Well, It would appear that I'm going to write a Christmas story. It bashed me last night as I was playing Santa and delivering gifts to some friends. I love to go out and look at the lights, don't you? There are a couple of really spectacular displays around here. Sooooo...

Mable, Cecilia, and Ronnie alerts. If you don't like them, you can skip this one. I promise I'm not planning on ever 'concluding' this particular arc, except for those who have requested it (yes, ladies, you're on my short-list for that particular story when I finally write it. But it won't be until next year, some time). For now, however, consider this the sequel to 'This Year Was Supposed to be Different'. It's a year later, and our grumpy Sentinel is being his usual self. But would we ever 'really' want him any other way?

Once again, the disclaimers still apply. I again make no monetary profit for this. The characters from The Sentinel still belong to their original owners and creators, although I take full responsibility for the ladies I've put into their lives... hmmmm. I think I need to give Mable a sister... Just a thought. We'll see what happens. Also, this is for my listsibs at Cascade Times, those who will be online today (Christmas), particularly for those who have no family to share the holiday with. Hope this brings a little bit of 'home' to you.

'Twas The Lights Before Christmas


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"Hey, Jim?" Blair called softly. His partner, and roommate, was sitting on the couch, surfing through the channels.

"Yeah, Chief?" he glanced up to see what was bothering his friend. He'd heard the hesitance in the voice, and tuning in, was able to discern that the younger man's heartbeat had accelerated somewhat.

"Um, well," taking a deep breath in order to try and calm himself, continued. "Can we go out and look at the Christmas lights?"

Frowning, Jim thought for a moment and asked, "When?"

"This evening?" There was uncertainty and hope warring in his voice, almost pleading in his tone, but he wasn't able to keep it in check.

Looking out the balcony doors, Jim noticed that it was already getting dark. "You mean after dinner?"

"Well, actually, I was thinking before dinner. We could go out, look at all the displays and then come back here and fix something, or something."

"I'd rather not, Chief. You know how those blinking lights give me a headache..."

"Well, we could use it for a training session, work you into being able to handle the strobe effect, and..."

Grimacing, Jim cut him off, "Sandburg, it's Christmas Eve!" The plaintive whine giving a loud and clear expression of his feelings on the matter.

"Aw, come on, Jim. Please? It'll be worth it, you'll see."

There it was. The pleading, puppy-dog eyes. That hopeful little boy who had missed so much growing up. Come to think of it, Jim couldn't remember ever going out and looking at the lights with his family, either. "Well..."

"Great, man. Here's your coat, let's go!" Blair pulled his reluctant friend from his comfortable seat on the couch, took the remote and turned off the television, and then pulled the larger man toward the door, snagging their coats and thrusting Jim's at him and opening the door. Pushing the still unsure man before him, Blair twisted the lock on the door and, with a hand in his friend's back, pushed him towards the stairs.

"Sandburg, I don't have my keys..."

"That's Okay, man. It's covered. I've got mine, so we can get back in when we get home."

"Sandburg!" Jim growled, trying to stop and turn to face his whirlwind partner.

"Come on, Jim! It's going to be great, you'll see."

"What exactly do you have planned, Sandburg?"

At that moment, they reached the street and Jim got the outer door open before his smaller partner pushed him through it. There, just pulling up to the curb, was a large, handi-van. Glaring over his shoulder at his duplicitous friend, he snarled, "Sandburg!"

Ignoring his Grinch of a friend, Blair called out a cheery, "Hey, Joel, Mable. As you can see, I got him!"

Seeing the expression on the taller man's face, Mable chuckled, "Yes, but can you keep him?" Meeting the pale blue eyes of the disgruntled Sentinel, she motioned to the rear, "Just get in, boys, and we'll be on our way."

Opening the door, Jim started to climb in, when he noticed the people already inside. A slow grin spread across his face. "Ronnie? I thought you were going to be visiting you parents, this year?"

"I was, but decided that rather than have the usual 'why haven't you gotten married and settled down, yet' speech, I'd just as soon spend it with the people who care as much about me as I care about them. You don't mind, do you?"

"Mind?" Jim's voice nearly squeaked as he replied, climbing into the van, "I'm thrilled! Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because I wanted this to be a surprise, silly," she replied, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek as he settled onto the seat beside her. Blair climbed in behind his friend, grinning his pleasure at the company and sat himself down beside the Taggart's daughter, Cecilia.

"Hey, Blair. Merry Christmas," she murmured, tilting her face up for a kiss. Blair complied with a fervent hug to go along with the kiss.

"Merry Christmas, Cecilia. Thanks for inviting us along," he added to the older couple in the front.

"You know you're both always welcome to join us, Blair," Joel replied with a smile. "So, everybody in? The door's shut? Seatbelts on? Good. We're off, then."

They started their tour of the city with the shopping district around the loft. Most of the shops in the area had decorated for the holidays and they made comments on the cuteness of the various displays. From there, they made their way through a number of the newer housing tracts around the city. Those who decorated made use of the currently popular 'icicle lights' and lots of the tiny, twinkling/chasing/blinking lights that Jim complained so much about.

Squeezing Cecilia's hand, Blair turned to his partner, "Jim? Dial down. Try to... Think of the dial as a dimmer switch! Turn it down until the flickering doesn't bother you any more. Like the strobe test, okay?"

Both Cecilia and Ronnie looked strangely at Blair at his words. When he saw their expressions, he blushed and cast an apologetic look at his friend.

"Okay, It's sort of working. It still bothers me, but I'm not getting a headache from it, at least."

"Good! That's great, man." Blair turned his attention back to the young woman by his side, grateful that she wasn't the kind of demanding woman who would pester him for answers to the questions she obviously had. Instead, she snuggled up close, causing him to automatically tighten his arm around her.

Brushing his lips across her forehead, he murmured, "Thanks for not asking." She replied by tightening her own hug around his chest.

There were numerous beautiful displays of all kinds, from the simple strings along the eaves to complicated and expensive lit figures, to shimmering walls of lights. The van cruised slowly up and down the streets, working their way from the newer parts of the city to the older suburbs. The demarcation between the new and the old appeared when the miniature lights started to change to a combination with the older, larger lights. As they wended their way through the streets, more and more of the old style lights appeared, with only the occasional house with the smaller strings.

Many of the older homes tended toward the traditional 'outline' style of decoration, but many of the older homes had built up their displays over the years, and some of the most spectacular could be found in the older sections of the city.

Jim was wondering just how long they were going to wander through the streets, looking at lights. It wasn't that they weren't pretty, he thought that many of them were quite beautiful; and the company was delightful. However, his stomach was in the process of reminding him that it had been many hours since the light sandwich he'd had at about eleven that morning and he was wondering how much longer it was going to be until he could fill his poor, abused, empty, stomach.

Fortunately, Ronnie was helping to keep his head distracted, even if his stomach wasn't. She would nuzzle at his ear, causing him to lose track of the lights completely, as he'd turn toward her. They spent a lot more time kissing and whispering to each other than they did looking out at the pretty light displays. However, as they got further from the newer parts of the city and deeper into the older sections, Jim was taking more and more notice of the displays on the larger, older homes.

Meanwhile, Blair and Cecilia were equally engrossed in each other. Several times, it was only Mable or Joel's exclamations of pleasure that would bring his attention to the supposed purpose of their outing. As they found themselves far out into the suburbs, Blair finally brought his attention to their surroundings. Looking questioning at his lady, he whispered, "Where are we?"

Cecilia laughed, sounding just like her mother, "What, don't you recognize it?"

Peering out into the darkness, at the houses all decorated and lit, Blair had to shake his head, "Not a clue. It's dark and the houses all lit up like this. I have no idea where we are."

Jim's voice from the rear gave his friend the information he needed. "We're about three blocks from Joel and Mable's house, Chief," then he returned his attention to Ronnie, who was smiling up at him. "So, what's planned there?" he murmured in her ear.


With that one word, Jim's stomach let everyone know its feelings on the subject. Jim blushed, while Ronnie chuckled and rubbed his complaining midsection. "Don't worry, it won't be too much longer and we'll feed you, baby," she teased. Jim couldn't help but chuckle, albeit a bit ruefully.

"No covering for that, I guess," he said softly. She smiled and patted his stomach.

"No need. Blair warned us that you hadn't remembered to eat, today."

"I ate," Jim complained. "I had a sandwich at about eleven."

"And for breakfast?"

Hesitating for a moment, Jim replied, "Uh, I guess that was breakfast."

"I rest my case. You're as bad as your partner. You both need keepers to remind you to do things like eat. Although, your stomach seems perfectly able to remind you..."

"Yeah, but not until it's probably a lot later than it should be," he admitted.

"Well, tonight, you're going to eat well. I promise. You're stomach isn't going to know what hit it."


"Ummmhmmm," she rubbed her cheek against his. "I know, I helped them put it all together."

Jim stiffened. Blair chose that moment to look over his shoulder at him. As their eyes met, Blair straightened up and looked concerned.

"What's wrong, Jim?" Blair's voice was tentative.

"How long have all of you been planning this?" There was the telltale clenching of Jim's jaw.

Blair swallowed, worried, he knew how much Jim hated being surprised, even when it was a pleasant one. "Take it easy, Jim. It's not what you think."

Joel looked back at them, hearing the distressed tone of Blair's voice. "Take it easy, Jim. Don't you remember? You said you'd come over for dinner one night this week, this just happens to be the night." Seeing the uncertainty in the younger man's eyes, he played his trump card.

"Besides, Simon's going to be there. So is Mable's sister, Esther."

There was a moment of silence. "Mable?" Jim asked, "Are you playing matchmaker, again?" Jim's annoyance vanished in light of the idea.

"Well, her husband left her for some 'sweet young thang' several years ago. She went into a severe depression for a while, then got herself back up and went back to school. She's gotten her teaching license and is working with kids with learning disabilities. She's lived in Cascade since September, when she started work, here. So, for the first time in a lot of years, she's been close enough to come for Christmas."

"How many are in your family, Mable?" Blair asked, curiously.

"Well, there's me and Esther and Agatha; and our brothers, Leon, and Clarence. Agatha still lives in Missouri, and Leon lives in New Orleans, and Clarence lives in Baton Rouge."

"So, I guess you don't get to see them very often?" Jim asked.

"Well, every few years, we manage to all get together. Esther decided to move out here, just to get away from where her ex was. He's a lawyer and rather prominent. She's gone back to her maiden name, and that's a good thing. She applied all over the country when she got her diploma, and when she was offered the job here, she jumped at it. You can't get much more of a change than Cascade, after living in Missouri all your life."

"That's true," Blair agreed. "So, why haven't we met her before now?"

"Because she's rather shy around strangers and was more concerned with settling in with her new job and her apartment. She's only here now because it's Christmas Eve and that's a time for family. She still isn't real good with people. She was married for twenty years. They got hitched right out of high school and she had to work to put him through law school while she was raising their two kids, as well. Her son, Tyrell, is a junior in high school, and her daughter, Charmayne, got married last summer. Now, she's just starting to be willing to meet people, and I thought that this was a perfect situation. She can meet our friends and not feel too overwhelmed."

"You hope." Jim said. "Does Simon or Esther have any idea of your plans?"

"Well, I did mention that my sister and her son were going to be here. I also mentioned that Tyrell goes to the same school as Daryl, and is in a couple of his classes..."

"Mable, you're going to get into trouble, one of these days," Blair chuckled.

"Well, I'm not really trying to set either of them up with the other, I'm really just hoping to get Esther interested in going out again. Maybe have a little fun. At least she and Simon have teen-aged sons in common." Her defense sounded weak even in her own ears. "Oh, Lord. I certainly hope I haven't done the wrong thing."

"We'll do what we can to keep things going smoothly, Mable." Jim's surprising comment left the others speechless for a moment.

Just then, Joel turned the corner leading to his house. The huge old edifice took everyone's breath away. The eaves were all lined with the large, old-fashioned bulbs, as were the windows and doors. The house-wide front porch as well as the steps were outlined, along with as the port couchere and the garage. From the eves also dripped the miniature 'icicle' curtains, which twinkled as though they were dripping. The front walk was flanked by small, lit, evergreens, in pots. On the open lawn, there was a Nativity set up. It was made of wood, cutouts that were painted with bright, jewel-tones. Kneeling beside the manger, along with all the traditional figures, knelt a Santa figure, hat in his clasped hands, head bowed in prayer. From an enormous star affixed to the top of the chimney, was a series of blue light-strings, forming a pathway to the top of the creche. It was breathtaking in its simplicity.

"Oh, wow. No wonder you wanted to finish here. This has to be the best one we've seen," Ronnie said softly. "It's wonderful, Joel. I can't believe you did all this yourself."

Joel laughed, "I didn't. I got JJ to climb up on the roof and do the star. Young Tyrone helped me string the lights, and Mable and I have put together the figures over the years. I make them and she paints them."

"It's beautiful, Joel," Jim agreed.

Pulling through the port couchere, he drove around to the back, where the opening to the garage was. Parking in front of the doors, Joel turned off the engine and opened the door. The door at the top of the ramp opened and a younger version of Mable came out, pushing her wheelchair. She watched shyly as the passengers exited and, shyly not looking at anyone, pushed the chair up to the door, where Joel was lifting Mable from her seat.

Once she was settled in her chair, Mable made the introductions. "Esther, this is Jim Ellison and his partner, Blair Sandburg. They work with Joel at the police station. You met Ronnie earlier."

Esther smiled, her uncertainty was a physical presence. Jim, giving Ronnie's hand a quick squeeze, stepped over to Mable's sister and said, "Esther, I'm very happy to meet you," and gathered the startled woman up in a hug, practically lifting her from the ground. Kissing her cheek, he then whispered in her ear, "Welcome to Cascade. I guess, since Mable's adopted us, that makes you our sister."

Setting the shocked woman down, he was replaced by his partner, who basically duplicated his maneuver, except that the woman was enough taller than he that he had no chance of picking her up. He also kissed her cheek whispered in her ear, "It's wonderful to meet you," then kissed her again.

When she was released, she looked at the newcomers and stammered, "I-I-It's nice to meet you, too." She cast a terrified look at her sister and brother-in-law as she backed uncertainly toward the ramp. She led the way, casting frequent glances over her shoulder at the others. Entering the house through the kitchen, Cecilia and Ronnie immediately started shooing the men into the front room with dire warnings of no dinner if they didn't get out of their way. The men wisely followed instructions.

In the living room, they found Joel's nephew, Tyrell. When he saw them come in, he stood. It was obvious that he was still uncertain as to his position within the family. Seeing the other two men with his uncle, he looked almost frightened. Blair noticed it, immediately and wondered at what might cause such a reaction.

"Hey, Tyrell. I'd like you to meet a couple of my friends. This is Jim Ellison and his partner, Blair Sandburg. We work together at the police department."

"How do you do?" There was a tremor in the young man's voice.

Blair smiled, "Hey, I understand that you know Daryl Banks?" He extended his hand and Tyrell hesitantly took it, shaking hands. Despite his fear, the youth had a firm grip. "Which classes do you have with him?"

"We're on the track team, together, and I'm in advanced math classes, so we have calculus and physics together."

"Physics? Wow. That's some pretty tough classes. I know that Daryl's been having some trouble with the calculus. Maybe you can help him out?"

Surprised, Tyrell replied, "I-I guess. Sure. If he wants me to." He looked thoughtful, "Maybe he can help me with my history?"

"Well, if you have the same class as he had last year, I don't see why not." Jim said.

"Yeah." Then, more enthusiastically, "Yeah!"

Jim looked up toward the front door. Joel, picking up on the clue, strode over to the door and opened it, just before Simon Banks had a chance to knock. Joel's broad smile caused the captain to scowl.

"I'm almost used to that happening at Ellison and Sandburg's place. I certainly don't expect it here," he groused a little plaintively.

"Merry Christmas to you, too, Captain Scrooge." Joel replied with a grin. "Come on in." Looking past the newcomers, he called out, "Rafe! Brown! Come on in. You're just in time."

When the new arrivals had come in and Joel had closed the door, he began with introductions. Guys, this is my nephew, Tyrell Douglas. He's Mable's sister's son. They moved out here this summer. Esther's a teacher at Cascade Elementary. Tyrell, this is Captain Banks and I guess you know his son, Daryl."

Turning his focus to the older teen, Tyrell managed to smile, "Yeah. I've met Daryl. How's it goin'?"

"Goin' good, man." Daryl quickly glanced at the adults and, seeing that they weren't really interested in them, drew the younger boy aside. Soon, they were chattering away, Tyrell relaxing in the presence of the only person in the group that he felt he could relate to.

Rafe introduced his date, Marilyn, and Brown introduced his wife, Cheri. He explained that their daughter was spending the night at her grandparents, leaving them free to have their own night out. The group settled down, sitting around the large living room; the men started to talk shop, and the women, exchanging patient looks with each other, stood up and found their way to the kitchen, leaving the men to their own devices. They were welcomed to the kitchen, where Cheri introduced Marilyn and the others. For the most part, dinner was ready, and they were just working on the last minute preparations. Before long, Cecilia entered the living room and announced that dinner was served.

The men entered the room, still talking. Finding their seats, they sat down. When Simon looked up to see who was sitting next to him, he stopped, mid-sentence and stared.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Simon. I'd like you to meet my sister, Esther. Esther, the overly tall gentleman to your left is Captain Simon Banks, he's the head of Major Crime." Mable never even missed a beat. It was a brilliant move.

Simon stood up and pulled the chair for the lady beside him. Blushing, she accepted his gallantry. Throughout the meal, Simon's attention was riveted to his companion. It never occurred to him that it had been planned. Yet, by the end of the meal, it was obvious to everyone present, that the tall captain was well and truly smitten with the lady. The only one to glare at him, was Tyrell.

Daryl noticed the younger boy's reaction. Nudging him under the table, he softly asked, "What's wrong, man?"

"Your dad, man. What's he doin' with my mom?" His accusing glare turned to the other boy, "I'm not interested in some step-father, you know?"

"Whoa! It's a lot too early for that. They just met. They haven't even gotten to know each other, yet. Besides, my dad's not ready for any relationships. He and my mom have only been divorced for a few years." He looked over at the couple across the table, and realized that his own feelings were something very similar to Tyrell's.

Blair, sitting beside Daryl, had noticed the exchange. Frowning, he leaned over and whispered to his young friend. "Daryl, remember, it's not really anything to do with you. Don't you think your dad deserves to have a little happiness in his life? Someone to love and love him back? Besides you, I mean?"

Daryl looked at his friend, the man he depended on to help him keep his head on straight. The only person besides his father who he trusted to give him honest opinions and good advice. Sighing, he nodded his understanding. Turning to the boy sitting beside him, he passed on the information.

"Look, no matter what we think, this has to be between them. I'm not really interested in a stepmother, either. My real mom is bad enough, but my dad's a pretty terrific father. He listens, you know?"

Tyrell looked at the older boy, uncertain, "Okay, so he listens. Does he hit you?"

Jim looked up, having heard the exchange, even from the opposite end of the table. Suddenly, it all became very clear to him. Catching his partner's eye, he indicated that they needed to talk. Excusing themselves quietly, they met in the kitchen.

"What's wrong, Jim?"

"I heard Tyrell. He asked Daryl if his dad hit him. That's why he was so afraid when we arrived. We're all so much bigger than he is, he's afraid. I think his dad probably beat him...as well as his mother. See what you can find out, get Daryl to help you, if you can."

"Got it." Information exchanged and plans set, they returned to their dinner.

The rest of dinner was pleasant and quiet. Blair unashamedly eavesdropped on the conversation of the two youths beside him. Now that he was consciously paying attention, he was able to pick up a lot. Daryl, being the intelligent and caring person he'd been raised to be, probed his younger companion, seeking information. Realizing that Blair was listening, and why; he pumped Tyrell for as much information as he could. After dinner, while the adults headed for the living room and further conversation, Daryl volunteered to clean up. Tyrell, following his lead, agreed, helping to shoo the grown-ups away. Blair, after speaking to Cecilia and Jim, followed.

"Hey, Mr. Sandburg, we got it covered." Tyrell's voice was a bit standoffish.

Daryl placed a hand on the younger boy and said, "Hey, it's cool, Tyrell. Blair's the bomb, man. He's a friend, if you'll let him."

Tyrell looked suspiciously at the longhaired man, "How come you trust him, Daryl?" he asked, never taking his eyes off Blair.

"Because he tells me the truth and he's helped me... a lot. When me and my dad were lost in Peru? Him and Jim Ellison came down after us. They saved us from drug manufacturers. The first time I met him, he took on this wacko who took over the police station? He took out two of the bad guys, one with a bathroom stall door, and the other one with a vending machine. That nut Kincade was like so mad. Then, when Kincade came back? He was awesome, man." Nodding, with a look of pride on his face, Daryl reassured the younger boy, "Yeah, man. You can trust him. He'll never do you wrong." Then, turning to his friend, "Isn't that right, Blair?"

"Well, I'd never hurt you on purpose. I mean, it's possible I could give you misinformation, but it wouldn't be on purpose. You want to tell me what's wrong?"

"Nothing." Tyrell's voice was somewhat surly.

"So..." Blair began to gather the plates from the table, "Your dad hit you?" He was careful to not look at the youngster.

Tyrell stiffened. He knew that Daryl couldn't have said anything to Blair, they'd been side- by-side all evening. "What's it to you?"

"Well, never having even met my father, I don't suppose it's much at all. However, I do know that Daryl's dad would never hit a kid. Not even if they deserved it."

"Well, he has warmed my butt a few times, but not since I was ten." Daryl admitted.

Tyrell looked away. "My dad would hit us. With his belt, sometimes. Sometimes with his fist. When my mom finally had enough and told him to leave, I thought he was going to kill us. Charmayne ran outside to get help. Lucky for us, Uncle Leon had been on his way over and Char ran into him on her way out. He came in and thumped my dad..." he trailed off, his expression torn between the glee at being rescued by his uncle and seeing his father get his; and the horror of the idea of his dad being beaten. Blair, setting the dishes he was carrying down on the counter, slid an arm around the young man's shoulders.

"That's tough, man. It must be hard, loving someone and being so afraid of them at the same time. You need to work out your feelings, though. If you ever want to talk about it, I'm available. If you don't want to talk to me, talk to your aunt Mable. She's one of the best listeners I've ever met. She loves you and when you're part of her family, I pity the fool who hurts someone she cares about. Trust me on this. I've seen her in action."

"But... she invited Daryl and his dad over to meet my mom. Why would she do that?"

Blair thought for several minutes on his answer to that question. Not that he didn't know the answer, but working out how to say it kept him silent as they finished clearing the table and started washing the dishes. Daryl's expression was just as expectant as Tyrell's.

"I think that Mable saw two lonely people who don't really have anyone to talk to. I don't think she was trying to put them together as a couple, more like trying to get them both to realize that a failed marriage isn't the end of the world and that there are people out there who may be able to help fill the void left behind. Both your dad, Daryl, and your mom, Tyrell, have been hurt. Neither of them has gone on a date since. They probably both feel like failures. I know that Simon's pretty much convinced himself that his failed marriage was all his fault..."

"That's not so!" Daryl interrupted. "I'm not saying it wasn't partly his fault, but not all of it. Mom wanted her career, she didn't want to worry whether he was coming home at night. Hated when he got calls in the middle of the night... But he was just tryin' to provide for us. Doing a job he loves and is really good at. Mom knew he was a cop when she married him. It's not like it was a surprise, or anything, you know?"

"Yeah. I know. I'm glad you've figured it out, Daryl. But Tyrell is still working through it. Besides, they just met. Knowing Simon, he's not about to propose tonight, or even in the next year, probably." He turned to Tyrell, "Don't you think your mom deserves to have friends, go out and meet people? Maybe go to a movie, have someone to talk to about you; someone who can relate? Like Simon has Daryl? You're only a year apart, so it makes sense that they have a lot in common. I'm willing to bet that if they do ever go out together, the two of you will be the main topic of conversation."

Daryl laughed out loud. "Oh, man. I can just see that." He caught Tyrell's eye, "He's right, man. Besides, if we can be friends, why can't they?"

Begrudgingly, Tyrell considered their words. Remembering how sad and lonely his mother had been after his dad had gone; yet how relieved he himself had felt... he realized how torn he was. Nodding, he spoke. "Yeah. You're right. I'm not ready for her to be dating, but I don't have the right to tell her that she can't, I guess."

"That's a start, Tyrell." Blair smiled. "Now, let's get these dishes done, so we can get back to the party."

Blair gave Jim a wink when they returned. Jim's answering smile told him that he'd been listening in. The rest of the evening was spent talking about the season and the light displays they'd seen. Each member of the group described the house they'd liked best. Some liked the miniature lights, some liked the combinations, Jim liked anything that didn't blink. They all, however, thought that the most evocative display of them all, was the one they were sitting in.

Later, as the guests prepared to go home for their own celebrations, Simon offered to take Jim and Blair home. Blair immediately accepted, but Jim opted to go with Ronnie. He promised to be home later, but the evening was still young, and they decided to go out cruising the Christmas lights again.

"So, Simon, what did you think of Mable's kid sister?"

"She's nice," came the non-committal reply.

"Uh-huh. Whatever you say, Simon."

"That's Captain Banks, to you, Sandburg." The older man growled. Daryl just sat in the back seat and grinned.

"Not when we're off duty, man." Blair said. "I thought you made a cute couple, myself."


"And the two of you have so much in common, too. I mean like you both have teen-aged sons and they're not only in the same school, they even have a couple of classes together."

"I don't want to here it, Sandburg."

"She's just as pretty as Mable, did you notice?" Blair continued, unabashed.

"Yeah, Dad. Tyrell's cool, too." Daryl joined.

"Daryl! Not you, too!" Simon exclaimed plaintively.

"Hey, Blair, did you taste that pie she made? Oh, man. Absolute heaven."

"Yeah. She laughs just like Mable, too."

"ENOUGH!" Simon's shout immediately silenced the teasing. Pulling up in front of 307 Prospect, he glared at his passenger. "Out. Good night. Merry Christmas."

Opening the door and sliding out, Blair chimed back, "OK, I'm out. Good night and Merry Christmas to you both, as well." His laughter followed them as Simon pulled away with a great deal more squealing of mistreated tires than was absolutely necessary.

Chuckling, Blair made his way inside to call and talk to Cecilia. It looked as though Mable's sister had made quite a hit with their captain, and he could hardly wait to spread the gossip.

Jim and Ronnie headed out of the city and up into the mountains surrounding the area. Following Jim's instructions, they came out on a plateau that overlooked the city, below. The lights from this vantage-point were spectacular. The weather was surprisingly clear for this time of year and Jim loved to come up here to look at the city. It was even nicer when he had someone along with him to share it with. Relaxing, pulling Ronnie close, they watched the lights below and the stars above. They spoke hardly at all, merely cuddling and enjoying the company and the view. Content in their relationship and understanding one another, they quietly enjoyed the view. When the car finally became too cold for comfort, Ronnie started the engine and drove back down to the city. Pulling up in front of Jim's building, she stopped to let him out.

"Thanks for giving in, this evening. I had a wonderful time."

"Me, too. Once I got over myself. I've got to remember to apologize to Sandburg, if he's still awake."

"Good idea. What did you think of Esther?"

"Well, I think she escaped from a rather abusive husband and is afraid. If Simon works at it, it could work out."

"But you doubt it."

Jim shrugged. "As much as a year ago, I'd have laughed at the idea. Now..." his expression showed that he was thinking of their growing relationship.

"Hmmm. Sounds like a man who's learning that not all relationships are alike..." her tone was teasing.

"Yeah. Even this old dog is able to learn, sometimes." He leaned in and kissed her, "Merry Christmas, Ronnie. See you tomorrow?"

"Absolutely. You want me to come over here?"

"Yeah. Sandburg's whipping something up, not that that doesn't worry me..."

Laughing, Ronnie responded, "Hey, I happen to like the way Blair cooks." She joked. "Not that some of his stories don't worry me..." she added.

Jim chuckled, "Well, I'm learning not to ask what's in his meals, just enjoy them."

"Sounds like good advice."

"So does this," Jim leaned back in and kissed her again. When he finally withdrew, he whispered, "Merry Christmas." And reluctantly pulled back, closing the door. He stood on the sidewalk as he watched her drive away. Sighing as she turned the corner and out of sight, he turned towards the building and went inside.

"I half expected you to not come home, tonight." Blair greeted him as he entered the loft.

"Well, it isn't as though I hadn't thought about it." Jim admitted. "By the way, I need to apologize for not wanting to go out, earlier."

Blair froze. Slowly, he turned to face his roommate. Making a production of staring closely at his friend, he cautiously asked, "OK, who are you and what have you done with Jim?"

"Funny, Shecky."

"No, I mean it. The Jim Ellison I know doesn't apologize. At least, not in so many words. What brought this on?"

"Chalk it up to mellowing in my old age."

"Well, the 'old' I'll buy, but 'mellow'? I don't think so." The grin spread across his face.

With a light slap on the top of his friend's head, he replied, "Fine, then. Call it the season, or whatever. Just don't expect it to happen again any time soon."

"Now, that's the Jim Ellison I know." Blair grinned.

"Well, if you don't go to bed, Santa will never come." Jim admonished, heading for the stairs up to his room.

"Santa? Whoa, since when does tough guy Ellison believe in Santa?" Blair's laughter floated up the stairs.

"When he got something he really wanted for Christmas." Came the soft answer.

"Oh? Really? And what was that?"

"People who care about me and want me around. The friends who have made me a part of their family, Joel and his family, the guys at the station... you." The last said very softly.

Blair swallowed hard, "Oh." He croaked out. Looking up to meet his friend's eyes, he smiled, "You know, I think I got the same present. Funny thing, though, I don't ever remember asking Santa for it."

"No, me either. But I do remember wanting it more than anything, all the time I was growing up, but never got it. Now, after I'd given up hope of ever having it, I got it. It wasn't all at once, but still..." His eyes glittered in the subdued lighting of the loft, "Now, I've got the one thing I've wished for every Christmas since my mother left. And I wouldn't take anything in exchange for it."

Swallowing hard, Blair's own glittering eyes returned the gaze of his friend. "Me, either, Jim. Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Blair."

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