The Christmas Elf by Lady Ra

The Christmas Elf - Lady Ra

Jim had no idea what the attraction was, but he couldn't seem to stay away.

He was at the mall.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd come here voluntarily, as he'd always hated it, even before his senses started going nuts. Now, he hated it with a passion. It was too noisy, too smelly, too everything. But here he was. Again.

To make matters worse, he was hanging out by Santa Claus, which was the loudest place in the country right now. But, despite all of that, here he was, for the third night in a row. It was a good thing the parents left as soon as their kids saw Santa, or they'd probably demand to know what the hell a grown man was doing hanging around in the midst of a bunch of kids.

Jim wasn't there for the kids; he was there for one of the elves. Specifically, the short, long haired, male elf. Jim couldn't put his finger on it, but there was something about him, something that had brought Jim to the mall three nights in a row.

This was gearing up to be the worst Christmas of Jim's life, and he'd had plenty of them. He was alone, again. No big surprise. He was still estranged from his father. Again, no surprise. He had no idea where his brother was spending the holidays, but that wasn't any different from last year.

No, what made this year different was the fact that he was going insane, and he'd been suspended from his job. His boss, Simon, hadn't had a choice. Jim had fucked up too many times. Three times, under suspicion of drug use, he'd been ordered to pee in a cup. Despite the fact that the results had been negative each time, no one wanted him out in the field, and for damn sure no one wanted to be partnered with him.

Not when he was hearing, seeing and smelling things that no one else could hear, see or smell. And not when he'd go off into a fugue, lost to the world, until he finally snapped out of it having no idea how much time had passed or what had happened.

Simon had broken the news to him a week ago, and it had just about killed his friend to deliver the message. Jim supposed he was lucky he hadn't been out-and-out fired. Simon had told him to get whatever the hell was wrong with him fixed, and then to give him a call.

Jim had appreciated the fact that Simon hadn't just kicked him out with a good riddance. It was what had originally driven Jim to the mall, to try to find Simon a Christmas gift as a thank you. But before he could buy him anything, Jim had heard a laugh that had reeled him in better than any Pied Piper, and he had found himself sitting on a peppermint candy bench, watching a guy dressed up as an elf delight every child he talked to.

He wore the same outfit each night, some green thing with drawstring pants and a smock-type top. The edges on both the pants, sleeves, and the hem of the top were cut with points, like upside down triangles. Someone, somewhere, must think that pointy cuffs are all the rage in elf-land.

On anyone else, Jim would have thought it was the stupidest elf costume around. It sort of worked on this guy. On his feet he had stretchy elf boots that fit over the sneakers the guy was wearing. The boots curled up at the toe and had a bell on the part that curved in. His hat was more Robin Hood than elf, only missing an arrow piercing through it.

The elf picked up a kid who was near tears, clearly undecided as to whether Santa was a good guy or something really scary to be avoided at all costs. Jim concentrated on the elf's voice. "Hey there, little buddy," he said with a friendly grin. "Everything a bit much for you?"

The little kid nodded solemnly, eyes captivated by the elf. He reached out a hand and touched a feathered earring hanging from the elf's left earlobe.

"You like that?" the elf asked. He pulled it off and held it up for closer inspection. "Pretty cool, huh?"

The kid nodded.

"That feather came from a special bird called the elf piper. The elf piper can only be found in the North Pole, and only on Christmas Eve. The rest of the time it lives deep under the ice in a secret bird village that no one has ever seen except for Santa."

Jim grinned at the look in the kid's eyes. He was totally hooked.

"Really?" the kid asked in wide-eyed wonder.

"I kid you not," the elf said. "I was lucky to find a single feather." He threaded the earring back through the hole in his ear. "I asked Santa if I could keep it, because these feathers are worth a lot of money up there, and he said if I found it, then it was because the elf piper wanted me to find it, because that sort of thing doesn't happen by accident." He grinned at the kid. "Santa's a good guy. Wanna see him?"

The kid shook his head.

Jim didn't blame him. He'd never been big on Santa, either.

"You wanna tell me what you want for Christmas? I could tell Santa later," the elf offered.

This time the kid nodded.

The elf laughed delightedly, like this kid was the coolest thing he'd ever seen.

The kid lapped it up. They all lapped it up. He made them all feel that way.

"You have to talk, you know," the elf prompted. "I can't read minds like Santa."

The kid reached out to touch the elf's earring.

"You want this?" the elf asked, taking the earring out and looking at it. "You want this elf-piper feather?"

The kid nodded, half fearful that his request would be denied.

The elf looked at the earring and then back at the kid. "Okay. But you gotta promise me something, okay?"

Another nod.

"You can't tell anyone about it. You know why?"

A head shake no.

"Because hardly anyone knows about elf pipers. Only people who live at the North Pole. So, if you tell someone that this is a rare elf piper earring, they'll laugh at you, and tell you it's a lie. But, we'll know, won't we?"

That got a strong nod.

"What you need to remember--" the elf paused. "What's your name?"

"Davy," came the reply.

"Great," the elf said with a smile. "What you need to remember, Davy, is something Winnie the Pooh said. Do you know who Winnie the Pooh is?"

"Pooh bear," the kid said.

"Exactly," the elf said in praise. "Pooh bear, a simple yet very wise bear, said that sometimes a Thing," and the elf held up the feather as evidence, "which seems very Thingish inside you," and the elf touched Davy's chest, "is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it. Do you get what he was saying?"

The kid nodded, and Jim believed him. While on one hand, the kid was way too young to truly understand the abstract philosophy behind Pooh's words, he got that this was a secret, and that it would only be a good thing if it stayed a secret.

The elf pulled the feather off the earring and handed it to the boy. "And you know what?"

"What?" the kid asked, staring at the treasure now in his hands.

"If you lose that, it's okay. It just means the elf piper was ready for it to go somewhere else. A lot of things are that way. We only get to have them for a while, and then it's someone else's turn. Okay?"

The boy clutched the quill end of the feather tightly, like someone else's turn might come any minute.

"You got a pocket you can put that in?" the elf asked kindly.

There was a ripping sound which Jim identified as Velcro.

"Great," the elf said in satisfaction. He took the feather from the boy, and carefully put it in the pocket. "When you get home, you can take this out and put it by your bed. It'll bring you good dreams. Now, you want anything else?"

If he'd asked Jim that question, Jim would have said "you."

The kid said he wanted a train.

"That's a great thing to want," the elf said excitedly. "Trains are awesome." He looked around for the parents who were watching the whole affair, looking as besotted as Jim felt. "You ready to get back to your mom and dad?"

The kid looked like he'd be just as happy staying with the elf, but then he was being handed over to mom, who was saying thank you, and how that was one of her favorite Pooh lines, and dad was getting out his wallet to hand the elf some money. The elf shook his head and pointed at the box for donations.

The dad shoved a twenty dollar bill in the box, gave the elf an odd look, like maybe he was wondering if he really was an elf, and then the family of three headed for the mall exit, the kid staring at the elf from over his mom's shoulder until they were out of sight.

The elf looked at his earring, smiled, and put what was left of it back in his ear. Then, he looked for the next kid, hunkered down, grinned, and charmed the heck out of her, too.

It was like live theatre, and Jim couldn't get enough of it. It felt like what Christmas was all about, his own private untarnished, peace on earth, good will to all mankind spot, and it all centered around the short hairy elf.

The extra bonus was that his senses worked when he was here. They weren't normal, not by a long shot. He was still hearing things he shouldn't be able to, like the elf's heart, and all his conversations with one child after another, and smelling things like the wonderful scent that lay beneath the light cologne the elf was wearing. So, while they weren't working normally, they were at least making sense, no pun intended. He didn't feel crazy when he sat here, watching, listening, smelling, wishing he could be touching and tasting.

He glanced at his watch, dreading the minutes ticking by, knowing that in less than an hour, Santa would go home to feed his reindeer, and the elf would put on his heavy parka and leave. Jim would come back tomorrow night, but there was no guarantee that the elf would be here. There must be other elves. This one couldn't possibly work seven days a week.

Jim wondered what he did for a living. He had no idea how much an elf got paid these days, but it couldn't pay a whole lot of bills. The guy was way too cheerful to be someone too down on his luck.

He glanced at his watch again. Maybe tonight he'd talk to him, say hey, maybe tell him how good he was with the kids. Maybe the elf would stay and talk for a while. Jim didn't want another night like last night. The elf's spell had worn off and, by the time Jim had gotten home, he'd had a blinding headache, his clothes felt scratchy, everything in his apartment smelled wrong, and the little feet of thousands of cockroaches, mice and rats, in and around his apartment building had slowly driven him insane.

"Hey, Blair," someone yelled cheerily.

The elf looked up, grinned, and said, "Hey, Diana. Oh, and that's elf Blair to you." He looked at all her bags. "Helping the economy, I see," he said with a grin.

"Always, elf Blair" she said obediently, though her words were accompanied by an impish grin. "It's my duty. See you tomorrow?"

"If Santa gives me the day off," the elf, now identified as Blair, said. "Just a couple more days and we're free."

Diana laughed and watched, along with Jim, as Blair squatted down to greet the next child.

Jim decided he hated Diana, hated that she'd get to see Blair tomorrow while Jim had no such guarantee. He spiraled down into a depression and, as if his senses wanted to go along for the ride, they went nuts, and all the sounds and smells, and arguments and children crying, and a thousand different Christmas songs, all converged on Jim until it was all he could do to hold his head to keep it from exploding.

"Hey, man, are you all right?"

Even in the maelstrom, Jim could tell it was his elf's voice. Blair's voice. He wanted to answer but he couldn't.

Blair touched him. "Hey. Do I need to call someone for you, or call 911?"

The touch helped. So did hearing Blair's voice again. Like a lifeline, Jim searched for the beating thrum of Blair's heart. He allowed it to surround him, buffering him from all the other noises. Finally he opened his eyes and saw Blair squatting in front of him, holding a bottle of spring water. "Hey," Blair said again, kindly. "You sort of looked like you were having an attack or something."

"Or something," Jim said. He pointed at the water. "That for me?"

Nodding, Blair handed it over.

Jim twisted off the lid and took a long sip.

"Better?"

He was better. Jim had never been able to pull out of an attack so quickly, or so painlessly. "Yeah," Jim said with a rueful grin. "Sorry to take you away from your elf duties."

Blair grinned back. "Even elves take breaks."

"You union?" Jim asked.

That got a delighted laugh and made Blair's eyes dance. "Nah. Santa pays better than the teamsters." He glanced at his watch. "I gotta take a potty break before I head back. You sure you're okay?"

Jim nodded, apprehensive as to how long that state would last once Blair left.

"Great," Blair said with another easy grin, and a pat to Jim's arm. "Then take care of yourself, and Merry Christmas."

"Yeah, you too," Jim said.

Blair hesitated, still watching Jim, then with a shrug and a shake of his head, as if questioning his actions, sauntered off in the direction of the public restrooms. Jim watched him until he was lost around corners and behind doors. Then, he listened, way more than he should. As he listened to Blair unzip, Jim knew he should pull back, that this was an unforgivable breach of privacy, but he couldn't make himself do it. It was like asking a drowning man to throw back the life preserver.

Jim listened as Blair chatted with a couple guys as he washed his hands, and then headed back toward Santa's village. As soon as Blair rounded the corner, Jim had his eyes on him. As much as he had appreciated seeing and talking to Blair up close, Jim was now a little apprehensive about what Blair would think if he continued to stay. Anonymity had been working for him in that regard.

But for the time being he didn't need to worry. Blair sent him a friendly wave and a smile, and got back to business. Several times through the next forty minutes, Blair checked on him, as if there was nothing odd about a grown man without children of his own, hanging out by Santa.

All too soon, time was up, the mall was closing, and the show was over for the night. Blair and Santa both headed into the small curtained off area where photographs had been taken, and a few minutes later, after the display lights were shut off, they both came out sans costumes.

Blair was in jeans that were wearing thin at the knees and crotch area, with a blue and white checked flannel shirt over a black t-shirt. Jim wanted to take him home. He sure as hell didn't want to go home alone; he hated going home these days.

As Jim stood and put on his coat, Blair came over again. "You feeling better?" he asked kindly.

"Yeah," Jim said. "Thanks." He wished he had a reason to keep Blair with him, even if just for a cup of coffee.

"Well," Blair said. "Good night." With another smile, he headed for the mall exit, leaving Jim standing there, feeling as alone as he could ever remember feeling.

*****

Jim was back the next night, although at least he managed to buy Simon's gift before giving into his addiction. He found a plain wooden bench that was a little to the side, not wanting to draw attention.

He'd actually gotten some sleep the night before. Maybe it was because he'd been given a close up dose of Blair, but Jim had found it easier to bring him to mind when his senses became overwhelming. It was like Blair had been imprinted on him and, when necessary, Jim could recollect the beating of his heart, or the myriad of colors in his brown hair, or the sound of his voice.

Jim sat there for about fifteen minutes when it suddenly dawned on him that maybe Blair wasn't coming. He might even work different shifts; had perhaps worked earlier today.

Trying hard not to panic, telling himself it was absurd to panic, that Jim had managed to get through his life without Blair up to this point and he'd figure out a way to survive one more night, all of a sudden, cutting right through the panic like a knife through butter, Jim heard his voice.

He was teasingly arguing with someone. "I gotta go. Santa waits for no elf. The reindeer are hungry."

"But I need an extension," the person, a young man, whined. "I won't have my paper done tomorrow."

"Sorry, Paul, you've had all semester to get it together. I've been asking every week for the last month if anyone was having a hard time. I've increased my office hours. This is the first time I'm hearing from you. Unless your house burned down last night and you can prove it, I think you better get home and start writing."

He's a teacher, Jim thought in satisfaction, finding the idea of it appealing.

"But, Dr. Sandburg," Paul continued to whine.

"Paul, part of the college experience is growing up a little. Stop blaming the world for your screw ups. Go home. Write the paper. Deal with it. I gotta go."

Dr. Sandburg? Santa's elf was a Ph.D.? And Jewish? Jim found himself smiling at the thought.

A few seconds later, Blair, still in street clothes, came barreling around the corner, apologizing profusely to the elf who was waiting impatiently to be relieved. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Blair said earnestly. "I'll come an hour early tomorrow night. My students are driving me crazy."

The other elf rolled her eyes and grinned. "It's all right. I was just afraid you weren't going to show at all. Go get dressed."

Back pack over his shoulder, Blair waved to Santa and headed for the restroom. Then, without warning, Blair stopped and turned, his eyes searching, and his eyes met Jim's.

Jim flushed from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet, and his heart started to pound.

Blair smiled at him, then turned again and disappeared around the corner.

Too distracted by Blair looking for him, and being, apparently, glad to see him, Jim lost track of him. Not that it mattered; he knew Blair would be coming back out. He settled back down, relaxing for the first time that day, relieved that he didn't have to worry about Blair being creeped out by his presence.

The first hour was business as usual. Blair spoke to the kids and sent them on to Santa. If necessary, he helped them off Santa's lap, made the kids laugh for their photos, and kept everyone smiling, including Jim. Two times Blair's gaze found Jim, and both times Blair smiled and then turned back to the kids.

Jim had no idea why Blair was humoring him. It's not like they'd had time to actually bond. Blair had given him a bottle of water. Jim wanted to consider it a courting gift. He bet in some country somewhere, giving someone water was a courting gift, although he didn't imagine Cascade, Washington, was on that list.

There was a reason Jim was enthralled by Blair. He was funny, good-looking, compassionate and smart. On the other hand, there was no reason for Blair to be enthralled by Jim, other than the way he looked. Add to that the fact that as far as Blair was concerned Jim had no life other than hanging out at the mall, night after night, and his communication skills were non-existent--Jim was reasonably certain he hadn't used any words of more than one syllable during their short conversation--a normal guy would be avoiding Jim like the plague.

Half way through the evening, a child started screaming at the top of her lungs. It was an extraordinary cry, filled with dramatic sobbing and strident breaths, all punctuated with occasional shrieks. Jim did his best to ignore it, although he couldn't help wincing. As the seconds crept by with no relief, Jim's head started to pound, and he even considered leaving.

Then, through the screams, Jim heard Blair trying to make her feel better. It didn't sound as if Blair was having much success which, in Jim's estimation, meant the little girl was devil spawn, but Blair's calm, cajoling voice was working wonders on Jim.

As if parting branches in a forest to find the trail, Jim worked his way through the girl's noises and searched for Blair's voice. Everything about it appealed. It's timber, its modulations, the humor, it drew Jim in until he wasn't aware of anything else.

"Hey," the voice said, close up.

The last thing Jim remembered was hearing that voice farther away and a little girl screaming.

"You back with me?"

The little girl was gone, and that was definitely Blair's voice, really close. Jim narrowed his eyes and blinked. Blair was squatting, once again, right in front of him, with yet another bottle of water. Santa was gone and Blair was in street clothes.

"Shit," Jim said. He'd been out of it for well over an hour. That explained why his eyes felt so dry, and he blinked several more times.

"Sorry I didn't notice sooner," Blair said, handing the water over.

Jim decided this meant they were engaged. "Notice what?"

"You totally zoned over here. Was it that little girl?"

Furrowing his brow, Jim nodded. "Yeah. Well, sort of." It had actually been Blair's voice that had set him off.

"Because she almost made my head explode," Blair said with a grin.

"Did you get her to stop?" Jim asked, curious.

"Finally," Blair said with a dramatic sigh. "I told her some silly reindeer story and that finally got her distracted enough to forget about whatever it was that had set her off." He smiled a lopsided smile. "Makes me glad I don't have kids."

"You're pretty good with them, Chief."

"Because I don't have any," Blair said with conviction. "I can afford to be extra nice because I don't have to take them home."

"You don't want kids?"

Shaking his head, Blair sat down next to him. "Nope. I got other fish to fry."

"What does that mean?" Jim asked.

"Just that I'm looking for something else. I've been looking for it for a long time." He gave Jim an odd look he couldn't decipher.

"Could you be more cryptic?" Jim protested.

Blair let out a laugh. "Never mind. It's a long story, and I gotta get home. I have papers to read and tests to grade." Much to Jim's disappointment, he stood. "Will you be here tomorrow night?" Blair asked.

Jim nodded.

"You really got a jones for Santa, huh?" Blair said with a shit-eating grin.

Jim rolled his eyes. "Yeah, got it in one."

Snickering, Blair put on his coat and buttoned it up.

Jim got up, too. It wasn't like he could stay at the mall all night, and even though he'd decided he and Blair were engaged, Blair obviously hadn't jumped to the same conclusion. He'd see Blair to his car and then call for a cab. Jim had stopped driving when he'd fallen into one of his trances and almost run someone over.

They walked outside, their breath leaving their mouths in puffs of smoke, Blair making "Brrr" noises. Blair was parked off to the side, and Jim walked him there, as if it was his right. It felt like his right, and Jim was glad that Blair didn't seem to mind.

Blair had a Subaru Outback, which surprised Jim for some reason. "Be careful driving home," Jim said, wishing he could see Blair home and safe inside.

"Where's your car?" Blair asked as he slid behind the wheel.

"Around the corner," Jim lied.

"Get in. I'll drive you there."

Shaking his head, Jim said, "Nah, I'm okay walking."

Blair frowned at him as he shut the door, started the car, and rolled down the window. By the time all that was done, the frown was gone. "Watch out for the reindeer, man. They have sharp little hooves and they're meaner than they look." He grinned.

Jim resisted a strong urge to lean down and kiss Blair. "You, too, Chief," he said instead, taking a step back to avoid temptation.

Blair stared up at him, studying his face. "You'll be all right?"

Gratified at Blair's concern, Jim nodded. "Yeah. I'm just going home."

"You sure I can't give you a ride?"

"Yeah." He didn't want to explain why he wasn't driving. He didn't want to do or say anything that would drive Blair away.

"Okay," Blair said, capitulating. "See you tomorrow." With a cheery grin, he rolled up his window, put the car in drive, and pulled away.

Afraid he'd get lost in Blair again, Jim made himself turn away and not watch the car as it drove out of the lot. He pulled out his phone, called a cab company, and walked back to the front of the mall to wait.

*****

The next evening progressed much as the previous nights had. Blair charmed every child he talked to, as well as their parents. Jim was sure he caught Santa checking out Blair's ass a couple of times, too. Not that Jim could blame him. Even in that elf costume, Blair had an ass worth looking at.

Blair had smacked him on the arm in a comradely fashion when he'd arrived, and then smiled at him three more times. Each time, Jim had smiled back, knowing how dopey he probably looked, sincerely hoping that maybe Blair was hitting on him. Until their conversation last night, it was entirely possible that Blair had thought that Jim was a little mentally challenged, and therefore someone to be kind to. But Jim had managed to use real adult words in their all too brief conversation last night, so, hopefully, that would no longer be the case.

A few minutes later, when Santa was taking one of his fifteen minute breaks, Blair was suddenly standing in front of him. "Like I said, man, you must really like Santa," he said to Jim with a grin.

"The North Pole, actually," Jim said. "I think I miss the weather most of all."

"Yeah, because it never gets cold enough here," Blair said with a laugh. He held out his hand. "Blair Sandburg."

Jim grabbed his hand and shook it. "Jim Ellison."

"I was gonna go get some coffee," Blair said. "Want some?"

"Sure," Jim said casually, or at least he tried for casual. He hoped he didn't sound desperate.

"Do you have a preference?" Blair asked. "I mean, for coffee?"

Jim thought that was maybe a Freudian slip, at least he hoped it was. In the meantime, he could definitely answer the question. "I'll show you." He couldn't remember the name of it, but it was the best smelling coffee in the place and, even better, the shop had smelled clean. If he had a dog, he wouldn't let them eat in most of these restaurants.

They strolled down the mall, dodging frantic shoppers. "People go nuts this time of year," Blair observed.

"Whereas dressing up like an elf makes you the poster boy for sanity?" Jim teased.

Blair laughed again. Jim liked how easily he laughed. "Maybe not, but I bet I'm having a better time than they are," he said.

"You really like it?"

"I love it. I do it every year."

"I'm assuming it's not for the pay," Jim drawled.

"Hey," Blair protested. "All the candy canes I can eat. I dare you to find a sweeter deal." He grinned mischievously at Jim.

Grinning back, Jim said, "I heard that kid call you Dr. Sandburg last night. And from your answer, I'm assuming you're a teacher of some kind."

"You heard that?" Blair asked, impressed. He gave Jim a few seconds of serious scrutiny, then said, "Yeah, I teach anthropology at Rainier."

"You look young for a Ph.D."

Blair shrugged. "I started early. I'm one of the lucky ones who love school. It comes pretty easy to me."

They arrived at the coffee shop. Jim ordered a large black coffee. Blair ordered a much more complicated mocha this, and latte that, and ended up with some frothy concoction that smelled so good, Jim was tempted to steal it. He dumped his coffee and ordered one for himself.

Laughing, Blair took a sip, ending up with some frothy whip cream on the end of his nose.

Jim reached out and wiped it off Blair's nose with his thumb. Before sanity could rear its head, he put his thumb in his mouth. The taste of Blair exploded on his lips and tongue. It sizzled like one of those vita bath balls Carolyn used to put in the bath tub, like an alka seltzer.

"Jim."

Captivated, he explored the taste, cataloging, his tongue searching for any errant molecule of Blair taste he might have missed.

"Jim!"

Someone was calling him, and he tried to concentrate. He felt someone rubbing his arm, calling him again. "Jim. Come on back to me."

That was Blair's voice. Jim blinked a few times and looked up to find Blair staring at him with a worried expression on his face. Frustration swamped Jim as he realized he had gotten lost again, and this time, right in front of Blair and god knows who else. He took a second to look around, only to find that Blair had somehow moved him to the side, and no one was paying any attention to them at all. Both coffee cups were sitting on a small table.

"You back with me?" Blair asked.

Nodding, Jim exhaled a sigh, figuring it was just a matter of time before Blair wrote him off as a crazy person and found someone else to go get coffee with.

"What set you off?" Blair asked. "The smell of the coffee?"

Jim's brain seemed to be on hiatus, because, again, without thinking, he said, "The way you tasted." Then, realizing what he'd said, he searched for something to say that could make that sound a little less crazy.

To his surprise, Blair was grinning at him. "Cool," Blair said, apparently not the least bit weirded out, although he did subject Jim to another serious moment of scrutiny. "You don't have any idea what's happening to you, do you?"

"What?" Jim asked stupidly.

Blair's eyes opened wide and he glanced at his watch. "Crap, I gotta get back. Santa's gonna put me on the naughty side of the list if I'm not careful." Grinning, he patted Jim on the arm. "Don't go home, yet. We're not done talking." With that, he raced off, forgetting his coffee.

Jim picked them both up, sniffed them, and could sense Blair all over the one in his left hand. He was tempted to drink out of it to get more of Blair's taste, but was afraid he'd get lost in it again. So, after getting it a lid, he drank his own as he walked back to where Blair was. He surreptitiously handed Blair his coffee, got an appreciative grin, and then sat down back on his regular candy cane bench, wondering what the hell Blair had meant.

*****

Two hours later, dressed in street clothes again, Blair came over to Jim. "Hey, follow me home, okay?"

Jim's eyebrows went up.

Blair grinned. "That wasn't a proposition."

Jim was pretty sure he looked as disappointed as he felt.

"Yet," Blair added, still grinning. "We've got some talking to do, first. And even before that, you've got some reading to do."

"I took a cab here," Jim confessed.

"I'll drive you," Blair said easily. "Let's go."

And just like that, Jim found himself sitting in Blair's Subaru, feeling overwhelmingly content at being surrounded on all sides by the scent, smell, and sound of Blair.

Blair drove them to a small bungalow style house near campus. He pulled into the driveway and parked. "Home sweet home," he said.

"You like living here?" Jim asked. He had driven through here to get from one part of town to another, but he wasn't that familiar with the neighborhood.

"I just like having a home," Blair said with satisfaction. "I've never really had one before. My mom was a total nomad, and then all throughout school I was living in one dorm after another." He pulled the keys out of the ignition. "No promises as to what it looks like. I'm not the best housekeeper in the world."

"As long as there aren't rats, Chief, I think I can deal."

Laughing, Blair got out of the car, jangling his keys as he searched for the right one to open the front door. "No rats here, but you should have seen my last place. The rats were huge." He gestured with his hands indicating the rats were the size of small dogs. Finding the right key, he got the door open and invited Jim inside.

Blair was right, the place was a mess, but Jim liked it. It was cozy, filled with interesting knick knacks and colorful fabrics. Jim thought of how it differed from his own place, which still looked the way it did when Carolyn moved out taking all her stuff with her. Sterile. Jim looked around Blair's home again and saw that it was filled with life.

Jim wondered if he could talk Blair into letting him sleep on the couch. He couldn't even imagine going home to his place after this. He was suddenly aware that Blair had disappeared into a room down the hall, and was making noises like he was searching for something. After a couple of minutes, he returned holding a large bound book of some sort. Jim read the title when he held it up: The Modern Day Sentinel by Blair Sandburg.

"It's my dissertation," Blair explained. "And it's all about you. Or about people like you." He handed it to Jim.

Jim took it gingerly, confused. "What do you mean, people like me?"

"Just read it. You can take it with you and read it at home, or you can have a seat and read it here." Blair took off his coat and hung it on a hook by the front door. "Want some coffee or hot chocolate?"

Jim liked that Blair assumed he would stay. "Hot chocolate would be good." It was then that Jim realized that nothing in Blair's home was setting his senses off. Jim's home was like a minefield. Jim never knew what was going to knock him over the edge, make him itch, or give him a headache. "Your place feels good," he said inanely.

Blair beamed at him. "Thanks. I've worked hard on making it a safe place for people with enhanced senses."

Something about that statement irked Jim. He frowned at Blair.

Oddly, Blair smiled at him, looking pleased. "You're feeling territorial, aren't you? I mean, about me. Right?"

That was a bizarre way of putting it, but that was exactly how Jim was feeling.

Blair tapped the book. "Read it. How you're feeling will make more sense when you read chapter eighteen." He shooed Jim to the couch. "Sit. Read. I'll make you some hot chocolate."

Jim found himself obeying, first shucking his coat, then sitting, before opening the book. Later he had a vague recollection of Blair handing him some hot chocolate, but Jim had been completely absorbed in the book he was reading. Not only was Blair an excellent writer, but he was explaining what Jim was, what he could do, how other people had struggled with what Jim would have called a burden, but Blair called a gift.

Jim was a Sentinel. Almost giddy with relief at having a name to call it, Jim devoured the book, especially chapter eighteen, which focused on Guides. Every person with enhanced senses Blair had worked with who was coping well as a highly functional member of society had a Guide. The Sentinels without a Guide were a mess. One was in jail, one was gorked out in an institution, and one was homeless.

In each case where a Sentinel had a Guide, the Sentinels had been drawn to the Guide and the Guide had been equally drawn to the Sentinel. One Guide for each Sentinel. One Sentinel for each Guide.

Jim lifted his eyes to find Blair, found him sitting across from him in a comfortable looking chair, reading some magazine. "Are you someone's Guide?" He did his best to ask the question casually, but his heart was racing like a jack hammer.

"What do you think, Jim?" Blair countered, putting his magazine down, all his focus on Jim. "Pay attention to your instincts. What do they tell you?"

Without thought, Jim said, "You're my Guide. Mine."

Blair grinned. "Yeah, I think I am."

"Is this what you've been looking for?" Jim asked.

"For as long as I can remember," Blair said honestly, his eyes steadfast on Jim. He pointed at the book. "Finish reading."

Jim could hardly pull his eyes away from Blair. His. Blair was his. Jim barely knew what that meant, but his soul was singing with it. There was a reason he'd been drawn to this man after hearing his voice. There'd been a reason to show up there night after night. And there'd been a reason why Blair had been so accepting of it. Whatever had been going on with Jim had been going on with Blair, too. A connection between the two of them had been growing.

Jim found himself grinning at Blair. "My very own Christmas Elf."

Snickering, Blair leaned forward and tapped the book. "Read. Then, we'll talk."

Taking one long last look at Blair, Jim returned to the book. It took him another hour to finish it. The last line made his eyes sting in a good way. It was astonishing how Blair had taken something frightening to Jim, something he had grown to hate, and made it so noble. Jim felt two inches taller than he had when he'd started reading. He looked up at Blair who was now sitting on the other side of the couch, legs folded underneath him, watching Jim attentively. "Wow," Jim said, unable to find any better word.

"Yeah?" Blair said. "Did that help?"

Jim reached out and pulled Blair close, close enough to get his nose nestled in the thick hair near the nape of Blair's neck. He inhaled deeply, and would have gotten lost in the enticing aroma if Blair hadn't warned him. "Jim, stay with me, man. Not that it's not flattering that you seem to zone on me so much, but you need to learn to control it."

Reluctantly, Jim split his attention between the smell, the feel of Blair, and his voice. He answered Blair's question. "Being near you helps. You helped from the moment I heard your voice in the mall. I hated to go home every night."

Blair made himself comfortable leaning against Jim. "I noticed you that first night. Big buff guy who looked like he ate nails for breakfast," Blair said, his voice filled with humor.

"But you didn't talk to me until the third night I was there," Jim complained.

"Yeah, because you were a big buff guy who looked like you ate nails for breakfast," Blair defended himself. "You were gorgeous," he added, "but I wasn't about to make a pass at you and risk having my arms ripped off."

Jim liked that Blair thought he was gorgeous. "You're the gorgeous one, Chief." He ran his hand through Blair's hair, watching the myriad of colored strands run through his fingers.

"Stay with me, Jim," Blair warned him, again, just in time.

Jim closed his eyes for a second to break the spell of Blair's hair. "How'd you know what I was?"

"I didn't. But you kept coming back, and I'd catch you looking at me, so I started thinking maybe we were on the same wave length, sex wise. But, then I'd catch you wincing at noises that were unexpected but not that loud, or I'd see you smile at a conversation I was having that you really shouldn't have been able to hear. And then, when you went into that zone, I was pretty sure."

Jim wrapped his arms around Blair and held him tightly. "Suppose I hadn't gone to the mall that night?" he said, voice tight. It made him crazy that it had all happened as a result of such a flimsy string of events.

"We'd have found each other, Jim," Blair said with a reassuring squeeze. "Fate's a hard thing to evade."

"How?" Jim asked, imagining what tonight would have been like if he'd never gone to the mall. What the next week, month, year would have been like if he hadn't found Blair.

"I don't know," Blair said, pulling back so he could easily see Jim. "But, somehow we'd have found each other. Maybe we'd have met at a book store, or in a restaurant. Maybe my dissertation would have made its way to you, and then you'd have come looking for me." He held Jim's face cupped in his hand, his eyes solemn. "We'd have found each other."

Jim heard a vow in those words, and they soothed his heart. Usually a fairly pragmatic man, Jim liked the idea of fate stepping in and pulling them together. He grinned. "So, Chief, about these Sentinels and Guides, what are their relationships like?" Jim leaned in and nibbled on Blair's earlobe as he asked the question.

A chuckled moan came out of Blair's throat. "Whatever they want it to be," he said, arching his neck to give Jim better access.

Jim wanted to make love to Blair, explore his body from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet, but it was too soon. Blair would be talking him out of zoning every five seconds. "I just need to hold you," he confessed to Blair. "Is that all right?" His nose went back to the nape of Blair's neck. He couldn't believe how good Blair smelled.

With a laugh, Blair hugged Jim tightly. "That's perfect. We can take things as slow as you need."

"It's not that I don't want everything," Jim said. "It's just that you're everything about Christmas rolled into one wonderful thing, and I want to enjoy it all."

Pulling back, Blair smiled at Jim, touching his cheek softly with the backs of his fingers. "That's like the best thing anyone ever said to me," he said gently. Then, grinning naughtily, he added, "It's not every Jew who gets to be told he's like Christmas."

Jim snickered. "Well, it's not every day I find myself in possession of my very own short, hairy, Jewish Christmas elf."

"We're a rare breed," Blair boasted.

"You have no idea," Jim said, kissing Blair lightly on the lips.

A minute later he came out of his zone when Blair blew in his ear.

"See?" Jim said, shaking his head. "That's why we need to take it slow."

"You're a total zone menace," Blair agreed with a grin. "I get it. We'll get you used to me in stages."

Jim tapped the dissertation. "Can I give a copy of this to my boss? He needs to understand what's been going on with me. Maybe he'll give me my job back."

"Sure," Blair said. "Give it to anyone you want. That's why I wrote it, to help. And hey, speaking of jobs, I actually have a field excursion to Borneo coming up."

Jim tightened his hold on Blair, having no intention of letting him out of his sight, let alone out of the country.

"Relax," Blair said lightly. "Remember I wrote chapter eighteen. I get the whole territorial thing. What I was going to say is seeing as you're sort of sans job right now, maybe you could come with us as head of security. I know Dr. Stoddard has been looking for someone to take that on."

"You mean to keep you safe?" Jim asked, knowing to his marrow that that was his primary function. "You think you can get me zone free enough to do that?" Jim asked.

"It's not for a few weeks," Blair assured him. "That will give us plenty of time to work on your senses."

Jim frowned. "I'm not gonna end up as some chapter in a book, am I?"

"Not specifically," Blair said sincerely, "but I'll take things I learn from you and write them up in future articles. I have to. I need to reach all the Sentinels I can and help them before they lose hope."

Jim clutched Blair tightly. "You're my Guide," he growled.

"Totally," Blair said, stroking Jim's arm. "And you're my Sentinel. Doesn't mean I can't help others. Doesn't mean you can't help me help others."

Slightly mollified, Jim reluctantly nodded. In truth, he wouldn't wish what he'd been going through the last few months on anyone. If he could help someone find their way clear of that, he would. "Okay," he said.

That got a brilliant smile out of Blair. "Gorgeous man, inside and out," Blair said. "If I could have sat on Santa's lap and told him what I wanted for Christmas, it would have been you."

"First of all," Jim said sternly, "there'll be no sitting on Santa's lap. He was totally checking out your ass."

Blair started to laugh.

"Second," Jim confessed, "I have to say, if I'd written a letter to Santa telling him what I wanted for Christmas, I don't think you'd have been on it." He kissed Blair lightly again, taking care not to get lost in the taste and feel of it. "But, you were the best Christmas surprise ever."

"That Santa," Blair said with a grin, "he knows his stuff." Then he laughed. "And he was so not checking out my ass."

"He was," Jim insisted.

Snorting, Blair settled back down against Jim. "I'll write your letter to Santa for you. Dear Santa," he began.

"I've been very good this year," helped Jim.

"Have you?" Blair asked.

"Pretty good," Jim said honestly, deciding grouchiness doesn't count when you think you're going insane.

"Okay. Dear Santa, I've been a good boy all year. Here is my Christmas wish."

Jim grinned. "I'd like a gorgeous, sexy, Christmas Elf Guide, please."

Blair held out his arms with a flourish. "Ta dah. Wish granted. See, told you Santa was good."

"Him and his nasty tempered reindeer with really sharp hooves," Jim said, still grinning. He thought he'd grinned more since meeting Blair than he had his entire adult life.

"Vicious, vicious creatures," Blair said sadly. "And those elf pipers will crap on you in a New York minute if you're not careful."

Jim started laughing. "The North Pole in your mind is a scary place to be, Chief."

"It'll be better now that you're there with me," Blair said in confidence, eyes bright with laughter.

"Forever and ever," Jim vowed.

"Beats coal in my menorah any day," Blair whispered, resting his head on Jim's shoulder.

"Beats just about everything," Jim agreed. "Although, next year, I already know what I want for Christmas."

"What?" Blair asked, lacing his fingers with Jim's. "What do you want next year?"

"I want one of those elf piper feathers. I hear they're worth a lot of money up in the North Pole."

Reveling in Blair's laugh and the warmth of Blair's body resting against his, Jim closed his eyes. Best Christmas of his life.

The End

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THANKS: A special thanks to all my fab betas: Joolz, Hawthorn, Prentice, Morr, and Susan. What would I do without you???? Thank you to Marianne for the beautiful cover and to Patt for the interiors.

FEEDBACK: It gives me a happy. And a happy muse is a writy muse.