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EMAIL: akablonded

He watched as the passengers began filing off the plane. Although Jim Ellison didn’t have to see Blair Sandburg to know his friend was close by. The hairs on the backs of his arms stood straight up, like small compass needles pointing north. Or toward an almost-forgotten home.

"Sandburg, over here."

For a split second, the tumult of the airport and the holiday crowds faded away. The two old friends hugged awkwardly, familiarly, before starting to dance around one another the way they always did whenever they were in close proximity. Or, at least, they had, until they’d almost …

"How you doing, Jim?"

"Great, just great. You?"

"Great. Atlanta’s a great town."

"Great. I mean, yeah. I’m sure. Any bags?"

"Uh, sorry, man, but my plans got changed at the last minute. I’m only here on a layover. Have to be in L.A. tomorrow morning. It’s sort of important. Film deal for the last book." The shorter man added, by way of explanation and half-hearted apology.

Jim Ellison congratulated himself on keeping his voice steady. "Oh, yeah? On Christmas?"

"Well, you know. No rest for the weary. Particularly in ‘Hollyweird.’"

"Too bad, chief. Or should I start calling you ‘Spielburg?’ The old gang from Major Crimes was thinking about buying you a meal."

Blair Sandburg’s laugh was easy and polished, with an almost rehearsed quality to it. "What, everybody chip in a quarter for the Wonderburger Deluxe and fries?"

"Hey, I’m wounded. They were going to do it up right."

"The Grande Slam at Denny’s? Well, I'm damned impressed. But, as tempting as that sounds, no can do."

"They’ll be sorry they missed you. And you know how the guys love anything with syrup on it."

"I remember." The words seemed wistful. "Anyway, at least we have a couple of hours to play catch-up. How about doing it over some holiday cheer?"

Yeah, sure. Let’s head over to Harrington’s. It’s just down at Terminal C. The first round’s on me."

Blair Sandburg’s hand patted his former partner’s shoulder. "Great, man." Jim Ellison could feel the fingertips pressing like a stolen caress against the old leather jacket he’d worn especially for the occasion. A shiver ran through his still rock-solid frame. Even on the downside of 50, Jim’s body was a wondrous tribute to a rigorous exercise regimen the former Cascade detective still adhered to and superb family genes -- the ones that made the Ellison men tall, chiseled, and good-looking in the most patrician of ways. (On the downside, the DNA also raised "bald" to an art form.)

It was funny, Jim mused distractedly over a Coors, as he watched the curled-haired, forty-ish man sitting across from him who was nursing his second Bombay Sapphire martini.

For as much as things changed, they remained the same.

Both were still single.

Both were still alone.

Sure, almost a decade ago, Blair had married Genevieve Benet, the peace activist from St. Germaine, following a three-week, whirlwind courtship. But he’d divorced her a few years — and a lot of alimony -- later. Then, there was a down-to-the-wire relationship with Sonia Price, the CDC doctor whom Jim and Blair had met during the Lee Brackett/Ebola incident. At the last minute, Sandburg and the infectious diseases physician decided to cool it and keep their friendship intact by taking a pass on marriage.

In the 10 years since they’d been Sentinel and Guide, Sandburg had loved and left an impressive number of women – and vice versa. He never found "the one." Ellison had stayed single after his one attempt at the institution of marriage. The old joke – "Who wants to be in an institution?" -- was a little too close to the truth for him to even contemplate another try.

Besides, the sobering truth of the matter was that Jim Ellison had allowed his "brass ring" to slip away on Christmas Eve so many years ago.

It had begun innocuously enough. First it was "no" to Sandburg about celebrating the holiday in the confines of their shared space. Next, it was "no" to gifts. Then "no" to partying with their friends. And finally, the big "no." "No" to making a change. "No" to Blair's offer of love and commitment.

The only thing his friend had said to the rejection was "enough." That was right before Sandburg walked out, caught the Delta red-eye to an Atlanta teaching job – in criminology, of all things -- and was gone faster than Jim could say, "Neo-hippie witchdoctor punk."

Without Blair’s calm, reassuring presence, Jim Ellison found that he, too, had to say "enough" to what he’d been, and what he could now never be. "Enough" to being a Sentinel and the Blessed Protector of the Great City.

It didn't stop there. With neither rudder nor direction, Jim Ellison turned in his gun and badge and resigned from the Police Cascade Department.

Jim began to travel again. This time, it was courtesy of a family trust fund, and not the U.S. Army. He fled Cascade, the city he'd called home for most of his life. Jim Ellison even made a pilgrimage back to Peru, where the whole ‘Sentinel thing’ had begun. But, while there, frightening visions from Incacha, the long-dead Chopec shaman, hounded his sleeping and waking hours. The angry spirit demanded that "Enqueri" go back to his true path, back to being Sentinel to his tribe, and back to Blair Sandburg, his guide.

Jim Ellison did neither, even though he never stopped thinking about Blair – or needing the other man.

In the recesses of their dark booth, the conversation remained mundane and safe. Blair was broad-stroking the status of his current work. In the years since they’d separated, Blair Sandburg had become a highly-successful novelist. More. He was a media darling, and a bona fide celebrity. Almost from the get-go, the B.J. Sandburg police procedurals had roared onto every best-seller list. Oprah even selected the first, "Enquiry," for her TV book club. (Jim Ellison had an ironic, bitter laugh at the title.) One critic gushed that there had rarely been so entertaining a maiden voyage, and hailed the work as a "psychological thriller of the highest order with gritty, yet literate Sturm und Drang." To anyone examining Sandburg’s hero closely, the character ‘Jake Elmore’ was a Jim Ellison clone, sans the heightened abilities. After all, who would actually believe a cop with five hyperactive senses who was a human crime lab with organic surveillance equipment?

The second boarding call made Blair glance at his expensive watch. Jim picked up the tab and gave the waitress a $20 tip. Somebody should have a happy holiday. They donned coats quickly and hustled through the door, as the beaming, impossibly cheerful young woman shouted a deafening "Merry Christmas!" at them.

"— and God bless us everyone," Sandburg answered, under gin-laced breath, as he trailed his tall companion back to B-29, the farthest-most gate in the terminal.

"Figures it would be the last one." Blair grumbled, good-naturedly. "So … "

Amid a small, intense crowd, awash in well-wishing, laughter, and emotional leave-takings, the two men faced one another.

"Good seeing you again, chief. Really good."

"Same here, Jim. Will you finally break down and visit me in Atlanta next year?"

"Well –"

"Come on, man. You’ve certainly got the time, and I’d like to show you a little piece of the new 'Sandburg Zone.’"

"Maybe …"

"I haven’t lost all my ability to translate Jim-speak. That’s ‘no,' right?"

"Don't push it, Sandburg. You know I’m pretty set in my ways."

"There's more 'give' in the Northern Cascades …"

"I'm not that bad, am I?"

"Worse. But none of us can help what we are. Those old fear-based reactions never seem 'to leave the building,' do they?"

"And what the hell's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing. Look, I don't want to fight. Do you ever wonder … supposing on that Christmas Eve …"

Jim Ellison didn’t have to ask which one Blair was talking about. He still thought of it as the Christmas Eve, the one on which he’d made the biggest mistake of his life.

"Let’s not, chief …"

"That’s what you said then …"

"I remember. I was there."

"We didn’t … and …"

"And?"

Blair Sandburg’s eyes welled up with tears of regret. "It's just the old blame game I always play around the holidays. I mean, what was I thinking back then? You and me. Sure, it might have worked, if we’d been different kinds of people. If I could have settled for not trying to make it – us -- into the Great Love Story of all time. But, see, that’s what I wanted from you, Jim. I wanted everything. And you … you just couldn’t. That's why I had to leave. Back then, I understood up here," Blair pointed to his head, "But it didn’t make it down here." His thumb touched a raw, empty space over his heart. "It still doesn't. A bitch, isn't it?"

The call for the few remaining passengers to board immediately brought the unhappy exchange to an end.

"Take care of yourself, Jim. I’ll talk to you soon …" Blair Sandburg’s small, stocky frame wrapped itself ferociously around Jim Ellison’s rigid one.

"Sandburg … Blair –"

"What, Jim?"

"Merry Christmas."

Blair Sandburg’s hopeless smile was an inch away from cracking. "You, too, man. See you."

And with that, he was gone. Gone from the lounge. Gone from Cascade Airport. Gone from Sentinel Jim Ellison’s life.

"Sandburg … Blair … wait!"

The scream woke Jim Ellison as he nearly pitch headlong off the sofa. Heart racing, hands slick with sweat, the big man shook his head back and forth, trying to dislodge the fading remnants of the terrible dream he’d been having. Dream, hell. It was the stuff psychotic incidents were made of. Ellison rubbed wet palms on his jeans, as he slowly looked around the empty loft. Everything seemed in its proper place and … normal. Sandburg's old backpack, the one from his academic days had been retired from service and nestled contentedly in the corner by the front door.

Jim's eyes rested on the obsidian menorah gracing the top of the book shelf across the room. It was from the studio of Taos artist Aaron Threefeathers. The Hopi Indian had known both Blair and his mom, Naomi, since 1980. Their van broke down on the road to Santa Fe and he'd stopped to lend a hand. Over the course of the too-short summer, Threefeathers was utterly captivated by the beautiful mother and totally charmed by her young, irrepressible son. Even when Naomi decided it was time for them to move on, Sandburg stayed in touch with Aaron. After their last long-distance call in early October – the one where Blair told him all about his life and how partnering with Detective Jim Ellison had changed it -- the sculptor created the stunning carving from a solid piece of stone. Adorned with an intricate wolf and panther motif, it was something very special for the younger Sandburg’s home. That's what the card had said.

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Sandburg’s home.

Sandburg’s home.

Jim’s nose twitched furiously. Sandburg’s home.

The front door fairly burst open, and Blair Sandburg staggered through it, laden with an inordinate number of packages. An astonishingly unattractive scarf (a present from a friend who was long on spirit, and short on skill) wound around the energetic young man’s neck like a multi-colored, fabric anaconda. It snagged on the door knob, threatening to cause a "Film at 11" freak accident.

"Need some help, chief?"

"No. Just sit there, Jim. Please. I live to watch you 'veg.' I freaking HATE shopping on Christmas Eve." Blair’s voice had a petulant, cold-induced rough edge, made even rougher as one of the Safeway paper bags ripped open. Three pounds of walnuts rolled helter-skelter across the apartment floor.

"Shitshitshitshitshitshitshitshitshitshitshitshitshitshit …"

Jim thought he'd never heard anything so sexy. "Hey, 'Emeril … watch out. The other bag—" The second one devolved, scattering avocados to the four winds.

"Damn. Damndamndamndamndamndamn. Just leave them there. I'll pick up everything in a minute. First, I have to piss so bad …" and with that bit of shared scatological data, Blair scrambled furiously out of his scarf and coat, and galloped like Little Stogie on the home stretch toward relief.

"It’s … not then … it’s now …" Jim and his realization were interrupted by a low growl, one of pointed, petulant aggravation. It was followed by a powerful swat from a huge paw.

"Oww."

There, on the back of the sofa, lay a large, black panther, long tail swishing to and fro. As if to prove he were not part of the dreamscape, the enormous feline stretched out the same paw. This time, he targeted and hit the Cop of the Year, three-years-running, in the middle of the forehead.

"Hey, that hurts!"

Unfazed, the big cat's irritated, ghostly roar transformed into one word.

"R-r-r-r- r-rong."

Wrong.

Wrong.

I was wrong. About everything. Jim had apparently fallen asleep, after putting up the minimal decorations he’d agreed to. Begrudgingly. ("No tree, Sandburg. I’ll be picking needles out of my feet all winter." "No pine scent, Sandburg. It gives me a headache." "Jesus, no candles, Sandburg. There’ll be melted wax all over everything." "Sandburg, if you even think about playing the CD of dogs barking ‘Jingle Bells’ …") He'd been watching PBS' annual broadcast of THE CHRISTMAS CAROL (the black and white version with Alistair Sim as Scrooge) when he dozed off. It was still supplying background noise to the odd late-afternoon goings on.

"What's to-day?" Scrooge cried on-screen, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes.

"Eh?"

"What's today, my fine fellow?" Scrooge repeated.

"Today? Why, Christmas Day."

"It's Christmas Day! I haven't missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can …"

"R-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-ight." The panther agreed gutturally.

"I didn’t miss out on –"

"Chr-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-ristmas Eve?" The bored cat asked matter-of-factly.

"Yes. No. Not just Christmas Eve." Jim Ellison noticed his animal spirit was wearing a traditional Santa Hat, furry and red, white pom-pom ball attached at the tip. Playfully, the panther swatted it back and forth in a syncopated, almost-hypnotic motion. Jim Ellison reached out and tapped the spirit on the nose, to get its attention.

"My life with Sandburg, buddy. I didn’t miss out on it. Thanks."

As Blair reappeared from the land of porcelain, he was swept off his Doc Martins and kissed soundly under a large sprig of broccoli Jim held over their heads. It would do until the detective could score the "real deal" -- a sprig of mistletoe -- at the neighborhood 7-Eleven. And if that didn't happen, well, it was no great loss.

The "real deal" was in the detective's arms.

With crystal clarity, Jim Ellison knew this was how it had always meant to be. The two of them together -- pretty much, forever.

Meanwhile, a surprised Blair Jacob Sandburg, short of stature, great of heart, was enthusiastically sharing their first kiss – soulful, sensual, and filled with promises of love and lust and lifelong happiness. When they finally parted – oxygen, becoming an issue -- Blair stood uncharacteristically still. As still as his partner had ever seen him, except for the times when Sandburg was unconscious and Ellison had held vigil next his hospital bed, waiting.

The waiting was over.

"Breathe, chief, before you pass out, and I have to give you mouth-to-mouth. On second thought …" Jim bent down again and softly milked the full, ripe, inviting mouth, over and over. The kiss deepened, as though he were actually sharing the breath of his own life. After a few minutes, the two broke apart and staggered backwards.

"Jesus, James!" Blair gasped. "Is that your version of CPR? Learn that on the job, did you?" Blair’s eyes shone like supernovas, dancing with the reflections of Christmas lights hung around the loft, and the deniable love in his soul for all things Jim Ellison.

"I guess I was just … inspired. So, Sandburg, what do you think?"

"About what?"

"Who the Jags will pick as the first-round draft choice."

The panther snorted as if to say, "Get on with it." The message wasn't lost on Jim Ellison.

"You really do put the ‘dim’ in dim-sum, chief. About you and me. Together. You know, together. Same bed. Same bank account. Same Tupperware. What do you think?"

As Blair Sandburg pitched forward into Jim Ellison’s waiting arms, held out to catch him, and a lover’s heart, open to welcome him, he paraphrased Tiny Tim's familiar holiday wish: "Oy Gevalt! God bless us, everyone!"

Sentinel and guide sank to their knees and began "unwrapping" one another’s best Christmas present ever.

The panther’s mate, a beautiful, smallish blue-eyed wolf, joined him on the couch to watch the interesting turn of events. Deciding to give their humans some much-needed privacy, the furry pair trotted off happily, side-by-side, up the carpeted steps to the loft. After all, who would choose to mate on a hard wood floor, when there was a big soft bed available?

Silly humans.

***

And as Tiny Blair Sandburg said, "Oy gavelt! God bless us everyone!"

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Acknowledgments: Thanks to all my fellow Mongoosians (editors, writers, betas, artists, et al) who continue to encourage me and one another. God bless us, everyone. Happy holidays!

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