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Enter Through The Heart

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“A missing persons case.” Jim couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “On Christmas.”

Simon sighed. “The Commissioner said he would regard it as a personal favor. Apparently he and this fellow go way back.”

“On Christmas.”

“I know it’s a big ask. Apparently he asked for you personally.”

It was going to be the first Christmas he’d had off in seven years. Although he couldn’t exactly say he’d been looking forward to it. The thought of being cooped up in the loft with Sandburg, with little to say or do, had been filling him with dread. And Blair would put a cheery face on it, want to do something holiday-like and celebratory, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stand that.

So maybe this really was the best thing.

“Sure, I’ll do it,” he said, trying not to show his relief. “I’ll wrap up a few things and then head out a little early.”

“And let Sandburg know.”

He paused in the doorway to Simon’s office. “Let Sandburg know what?”

“He wants both of you – sorry, I forgot to mention that.”

His stomach clenched. “Are you sure?”

Simon looked up, a frown creasing his brow. “Is there a problem?”

“It’s just… you know, the academy… he’s not really working yet.”

Shrugging, Simon refilled his coffee cup and started shuffling papers on his desk. “Classes are out for the holidays, and this is sort of semi-official anyway, I don’t see why he can’t go along.”

Jim stood in the doorway, searching for another objection he could make. After a moment of silence, Simon looked up at him again, a more serious look in his eye.

“What’s the problem, Jim?”

“Uh… nothing. Nothing. Just… just thinking about the logistics, that’s all.”

“Well, think at your own desk. I’ve got work to do.”

Trapped, Jim capitulated and went back to his desk, where he gazed at the casework with unseeing eyes.

 

How had they gotten to this point? Everything had seemed okay that day that Simon had offered Blair the badge. Even the dull ache of the wound in his leg hadn’t been enough to quench the joy that had flared within him at Blair’s smile, tentative yet incredulously joyous. He hadn’t realized, until that moment, how sure he’d been that Blair would turn them down. He’d steeled himself to see surprise, and regret, and sadness; prepared himself to hear Blair’s voice saying “Guys, wow, thanks so much, but…”

Instead, Blair had looked at him with this dawning excitement and joy, and he’d responded to that, his own heart soaring. Maybe he had a chance to salvage the mess he’d made of this. Maybe they had a chance to start over.

Where had it all gone so wrong?

Even as he asked himself that, elbows on his desk, head propped on his hands, he knew the answer. When reality had set in.

He should have known. He and Simon should have known that the police academy wasn’t going to hold a candle to what Blair had been doing at Rainier. Studying investigative techniques and arrest procedure and traffic laws was going to be child’s play for someone who had been researching and exploring cultures.

And he should have known that there were parts that would be difficult. Hand-to-hand combat, self-defense, physical control techniques. Not difficult for Blair to master, no. But an opportunity of others to express their distaste.

It wasn’t going to win Blair any friends, having had strings pulled for him to get into the academy, and already having a position as Jim’s partner when he left. Jim hadn’t really thought about it, he’d been so intent on trying to find a way to keep Blair with him after the press conference. He’d come in from his military service, and the cadets had been in awe of that and had treated him accordingly. He hadn’t considered what it was going to be like for a scruffy, hippy witchdoctor punk who wasn’t going to command that kind of respect.

He knew that things had been rough. Blair didn’t talk about – not that he gave him an opportunity to – but he could tell that he was getting banged up, more than would be usual for a standard self-defense class. He could smell the bruises. And he didn’t need Sentinel senses to see the frustration and unhappiness in Blair’s eyes, in his posture, in the way he talked and moved and ate.

He couldn’t ask about it. Because if he did, he was sure that he knew what was going to happen. Blair would sigh, and avoid eye contact, and say something like, “I’ve been thinking, actually – maybe this police gig isn’t for me.”

And maybe that would be the way it was for a while, but eventually Blair would get tired of living in the room under Jim’s stairs, with no prospects, no way to return to the life he’d lost, and no way forward. Eventually that would mean that Blair would be moving on, moving forward, leaving Cascade. Leaving him.

He didn’t think he could bear that.

It was cowardly, but at least he had Blair in his life. If he opened that door, if he allowed Blair to give voice to his dissatisfaction, then eventually Blair would be gone and he’d have nothing at all.

He scrubbed his hand over his face, sighing, and opened one of the case files.

*****

Blair balanced the bag of groceries on his hip as he fished for his keys in his front pocket. Being on break from the academy meant that he could swing by and pick up dinner, after he’d spent a few hours at the library researching the history of profiling. Or had meant to spend only a few hours – once he’d headed down that rabbit hole, it had been hard to stop, and a good chunk of the day had gone by before he’d thought to look at his watch.

Fortunately, he’d still had plenty of time to get to the store and get the makings of Jim’s favorite dinner – fettucine carbonara. It was Christmas Eve, after all. Concerns about fat and cholesterol could take a break for one night.

And Jim deserved it. He’d been working long hours, and without the benefit of Blair being there to help him manage his senses. And he’d still been willing to talk through some of the things Blair was learning at the academy once he got home, despite that.

Although he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was still something wrong.

He’d thought – probably somewhat naively – that everything would be okay once he accepted Simon’s offer of a badge and being Jim’s partner. Sure, it meant the academic road was closed to him, but he’d pretty much figured that once he’d planned the press conference. If it kept Jim and his secret safe, then it was worth it. And, to be completely honest, he’d been souring a bit on academia, ever since Ventriss.

As he put things away, he thought back to that day in the bullpen. Jim had seemed happy with the offer, and that Blair had accepted. He’d thought that that would make everything okay between them.

But once he’d started the academy, Jim had changed.

Groceries stowed, he pulled out a box grater and began grating Parmesan cheese. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but there was definitely a difference. Jim was more distant, more… absent. He worked, he came home, ate dinner, they watched Jags games together, but there was something missing. A warmth, something he’d gotten used to while living with Jim. Too often now, he looked over at his soon-to-be partner and he couldn’t read him. Couldn’t tell what he was thinking.

That had never been a problem before.

He should just sit Jim down and ask him about it. Just be up front. But everytime he thought about that, he got a gnawing, heavy sensation in his gut.

What if Jim didn’t want him to be his partner anymore?

The thought made his hands shake, and before he could stop himself, he’d barked his knuckles on the sharp holes of the box grater, drawing blood. “Dammit,” he muttered. He grabbed a paper towel off the roll standing by the stove and blotted his hand as he headed for the bathroom.

He didn’t even like to think the thought, much less speak it aloud to Jim. But he couldn’t stop thinking it, especially at night when he was lying in his futon in his room under the stairs, thinking about Jim asleep in his bed. Then, his thoughts ran away with him.

What if Jim had changed his mind? Maybe he’d decided that working alone was really best for him, after all? Maybe he’d decided that he didn’t need help with his senses, and he certainly didn’t need some rookie cop tailing after him.

Or maybe he’d decided Blair would be a liability. It was one thing to have a scruffy, weird, hipppy-type guy following you around as an “observer”. It was another thing entirely to introduce that scruffy weirdo as your partner. Maybe Jim had thought that through and realized that that wasn’t going to work for him.

The thing was, he liked the academy. Well, most of it, anyway. The classes were interesting, especially everything he was learning about crime scene investigation. He had questions, of course – when had he ever not had questions – but his instructors were pretty cool and were always willing to talk to him after class.

Knuckles cleaned and bandaged, he headed back into the kitchen. After checking to make sure that there was no blood or other Blair-bits in the cheese, he wrapped up the remainder and started prepping the chicken.

He’d expected some problems, of course. He knew he wasn’t the typical academy student. And he knew that he’d gotten there by some pretty unusual means. His observer status meant that no one at the academy was really aware of how he’d helped Jim bring in some of his most infamous arrests, so he didn’t have any credibility. He got it. He’d expected a little hazing. It wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle.

He’d meant to tell Jim about, the first time it had happened. He thought that Jim had sensed something. The way Jim’s head had snapped up, the way his eyes had fixed on Blair, the way his gaze had sharpened. He’d shuffled in to the loft, trying to keep one arm clamped to his bruised ribs, and swung his backpack down to the floor gingerly. He’d opened his mouth, fully intending to reassure Jim that he was fine.

But nothing came out.

There was a cold, hard knot in his gut, and a little voice that sounded remarkably like his better self warned him “Don’t do it. Don’t tell him. He’ll think you can’t cut it.”

“Everything okay, Sandburg?”

Startled, he replied, on automatic pilot. “Yeah, yeah, everything is fine. Just a little sore. Learned throws today in class.”

Jim had gazed at him with that icy blue gaze. “You sure?”

“Yup. Just gonna take a quick shower.”

He’d escaped to the bathroom, and neither of them had said anything about it again.

His chest was tight, and he took a few deep breaths, slow and easy, trying to telax. His fear that Jim didn’t want him to be his partner anymore was getting to be a constant companion. But not the fun kind that talked you into exciting adventures. No, this companion was more the type who ambushed you when you least expected it.

If Jim didn’t want him as a partner, then what was he doing? The academy was fun, but he only wanted to be a cop so that he could stay with Jim. He’d accepted, long ago, that Jim wasn’t ever going to feel about him the way he felt about Jim. The badge had seemed a way to keep their friendship, or at least some kind of working relationship. It wasn’t what he wanted, but it was the best he was going to get, and he’d always been good at compromise.

But if Jim didn’t want him as a partner, in either sense, then who would they be to each other?

He jumped as the door opened, nearly slicing a finger instead of the chicken. He took another deep breath and placed his hands on the countertop, trying to hide their shaking.

Jim entered, shrugging off coat and holster and hanging them on the hooks by the door. He looked over at Blair, a smile on his face. “Chicken Alfredo?” he asked.

“I figured, what the heck, it’s Christmas Eve,” he replied, proud of the fact that his voice was light and steady.

“Yum.” Jim came into the kitchen, but stopped and frowned when he saw Blair’s hand. “Are you hurt?”

“Oh, I just nicked myself with the cheese grater.”

Before he’d even finished speaking, Jim had his hand in both of his and had slid the bandage off, inspecting his knuckles minutely. His fingers were long, and warm, and gentle, and Blair felt himself flush, which had very little to do with embarrassment, and almost everything to do with another, more primal reaction.

“It’s fine,” he said, pulling his hand away from Jim’s. “Just a scratch – not even that! And I took care of it.”

He half expected Jim to insist on cleaning and rebandaging it himself, but he didn’t. Instead he took a small step back, that distant look on his face again. “Okay,” he said.

There was an awkward moment where Jim was just looking at him and he couldn’t think of anything to say. “Uh… go get cleaned up and I’ll have this ready in about 30 minutes.” It was the best he could come up with.

Jim started towards the stairs, then turned back. “Oh. Simon got a request from the mayor. He wants us to follow up on a missing person case. Tomorrow.”

“Us? You mean, me too?”

“Yes, us means you, too.”

Blair felt a small flicker of hope. Maybe he could convince Jim that he would still make a good partner if he helped out on this case. “Where? Here in Cascade?”

“No, it’s several hours drive east of here, over the Cascades. Small town called Myra.” Jim looked at him narrowly. “Did you have plans for Christmas with Naomi or something?”

No,” he replied, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice. “Naomi’s at a retreat in Santa Barbara. But weren’t you going to your dad’s?”

Jim waved a hand as he headed up the stairs. “We can get together when we get back. Shouldn’t take more than a day or two.”

***

Between packing, and traffic due to construction, and stopping to eat, it was early evening by the time they got into the tiny village of Myra. The sun had long slipped behind the high range of mountains to the west, and the wind carried a chill. Blair shivered as he got out of the truck, wishing he’d brought a warmer coat. Chiming bells.

The only lodging in town was a little bed and breakfast called Twelve Nights, and it was in front of this establishment that Jim parked the truck. It was a cute Victorian house, painted red and white, with twinkling white lights outlining the roofline and eaves. Blair grabbed his bag and hurried up the steps, eager to get out of the cold.

Inside was just as quaint and homey as outside. An older woman, white hair done up in a bun, looked up from where she was sitting behind a long counter, and her face lit up in a warm smile. “You must be the gentlemen from Cascade,” she said merrily. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Jim Ellison. And this is Blair Sandburg.”

“I’m Jessica,” the woman said. “Welcome to Myra. We are glad you’re here.”

“Can you tell us anything about the missing person, ma’am?” Jim asked.

“Oh, there’ll be plenty of time for that tomorrow,” she said. “Let me show you to your room, and then you probably want to get something to eat before you turn in.”

“Is that an orchard out there?” Blair asked. He’d wandered over to the window and was looking out at the grounds.

“Oh, yes, we’re famous for our pears, and our apples. The harvest is mostly over but you might be able to still find a few. Now, follow me.”

Blair trailed after Jim, who had followed Jessica up a broad staircase. At the top, she turned to the right, and led them to a door at the end of the hallway.

“Right in here,” she said, opening the door and handing them both keys. Blair weighed it in his hand. It was solid, and cool. He thought it might have been made of iron.

“Um…” He heard the tension in Jim’s voice and walked into the room. It had two sets of bow windows framing a large wooden armoire, beautifully carved. A small door led to what Blair guessed was a bathroom.

And there was only one bed. A large bed, to be sure. But only one.

“I think we have a problem,” Jim said. “There’s only one bed, but there are two of us.”

Jessica looked unhappy. “I’m very sorry, but this is all we have available right now. Your captain seemed to think that it would be okay.”

“There’s no other place to stay?”

“No, we’re the only place still open. Everyone else has closed for the season.”

Jim looked over at him, clearly perturbed. “Chief? What do you think?”

He couldn’t remember the last time Jim had called him Chief. “Um… we’ll make do. Like you said, it’s just for a night or two.” After all, they’d shared a tent while camping before.

But not a sleeping bag, a little voice said inside his head. He swallowed, his heart thumping so hard, he imagined Jim could hear it.

“Okay.” Jim still looked grim, but he unzipped his bag and started putting things in the armoire.

“There’s a diner a few blocks away,” Jessica said, “if you want something to eat. We have breakfast available from 6-9 in the dining room downstairs, and wine and cheese from 4-6.”

“Thanks,” Blair said, as Jim seemed absorbed in unpacking and didn’t respond. Jessica left, closing the door on her way out.

“I’m going to take a shower,” Jim said, stowing his empty bag. “Then we can go check out that diner.”

“Sounds good.”

As Jim showered, he unpacked, placing his stuff in the empty drawers Jim had left clear. Once that was done, he wandered over to the window. The room was looking out over the orchard. The moon was full, and Blair thought he could see a dark shape in one of the trees. He turned out the room light to try and get a better view, but it didn’t really help.

“What’s up?” Jim had come back into the room, a towel slung around his hips.

“I think there’s something in one of the trees out here,” he replied, cupping his hand over his eyes to try and shut out the ambient light.

Jim came over next to him, the warmth and dampness of the shower still rising off his skin. Blair squelched an urge to inhale, but Jim’s smell, fresh from the shower, rose all around him anyway.

“Looks like some kind of bird,” Jim said, peering out the window. “I wouldn’t worry about it.” He turned and pulled clothes out of the armoire. “I’m gonna get dressed, then let’s get some food.”

***

He hadn’t had any trouble falling asleep. Maybe he was tired from the drive, although Jim had been doing all the driving. Maybe it was the delicious beef stew at the diner, warm and savory in his stomach. Whatever the reason, he’d been out the moment his head had hit the pillow.

But he’d gotten up to use the bathroom around 5 am, and now he was lying here, unable to get back to sleep, thanks to Jim Ellison.

Not that it was really Jim’s fault. He was just sleeping, on his back, with one arm flung over his head. Blair could hear him breathing, deep and slow, and feel the warmth of him on his back, under the duvet quilt.

He longed to turn over and burrow into that warmth, but he knew that he couldn’t. Well, he could, but then there was going to be a very different type of conversation, one that ended with Blair getting kicked out of the loft and kicked out of Jim’s life.

So he lay there, trying to ignore the perfect specimen of manhood that was sleeping peacefully right next to him, and trying to go back to sleep.

After an hour, he gave up. He slid silently out of the bed and pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt. He let himself out of the room quietly and padded downstairs.

There was a man behind the counter this morning. He had hair as white as Jessica’s, but his face was somehow young. He was reading a newspaper, a pair of round wire-rimmed glasses pushed down his nose. He looked up as Blair approached.

“Hi there – my name is Chris.” He stuck a hand out, and Blair shook it.

“Blair Sandburg. Nice to meet you.”

“Sorry I didn’t greet you when you came in last night. I’d been up late the night before, and Jessica was letting me sleep.”

“No problem.” There was a sense of warmth and kindness about Chris. Blair felt much more settled and comfortable.

“Accommodations okay?”

Blair decided not to mention the one bed. It hadn’t been that big a deal, and they were probably going to be done and gone today or tomorrow. “Yeah, great.”

“Want some breakfast?”

“Nah, I’m going to wait for my partner.” Jim would be up before long, he knew. It was a miracle if he stayed in bed until 7. “But I’d love some coffee if you’ve got some.”

“Right in there.” Chris pointed to the dining room.

On a sideboard, Blair found a stack of white ceramic mugs, heavy and solid, along with four large serving thermoses and an array of dairy and non-dairy products. He opted for the medium roast with some almond milk, and wandered out onto the wide porch that wrapped around the house.

Jessica was casting seed in front of two pretty doves, both a warm beige color, with dark markings on face and tail. They cooed, low and bubbly, and pecked at the handfuls of seed she scattered on the ground. She looked up and saw Blair, and came over to the porch.

“Morning! Sleep okay?”

“Yeah, really well, thanks.” He was a little surprised at how good he felt. He hadn’t noticed, but now that he thought about it, it had been a while since he’d had a good night’s sleep. And despite his early waking and inability to get back to sleep, he actually felt pretty good. “Those are pretty birds.”

“Ring doves,” she said.

“Do they roost in trees?”

She looked sideways at him. “Not usually. Why?”

“I thought I saw a bird in one of the trees last night.”

“Oh, that was probably Ollie.” Blair looked at her quizzically and she smiled. “Our partridge. He just settled in one day and never left. You’ll probably see him around. He likes to sleep up in the tree.”

The door opened and Jim came out onto the porch, freshly showered and fully dressed. “Sandburg, let’s go,” he said.

“Oh, you might as well sit down and have some breakfast,” Jessica said, casting out the rest of her seed. She brushed her hands on her apron and headed towards the house. “Sam won’t be in at the bakery for another hour.”

“The bakery?” Blair asked as he followed her up the stairs to the porch.

“Yes. Herman worked at the bakery part-time.” She looked back and forth between them. “Herman. Our missing person. Isn’t that why you’re out here?”

Blair flushed. He’d forgotten all about the missing person. For some reason it had felt like they were out here on vacation, just the two of them. Idiot, he chided himself. You had a chance to get some information, prove yourself useful to the case, and you missed it.

Jim still had that granite look of determination that he wore when following up on leads, but the mention of breakfast had softened it somewhat. “I guess it couldn’t hurt,” he said. He looked over at Blair disapprovingly. “My partner’s got to change, anyway. Unless you’re planning to interview in sweats.”

“No I am not,” he countered. “It’ll just take me a minute.”

“What’ll you have?,” Jessica said, “and I’ll get it started for you.”

An hour and a half later found them at the French Hen Bakery, with Blair showered and dressed in khakis and a button down shirt. Jim strode up to the counter, pulling out his badge and showing it to the young woman there. She wore a long white apron over her jeans and t-shirt, and had a blue knit beanie on her head. “Jim Ellison, Cascade PD. I’m here to talk to Sam?”

“I’m Sam,” she said genially.

“Is there someplace we could talk?”

She motioned them over to a small table near the counter. Blair looked around, taking the opportunity to practice some of the skills he was learning at the academy. There were few people around – one couple sitting at a table in the window, drinking coffee and sharing some kind of coffee cake, and an older gentleman, the brim of a baseball cap shadowing his face, reading the paper.

“We’ve been asked here by the mayor…” Jim trailed off, a frown on his face, and Blair realized that they hadn’t even gotten the most basic information from Simon, like the name of the town’s mayor.

“You mean Chris?” Sam asked.

“He’s the mayor?” Blair said.

“Yeah, and he runs the B&B out on the northern edge of town.”

“Right.” Jim seemed to have regained his composure. “Well, he asked us to come look into a missing person case here, someone named Herman?”

“Oh, Hermey, yeah.”

Blair frowned to himself. Her tone seemed light, even casual. “How long has he been missing?”

“He didn’t show up for work a couple of days ago, which is unlike him. You can imagine, the days prior to Christmas are pretty busy ones for us. Hermey’s usually pretty reliable.”

“Had he been having any problems – financial issues, fights with anyone, other kinds of stress?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know – I don’t think so. I didn’t really know him that well. He just worked here two mornings a week, helping me with the chickens, starting the baking, that sort of thing.”

“You have chickens here?”

“Sure.” Sam smiled at him. “All our ingredients are sourced locally.”

Jim leaned in, interrupting them. “Can you describe what Hermey looks like?”

She frowned, thinking. “He’s kinda short. Blond hair. Blue eyes.”

Jim sighed. “Well, thanks, you’ve been very useful,” he said, in a tone that clearly communicated to Blair that he thought the opposite.

“No problem,” she said cheerfully, clearly missing Jim’s sarcasm. “Can I interest you in some coffee cake, or a buttermilk donut?”

“No than—” Jim started, and then Blair saw him stop and sniff the air. “Did you say buttermilk donut?”

He stifled a grin. Buttermilk donuts were Jim’s Kryptonite.

“Fresh baked this morning. Let me get you one.” She looked over at Blair. “Want to see the chickens?”

“Sure.”

As Jim was immersing himself in the scent of fresh donut, Sam led Blair out the back of the store. Three wooden coops, fenced with chicken wire, each held a fat hen, with speckled black and white feathers and bright red coxcombs.

Sam opened one of the coops and felt around under the hen, then pulled out a large brown egg. “Henrietta’s always a late layer,” she said, tucking it into the pocket of her apron.

“This is a pretty nice setup.” He’d often thought about having chickens, but it was completely impractical as long as they lived in the loft.

“It’s the secret to our baking,” she said, winking and laying her finger alongside of her nose. “But, look, you should probably go interview Cornelius, the jeweler. Hermey worked for him in the afternoons, he’ll probably have a lot more information for you.” She pointed south, farther into town. “It’s just a few doors down.”

A little nonplussed at her odd mannerisms, Blair nodded and followed her back into the bakery.

Jim was just finishing up the last bite of donut, and they thanked her and left.

“Sam recommended we check out the jewelry store,” he told Jim. “I guess Hermey worked there more regularly.”

They walked down the street in the direction Sam had indicated. But the jewelers store – Yukon Treasures – was closed. The sign on the door said that they would not be open until tomorrow afternoon.

“Dammit,” Jim grumbled.

Looked like the good mood induced by the donut had evaporated. “Are we on a timetable?” he asked, trying to keep his voice light.

“I was hoping we could get this cleared up and get back home,” Jim said.

“It’s not such a bad thing, to have some time off. You could stand to do some relaxing, you know.”

Jim shot him a look, but didn’t reply, peering in through the window at the darkened store.

He waited a few minutes, then got impatient. “C’mon, there’s no one there. Let’s walk further on through the town.” He started walking, and after a while Jim caught up to him.

The town was built along one bank of a river that flowed through the valley. They walked down the main drag slowly, looking in at the shops and stores. Most were closed, although there was a café open, as well as a restaurant. They passed other people out walking, bundled up in warm coats and hats, who waved at them cheerily. Blair started to wish he’d brought gloves and a hat himself.

The main street ended in a wooded park that reached to the end of the valley. There was a path that took them along the river and up to a small butte that projected out over the park. Blair climbed up and stood looking out over the park, shivering in the wind that swept down the valley, hands tucked under his armpits for warmth.

There was an enclosure on the edge of the wood, with a herd of animals inside. Blair cupped his hands around his eyes to try and see better. “Hey, what are those animals?” he asked Jim, who had come up beside him.

Jim shrugged off his heavier coat and put it around Blair’s shoulders as he looked where Blair was pointing. “Look like caribou,” he said, after a moment.

“Caribou? They’re not native to this area – they live way farther north than this. Are you sure they’re not elk?”

“They’re not elk,” Jim said. “I know what elk look like. These are smaller, and they have white coats, not brown.” He put a hand over his eyes to shade them. “There’s eight of them.”

“Weird.” Jim’s coat was warm from Jim’s body heat, and smelled like cedar. Blair surreptitiously pulled it closer, sliding his arms through the sleeves and putting his hands in the pockets. He was a big believer in taking his pleasures where he could find them. And this was the closest he was going to get to Jim, especially if they did end up leaving tomorrow.

His chest ached a little at the thought that he wouldn’t be sharing a bed with Jim after tomorrow. As hard as it had been this morning to sleep, he’d grown used to the idea. Ah, well, he told himself, enjoy it while you’ve got it and keep the memories close. They’d have to sustain him for a while.

“You ready to head back?” Jim asked. “Stop someplace in town and grab something for lunch?”

“I could eat,” he said, as he turned and followed Jim back down the trail.

***

It was Blair’s smell that woke him, earthy and spicy, like cinnamon. He must be dreaming about something good, Jim thought, rolling up on one side. That was the smell he usually associated with Blair feeling happy and satisfied, like after they’d broken a tough case or he’d had a particularly good date.

The light that shone through the window was the rose-tinged gray of early dawn, but Jim didn’t need light to see Blair’s features. Even if he hadn’t had enhanced sight, he would have remembered. Over the past four years, he’d memorized every curve and plane of Blair’s face, tucked all his expressions – laughing, sad, angry, exasperated, fond, incredulous, surprised, and more – into a remote corner of his brain against the day Blair would finally get tired of living in that tiny room under his stairs and decide to move on.

Blair was curled up on his side, back towards Jim, head pillowed on his arm. As Jim watched, he sighed and muttered something, then turned to the other side so he was facing Jim. His face was relaxed in sleep, he looked more care-free than Jim could remember seeing him for a while. Maybe their enforced stay in this town was doing him some good.

A chill gripped his insides as he wondered, again, how long Blair was going to be willing to put up with the crap he was getting at the academy. He’d known, the instant that Blair came home that first week, that he was getting beat up. He could smell the bruises and knew that it wasn’t just a vigorous self-defense class.

But Blair hadn’t said anything, and Jim hadn’t felt like he could say anything, either. He felt like he’d given up his rights to have a say in Blair’s life about the time his temper and his obstinancy had caused Blair to call a press conference and trash his entire academic career on live television.

He told himself he’d keep monitoring it, say something if it seemed to get too bad. But it never got any worse than that first week, and Blair started coming home with a grimly satisfied look on self-defense class days, so he thought (hoped, anyway) that whatever Blair was doing to deal with it was working.

Blair whuffed, and Jim saw that a lock of his hair had fallen in front of his face. Before he could stop himself, he’d reached out and gently pushed it back behind Blair’s ear. Blair frowned, and seemed about to wake. Jim’s heart thumped erratically in his chest, and his insides froze.

With a sigh, Blair settled back into sleep. Jim clenched his fist tight, keeping it anchored to his hip, where it belonged. He gave it five minutes, and then ten, listening to the slow tick of his watch and the slow, steady beat of Blair’s heart. When he was sure that Blair was truly asleep, he eased out of the bed and pulled on his clothes.

Downstairs, he poured himself some coffee and went outside, intending to walk around in the orchard for a while. As he went around the house, he could hear birdsong; there were four mockingbirds in the pear trees, singing to each other.

Jim whistled a tune a few times and one of the birds picked it up and started repeating it. Before long one of its fellows followed suit, and within about ten minutes all four of them were mimicking the tune, calling it back and forth to each other.

A thump and a muttered curse came from the large barn behind the house. Jim wandered over and knocked gently on the door frame.

Chris poked his head out from behind a large, ornate sleigh that had a tarp half draped over it. “Oh, hi, Jim,” he said, smiling. “Sleep okay?”

He motioned to the sleigh with his coffee cup. “That’s quite a piece. Did you restore it?”

Smiling, Chris came around towards him, trailing a hand along the side of the sleigh. “I’ve had it for a long time. It can be fun to take kids for rides when there’s snow on the ground.”

Leaning down, Jim ran his hand over a large dent in one of the runners of the sleigh. “Looks like you’ve had some hard usage recently.”

“I’ll need to do some work on her in the off-season,” Chris said, with a rueful smile. “But sometimes things get in the way. How is the search going, by the way?”

Jim’s heart lurched. He’d forgotten about the reason they were here. For just a brief moment, it had felt like they were on vacation. Just like old times.

“Not much so far,” he said, noticing that it came out harsher than he intended. “The gal at the bakery didn’t have much information. She recommended we check in with the local jeweler, said Herman worked there more regularly.”

Chris nodded. “Well, good luck. Let me know if you need anything.”

“I didn’t realize that you’re the mayor here. And you run this place?”

“It’s a small town,” Chris said, with a smile. “I wear a lot of hats.” He motioned towards the back of the house; Jim turned and saw Blair waving at him. “Looks like breakfast is ready.”

***

Yukon Treasures was sandwiched between a bookstore and a Christmas ornament store, both shuttered and dark. A bell rung as they entered, and an older gentleman looked up. “Good morning,” he said, heartily. “How can I help you?”

“Are you Cornelius?” Jim asked.

“I am.” He had a well-trimmed goatee, shot with gray, Jim observed, and was wearing a Tyrolean hat with an impressive brush to the side of the crown. Four golden rings rested on a black cloth spread out in front of him; he was holding a fifth in one hand, a polishing cloth in the other.

“Sam, at the bakery, recommended that we talk to you,” Blair chimed in. “We’re looking for Hermey.”

Cornelius put the ring down on the cloth. “I’m not sure I can tell you much,” he said. “I haven’t seen him in a few days, but that’s not unusual around this time of year.”

“Doesn’t he work for you?” Jim said. He was starting to feel exasperated. This was supposedly so urgent that they’d had to come out on Christmas Day, yet everyone they talked to seemed completely unconcerned.

“Yes, but between Christmas and New Year’s a lot of the kids around here go camping. It’s not strange that he’d be gone during this time.”

“He doesn’t let you know in advance?”

Cornelius shrugged. “As you can see, it’s a bit dead here after the holiday.” He put down the ring he was holding and picked up another one, then started to polish it with the cloth. “Right before Christmas is our busiest time, he was here helping me then. I don’t really need him now.”

“Great,” Jim said shortly. “Well, if you think of anything that might help us find him, give me a call.” He handed one of his cards over and headed for the door. “C’mon, Sandburg.”

He stopped outside on the sidewalk, looking up and down the main street. The place was deserted. Few of the stores were open, and even fewer people were walking around. “Chief, anything about this strike you as weird?”

He looked over to see Blair frowning. “No one seems very concerned about this guy.”

“Yeah.” He scratched a hand through his hair. “Something’s fishy.”

“What do you want to do?” Blair’s shoulders were hunched against the cold, his hands in his pockets, but his expression was open, and Jim was struck by how much he had missed this. He’d grown used to having Blair at his side, talking through cases with him; since he’d been going to the academy, he hadn’t had the time to come into work with Jim.

He felt a rush of gratitude for Blair’s support. “I think we should go back and have a talk with Chris. If we can’t get any more information, there’s not much point in staying. I think we might have hit a dead end.”

As they’d been talking, it had started to snow, and on the walk back to the B&B, the flakes grew thicker and heavier. By the time they reached the house, it was coming down so heavily that Jim could barely make out the mountains on either side of them.

Chris was in the dining room listening to a small transistor radio, his mouth set in a solemn line. He lowered the volume as Jim pulled out a chair and sat down.

“I’m sorry, but none of the leads we’ve had have panned out, as far as finding your missing person,” he said. “We’ve got a description, but no one can really tell us the last time Herman was seen, and, quite honestly, no one other than you seems very concerned.”

Chris nodded slowly.

“Unless there’s something more for us to go on, we’re going to head back to Cascade. We can use our resources there, put out a missing person’s alert to neighboring jurisdictions, and we’ll let you know if we find anything.”

“I appreciate your help so far,” Chris said, “but I’m afraid that you won’t be going back to Cascade.”

He could feel Blair tense behind him. “Why’s that?” he said, keeping his voice calm.

Chris motioned to the radio. “I’ve just had word – the pass over the mountains is closed due to the snowstorm.”

***

Blair padded quietly downstairs. It was an hour yet from dawn and the dining room was dark, but there was already hot coffee on the sideboard. He poured himself a cup and folded his hands around it gratefully, walking over to look out the window.

Jim had spent the afternoon calling almost every official he could think of, only to get the same news that Chris had delivered: the pass was closed and there was no other way out of the valley. Snowplows wouldn’t be deployed until after the storm had cleared, which was expected to be at least a day. Frustrated, Jim had called Simon and delivered a terse status update, including a request for an APB to be put out based on the description they had of Herman. Then he’d icily informed Blair that he would be taking a walk alone and had stomped out.

For his part, he’d felt a weird relief at the news that they wouldn’t be heading back to Cascade for a few days. The quiet peacefulness of this place, the house, the town, the friendly people they’d met, it all had the feeling of a pleasant vacation, not the investigation it was supposed to be. It was like a snow day, except that he’d always liked school. But he had that feeling of being free, unfettered, with time stretching out in front of him and nothing to do, no worries or chores or cares, for the moment.

He’d strapped on some ancient snowshoes to help Jessica go into town and get supplies; food, lamp oil, batteries, toilet paper, some other odds and ends. “Usually things are fine, but sometimes the power goes out,” she told him. The snow kept falling, thick and heavy but soft, and walking through the growing drifts, once he’d gotten the hang of the snowshoes, was remarkably peaceful and calming.

That peaceful feeling remained through dinner, even though Jim was being a bit of a grump. Chris and Jessica generously shared dinner with them, and afterwards they went to the den at the back of the house, where Jim and Chris read and Jessica and Blair played cards. Jim did seem to mellow over the course of the evening, and eventually joined he and Jessica for a couple of hands of hearts.

The calm had been shattered this morning, though, when Blair woke to find himself plastered up against Jim, one arm flung over his chest and a raging hard-on tenting his boxers. It had taken ten minutes of very focused, very careful breathing to bring his physical reaction back in line, and then another ten to ease himself out of bed without waking Jim.

He hadn’t wanted to risk the noise of a shower, so he’d just wiped a wet cloth over his neck and face, clearing away the cold sweat. He shuddered to think what would have happened if Jim had woken first. Not that Jim would ever hurt him. But his reaction… he clamped down on a wave of anxious nausea. That would definitely be the end of him living with Jim, if not the end of their partnership.

The coffee was strong, and hot, and it helped ground him. But the thought of another night or two of this made his heart sink. Maybe he should ask Jessica for a blanket and just sleep on the couch down here. But then Jim would ask why, and he wouldn’t have a good reason. Maybe he could come up with something today. Maybe tell Jim he felt like he was getting a cold, didn’t want to get him sick.

Motion caught his eye, and he saw Chris out on the front lawn, chasing six large Canadian geese who were avoiding him with the practiced efficiency of the urban freeloaders they were. He smiled and pulled on a coat and his snow boots.

Chris looked up as he approached, panting and red-faced. “Hey, Blair,” he said. “You’re up early.”

“Yeah.” He wasn’t going to say anything more than that. “What’s going on here?”

“Oh, these geese,” Chris threw a clump of snow at them, which just made them sidle a few feet farther away, querulously burbling to each other. “They land on the front lawn and poop, which is nasty for our guests, and us as well.” He crept towards the group slowly with his arms out, and they half-waddled, half-flew over to the other side of the lawn, keeping up a constant stream of indignant goose commentary.

“You know you’re not going to catch them, right?”

Chris started moving towards them again. “No, but if I bother them enough, they’ll leave.” He glanced over at Blair. “Want to help?”

For the next hour, he stalked the geese with Chris, making sure to stay far enough away from any serious geese attacks, but close enough that the gaggle couldn’t settle down and start eating – or pooping. And lo and behold, Chris was right: after about an hour of this, one of the geese gave a harsh call, and all six lofted into the sky and flew away.

“Success!” Chris said, smiling at him.

They clumped back up onto the porch, stamping snow from their boots and shaking it from their coats. As Blair was hanging his coat up, Jim came down the stairs, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. He was smiling as he eyed Blair. “What’s got you up so early this morning, Chief?”

“A wild goose chase,” he replied, and then both he and Chris burst into laughter.

***

Jim hiked his pack higher on his back and tried to fall back into the smooth, sliding stride that walking in snowshoes required. Behind him, he could hear Blair breathing heavily in his wake. “Walk a bit to the side of me, Chief,” he called back. “That way you won’t have to deal with walking over my track.”

As he stopped and pulled Chris’ homemade map out of the pocket of his parka, Blair came up next to him, pulled out a bottle of water, and took a few swigs. “How much farther is this lake?” he asked Jim.

“According to this map,” he replied, “just over that ridge.” He pointed to a copse of tall Douglas firs thickly coated with snow.

As he crested the ridge, there was a perfect alpine lake laid out below him. At his side, Blair gave a low whistle. “As advertised,” he said.

Over breakfast, Chris had recommended they take a hike towards the western range, where there was a beautiful quiet lake, surrounded by tall pines. He’d drawn them a map and assured them it was worth their time. Although it wasn’t like there was anything else for them to do.

It wasn’t as frustrating this morning, though. Yesterday he’d been furious about not being able to get back to Cascade, but today it didn’t seem as immediate. Maybe because there wasn’t anything to do about it.

Although if he was being honest with himself, he thought as he and Blair headed down the slope to the lake, most of his frustration came from panic. Panic at having to keep sharing a bed with Blair.

Ever since the other morning, when he’d slipped and brushed Blair’s hair out of his eyes, he’d been living in fear of doing something else, something that would give him away. If he caught him, Blair wouldn’t let it go, he knew, and that would lead to all sorts of unpleasant conversations. The thought that he was going to be trapped, for all intents and purposes, in this town with Blair for another day or two, was almost too much to bear.

He’d gone on a nice long walk – not as nice as the one they were currently on – and that had helped. He’d told himself it was just something he had to endure, and that if he kept his wits about him, everything would be fine. He’d wondered if he could ask Jessica for a blanket and sleep on the couch downstairs, but that would be like catnip to Blair – he’d never let that go. He’d be pestering Jim endlessly about his senses, were they acting up, what was wrong, and so on.

And Blair would never leave him alone if he thought Jim was having sensory problems. But maybe if he thought Jim had a cold? That reminded him of their trip on the train, though – clearly Blair wouldn’t let that go, either.

He’d filed that plan in the back of his mind in case the situation changed, but for now he felt like he could deal with it. He’d been half-dreading, half-anticipating getting up this morning, part of him wanting those stolen moments when he could look at Blair the way he wanted to, and part of him knowing that that was a slippery slope to doom and ruin.

But Blair was already up when he woke – chasing wild geese, no less – so it hadn’t been a problem. A few deep breaths, and Chris’ suggestion for a hike and lunch sounded great.

Blair had skidded down the tree-lined slope and had uncovered a picnic bench by the shore of the lake. By the time Jim joined him, he’d cleared the top of snow and had spread out the cloth Jessica had given them.

Jim swung his pack down and opened it, taking out thermoses of soup and coffee and cocoa, sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, and packets of cookies and oranges.

They ate for a while in silence. The heavy snow lay over everything like a blanket, muffling even the everyday sounds of the forest.

“Can you hear anything?”

Jim blinked back to the present and realized that he’d been listening to the sounds that were there, muffled under the heavy snowfall. “Yeah,” he said. “I can hear squirrels, I think, and something else – something smaller – digging for nuts and other food under the snow. And I can hear water, somewhere. Not running like a river, but trickling. Probably snowmelt.”

Warmth glowed in his chest at the look on Blair’s face. He never failed to get excited about the senses. Even when they were at odds, even when things were the worst they had ever been, he’d never lost that wonder, that amazed appreciation for what Jim could do. It was a proxy that Jim was only now beginning to realize that he needed. He thought of the senses primarily as a pain in the ass, and sometimes a useful aid in his work, but when he saw that look on Blair’s face, he could share, even for just a brief time, in that sense of wonder and awe.

What would he do if he could never see that look again?

Appetite lost, he put his half-eaten sandwich down and opened the thermos of coffee.

There was a soft whirring sound, all around them, and a magnificent snowy white swan landed gracefully on the lake. A moment later, six small grey and white cygnets landed in formation behind her.

“Oh, wow,” Blair breathed. “She’s gorgeous.”

They watched her gather the cygnets around her and herd them off to the right side of the lake, where tall reeds grew. The cygnets popped up and down, feeding from the water and the reeds, while their mother kept a watchful eye.

“I wonder why it’s just her?” Blair said.

Jim looked up at the sky. “Maybe the male is coming later, or finding more food.”

“No,” Blair shook his head, “they mate for life and they’re always in pairs. Something must have happened to him.”

There was a hard, hollow feeling in his chest. The coffee tasted flat and metallic, and he dashed what was in his cup onto the snow, and wrapped up the remnants of his lunch.

“Poor thing,” Blair said softly, watching the swans. “That’s a lot of work for just one parent.”

“There’s got to be single male swans around here somewhere.” His voice sounded oddly flat and tinny. “Surely she can find another mate.”

Blair sighed. “Yeah, it does happen, just not very often. Mostly they just stop eating and die. She’s got babies to care for, though, so…”

He jammed his uneaten lunch back into his pack and started packing up the thermoses and other picnic items. “C’mon, Chief, let’s go. We’ve got a long walk back.”

Hoisting the pack to his back, he turned his back on the swan and her six charges and started walking. He could feel Blair looking back at her as they climbed up the wooded slope. But he refused to.

***

Blair followed Jessica into the barn, blinking to adjust his eyes to the dimness inside. There were four stalls on each side of the barn, each with a large cow inside and a young woman milking it. The susurrus of milk hitting the metal pails was oddly soothing to Blair’s ears.

“Clarice,” Jessica called out, and a young woman in a stall at the far end of the barn stood, patting her cow on its flank, and made her way towards them.

“I’ve got your cheese,” she said, motioning them towards the small outbuilding marked “Office” next to the barn.

Once inside, she handed several bags to Jessica, who passed them on to Blair to hold. In each bag were several parcels, wheels and rounds and rectangles of cheese.

Clarice smiled at him while Jessica dug in her purse for money. “Are you excited about the New Year’s Ball tonight?”

“Oh, well, uh… we’re not really New Year’s Eve kind of people,” Blair began.

“Nonsense,” Clarice said, making change from an ancient cash register. “You have to come. Everyone in the town will be there.” She handed a few coins and bills to Jessica. “And you’d miss a chance to eat some of our excellent cheese!”

Clarice waved at them as they headed for Jessica’s SUV. Bags of cheese were deposited in the back, and they began the drive back towards the B&B.

“What are you going to do with all of this?” Blair asked, turning to look at the bags of cheese on the back seat.

“Oh, mostly appetizers, but also some macaroni and cheese, and some stuffed mushrooms.” She looked over at Blair sternly. “You and Jim must come, you know.”

Blair sighed internally. He was always up for a good party, but Jim seemed to have lapsed back into being grumpy and frustrated. Ever since they’d come back from the hike to the lake, he’d been in a bad mood. He’d snapped at Blair, and had spent the majority of yesterday walking around town on his own.

“Anyway, there isn’t anywhere else to eat in town – everything will be closed for the ball – so you might as well come for a short time, just to get something to eat.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Blair said, “but I’m not making any promises.”

Amazingly, Jim had been at the B&B when they had returned, and his mood seemed to have improved again. He’d tried to tell Blair something, but they’d both been conscripted into helping Jessica make dishes for the party. And then they both had to clean up, and find something to wear.

And it was a nice party, Blair had to admit, as he turned on his heel and surveyed the room. It was in a huge old theater that had been converted into a ballroom. Jim had made a beeline for the buffet table when they’d entered, but Blair had wanted to walk around some and appreciate the décor.

There were knots of people standing or sitting, and young men and women dressed in brown pants, blue jackets, and dark blue knit beanies serving drinks and appetizers. A young man walked up to Blair, one hand under a tray with two champagne glasses on it. A shock of bright blond hair had escaped from underneath the beanie and lay across his forehead. His blue eyes twinkled as he presented Blair with the two glasses. “Champagne?” he asked.

“Sure,” Blair said. He glanced at the guy’s nametage as he lifted the glasses off the tray. “Thanks, Hermey.”

A shock went through him. He spun, but the young man was gone, faded into the crowd.

“Jim!” he shouted, making his way towards the buffet.

Jim hurried up to him. “Chief, you okay?”

He pushed one of the glasses into Jim’s hand. “I think I just found our missing person! He served me this glass.”

Jim’s eyes narrowed as he took the glass. “Where did he go?”

“I don’t know, he—” But just then the lights dimmed, and everyone stepped back, clearing a space in the center of the room that was lit by overhead lights. Music started playing, a light waltzing tune, and three sets of three ladies walked out into the space. Each set of three touched their right hands together in the air, and then broke into an intricate and lovely dance.

Jim pulled Blair after him as he weaved through the crowd. But the press of people was thick, and after a while he had to stop. Blair was next to him, close enough to feel the heat of his body through the cashmere sweater he was wearing.

The dance ended to raucous applause, and the ladies bowed and melted back into the crowd. A large group of men stepped forward, dressed in fur hats and loose pants tucked into high black boots. They arranged themselves in two rows of five, and a spirited melody began, to which the men responded by squatting and kicking their legs out, leaping rhythmically from one side to the other.

“Do you see him, Chief?” Jim was scanning the crowd.

“No.” It was getting harder to see with the press of people around him. “Maybe I imagined it.”

The men finished their dance, to more applause. Blair glanced over at the large clock on the wall. “It’s getting close to midnight,” he told Jim.

There was a sound like a score of sheep bleating all at once, and then it resolved into the tune of Auld Lang Syne, played by what sounded like all the bagpipers on earth. It was thrilling music, Blair could feel it reverberating in his chest, but when he looked over at Jim, Jim had a pained look on his face.

“A little loud, huh?” he asked. Jim nodded. He hadn’t dropped Blair’s hand, so he led Jim outside.

“Better?” he asked.

Jim was blinking and moving his jaw side to side. “Yeah, thanks. That was… unexpected. I was having a hard time dialing it out.”

He could still hear the pipers going, wrapping the song up.

“Chief, listen, there’s something… there’s something I want to tell you.”

The applause for the pipers had died down, and now Blair could hear people shouting numbers. “The countdown’s begun,” he said, grinning at Jim. “The New Year’s almost here.” He counted down in his head: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

Jim leaned down and kissed him. “Happy New Year, Blair.”

“Oh,” he said, as a flood of warmth burst through him.

***

Blair was wakened by the rat-a-tat-tat of drums, clattering and rolling in what felt like directly outside his window. He cracked one eye open.

He was in a tent. He blinked and turned his head to the side.

He was in a sleeping bag, in a tent. Fortunately, Jim was in the sleeping bag with him, and they were both naked.

So last night wasn’t a dream, he thought. He remembered careening back to the B&B in Jim’s truck – thank goodness no one else was on the road. Jim was having a hard time keeping his hands off him, and he wasn’t helping at all. They’d stumbled upstairs and fallen into their one, small bed, shrugging off shoes and jeans and shirts as they went. And then there hadn’t been any conversation for a while.

Not that there had been a lot of conversation to begin with, he thought, smiling as he reviewed the night.

But none of that explained why he was in a tent.

“Jim,” he said softly.

Jim’s eyes snapped open, and then softened as he saw Blair.

“We’re in a tent.”

Jim frowned. “How did we get in a tent?”

“I don’t know!”

“Have you looked outside?”

“No. I was too afraid to find out all…this,” he motioned between Jim and himself, “was a dream.”

Jim leaned up on one elbow and kissed Blair, smiling. “It’s not a dream.”

Blair exhaled, and then sat up, unzipped the tent, and stuck his head out.

Aside from their tent and Jim’s truck, the valley was empty. A pristine, untouched field of snow stretched out in all directions, as far as they could see.

“What. The. Fuck,” he said.

Jim’s head poked out next to his. “Where did the town go?”

“I have no clue, man.” He looked at Jim. “Did you hear those drums?”

“You heard drummers?”

“You didn’t?” Jim shook his head.

A figurative lightbulb went off in Blair’s head. “Wait a minute… drummers drumming. And last night we heard pipers, and ladies dancing, and men leaping.”

“You can’t be serious, Chief.”

“Think about it!” he said. “I saw eight milkmaids at the dairy.”

“Swans…” Jim said, slowly.

“And geese, and rings, and hens. And the whole thing started with that partridge I saw the first night we got here.”

“… in a pear tree…” Jim shook his head. “That’s nuts.”

Blair swept an arm out to encompass the now-vanished village, and noticed a large covered platter sitting on the snow just outside the tent. There was a card taped to the top, which he handed to Jim as he pulled the platter inside and lifted the top.

Under the cover were pastries, juice, and coffee. Blair’s stomach rumbled, and he realized he hadn’t really had anything to eat since lunch the previous day. He grabbed a pastry and took a bite. “What’s the card say?” he asked

“Congratulations,” Jim read aloud. “Epiphany isn’t usually until the 6th of January, but you two have had yours early. Enjoy the breakfast. Your clothes and belongings are in packs safe and dry inside your truck. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year! Love, Chris and Jessica.” Jim looked up. “Only he spells it with a K. K-r-i-s.”

“Like Kris—”

“Don’t say it, Chief.”

Blair spread his arms, a pastry still clutched in one hand. “How can you deny this?”

Jim scratched a hand through his hair and sighed. “We were visited by Santa Claus?”

“It’s not the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to us.”

Jim snorted. “I guess that’s true.” He pulled Blair over to him, framing his face in his hands, and giving him a thorough kiss.

Grinning, Blair moved the tray out of the way and lay down, pulling Jim after him. “I think that can wait a while, huh?”

Much later, as Blair was lying against Jim, his head on Jim’ shoulder, drinking coffee, he had a thought. “How the hell are we going to explain this to Simon?”