like a statue, so I decided to help you. And I did. So you’re welcome!” he added sarcastically.

Jim had the decency to feel a little abashed at that, knowing that the young man was entitled to be miffed.

“OK, Mr Sandburg, I guess I deserved that,” he replied reluctantly. “But I really do want to know what you think you know about me. So here I am.”

Good nature instantly restored, Blair cleared off a seat and offered it to Jim. “Well, OK, man. Here, take a load off! So, first of all, I should tell you that I’m ABD in anthropology, and you just might be the embodiment of my dissertation topic. Let me explain.…”

--------------------------------

Some time later, Jim sat stunned, his mind reeling with facts and figures pertaining to gifted individuals that Sandburg referred to as ‘Sentinels’, one of which Jim apparently was. As far as he was concerned, the whole concept sounded like something out of a bad sci-fi script, except for the fact that he could identify with the young man’s enthusiastic description of himself and his newly-awakened ability.

Eventually, he was able to respond coherently, but he could tell instantly that Sandburg was disappointed with his negative reaction.

“Look, Chief, uh, Mr Sandburg. This is all very well, but it’s of no interest to me. All I want to know is how to turn the damned senses off! I was a good cop before, and want to be again, without all this sensory nonsense getting in my way. So how do I do that?”

“Uh, I don’t think you can, Detective. Can I call you Jim?” he added hopefully, and at Jim’s nod of assent he continued. “OK, then, Jim – and please call me Blair if you want, man. So this is how I think it goes. Like I said, tribal sentinels take themselves off into the jungle alone in order to stimulate their latent senses, which are a completely natural genetic variation, I might add. You say you were on a lone stakeout when your senses kicked in, right? So now you’re online, so to speak. But even if you can turn them off, I don’t know how you’d do it. But I can help you to control them, if that’s what you want, Jim. What do you say?”

“Well, sure, I guess. I mean, I can’t risk having one of those ‘zone’ things in the middle of a fire fight, even if I was what you called me. A ‘walking crime lab with organic surveillance equipment’, wasn’t it? I can’t put people in danger, either my colleagues or innocent bystanders by taking a trip to la-la land!”

Now it was Blair’s turn to blush shyly. “Um, well, as to that, Jim, perhaps I should mention that all tribal sentinels have a companion. A partner if you will, to watch their backs and make sure that they don’t zone when using the senses.”

“And you think that you could do the job, huh, Chief?” Jim queried sardonically.

Blair perked up immediately. “Well, sure, Jim. Thanks for the offer!”

Shaking his head in exasperation, Jim muttered, “Now why am I not surprised? But what do you get out of it, Sandburg? A warm and fuzzy glow of satisfaction?”

“That, for sure, Jim. But what I really want is to write about you. You’re my Holy Grail, man! What do you say?”

And much as he hated to admit it, Jim knew that he had no choice. If he wanted help, he was going to have to agree to Sandburg’s terms, and he knew it. Sighing in resignation, he said, “OK, Chief. You win. So, can you start today? Because I have to go back to the mall, and I don’t think I can cope on my own right now.”

Blair’s smile outshone the sun as he nodded enthusiastically. “Sure, Jim. No time like the present! Let’s go!”

-------------------------------

Several days later, Cascade Grand Central Mall:

Strolling nonchalantly around his designated patrol area, Jim tilted his head on one side in an unconscious listening pose. His lips lifted slightly as he made out the muttered comments-to-self that indicated the approach of his new friend, surprised once again at how his own spirits rose at the thought that Sandburg would soon be with him again, chattering incessantly, but always entertaining even as his very presence soothed the unwilling sentinel’s ‘savage breast’. Over the last few days, Sandburg had been as good as his word, and as soon as he was done with his teaching responsibilities at Rainier, had joined Jim at the mall, working with him to help him practice both controlling and exploring the range of his senses. By its very nature, the mall’s environment provided an extremely testing and steep learning curve, such that Jim felt as if he was undergoing a real crash course in learning to live with his hypersensitivity, but Sandburg’s quick mind and enthusiasm at least made the experience bearable. He grinned to himself as he considered one of the young man’s suggestions, grateful that Sandburg was apparently able to pull such ideas out of thin air. He had come up with the idea that Jim should think of the senses as a series of dials, as on an old fashioned radio, turning them up and down at will in his imagination. And damned if it hadn’t worked, despite Jim’s initial scepticism, such that he was able to dial down and hold his sensitivity at a tolerable level for much of the time.

Of course, he knew that he needed a whole lot more practice, and it was only too easy to let the dials slip when he was getting tired – and particularly once he was alone again – but all in all he was beginning to feel that at least he wasn’t looking at a rubber room in the local nut house just yet. And just maybe, with Sandburg’s help, he would be able to go beyond simply controlling the senses to actually using them to ‘benefit the tribe’, as Sandburg put it.

And wouldn’t Simon Banks be pleased with that, Jim thought wryly. Not that he had made any mention of his working with Sandburg yet. He knew very well that his prosaic boss and friend wouldn’t take kindly to such an arcane concept, and he himself hoped that he would soon be able to work alone again without needing to mention Sandburg’s input.

Then again, the thought of parting company with the ebullient and extremely attractive young man made him frown, disconcerted by the sudden realisation that Sandburg had already made such an impression on him. ‘Lone wolf’ Ellison had finally succumbed to a desire for company. Who knew?

Just then, Blair’s arrival at his side pushed away such unsettling notions, and he couldn’t help but grin down into the wide blue eyes gazing up at him with no little glow of admiration.

“Hey, Chief, you OK?” he asked, belatedly noticing the uncharacteristic lack of bounce in the young man’s demeanour. “Something up at school?”

“Uh, no, Jim. Nothing like that,” Blair replied, trying to grin unconcernedly and failing miserably, his mobile features betraying his every emotion to sentinel scrutiny despite his normally impressive acting ability. “Nothing to concern yourself about, Big Guy. So, how’s it going today? Are the dials holding?”

Jim recognised the automatic attempt at distraction for what it was, and for once wasn’t about to be diverted. It might have worked for most of Blair’s acquaintance, but not for the sentinel, who was becoming more protective towards the smaller man than he would ever have believed.

“Holding up just fine, Chief, but what about you? And don’t try and change the subject. Something’s up, so let me help?”

Big blue eyes regarded him quizzically for a moment; the young man plainly trying to make up his mind whether to ‘fess up or not. Finally, he sighed in resignation, and grinned lop-sidedly up into the handsome face above him. “OK, man. Look, do you have time for a coffee? It’ll be easier to talk there, and you should still be able to keep an eye out for trouble.”

Jim nodded agreeably, and, taking his smaller companion’s arm, steered him over towards the nearest Starbucks. Once seated, with Jim sipping a regular filter coffee while Blair nursed some sort of Grande-mocha-latte concoction, Blair sighed dispiritedly as he began.

“Honestly, Jim, it’s nothing you can do anything about, so you don’t really need to know this. But if you insist, well, it’s just that I’m having trouble trying to find somewhere new to live. It’s the wrong time of year to be looking for new accommodation, but I have to do it if I can. See, I’ve been rooming with a couple of friends – fellow TAs – and now they’re an item. It’s not that they’ve hinted that I get out, as such, because they’re good guys, but I feel like a fifth wheel now. The place is too small to allow them the sort of privacy they deserve, so I’m trying to find somewhere to go to get out of their hair. Let them have the festive season to themselves, know what I mean? That’s all, man,” and he offered Jim a shrug and a rueful grin.

Toying with his coffee mug, Jim frowned as he met Blair’s apologetic gaze. And surprised the hell out of himself when he heard himself say, “I have a spare room, Chief. You could always come and stay with me until you find somewhere else. It’d help me too, because we can work together on the senses more easily and in comfort….”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he wondered what the heck he’d let himself in for, but the expression on Sandburg’s face instantly dispelled any feelings of regret.

“Oh, man! Do you mean it?” Blair breathed in awe and hope. “That’s over and above, Jim! I really appreciate it, man! If you’re really sure, I’d love to move in for a few days. But I’ll try and be out of your hair in a week or so, tops. Thank you so much!”

Jim grimaced wryly, uncomfortable with the open adulation. “De nada, Chief,” he muttered awkwardly, before resuming his game face. “So, you ready to get back to work?” and at Blair’s enthusiastic nod, they resumed their patrol, Blair’s normal bounce restored.

------------------------

Following evening, #307, 852 Prospect:

Jim finished making up the futon bed in his small spare room under the stairs, having removed all his exercise gear to the basement storage area. Frowning in consternation as he surveyed his handiwork, he asked himself yet again what had gotten into him to offer a bed to a scruffy grad student he’d known for little more than a week. It was completely against his nature to share his jealously-guarded private space, and he simply couldn’t understand where the notion had come from. He knew only too well that he wasn’t cut out for committed relationships; hell, his one and only attempt at one had ended in disaster, and he still didn’t know why he had bothered. He had wooed and wed Lt Carolyn Plummer, former head of Forensics at the PD, and almost from day one they both knew it was a huge mistake. He simply couldn’t give her what she needed, so after a mere eighteen months, they parted company in mutual relief, and he had hugged his solitude to him ever since.

He just couldn’t understand it, but it was too late now. He could already hear his soon-to-be new roomie entering the building, and despite his misgivings, his senses immediately latched onto the approaching presence with palpable relief. So perhaps that was it. The sentinel needed his partner close; for a while at least; so that’s how it would be.

And perhaps it wouldn’t be as onerous as he anticipated to have some company for a change? He could but hope, anyway.

Opening the door at Blair’s knock, Jim couldn’t help but return the younger man’s happy smile. Sandburg stepped over the threshold, looking about him in unfeigned interest as he took in his surroundings.

“Wow, Jim! Great apartment! Really spacious, and I’ll bet you have a great view from the balcony, huh? Just right for looking over your territory, man!” he chuckled knowingly. “And it’s pristine, man! Guess that’ll be a sentinel thing too!”

What he didn’t say was that he thought it also looked soulless and Spartan, but he had no intention of offending his host by making such an observation. It wasn’t his business after all, although he truly wished that eventually it could be.

“So, Jim, where would you like me to put my stuff?” and he hefted the backpack and duffel in his hands.

Jim grinned as he replied, “You don’t have much, Chief, but what you do have you can put in here,” he said, walking over to indicate the spare room. “It’s pretty basic, but I think the bed’s reasonably comfortable. And once you’re settled, I’ll give you the Grand Tour, OK?”

“It’s great, Jim, honest! And I packed most of my stuff and took it to my office at the U, man. I don’t really have much anyhow, because Mom and me always travelled light, but since I won’t be staying long, it seemed silly to unload it on you. I have all I need for now.”

“Fair enough, Chief. So, go ahead and stow your stuff, and I’ll order in. Pizza OK?”

“You bet, Jim! And it’s on me,” came the cheerful reply.

---------------------------------

December 10th, Cascade Mall:

Once again Jim was to be found wandering around the mall awaiting the arrival of his friend and now temporary roomie. The deep frown line between his brows indicated his discontent, but it wasn’t because of anything Sandburg had done. He was just so fed up with this incessant surveillance routine, as were his colleagues, and he dearly wished that it would soon end one way or another. His own case-load was piling up, and since there had been no sign whatsoever to indicate that the calls had been anything but an elaborate hoax, he needed to get back to what he considered his proper job. And he knew very well that Simon Banks was getting near his wits’ end with the constant drain on his unit’s manpower.

On the other hand, he found himself smiling reluctantly when his thoughts turned to his unofficial partner. Sandburg was every bit as untidy and noisy as Jim had feared, but rather than resenting it, or regretting his offer of a bed, Jim discovered that he actually liked having someone in his space, even if only for a few days. True, he had expected to be kept awake by the unaccustomed rustlings and mutterings coming from the small room below the stairs, but instead he found that his senses were lulled by the sounds, and he had slept better than he had for a long time. Not only that, but Sandburg had proved to be a good cook, even if he did nag Jim about his less-than-healthy food choices. Likewise, he had already made some changes and come up with a lot of good suggestions about utilising more sentinel-friendly alternative cleaning products and toiletries such that Jim felt more physically comfortable now than he had in many weeks ever since the senses came online. And kicking back in the evenings with a beer was surprisingly comfortable and enjoyable for both men. They discovered they had far more in common than their very different appearances and backgrounds might suggest, and the fact that Jim could truly relax in his young roomie’s presence was a huge relief.

Then again, although he talked a blue streak, and entertained Jim with endless anecdotes about his travels and studies, Jim realised that Blair actually revealed very little about himself, almost as if he was guarding himself against getting too comfortable against the time when he would have to move on. Nevertheless, since Jim had deliberately refused to make assumptions about how long he would need Sandburg’s help and support, he simply decided to play it by ear and let the chips fall where they may.

Having said that, he knew he was going to have to come clean and explain everything to Simon very soon. It would hardly have gone unnoticed that he interacted with the same young man at some point every day at the mall, even if his colleagues might assume that Sandburg was some sort of snitch that Jim was using to gather information. Likewise, the fact that he had taken on a new roommate couldn’t remain hidden for much longer either. It was simply that the thought of exposing himself to potential ridicule and disbelief was galling to such a proud and private man, and he didn’t relish the thought of Blair being exposed to similar disdain either. But it had to be done, so he decided that he’d reveal all to his captain when he checked in to Major Crimes the following day, and he just hoped that Blair would agree to accompany him.

He was so deep in thought that for once he didn’t register his friend’s approach until the already much-loved voice spoke up beside him.

“Hey, man, penny for them? You OK, Jim?”

Grinning somewhat sheepishly into the mischievous blue gaze studying him so intently, Jim replied, “Not worth that much, really, Chief. Just wool-gathering. But there is something I need to ask you. I’m thinking it’s about time I explained everything to my boss, and sooner rather than later now. Would you be able to accompany me to the PD tomorrow morning before my shift here?”

“No problem Big Guy!” came the instant response. “I’m free until lunchtime, and he’s going to have to know all about it even if you’d prefer to keep your gifts to yourself for the moment as far as your colleagues are concerned. And when he knows the truth, perhaps we can come up with some reason for me to ride with you?” he added hopefully. “Uh, I mean, I don’t want to impose on your goodwill any longer than necessary, Jim, but I think we’ll need more than just this stint at the mall to really get you up and running as far as your job is concerned…” and he tailed off a little nervously, thinking that perhaps he’d overstepped the mark.

Luckily, Jim didn’t see it that way at all, and was only too pleased to agree. “Sounds good to me, Chief. So, what’s the plan for today’s training session? Do you intend to expose me to another fragrance store?” and he shuddered dramatically at the words.

Chuckling happily now, Blair said, “Nah, not today, Jim. That would be too cruel and unusual! But how about practising isolating and cataloguing different sounds? You never know, you might pick up something unexpected!” and in harmony once again, they began their by now all-too-familiar routine patrol.

-------------------------------------

They were on the second circuit of today’s designated area when it happened, and Jim suddenly halted in his tracks. He had been practising isolating and discarding various sounds, with Blair’s grounding support, ineffably gratified to find that he could satisfactorily tune out and ignore the unrelenting festive muzak which had been such a torment to him. And as he gazed admiringly up into the sentinel’s beatifically smiling face, Blair couldn’t help but feel a surge of pride and affection touched with melancholy, because he was certain that this wonderful situation couldn’t last. As soon as Jim didn’t need him anymore, he knew he’d have to leave. It was always the same, and he just hoped that he would time it as well as he usually did, and get out of Dodge before he was asked to go. But he also knew that he would treasure every moment he had spent with Jim, the sentinel of his dreams. He would never let on to his friend, for fear of driving him away prematurely, but the attraction he felt for the buff and handsome cop went beyond anything he had ever felt before.

Suddenly, Jim’s smile vanished, to be replaced by a frown of confusion. Instantly concerned, Blair gently grasped the bigger man’s forearm to ground him.

“What’s up, Jim?” Blair murmured almost sotto voce, aware that Jim must have his hearing dialled up. “Do you hear something out of place?”

Jim paused for a moment, and then turned to meet Blair’s worried gaze. “Yeah, Chief. I do. I can hear a very faint ticking coming from that big animated Santa in the middle of the atrium. It wasn’t there before, even masked by that blasted ‘ho, ho ho-ing’, I’m sure of it!”

Doing their best to look nonchalant, the pair eased their way between the strolling groups of oblivious shoppers, making their way over to the large central display. Once beside the Santa centrepiece, Jim stopped again, Blair surreptitiously rubbing tiny circles at the small of his back while he isolated the sound again, discarding the normal mechanical whirring and irritating electronic laughter that were part of the machine.

And there it was. A low, steady ticking such as he’d heard before, too many times. Quickly dialling back his hearing, he grasped Blair’s arm urgently.

“We’ve got to clear the area, Chief. A.s.a.p!” he hissed. “I’m certain that there’s a bomb inside that Santa, and what I could hear was the timer. And I can smell C4 also now. Take my cell and call the PD, OK? Ask for Simon Banks, and tell him what I said. And tell him to get the Bomb Squad here stat!”

Blair didn’t question him, and did as he was bid, while Jim set about clearing everyone out, which he did by using the simple expedient of smashing the glass and pressing the nearest Fire Alarm button. It was crude, but effective, and he was soon ushering folks towards the nearest exits even as he prepared to wait for the Bomb Squad’s arrival; other official security personnel working unquestioningly and efficiently to empty the whole complex.

Blair popped up beside him again, holding out the cell phone. “Captain Banks wants to speak to you, Jim!” he said urgently. “He wants you to confirm what I said!”

Jim nodded irritably as he grabbed the phone. He didn’t even bother with identifying himself, simply barking, “It’s true, sir! I’ve set off the fire alarm to get everyone out, and I need Joel and his crew here now! I’ve no idea how long we’ve got, but I’m just about to look inside the Santa. And yes, I’ll be careful!”

To his credit, Simon didn’t quibble. “OK, Jim! But no heroics, my friend! Don’t even think about trying to disarm it yourself! Joel’s on his way!”

Jim terminated the call, and turned to look at Blair. “OK, Chief, out you go!” he said, pushing the smaller man firmly but gently away from him. “Get yourself away from here to a safe distance, OK? I’m staying here for now to make sure no one comes back in.”

Even after so short an acquaintance, he should have known that the feisty young man intended to do no such thing. Broad forehead creasing in a petulant frown, he snapped, “No way, Jim! I’m staying! You need me!”

Jim glared threateningly at him, only to be met with an obdurate stare. “Fine!” he growled after a moment. “Have it your own way!”

Immediately Blair grinned back. “OK, then, Big Guy, how do you want to play this?” And with a resigned sigh, Jim surrendered to the inevitable.

“I’m going to open the Santa and take a look inside, Chief. I want to see how long we have before it blows.”

Not looking quite so happy now, but determined to hang in there anyway, Blair swallowed hard before saying, “OK, Jim. Tell me what you want me to do.”

“Just keep touching me and talking to me, OK, Chief? I’m guessing that sight and touch’re going to be the senses I’ll need most, so just don’t let me zone, huh?”

“You got it,” Blair murmured, and as Jim carefully opened the control panel beneath Santa’s costume, he began to mutter soothing nonsense words, his warm palm pressing lightly against Jim’s back. However, he jumped in alarm as Jim recoiled almost immediately.

“We’ve got less than five minutes, Chief,” he grated, “Now will you get out?”

“Not unless you do, Jim!” Blair snipped back. “You’re going to try and deactivate it aren’t you?”

Shaking his head in rueful admiration despite his irritation at his young friend’s obstinacy, Jim turned away again.

“OK, then, Blair. Let’s do this!”

Incidentally realising that for once Jim had used his given name, Blair grinned weakly as he prepared once again to ground his sentinel.

Concentrating as hard as he could, and using every bit of his previous covert ops experience, Jim used touch and sight to isolate what he believed were the wires he needed to disconnect to disable the device. He dialled down scent so as not to be overcome by the smell of the C4 packed into the model’s base, and delicately explored the device for booby traps. Finding none, and praying that it wasn’t more complex that it appeared, he gently took hold of the appropriate wire, and with less than two minutes to go according to the LED display, he pulled it out.

And nothing happened. The timer stopped, and the silence was almost deafening until he heard Blair slump to the floor behind him. Withdrawing from the innards of the now inactive model, Jim looked worriedly down at his young friend, who was now trembling in reaction.

“Oh, man! That was too much!” Blair gasped, an hysterical giggle escaping as he gazed up at Jim with pure adoration. “You were amazing, Jim! Absolutely amazing! Didn’t I say how awesome you could be if you use the senses for the good of the tribe?”

Pulling Blair to his feet, Jim grinned down into the beautiful, smiling eyes. “That you did, Chief. But it was only possible because of you, partner. Trust me on that!” and he pulled the smaller man to him to hug the stuffing out of him, not even stopping when Joel and his team arrived on the scene. They had done it. The fully-fledged sentinel and the man who had guided him with unstinting selflessness throughout his emergence.

Yeah, he thought. Sentinel and Guide. That’s us!

----------------------------------------

Christmas Eve, 852 Prospect:

A weary Jim Ellison entered his building having finished a gruelling shift, but for all that, he was feeling quietly content. Just for once, this year he had pulled rank and gotten Christmas Day off, and the reason for this change of heart was presently pottering around up in the loft, singing along to festive songs, and Jim realised that Blair’s voice was good. Reaching out with his hearing, Jim smiled smugly as he climbed the stairs, foregoing the dubious appeal of the ancient elevator, at least partly because he wanted to savour and prolong the delicious anticipation of greeting his guide and now lover.

As he climbed, he allowed his thoughts to wander, recalling the events that had led up to their present cosy relationship, grateful beyond belief for what he considered to be his extreme good fortune.

In the aftermath of the bomb scare at the mall, Jim had once more been hailed as a hero, but this time he had insisted on making sure that Blair got his fair share of recognition. He had taken the opportunity to come clean to Simon about the senses and the vital role Blair played in controlling and understanding them. Using a combination of a few practical demonstrations, plus a compelling explanation by Blair, they had succeeded in convincing Jim’s boss of the veracity of their claim despite his initial scepticism. As a result, between them they had decided to provide Blair with a temporary 90 day observer’s pass so he could ride with Jim; ostensibly for the purpose of gathering data for his dissertation as far as the rest of the PD was concerned; after which they would play it by ear, although Jim was secretly determined that Blair would stay with him permanently in some form or other as long as the young man was willing.

His smile grew wider as he remembered that night, when two exhausted but still emotionally hyped men finally staggered into the loft. Few words were uttered, but their expressions and actions had spoken for them. Within moments, Blair had thrown himself into Jim’s open arms, and the pair had kissed for the first time, Jim instantly addicted to the sweetness of his guide and soon-to-be-lover. Even with the benefit of sentinel hindsight, he still couldn’t recall in exact detail how they had made it up the stairs to his bedroom, so wrapped up had he been in the feel and taste of his mate. All he knew was that unwanted clothing had been shed on the way as they continued to kiss and touch each other with growing urgency, but when they had finally fallen on the big bed in a tangle of limbs, there was no need for words anyway. As their passion grew, they were carried away on a wave of shared lust and love, and when Jim took his young guide for the first time, he knew that this was it for him. And when Blair had recovered enough to speak, he had confirmed that the feeling was entirely mutual, promising that he would commit himself to Jim the man and the sentinel for as long as he was wanted. Humbled by the younger man’s sincerity, and so grateful for the gift of Blair’s love, Jim had assured him that it would be for life, and he meant it, every word.

And so Blair was now a permanent resident in the loft, the apartment now a real home as far as both men were concerned, and Jim had never been more contented in his life.

Their happiness was also augmented by the successful arrest and indictment of the bomber, betrayed by a carelessly-left fingerprint on the underside of the timer display and spotted by sentinel eyesight, incidentally providing Simon with even more reason to believe that his new ‘team’ was going to be one to be reckoned with.

Approaching the door to #307, Jim slowed his steps even further in order to really appreciate the sounds and scents coming from within. His sense of smell told him that Blair had been decorating the loft, but the scents weren’t oppressive, at least from out here. And Blair was apparently pottering around in the kitchen, still singing along merrily, and suddenly Jim could wait no longer. Easing the door open, he stealthily entered the loft, taking a few moments to absorb the sights, scents and sounds that greeted him.

Blair had indeed been decorating, but the decorations were muted and natural rather than garish, the delicately scented candles and fresh greenery eminently suited to sentinel sensitivity. Not only that, but the carefully laid table and delicious aromas coming from the kitchen told him that Blair was going all out to prepare a wonderful dinner for them both, and Jim felt a surge of affection and gratitude for his lover’s thoughtfulness.

As for Blair himself, the young man was dressed in his most comfortable, well-worn jeans and an over-large sweatshirt of Jim’s, his curls pulled back in a loose ponytail at his nape. And as far as his doting sentinel was concerned, he looked good enough to eat.

Suddenly, however, the music changed, and Blair began to sing along again. ‘Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way…’ and that was too much. Growling softly, Jim stepped forward, intending to quiet his lover. He recalled only too well that that particular song had been playing through the mall’s despised sound system while he had been defusing that bomb, and he had always hated it anyway.

As Blair swung around to greet him, suddenly aware of his big lover’s presence, his eyes widened comically as an admonishing finger pressed against his lips. Eyebrows lifting quizzically, he cocked his head to one side when a frowning Jim murmured, “Not that one, babe! Anything but that one! I hate that tune!”

Blair regarded him silently for a moment, then the penny dropped, and he smiled serenely behind Jim’s finger, his lush lips deliberately brushing sensitive skin. Reaching up, he pulled Jim’s head down as he whispered seductively, “No problem, lover. I understand! Merry Christmas, Jim,” and he raised his face for a kiss.

Which of course Jim had no intention of denying him. Taking the luscious mouth in a deep and loving kiss, Jim pulled his lover close, feeling Blair reciprocate with unfeigned enthusiasm. This was how it was meant to be. Sentinel and guide, committed and in love.

Forever.

The End

Merry Christmas, Snycock, from your Secret Santa. :-)