by Susan L. Williams
Story Note: Written for Cascade Times' "Christmas in July"
Icy tendrils of wind slipped under Blair's jacket. Occasional raindrops beaded on plaid wool and in his hair. Shivering, he dashed to the sidewalk, avoiding puddles that reflected white lights strung on shop fronts. Parking was a bitch this time of year; he had to be almost a quarter of a mile from the loft. It wasn't snowing yet, but if it got any colder, he was pretty sure it would. Jim would probably be able to tell. He'd have to remember to ask him.
He hefted the grocery bag in his arms, sniffing the contents happily: onions, garlic, organically grown tomatoes--not easy to find in December in Cascade, but he had a *source*, he had *connections*--fresh herbs, not dried, and a pound of really good ground beef. Okay, red meat, not so good, but Jim craved it and once in a while wouldn't hurt. Besides, he couldn't just throw away his killer meatloaf recipe. The broccoli would help make up for it. And hey, it would make for a seasonally festive plate, too. What more could a guy ask?
852 came in sight, and he looked up. Light shone in the windows--the regular kind, not the ornamental--Jim must be home. He'd seen no sign yet that Jim did the Christmas thing; he for sure didn't do the Hanukkah, Solstice, or Kwanzaa things. There'd been some talk of a Christmas party around the bullpen, but Jim hadn't joined in. There'd been no decorating his desk or the loft, and no evidence of shopping trips. Blair had bought him a present anyway. He'd give it to him, whether Jim wanted it or not.
He'd gotten his annual seasonal box from Naomi about a week ago. She'd always been pretty eclectic about what she celebrated, and he was happy to continue the non-traditional tradition. A little clay menorah stood amidst the clutter on his desk, and a smiling sun hung from a corner of his rainforest frog print. He'd opened the box, but hadn't touched any of the fabric-wrapped packages inside, or told Jim there was one with his name on it. He'd wait for Christmas, and let it be a surprise. As long as it wasn't anything too weird, Jim should be cool with it.
Holding the grocery bag in one arm, he dug in his pocket for the key, came up triumphant, and opened the door. He kicked it shut behind him and deposited the bag on the kitchen island.
"Hey, Jim. I got stuff for din--"
Jim faced him across the island, a tool belt slung across his hips. Pieces of wood were strewn across the floor. Cans of varnish and paint stood against the wall, brushes laid across their lids. A large, neat--of course--rectangular hole had been cut in the wall of Blair's room. Wood framed the hole. Neatly, the corners perfectly joined. Under the stairs, a set of doors was stacked. Neatly, their hinges, screws, and other doohickeys bagged and set atop them.
"Jim what's going on?"
"Nothing." Jim scowled, and pointed an accusing finger. "You're early. Hours."
Blair moved around the island, picked his way through the wood. "Jim, this isn't nothing. This is a hole in the wall. This is--"
"Doors, Sandburg. They're called doors."
"Well, yeah, I get that, Jim." He looked around Jim, into his room. Maybe not his room for long. Looked like Jim had plans for it. Quit pounding, heart. Sentinel ears present. "But why?"
"I thought maybe you'd like some privacy."
Privacy. Privacy? Jim thought he'd like Jim thought . Jim thought he was staying. For a while. A long while. Long enough to need privacy. A place that wasn't "Jim's spare room," but "Blair's room." With doors.
"Privacy? Jim, you can hear me fart a block away."
Jim made a face. "Chief, you have a real knack for putting the best spin on this sentinel thing, you know that?"
"Sorry, man. It's just ."
"You don't want doors?"
"Jim, it's kind of late to worry about that. Hole in the wall, remember?"
"Fine." Jim folded his arms. "Forget the doors."
"No! I like the doors. The doors are great. Really. I'm just--surprised--is all."
"That was the idea, Chief."
"Yeah." Wow. Doors. Real doors. For him. "You want some help?"
"You know anything about carpentry?"
"No, but I used to argue with the elders in the Temple a lot." He grinned, laughed a little. Half of Jim's mouth turned up, but that was it. "Just kidding. I spent a summer--"
"Working for your uncle the carpenter?"
"Habitat for Humanity. I know a hawk from a handsaw."
"Okay, Hamlet, grab that hammer and give me a hand."
They worked for hours, hanging, hammering, varnishing, painting, and talking. In between, they made dinner. Well, mostly Blair made dinner, but he introduced Jim to the tactile joys of forming a meatloaf with your bare hands, overcoming Jim's initial reluctance, and they conducted some "name that herb" olfactory tests that probably would have gone better if Jim had actually known the names of half of them. When they were done, so was the meatloaf. Just to be different, and because they were manly, carpentering men, they ate on the floor in front of the fireplace, sitting on a blanket that Jim claimed was to provide a cushion but Blair suspected was really to protect the hardwood floor from spillage.
"The meatloaf's good, Chief."
Blair raised an eyebrow. "Good?"
Icily. "Really good?"
Jim took another bite, chewed, swallowed. "Okay, fine, it's the best meatloaf I've ever had. Happy?"
"Damn straight." Blair grinned, and focused on food for a minute. "Hey, Jim? Do you do anything for the holidays?"
"Yeah, you know--celebrate?"
Jim shrugged. "I usually work. Let the guys with families have the day."
"That's nice, Jim. But that's not what I meant, exactly."
"So what did you mean, exactly?"
"Well, you don't decorate--I'm not criticizing, just observing, I can totally get behind that. I mean, it's a guy thing, right? Or a cop thing. Or maybe even a sentinel thing. You know, not wanting to clutter up your territory?"
Jim shifted his gaze, pointedly, from a tribal mask leaning against the couch, to a stack of books on the coffee table, to another stack on top of the television, to the shelves that held a few of Jim's belongings and dozens of artifacts. "You want me to put up a wreath? Or a menorah?"
"I'm just saying, Jim, that's all. You don't decorate, you don't seem to be interested in the party the guys are planning--"
"I've been to their parties, Chief."
"You have no idea."
"Do you do some kind of family thing?"
"Carolyn's family used to go all out."
"But not yours?"
Jim glared at his plate. "No."
Okay, wrong question. "So, do you do anything to celebrate?"
"I exchange gifts with Simon. We have a drink."
"That's it. Why? Am I breaking some kind of sentinel rule or something? I can't just protect the tribe, I have to celebrate with it, too?"
"No, man, of course not. Everyone should spend the holidays the way they want." Blair concentrated on his broccoli. "But it wouldn't *hurt* to put up a wreath. Or a menorah."
Jim shoved a forkful of meatloaf into his mouth and chewed. "Get it, if you want. I'll put it up."
"Either. Both. You live here, too. If you want something up, I don't care."
Jim got up and sliced another helping of meatloaf. He didn't speak again until he'd finished it. "So, do you?"
"Do I what, Jim?"
"Celebrate the holidays?"
"Depends on where I am and what I'm doing."
"And who you're with?"
"Exactly. I usually do something. It's just not usually the same thing from one year to the next."
"No traditions you have to uphold?"
"With *my* mom? No way, man. Traditional is *not* Naomi's thing."
"She sends you the box."
Jim put his empty plate down on the blanket. "Do you *want* to do something?"
He blinked. "Like what, Jim?"
"*I* don't know. Dinner, prayers, presents, light candles, dance around the Maypole--whatever you want! Celebrate!"
Blair grinned. "That would be nice, Jim."
Jim heaved a sigh. "Give me a hint, Sandburg."
"Well, let's definitely plan on a dinner, and play the rest by ear. How does that sound?"
Blair grabbed Jim's plate and took it with his to the sink. He cut two pieces of triple chocolate cake and brought the dessert plates back balanced on top of brimming mugs of coffee. A brave man, Jim stayed where he was, and relieved Blair of his before he sat down again. Jim took a bite of cake and closed his eyes in bliss. Blair could only imagine what it tasted like to him. Someday, he'd ask him to describe it. But not today. There was no hurry. He watched Jim eat, and smiled.
"Thanks for the doors."
"You're welcome. Happy Chanukah, or Christmas, or whatever."
"Yeah. Happy Whatever to you, too, man."