Once Upon a Christmas by banbury

Once Upon a Christmas... - banbury

1. Unexpected Gift

The wind was blowing hard now; sharp pieces of ice banged the window behind his back. The cold in the unheated attic made the man shiver all the time and he pushed the boxes with old toys and other kids stuff away with irritation.

“Sally!” He listened for several minutes, trying to make out the sounds in the house, then cursed under his breath and darted towards the staircase. “Sally! Where did you put my old sled?”

Words drifted up from the kitchen, “… stairs… under…”

“Damn.” He shut the attic door and went downstairs. The old woman stood in the middle of the kitchen with her hands covered with flour, patiently waiting for him. “Just don’t tell me that my old man’s thrown it out at last.”

“No, Steve. I put it downstairs this year, under the Christmas tree.”

Steve nodded and ran to the living room without even a simple “thanks.” His mind was focused on one thought and he couldn’t let himself be distracted before he’d resolved the strange memory that'd settled in his head the night before.

The sled, draped with an old child's quilt, patterned with stars and bells, had been put under the tree and loaded with wrapped gifts. Steven frowned, then quickly unloaded his prize and turned it over.

It was there.

Somehow, to see the words he'd seen last night in his dream for real was more fantastic than the dream itself.

The words carved deep in the old wood stated “B.J. Sandburg’s property.” Steven nodded, closed his eyes for a minute, and then slowly traced the letters with his finger. So, it was real! He'd known Blair before.

He didn’t remember it clearly enough to recall all the details – it was just a vague memory in his dream with a bouncing kid about six years old who'd tried to persuade him to go somewhere he wasn’t supposed to go. And the sled. Steve’s own sled he'd given to Blair as a gift at the beginning of their acquaintance and found outside his window two or so months later, when Blair and his mom disappeared into thin air.

Steve didn’t know where Jim was at that time, whether he remembered Blair or not. And truthfully he didn’t give a damn about it now. He traced the letters one more time, organized the gifts under the tree in the proper manner and took the sled with him.

“Hmmm, Sally, may I borrow it?” He smiled thankfully at her amused smile and went to his car. He wouldn't go to Jim’s loft tonight. Oh no. He’d put this sled in his room for a while and try to remember by himself.

Steven smiled. It was as if he'd found his Christmas gift beforehand and was now anticipating the gradual removal of the wrapping. It would be fun. And then he’d go to Jim and Blair.

2. To find a child inside…

Jim kicked a discarded candy in a festive wrapper out of his way and shrugged in answer to Blair’s amused glance. “You know I hate all this…” Blair followed Jim's gaze which was directed at the big Christmas tree enmeshed in tinsel in front of the mall just as a pod of Santa’s elves erupted from the inside. “So, we are in and out on the double. An hour tops.”

“No way, man.” Blair carefully raised his injured arm and waved a finger before Jim’s nose. “No way. I’m a suffering partner here and therefore you are destined to help me out. Here.” Blair thrust an A4 sheet of paper covered with writing on both sides into Jim’s hands. “Let’s set the ball rolling, oh quickest one.”

Blair shamelessly enjoyed this time of the year – all the music, colors, and joy. He liked to watch how the people opened up under the invisible influence of the atmosphere. He took pleasure in watching Jim absorb the power of it all. Unconsciously, by himself. Even now. Especially now.

Blair observed as Jim’s nostrils flared, assaulted by thousands of scents of sweets, perfume, various scented candles, sachets, and other gifts and food. He patted Jim’s arm and the other man automatically dialed it all down. Sighed. Sniffed and carefully made his way to the counter with scented oils.

That’s it! Blair picked several items that Jim seemed to like the most and continued to watch his friend.

Jim screwed his eyes up, dialed his sight down, and began to look over the mall interiors. There were so many things to see; Blair watched in envy as Jim’s pupils widened and narrowed in an attempt to absorb every tiny detail of the decorations. “What do you think about putting these little motorcycles on the tree?”

Blair felt wonder bubbling inside him as he followed Jim around the shops and counters. It was as if Jim peeled away layers of his adult life as he let every sense soak up the mood of the holiday.

Jim’s hearing brought them the CD of “Best Christmas songs of ‘75”. His touch uncovered the softest new rug for their couch, and his taste led them to the new café with the peach-n-mango ice cream Blair was so fond of. It was amazing to watch as the hell for adult Jim dissolved into the heaven for his inner child, though Blair wasn’t sure that as a child Jim had been fond of this holiday.

“Did you like to go shopping for Christmas when you were a boy?” Curiosity finally killed the cat and Blair stared at his friend, waiting for an answer.

“Nope, why?” Jim frowned thoughtfully. “Though there was one time when it was… interesting. Steve brought his friend with him, don’t remember who, a small kid, so bouncy and so enthusiastic it was hard not to share his excitement. That was nice.”

They finished their ice cream and set off to finish their gift list.

3. Time to remember

“Left. Yes. Here, here. Stay put, Jim.” Blair stepped back and surveyed the picture. “No, to the right. A little. A little, Jim.”

Ellison stretched practically on the top of the railing trying to move the silvery wreath entwined with holly farther. “Sorry, Chief, it just won’t stretch more.” He knotted it to the metal and gratefully sank on the bed.

It was fun to decorate the loft. At first. He felt somehow guilty about Blair’s hand, though, truth to be told, that was solely his own fault. However, it wasn’t the main reason for Jim. He just found real excitement in making their cool place warmer, homey. At first. Several hours ago. At this very moment, all Jim cared about was a beer and a game to catch.

“Jim?” He looked down over the edge of the bed. Sandburg was sitting comfortably in the armchair with a beer and the next box of decorations on his knees. “You know, I think if you try to pull the bow in the middle of the wreath free, it’ll unwind and get longer. Care to try?”

Jim silently looked him over, sniffed the beer and headed downstairs. “Nope.”

“Jim?” There wasn’t any accusation in the soft voice other than childish amusement, sort of “I’m here, all poor and miserable and you don’t want to do the smallest thing to make me feel better.” “Jim?”

Jim sighed, sniffed the beer one more time and dragged himself back upstairs. “Okay. Just that one thing.” He pulled on the bow and to his indescribable surprise the wreath unwound to twice its size.

“That’s it. Exactly as I thought it might.” Blair leaped from his seat and began to direct the operation.

Later, looking at it from below Jim had to hand it to Blair – the wreath with its soft glow and dangling holly did looked better unwound. He even let himself be kissed under it. Just a thank you kiss on the cheek, nothing more. “How did you know to pull that bow?”

“Not sure. Lucky guess I think.” Blair blinked at his friend and smiled a bit sheepishly. “Not sure, really. It seems I’ve seen that kind of wreath before and just remembered. What?”

Jim thoughtfully turned around the box the decoration had been in. “It’s a rather old piece, you know. It used to be my mom’s favorite. This trick with the bow was her special treat for us on Christmas. I didn’t even know how she’d pulled it. Sort of miracle. I never saw it in the house after she’d left.”

“Where did you find it?”

“Sally gave it to me last year. Said that it was time to dust off old memories. Something like that.” Jim looked up and smiled. “Maybe she was right.”

4. Perfection

“Shit, I’m late.” Jim watched in amusement as Blair bolted from his room to the bathroom and then turned back to the window. Ten minutes later, the local hurricane flew back his room and began to rummage through the drawers. “Damn it! Jim! Jim! What time is it now? My alarm clock went to hell again.”

“Six thirty.” Jim melancholy sipped his coffee and examined snowflakes of various forms that were landing on the window glass.

“Wha…? But?”

“It’s the snow, Chief. Just snow.”

Blair quietly moved by his friend and stood there silently for some time. The snow was perfect – large, fluffy, soft by the looks of it flakes drifted slowly to the ground. It was bright even if the world outside was still pretty dark and gloomy. Jim opened the balcony door, stuck his palm out – several flakes landed on the warm surface, and began to melt. He quickly drew his hand back and licked the skin.

“How does it taste?” Jim chuckled at the question – once a scientist, always a scientist.

“Like childhood.”

Blair glared at him, thrust his hand out for a second and then licked away the unfortunate snowflakes. “Yeah!” Jim watched as an amused smile blossomed on animated face. “Yeah! Like Christmas cookies.”

“Don’t know about the cookies, but I haven’t seen such a lot of snow since…”

“Hey, last year was quite snowy.”

“Sure, whatever,” Jim brushed away Sandburg’s words, trying to remember the year that the snow was as perfect as this. “Since I was at school, I think – seventy-five or seventy-six.”

“Seventy-five.”

Jim frowned.

“I’m sure, man. Really! It was the only year we’d spent with Naomi up here before I started at Rainier. The only year I’d seen real snow on Christmas Eve.”

Jim imagined six-year-old Blair – all waving hands, bouncing hair and smile – and burst out laughing. “I can imagine it just fine. You and …the snow.”

“You meant – me and the poor schmucks I was stuck with.” Jim knew Sandburg wasn’t irritated by this image. They smiled at each other and he patted his friend’s arm.

“I think they weren’t all that upset with you here. Rather the other way around.”

5. To think

Blair was sure that it was Jim, so he opened the door with his eyes completely focused on his book. He was surprised when nobody came in. He turned back and found himself staring at a small, delicate-looking Chinese woman in her sixties.

“Mr. Blair.” She inclined her head patiently waiting for an answer. “May I come in?” Blair silently nodded. He finally remembered her – Sally, the Ellisons' housekeeper.

“Sure thing, Mrs…” He trailed off, not sure how to address her.

“Just 'Sally,' Mr. Blair.” She smiled and entered the loft, heading straight to the kitchen island. She put the big paper bag she brought with her on the surface and took out a plastic container. “I’d be leaving tonight for China with my family. We are going to visit our relatives. I cooked some tangyuan for Jim and you to celebrate Dong Zhi Festival. I know it’s early, but I wanted you to have a good time, I remember how you liked it when Steve brought you to our house to celebrate Dang Zhi last time.”

“I liked it?” Blair certainly knew about Dang Zhi Festival and Chinese solstice traditions, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember the time when he’d been celebrating it at the Ellison house. He was at a loss and just opened the container to look inside. It had two parts – one was filled with rich black sesame soup with whitish balls of unfilled tangyuan, the other one contained tangyuan filled with chopped peanuts and sugar. He sniffed it appreciatively and turned to the guest.

“How do you know I liked it with peanuts?”

“I remember it from the last time.” She patiently smiled at his distrust. “I was surprised, because Jim had always liked the sesame soup and William and Steve never eat tangyuan. I myself prefer the peanuts one too and was pleased to have someone with similar tastes.”

Blair shook his head. He sincerely didn’t remember anything of what Sally had just told him about. Him at the Ellisons' house? With Steven? To celebrate Chinese solstice? No way, man.

But there was something solid in Sally’s words. Blair couldn’t imagine why she’d want to lie to him, to make up this story. She just wasn’t that type of person. So there must be something in her words. He even wanted to remember. It was good to have such memories – there weren’t many celebrations in his life to remember.

“Don’t think too hard about it, Blair.” Sally patted the young man lightly on his hand. “It will come to you in time.” She started to say something else, but stopped and asked instead. “Do you know the meaning of this holiday?”

“Yes - balance and harmony in life, and a time for family reunions.” He was praised with her delighted laughter.

“You are a good student, Blair. Think of it.” She bowed a little and disappeared behind the door. Blair listened to the sound of the elevator and smiled. He could do it – he could think.

6. To Build a Tradition

William Ellison had never been a domestic man. He wasn't even a real family man nowadays. The only constant presence in his life these past years had been Sally. And now that she’d left for the holidays, William Ellison found himself drifting away.

He suddenly realized that his house was too quiet, too big and too cold for him. He began to accept invitations for dinner from long forgotten former co-workers, acquaintances from the Country Club, and even his lawyer. He went to the theatre, and to several charity events.

And here he was now, sitting in the tiny café tucked in the corner of the main gallery of the mall, mindlessly observing people loaded with parcels, bags and baskets, and sipping half-cold coffee. He was supposed to buy some presents and he was bored.

“Are you sure you need more candles? I thought we…” William twitched and tried to find the source of that voice. “…and some rum for Christmas pudding, I’d like to try this new recipe…” He was sure it was Jim, who was talking of candles and rum, but this casual, even domestic chatter was so out of character for his older son, he needed to see the speaker to reassure himself he was just imagining things.

He spotted them entering the shop with artificial Christmas trees next to the café. Jim had several bags in his arms and his partner held a piece of paper covered with writing. William spent several minutes debating with himself whether to follow them or leave it as it was, then threw some bills on the table and entered the shop.

“I don’t know, Chief, they look perfectly Christmassy to me. “ Ellison watched as his son touched unnaturally green and fluffy needles on the big half-assembled tree and made a wry face after sniffing it.

“Ji-im!” Sandburg, the older man remembered his name at last, delved into the bag. “Just imagine the… mmmm… the scent of a real thing, by the way, the…” The hippie-boy glanced up at his son and William followed his gaze. His son didn’t even try to hide his grin. “You bastard, every year you have me to lay myself out for you to persuade you to buy the real tree.” Ellison didn’t hear any actual insult in the words. It sounded more amused than angry and the thought crossed his mind that it sounded as if it was a ritual, a special home tradition – Christmas banter over the tree.

“Yep, buddy, got it in one.” He heard the smile in his son’s voice and saw the friendly slap on his hand. They took their bags and left, not paying attention to the older man by the counter.

William Ellison hadn’t been a domestic man, he actually hated such homey manifestations, but now he couldn’t seem to shake off the jealousy. He wanted for once to have somebody around to in a friendly way about the tree.

“I’ll take that one.” He took out his wallet. He could argue with Sally later at least.

7. Meditation

Naomi groped for the key above the door and let herself into the loft. It was dark and quiet. She put her bag in Blair’s room and lit kitchen lights, looking for some water. The flight had been long and tiresome, but she didn’t want to sleep yet. She thought she‘d wait up for Blair and do some meditation to ease her mind.

Naomi wasn’t sure Blair would be glad to see her; at least he hadn't been the last time she’d drifted in. She sighed and went looking for some candles to process it all. She found a half-burned one in Blair’s room and two more in the fancy candlestick on the bookshelves. Naomi put it in order, lit the candles, and sat in the position.

The quiet enveloped her. There was real peacefulness in the loft, an odd sense of contentment she didn’t anticipate from the house of such different men.

She closed her eyes, waiting for the desirable state of meditation to capture her. It didn’t come. Naomi waited for nearly half an hour but it was fruitless. Something nagged at the back of her mind and snapped her out each time she was coming to the right stage. She gave up, stretched and nearly knocked over one of the candlesticks.

It felt warm and heavy in her arm – solid carved wood in the shape of a mountain lion adorned with a copper rest for the candle in his paws. It was smooth and polished, smelling faintly of sandalwood and lavender. Naomi stroked it thoughtfully.

There was something familiar in the feel of a lion in her hands. She closed her eyes and cradled the figurine in her hands. Of course! Naomi smiled remembering her sometime friend Ce – elegant, despite worn clothes, blonde with those sad blue eyes. They’d spent several months together in the retreat in southern Portugal.

Ce wasn’t much for meditation and soul searching, but she was very good with Blair – let him tag along when she went to gather herbs and flowers, told him stories and sang to him. Ce was into herbal medicine and it seemed now Blair’d picked up a lot of his knowledge from her that year. Naomi smiled at the memory of Blair’s small nimble fingers sorting the leaves out.

When Ce’d overheard Naomi’s decision to head back to the States she’d given Naomi the two candlesticks and asked her to deliver them to Ce's family back there. Naomi’d never known Ce’s history and wasn’t much interested, but it wasn’t a big deal to hand over these gifts.

She still remembered the closed-faced man with steely blue eyes who reluctantly offered her a cup of tea and asked several questions, not hearing her answers. She seemed to remember a woman and a boy as well, though she wasn’t sure. They’d ended up living in Cascade for two or three months, because she’d found a very interesting meditating group.

Naomi sighed contentedly, put the candlestick back on the table and sat in the position again. This time she reached the state of meditation very quickly.

8. Something to keep

“Try it.” Blair shoved the mug under Jim’s nose.

“You know, if you’ll keep it that way, I’ll be inebriated long before the guys show up.” He sniffed the eggnog. “Leave it that way.”

Blair smiled brightly at him and hurried back to the kitchen. Tonight was their turn to host the poker night and Blair wanted to give it the perfect festive mood – so he busied himself with gingerbread and chocolate cookies, eggnog, chips with vegetable dip and other finger food. Jim was the main taster and party decorator.

They'd planned it all out to have a couple of hours rest before the guests arrived and were genuinely upset when Jim suddenly sniffed the air and said, “Steven is at the door.” They even let Steven knock several times before opening the door.

“What?” Jim was rude and knew it, but still. “We are busy tonight.” Blair huffed unhappily.

“Listen, Steven, do you want some eggnog? And we have cookies.”

“Aw, that’s my Blair!” Jim and Blair both gaped at him, bemused. “What do you mean, Steve?” The Sentinel’s possessiveness fired up immediately. Steven gave them a superior smile stepped forward, and nonchalantly dropped his arm around Blair’s shoulders. The Sentinel and his Guide were stupefied into silence. “You see, bro, I finally overcame my own tendency to repress memories.” The other men blinked at him uncertainly. “And I have to say that Blair’d played a huge role in it.” Blair glanced at Jim and lifted both his eyebrows questioningly. “And you know, bro, I finally realized why I like Blair…” They patiently waited through the theatrical pause. “I knew him way before you. That’s it!”

There was silence.

“Oh, damn. Okay, Jim, I’m not surprised that you repressed it all, like the rest of our childhood. Hell, it seems I managed to repress you for some time. But Blair? How don’t you remember that Christmas and Sally’s Gingerbread House and the skating rink and…” Steven looked around and triumphantly pointed towards the railing. “Hey, Mom’s wreath, do you remember it?”

The answering silence stretched uncomfortably until a tiny, almost unrecognizable voice asked, “The Gingerbread House? That was for real?”

Jim snatched Blair’s glass of eggnog, knocked it back in one gulp and began coughing and sneezing. “You are… ahchoo… delirious… ahchoo… bro. What… ahchoo… did you put in… ahchoo… here, Chief?”

“You told me it was perfectly okay, man! Stick to your words.” Blair knocked his partner on the back several times. “And by the way, the Gingerbread House was for real. I remembered it for years, man. For years.” Blair turned to Steven with a blinding smile. “I just didn’t remember it was here. Why didn’t I remember?”

Steven shrugged. “We should work on your memory, Blair. And I have something I’ve kept all the time to show you.” They smiled at each other. Steven was about to say more when he was interrupted by a gloomy Sentinel.

“You can keep your memories, bro, and I’ll keep my G… friend, thank you very much.” He yanked Blair to the kitchen. “We have eggnog to re-make before the poker.”

9. Something stupid

“Jealous?” Jim shuddered inwardly and tried to block Blair’s question out for the nth time for the last two days. Jim didn’t need to ask what it was about. That damned conversation with Steven.

Oh, he could admit without shame he was jealous. Though not of what Blair assumed he was. He wasn’t jealous of the idea that Steven’d known Blair before himself. Oh, no. It was Steven’s sudden possessiveness towards his partner that set Jim off. Blair was his. Period.

Jim was at a loss as to what stood behind Blair’s question. He seemed to be genuinely, even scientifically curious. But for Jim it was too close to his heart to be just curiosity. He didn’t want to answer this question because it’d eventually wind up in having to say something more than he was comfortable with. Or to make up a fight of sorts to avoid answering this damn question. Or to feign sort of…

His own reasoning enmeshed Jim when he heard the heavy sigh behind his back and turned around in time to see his friend disappearing in his room. He was about to say something stupid like, “I love you, Chief” when the man in question emerged from the room with a box in his hands.

Jim stiffened again. “It’s a pity you’d gotten that call right before the gift exchange, which was fun, by the way.” Blair smiled lightly, seemingly putting his question aside for a while. “I tried to bring your gift for you, but the gang said you’d have to open it tomorrow in the bullpen. I think it’s a tad suspicious, I bet someone has gotten you something ridiculous.”

Jim shrugged, watching him warily. He couldn’t help being worried, because he was the one who’d been picked to be Blair’s Secret Santa this year and bought the present. It had taken him two weeks to be able to find exactly what he wanted to give Blair without revealing who exactly had given it to him. He was afraid to see the reaction.

“I’ve got something interesting; would you care to take a look?” Blair watched Jim with strange anticipation and he had to put a blank look on his face to hide the shuddering inside.

“Sure.”

He fixed his eyes on the thing in Blair’s hands. One might think it was a joke – all that flashy wrappings and frayed, scratched papier-mâché Christmas-tree decoration. But it was Jim’s very own first Christmas-tree decoration, the first one he’d put himself on the branch. Jim turned the attic upside down hunting it. This tiny police car in Blair’s hands was his silent thank-you for all the things Blair had had to put up with working with him. That Blair for him was ABC – “all but certificate” detective. But again, one might think it was a joke.

Silence stretched uncomfortably. Jim was so deep in his own thoughts that he almost missed the moment when Blair framed his face in his hands and kissed him on the forehead.

10. How to Organize a Christmas Caroling Party: Step by Step Instructions

Jim peeked out the corner of the snack machine that he was hiding behind. It seemed there was nothing out of order in the bullpen, but he knew better. Joel was in charge of organizing a Christmas caroling party. Furthermore, he'd asked Blair how to do it in the most scientific way. Blair had introduced him to some efficient WWW search engines.

Jim could hear their voices murmuring under the usual high-level hubbub of the room. “Step One. So, Joel, just ask them, that’s it.” Jim heard a light tapping on the hand and Joel’s sigh.

“Guys,” Joel cleared his throat, “and ladies. I know who can sing on key, so don’t embarrass yourself and just sign this form.” Jim heard a low murmur, steps and the shuffle of the paper.

“Amazing, Joel. Now to step two.” Blair was an embodiment of positive encouragement.

“Okay, those who are not on the list should come here to help me decorate the bullpen an hour before.” There were some weak protests, but not many.

“Okay, Blair, I think I can do it myself now. Step three, right?” Joel took a deep breath. “Do any of you have a book of Christmas carols?” After short period Joel scribbled down something, “Okay, I’ll bring more of them.”

“Now the easiest part for you guys, Rhonda’ll buy candles and paper plates and Blair agreed to make finger food and snacks. Therefore, all you need to bring is something to drink. And no, guys, no beer.”

Joel sighed contentedly and began to shuffle pages again. Blair gave a cough. "Um? Oh, sorry, Blair, you are right. Guys, listen to me! We’ll have a little snack in the bullpen, and then we’re heading to the other floors to sing carols to everyone.”

Deadly silence was the only answer to the last statement.

Jim was the one who heard an inaudible mutter. “Blair, Blair! Don’t you think the last step was a mistake? Maybe we found the wrong instructions?”

11. Looking inside

Long years ago on a deep winter night,
High in the heav'ns a star shone bright…

A group of miserable detectives stood in the center of the entrance hall of the Cascade Police Department with their candles in paper holders and books of carols. Not that they didn’t want to sing carols, actually they were enjoying it very much. It was that they felt themselves too exposed to everyone who entered the building, caroling here.

While in a manger a wee baby lay,
Sweetly asleep on a bed of hay.

Jim closed his eyes and let the mostly forgotten childhood sensation of being The Voice wash over him. He hadn’t had a great voice – average enough, though pleasant and finely tuned through the endless music lessons in the church choir when he was teenager. He hadn’t been particularly thrilled at the prospect of singing during the services then, yet there were times when he could’ve closed his eyes and felt a part of the divine music, however pompous it sounded. He liked those moments. To dissolve in the tune.

Jesus the Lord was that baby so small,
Laid down to sleep in a humble stall;

He liked this carol. It always reminded him of a starry night, full of silence and the sound of falling snow. And there was a vague memory of the kids' voices singing a slow song discordantly. There was something very happy about this memory and Jim let himself be taken by the melody and feel.

Then came the star and it stood overhead,
shedding its light 'round His little bed.

He heard by his inner ear a small voice endeavoring to follow the tune. He saw with his inner eye bright blue eyes, a nimble figure, eager in its wish to be the part of a group, to do any task. He couldn’t recognize him, however hard he tried. But it seemed to him that he could hear his voice even now, somewhere nearby, and Jim closed his eyes tightly, trying to make that feeling last, to grasp the memory.

Dear baby Jesus, how tiny Thou art,
I'll make a place for Thee in my heart,

Somebody touched his hand. Jim reluctantly let the memory slip, turned and peered right into Blair’s eyes, bright and intense, as they were even when he was little. “Oh, my!”

And when the stars in the heavens I see,
Ever and always I think of Thee.

The night outside the hall was as starry and serene as he remembered it so many years ago. And the voice beside him followed his lead as diligently as he’d done when he didn’t know how to carol properly. And it all was as it was supposed to be.

12. In the mood

Jim put the log down in the pile of the firewood and looked it thoughtfully over. He rarely used real wood in his fireplace, but was in the mood for the real Yule Log now and he just knew Blair’d appreciate it. He dug in the pile and fished out the huge rough-hewn log.

"Oh, that one is nice. Could you find something like that for me?”

Jim was so deep into his thoughts he never realized there was somebody behind him. He glanced at Steven cheerlessly out of the corner of his eye and said nothing.

“I love you too. So?”

Jim took one more look at the firewood and took the other big log out of the pile.

“Are you still mad at me about the last conversation? Oh, bro!” Steven sadly shook his head and sighed. “It was a joke? You putz. It was … you know it was as if I finally had something to be the first at, to actually do something before you.”

Jim gazed into Steven’s earnest eyes and listened deeper. His brother was earnest with him. Jim shrugged, “Okay, I think I was out of line. A little. But it doesn’t mean you can mess with my G… my Sandburg.”

Steven nodded several times and heaved a sigh of relief. “You got it, bro. I'd just, you know, like to know him better, to remember why I’d befriended him the first time. As I recall, I’d been quite mean to smaller guys, I mean…”

Steven’s voice trailed off, but Jim knew what it was all about and patted his brother on the shoulder. “We’ll do something about it.” He dug one more time in the firewood, took out the second log and handed it to Steven as well. “Are they for father?”

“Yep. He asked me to pick it up on the way. And…” Steven looked at Jim uncertainly, “he asked you two to come to the house on Christmas Eve.”

Jim stared several moments to the bags of coal laid near the chopped wood, wordlessly picked one up, handed the money to the seller and turned to his truck. In the last minute, before tossing the coal and the log into the bed of the car, he nodded. “I’ll ask Blair. I think he’d be interested.” He heard Steven's sigh of relief.

“Thanks for the log. It’ll be perfect for the fire.”

13. Miracles

Naomi watched the menorah before her and remembered how Blair and she’d used to light candles each night and talk about miracles and life. As a kid, Blair’d admired the idea of the miracle. They’d used to go through the year’s events each Hanukkah and decide which one was a miracle. Naomi smiled wistfully, listening to her son’s words over the phone line.

“Sweetie, I…”

“Mom, do you…”

They laughed and Naomi tried once again, “You know, sweetie, I was thinking, did you find your miracle this year?” She heard an amused chuckle from the other side.

“Yes, why? You’d come to wish me Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah.”

“Oh, no, dear. I mean – the real miracle, like you’d used to do before.”

“Oh, you mean that miracle.” She thought she actually heard Blair smiling. “I’m not… uhm… actually, maybe, though I’d need your assistance to confirm it a miracle.”

Naomi held her breath. She didn’t anticipate anything special; she just anticipated the process of revealing a miracle. “I’m here, sweetie.”

“Do you remember the time we’d spent here when I was six? We’d been there for the whole three months and left after Christmas. Do you?” There was something almost childish in his voice now and Naomi smiled sadly.

“Of course, sweetie. You’d found friends here and didn’t want to leave.”

“Really?” She heard quick steps as if Blair began to pace the room. “Do you remember them?”

“Sorry, sweetie.” Naomi closed her eyes and pictured the bunch of kids, standing beside their friend’s porch waiting for Blair. “Sorry, I’d never really met them.” She heard sigh and suddenly remembered her own question. “Oh, dear, I was wondering… I’ve seen two candlesticks the other day in the loft. You know the ones in the shape of the lions?”

“Uhm?”

“Where did you find them?” Naomi held her breath, not sure what she really wanted to hear.

“Me? No, mom, they belonged to Jim’s mother. Why?”

“Oh!”

“Why, mom?”

“Do you remember my friend Ce, years back in Portugal, the one you liked to go with to collect herbs?”

“Mmm… perhaps. Why?” Blair seemed to be preoccupied with his own thoughts and Naomi rushed ahead.

“She was the one who gave me that candlestick to give her family. That’s why we came to Cascade in the first place.”

“You mean… you mean she was Jim’s mother? So…” Naomi waited for the next words. And waited. And waited.

"Blair?" She heard shuffling and mumbling and then sudden bang.

"So we went there and whoa! Mom, thanks, I think I have my miracle this year! Major miracle! The hugest miracle ever…”

“Blair?” Naomi was relieved to hear her son happy but still couldn’t understand.

“Mom, I’ll tell you later. I have to go. Call me. Happy…” She smiled hearing a loud bang and swearing and then the line was cut off. Blair was happy and she was happy. The other questions could wait.

14. To Re-establish

“Oh, man, that was… weird?... wonderful?... I didn’t even know I could repress things. But why? Why did I forget it all? Oh, man, that was really weird. What am I supposed to do now? Oh, wait. Jim said we were invited to spend Christmas Eve at his dad’s house. Unexpected. Presents. First of all – presentspresentspresents. Where to go, what to buy… Stop. First, I need to put down all that I remember. Oh, man. To re-connect with my own life. How much do I remember of being five years old anyway? I’d have to ask Naomi. Wait! She told me she didn’t remember my friends. Not that she ever remembered any of them before, by the way, but it’d be nice to have something to lean on. Oh, my! What did Jim say the other day – he recollected suddenly how we’d used to carol on the street. I didn’t even know he could sing. Oh boy. I just need to put it all down. So, caroling with Jim. Then, Steven. Steven and the sleigh. Why I don’t even remember a sleigh. And Sally. And the log in the fireplace. I need to re-connect with myself. I could do with meditation and a deep look into the memory, today may be the best time for it. I’ll put all these candles in a circle, pretend I’m in Stonehenge, and just let my world re-birth itself. There has to be something inside that's blocking my memories and I need to re-establish all the connections. And then – presents. What should I buy for Mr. Ellison? And Sally? Oh, wait, she won’t be there, she’s in China. Then Steven. Does he have a girlfriend? Damn, where are my big candles? And don’t forget Jim. I have to buy something special for him. But what? To remind him of childhood? Bad idea. On the other hand – there had been me, he has to have at least one good memory of his childhood because of me, hasn’t he? Or not. Bad idea. Let’s think of something else. So – the candles, the music, the Jim-sence. Breath, Blair – in and out, in and out, in…”

15. Lights of Life

Jim watched Blair lighting the first candle. He'd watched him almost all day – pacing, talking to himself about presents and memories, meditating. He stopped listening after the first half an hour, already knowing that he needed to give his friend privacy and some time to process. Then Blair’d be coherent enough to talk with, without Jim being afraid of screwing his own brain into a pretzel trying to follow Sandburg’s way of thinking.

Jim smiled. He was rarely allowed to observe the Blair Zone, something totally opposed to the Sandburg Zone – a state of thoughtfulness, calmness and oneness with the world. Jim observed as Blair descended from the mountain of uncertainty and incomprehension to the valley of acceptance of life as it is. He waited.

“You know, Jim, I think I’d forgotten it all because of Naomi.” Blair didn’t turn to him, still looking into the darkness outside the window. The flickering candlelight reflected in the window glass, multiplying, creating an illusion of numerous universes. Jim could almost see himself as a kid along with himself as an adult looking at the same candlelight at the same time. He felt as if that first light of the festival built a bridge between then them and now them.

“It makes sense – she’d stopped you being where you wanted to be and you were better without these memories.” Jim felt sorry for kid-Blair.

“And what do I do now?” Blair blew the light out, but the bridge was still there, Jim felt it.

“We just make the most of what we have now. We’ll go to dad’s, we’ll turn the attic upside down, we’ll find everything that wasn’t thrown out and we’ll make the best Christmas ever. And then some.”

Jim watched as Blair smiled, that light reflected in his eyes again, relaxed, looked over with strange amusement, like saying “okay, I can do that” and went to the kitchen already bubbling about cookies, pudding, mulled wine… Jim tuned him out again and picked the remote. It was back, that light, and life was good.

16. The sense of family

“Oh, you’re kidding, right? It can’t be that way!” Steven rested his head against the back of the chair and laughed heartily. “No! You must be kidding!”

Jim shook his head, chuckling quietly and exchanged glances with Blair. He knew that dad and Steven wouldn’t believe their stories, even… “Ha! Do you remember that one time when we went together to the mall and…” Jim suddenly stiffened, surprised more than the others that he actually remembered something – he didn’t know he was going to say it when he began to talk. He was more than taken aback because up to a couple of days ago he didn’t even know that he'd met Blair before. “Holy crap, I didn’t remember it, it just popped out of nowhere.” He was very aware of the fact that others were gazing at him with slightly glassy eyes. Then Steven nodded slowly. “Yeah, I remember it. You mean when Blair found out that one of the Santa’s elves had stolen children’s gifts?”

“Oh, man…” It was Blair’s turn to be astonished. “I really had done it, hadn’t I?” He surveyed the others and burst out laughing, “Do you remember his face when he turned and found himself nose to nose with Jim. And then he hoped to deal with the smallish kid.” Jim and Steven joined him in the fit of merriment and even William began to chuckle in his muffled voice.

Jim caught their reflection in the big mirror across the hall and frowned. There was something slightly out of place for him in this picture. Something almost unrecognizable. Then he saw the reflection of Blair turning to him with a piece of pudding in his hand and it struck him. The whole picture bore such a strong sense of the domesticity, of family relationship; it wasn’t surprising he didn’t recognize it at first.

Jim hastily turned to the table again. He needed to reassure himself he hadn’t dreamed it for a minute. But it was there – the sense of family, the scent of the Christmas, of all lost Christmases, that Jim had to pinch himself to stifle the sudden sob threatening to find his way out. The next minute, Steven said something that set off another bout of laughter and the moment passed.

Jim found himself settling in the new reality and relaxed. He met Steven’s amused eyes across the table and shrugged. There were small blessings in this life and he wasn’t one to turn the offering down. Jim smiled secretly, stole the last cookie from the plate, and began to enjoy the first family Christmas in earnest.

17. And miles to go

Blair perched on the edge of a very big armchair and tried to watch the door to the study on the one side of the hall and the big boy with the sleigh on the other at the same time. The door was closed and mom had been there for half an hour already – Blair checked the big clock on the opposite wall – and the boy just stood where he was, cocking his head slightly to the left. Blair wasn’t a coward, he was just cautious around bigger boys, so when the other boy emerged from the floor above, he tried to shrink into himself and sit very still.

“Steve! How long do I have to wait for you? We’re supposed to meet Josh in five minutes!” The bigger boy turned angrily to the other one.

“Then we’ll run, no big deal.” The other boy, Steve, spotted Blair immediately and elbowed his friend. “Look.”

They both turned to Blair and fixed their eyes on him.

“Hi!” Blair raised his hand from the knee a little and waved. “I’m Blair.” He was stunned when the bigger boy suddenly smiled a fleeting but very gentle smile and nodded to him.

“Hi, I’m Jim and he’s my brother Steven.”

Blair looked at them awry and shrugged, “’kay.”

“What’re you doing here?”

“Mom came here and brought me with her. Are you going to sledge?” The other boys nodded.

“Yeah, we’re going over to the Jubilee Park. Do you know where it is?”

“No, I’ve only been here since the day before yesterday and there are no boys in the house we’re staying in, so…” Blair’s voice trailed off and he did his best not to show how he was bored to be by himself again. Especially when there was so much snow around and he longed to go out and try something he'd never had the chance to do before, like chucking snowballs at passing cars. The bigger boy, ‘Jim’ Blair reminded himself, somehow sensed his wishful thoughts and squatted down beside the chair.

“Do you want to go with us?”

“Uhm, I’d l… have to ask Mom.” Jim looked at him seriously, then went to the door to the study and knocked.

Blair closed his eyes and put his hands over his ears – he wasn’t sure how it would play out and he tried not to listen. Sometimes Naomi was quite generous about letting him do anything he wanted, but other times, she was in a strangely protective mood and kept him by her side.

“Yes, ma’am.” Blair didn’t hear what his mom said to Jim, but it seemed that he was free to go.

“… I know where it is.” He saw Jim’s hand show up in the doorframe and he emphatically waved towards the entrance door. Steven sprang to his feet, grabbed the sleighs in one hand, Blair in the other, and rushed outside. Blair hadn’t even time to take his coat and shivered in the frosty air, but then Jim appeared behind him with his coat, various hats, scarves and gloves and two minutes later, safely tucked under the layers of warmth, Blair happily jogged down the street following his new friends.

Steven chatted about some school friends, Jim silently nodded, saying something like ‘ha’ or ‘bah’ from time to time. Blair didn’t felt himself put aside, he knew nothing about those people and wasn’t interested in the conversation. He was happy just being with somebody nice enough to take him along, to point to something interesting – the place where Steve fell from the bicycle or Josh found the lost purse or where they saw the homeless men fight, to tell the other big boys on the hill, “hey, it’s our friend, Blair, don’t mess with’im, guys, you know me” and then take him to ride down in the sleighs and hold him firmly.

Blair took the offered lollipop and sighed contentedly. He really looked forward to living there and his only hope was that Naomi’d find something interesting and wouldn’t say the next day, “Sweetie, we’re going to Florida to meet Jasmine.”

“Hey, Blair, what do you say about going to the mall to watch the new illumination?” Jim re-tied his scarf and put him on the sleigh with Steven. “Yoo-hoo, pretend you’re an elf and ride the sleigh with Santa Claus!” Blair laughed, he was big enough to know there was no real Santa, but it was nice to pretend once in a while.

“Let’s go, Rudolph.”

The end

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Notes: Thank you to ainm and Jane Davitt for the beta. Thank you to Patt for the cover art.