Disclaimer: Don't own 'em. Wish I did.
Rated G, but there are a couple of bad words. You can cover your eyes when you get to them....
-- by Mackie
What had Cascade done to Mother Nature to deserve this kind of retribution? Sure, it rained most days from early fall to late spring, and sometimes it got cold enough to freeze rain and bring down the occasional power line or two. Nothing about the weather along this portion of Washington coast could be called "average". The Japanese current warmed the bay, but for every block inland and foot gain in elevation, the weather shifted, becoming drier and colder.
A person could be relatively warm at sea level (winter daytime highs ranged in the forties and low fifties, with occasional sojourns into higher or lower temperatures), while just an hour away by car, skiers enjoyed the deep, powdery runs at the ski resorts that dotted the Cascade Range.
However, something had gone wrong on a global scale, and the City of Cascade was enduring a white Christmas. Of course, snow was not uncommon -- wintertime frequently brought freezing rain, heavy frosts, and sometimes a few inches of the genuine fluffy stuff -- but this was much more than normal winter weather. This snow was falling in huge, puffy flakes. It was the kind of snow that fell long and hard, the kind that created huge drifts, the kind that looked pretty on postcards and sent ski-lift operators into dances of joy.
There were no ski lifts in Cascade; just miles and miles of clogged roads and stranded motorists.
Driving in it was a bitch.
The City had officially closed its doors at noon. After all, it was Christmas Eve, and no one wanted to be stranded downtown on Christmas Eve. All non-essential personnel had been sent home.
Since the city wasn't in a state of emergency, Simon closed down Major Crimes and sent everyone off to start their holiday a bit earlier than planned. Several detectives, Jim among them, were officially "on call", but serious crime frequently took a breather when the weather got bad.
So Jim stopped by the university to pick up his partner, and they started the slow, cautious drive toward home.
"You're looking particularly glum," Jim commented.
Blair shrugged. "Sorry. The weather was just sort of unexpected, that's all." He peered out at the solid wall of white reflecting in the low beams of the truck's headlights. "Can you see all right?"
"Barely," Jim admitted. "If it gets any worse, we might not make it home tonight."
"No loss there," his loftmate replied with a soft sigh. "I think the only food we have beyond the snack stuff consists of a bag of noodles, a can of tuna, and a package of mushroom soup."
Jim coughed in dismay. "I hope that unfortunate list doesn't imply a tuna noodle casserole!" he protested, scanning the roadside in an attempt to figure out their location. Maybe he could swing by the market, and if it wasn't closed, they could snatch up some groceries. "I'd rather pan fry a steak and eggs."
"Me too," Blair confessed. "I think the market's just ahead."
Jim had spotted the lighted sign just moments before they would have passed the driveway. He swung in, and the tires spun a little on the ice that had formed on the concrete slope. Then they were safely inside the parking lot, and Jim pulled up close to the front door. "They're still open!" he said gratefully, snugging up the collar of his parka. "You coming in?"
Blair zipped up his jacket. "Right behind you."
They dashed into the nearly deserted market, where the manager was closing up a register. "Better hurry," he advised them. "I'll be locking up in another ten minutes."
"We'll hurry," Jim promised, handing Blair a hand basket and taking one for himself. "I'll get the meat, eggs, and milk. You grab vegetables, fruit, beer, and whatever else we're gonna need for a couple of days snowbound in the loft. Think stirfry."
"Gotcha," Blair replied, hastening toward his assigned half of the store.
He shopped quickly, automatically, his mind drifting despondently.
Great. Just great. He'd been looking forward to Christmas Eve dinner with Simon and Daryl Banks at Joel Taggart's home. Joel had a pretty big family, but he and his wife had thoughtfully included the bachelors from the precinct who had no place special to be for the holidays. It would have been a warm and cheerful gathering, and Blair had hoped it would help instill more of a holiday spirit in his Scrooge of a partner....
* * * * * * * *
He'd bought a tree, several strings of lights, a few mass-produced glass balls for decorations, and a couple of slightly more expensive ornaments -- a tiny teddy bear dressed as a police officer and a "wise" owl with a graduation cap, big glasses, and a pointing stick, which was the closest he could find to represent himself. The whole shopping expedition pretty much wiped out his extra cash, but he didn't care.
Although the holidays hadn't put Jim in a bad mood as such, he didn't appear to feel any warm affinity for Christmas. He politely responded to holiday best wishes, but he seldom spoke them first. The only time he'd said the words 'Merry Christmas' with any emotion had been when he'd growled, "Merry Christmas, asshole, you're under arrest!" to a burglary suspect he'd collared.
Needless to say, the greeting had lacked any trace of warmth.
His first Christmas with Jim had been spent on the job. Jim had traded with a rookie detective who had a family he'd really wanted to be with for the holidays. Somehow, drinking eggnog and eating fruitcake in the cab of the pickup while on a stakeout hadn't felt like much of a holiday!
This Christmas was going to be special, Blair promised himself.
The tree turned out to be a lot larger than it had first appeared when he'd picked it out. Luckily, a neighbor helped him cart it into the elevator, and he was able to manhandle it into the loft.
His sense of accomplishment quickly dimmed, however, when he realized he'd forgotten one essential element of Christmas decorating -- a tree stand.
Resigned to venturing out again, he only hoped he'd be back before Jim got home.
His hopes were dashed when he returned to find Jim standing in the middle of the living room, a perplexed expression of his face as he stared at the snugly netted tree that occupied a large portion of the floor.
"Jim, great!" Blair greeted, hoping he sounded sincere. The look on Jim's face didn't bode well. "You can help me set up the tree."
"Yeah?" Jim murmured doubtfully. "What prompted you to get it?"
Blair began to assemble the stand, concentrating on it so he wouldn't have to look at his roommate. "Well, this is pretty much our first Christmas where we'll be home," he answered, then chanced a glance at his partner. "You didn't change shifts or anything, did you?"
Jim shook his head and obligingly cut away the netting securing the tree. Together, they lifted it into its stand, and its branches spread out gracefully.
"Man, that's big," Jim commented. He didn't look repulsed at the idea of having the huge tree in the loft, but he didn't seem particularly excited either.
"Yeah, it looked a lot smaller in the lot," Blair agreed, securing the screws to keep the tree upright and steady. "I've got some lights and ornaments and stuff. Maybe we can string popcorn and cranberries for garland."
"Sounds like a waste of perfectly good popcorn," Jim grumbled, heading for the kitchen, "but you can do whatever you want."
Oh boy. This wasn't going well at all.
"Uh, Jim, I thought maybe it would be something we could do together."
Jim had snagged a beer from the refrigerator, but he paused now with the opened bottle halfway to his lips. "Why?"
Blair struggled to keep his voice calm. After all, this was only the first skirmish in his effort to infect Jim with a little Christmas spirit, and he didn't want to alienate him by sounding petulant. "Well, you know, it's Christmas?"
Jim sat down on the sofa and picked up the current issue of Sports Illustrated. "Yeah, but we didn't celebrate last year."
"Because we were on stakeout last year," Blair pointed out reasonably.
"But you're Jewish."
"Very true, but growing up with Naomi and travelling around so much, I got exposed to a lot of different cultural practices. Christmas just happens to be one of my favorite traditions." As he spoke, Blair began stringing the lights. They'd be a little sparse -- the tree really was much larger than he remembered it -- but it would still look nice when he was finished.
He tossed several packages of what looked like thick, colorful twine toward his partner. "Here, make yourself useful."
Jim picked up a gold-colored package and examined it critically. "What is it?"
"Paper twist. When you untwist it, you'll have a long piece of crinkled-paper ribbon about eight inches wide."
Jim experimented, and sure enough, the strand untwisted as promised. The gold paper was shiny and felt velvety smooth beneath his fingers. "OK, now what?" he asked, continuing to untwist the long piece of paper.
"Tear it down the middle, cut it in long lengths, and make big bows."
"Big bows?" Jim repeated blankly, his lap and legs buried beneath a long, golden swath.
"Yeah, I didn't buy nearly enough ornaments, so I figure the bows will look decorative and festive."
"You're a regular Martha Stewart, aren't you?" Jim commented, practicing with the paper until he'd formed a passable bow. Although he wasn't acting enthusiastic about the decorations, at least he was cooperating.
Blair considered that a minor victory. "Hey, we never had much when I was growing up, but we always had a great time with what we had."
A few minutes passed in silence. The rustle of paper as Jim struggled with his assigned task and the gentle tinkle of glass as Blair untangled the strands of Christmas lights were the only sounds to disturb the stillness.
Finally, Jim said quietly, "Tell me about some of it."
So Blair talked as he worked, describing a childhood filled with a spectacular assortment of holiday practices. Depending on where they were and with whom they stayed, they celebrated Christmas, Hanukkah, a strange variety of pagan festivals, and sometimes nothing at all. Somehow, through it all, whether they had money or were flat broke, whether they lived with disdainful atheists or the devoutly religious, Naomi made certain the thread of family warmth permeated every holiday season.
He told of the time they'd been living on a remote farm. Eager to surprise his mother, six-year-old Blair had decorated a pine bough with popcorn and wild berries. Naomi had come into the room and nearly had a heart attack -- the berries had been acutely poisonous, and only Blair's desire to make the pine bough as lovely as possible had kept him from sampling a few.
Or the time they'd stayed with an almost unbearably stiff, devout family, where Christmas had been a seemingly endless series of church services. He'd tried very hard to sit still -- perfecting his own form of zone out -- when Naomi had glanced at him, crossed her eyes comically for a moment, and taken him out of the solemn church into the brilliant sunshine for a snowball fight. Their "Sunday best" had suffered mightily, but the sheer exhilaration had been worth it.
There had been one group of New Age practitioners in 1979 who'd concocted some sort of doomsday ceremony connected with the end of the decade. Blair and Naomi had spent the evening bundled together in a dilapidated barn. He'd held a flashlight while she'd read Christmas stories aloud. It had been magical. Even the goat tethered in a nearby stall had seemed to enjoy Naomi's lyrical voice.
By the time Blair finally wound down with his stories, the lights had been strung and the tree looked cheerful with a multitude of red and gold bows. He hung the few glass balls he'd purchased, then handed Jim the little teddy bear cop ornament. "Here. You've got to hang at least one."
Jim looked at the little molded ornament with its painted blue tunic and little shiny badge, and a smile twitched the corners of his mouth. He looked faintly wistful for a moment.
"OK, Jim, I've regaled you with tales of my childhood holidays," Blair observed, hanging his little wise owl where it could be seen from the sofa. "What were your holidays like?"
Jim grimaced. "Oh, you know -- too much food, too many relatives, too much stress, and entirely too many practical gifts."
"Stress?" Blair prompted.
For a moment, Jim looked as if he wasn't going to answer, but the twinkling lights had lulled him into a sense of contentment that even the painful memories couldn't dim. "My father needed the house to be perfect all the time in case he had to bring home business associates. We always had the House Beautiful version of the ideal Christmas home. And the dinners had to be just as perfect, even if we were only having relatives in for a visit -- to Dad, appearances were everything, and we always had to have a bigger, more lavish dinner than what anyone else served. Mom got stressed out a lot, and Steven and I had to be on our best behavior all the time."
"Doesn't sound like much fun," Blair sympathized.
"No." After a bit, Jim smiled at a memory. "After Steven and I were excused to go to our rooms, Sally -- that was our housekeeper -- would sneak us milk and cookies. And she always had a gift for us, some toy or game we'd fawned over in the store."
"She sounds like a nice lady."
"Do you ever see her?"
Jim shook his head regretfully. "Not for a long time."
Jim shrugged, uncomfortable with the guilt swelling in his chest. "After Mom left, Dad didn't entertain much anymore. He's retired now. I haven't been home in years."
Too many unconnected sentences, hiding too many painful secrets.
"You mean, you don't even get in touch at Christmas?" Blair was surprised. He'd known Jim wasn't especially close to his father and brother, but he hadn't expected this level of estrangement.
"Sure we do," Jim disagreed, although he sounded as if he had his doubts. "My dad and I exchange cards and gifts, that sort of thing."
"Yeah? What did you get him?"
Again, Jim looked faintly uncomfortable. "I always renew his subscription to Time Magazine."
"Oh." An impersonal gesture, handled simply with a single phone call and a credit card. Blair glanced at the magazine lying open on the coffee table. "Let me guess -- he gets you a subscription to Sports Illustrated." Jim looked faintly defensive, but Blair persisted. "Don't you ever get together?"
Jim shook his head. "I haven't been home since I left for college," he admitted, trying to hold onto the contentment that had kept the doubt and pain at bay, but it wasn't working.
Jim let irritation bury the pain. "Because we've never been exactly close, all right?" he snapped, getting up and returning to the kitchen for another beer.
Blair wasn't going to be thwarted. "What about Sally? Don't you ever see her?"
"I send her a gift every year," Jim retorted, returning to the living room. Then, almost savagely, he put down the beer bottle, picked up his ornament, and carried it to the tree. He hung the little police bear with enough force to rustle all the branches. "Christmas was never a big deal for me, OK?" he said firmly. "Besides, Christmas is for kids. I've been grown up way to long to worry about what I might have missed."
"Christmas is about family," Blair returned quietly. "Whether it's family you're born to or family you choose, it's about sharing a special moment."
"Yeah, this sure has been a special moment," Jim shot back, plopping onto the sofa and scooping up the TV remote. The evening news effectively put a halt to any further conversation.
Resolutely determined to remain in good spirits, Blair popped popcorn in the microwave and spent the rest of the evening stringing garland.
The subject of Christmas didn't come up again, but Blair's arsenal included the planned dinner at the Taggart's on Christmas Eve.
* * * * * * * *
...and now it looked as if the de-Scrooging of Jim Ellison would have to wait another year because of the weather.
Blair quickly added some bananas to his overflowing hand basket and lugged the heavy tote up to the register. Jim's items were already being scanned through and bagged, so Blair unloaded his stockpile onto the conveyor and listened to the irritating beeps of the scanner recording their purchases.
Jim paid, received his change, and the two were quickly ushered out the door by the harried manager, who immediately locked up behind them with an unhappy, "Merry Christmas" wafting after them into the cold. The snow wasn't helping business during what should have been a thriving shopping day.
They bundled into the cab of the truck and Jim fired up the engine, which had already cooled enough to make the heater almost worthless.
"It's coming down more heavily, isn't it?" Blair asked, peering at the solid wall of white that cocooned them from the rest of the world.
"Yeah, I think so," Jim agreed, creeping the truck out of the parking lot and back onto the road. Even with his enhanced sight, it was difficult seeing beyond the end of the hood. The few cars they passed were upon them practically without warning, the dim glow of their headlights appearing suddenly out of the white and vanishing again just as quickly behind them. The centerline wasn't visible, so Jim drove as far to the right side of the road as he dared, his eyes alternating between what lay ahead and any parked cars buried in the snow at curbside.
Progress was unbelievably slow. The truck managed fine in four-wheel drive, although the streets were unplowed and a thick layer of ice had formed between the asphalt and the snow cover. They had to maneuver around several abandoned vehicles left where they had stalled or spun out, unusually in the middle of intersections where careless drivers had attempted to turn too quickly. Not surprisingly, many of them were sport utility vehicles, whose transplanted California drivers figured four-wheel-drive made normal bad-weather driving precautions unnecessary.
Blair frowned at something his eyes had detected but which hadn't quite registered on his brain. "Jim, did something just happen?"
"Power went out," Jim confirmed. "No more street lights, shop lights, or traffic signals."
Blair groaned. "First it was no Christmas Eve dinner at Joel's. Now, it's no heat and no lights." And no twinkling Christmas tree.
"Maybe it won't last too long," Jim speculated, but he didn't sound confident. The last major outage had happened over Halloween, and it had taken three days for electricity to be restored to the loft. Some areas of Cascade had been without power for five days.
"It won't be so bad," he added. "We have lots of food now, including the snack stuff you got in for the game tomorrow, and the camping lantern still has plenty of propane."
"Yeah," Blair agreed, determined to make the best of it. "There are a couple of journal articles I've been meaning to read."
Jim paused at the next intersection and looked both ways through the whiteout in an effort to spot oncoming cars. The wheels spun as he started up again, but he was able to coax the truck to move ahead pretty much in the direction he desired. "Look, Blair," he began a little awkwardly, "I know you want to make Christmas something special. I appreciate that, really. But for me, it's always been a way to mark the end of the year, a time when my parents fought even more often than usual and I stayed away as much as I could. Now, it's just a day off, a chance to kick back and watch some football. That's all."
"I understand that, Jim," Blair answered. "I didn't plan to suggest we go to church or read Christmas stories to each other or anything. I was just looking forward to the two of us watching the game together." He smiled. "I even had the pre-game entertainment ready."
"Yeah -- I rented all the football blooper tapes. I figured we could watch 'em while we fixed the nachos and peppers." Jim had recently developed a liking for mild peppers that were stuffed with cream cheese before being breaded and fried. Blair had discovered a sweet-hot pepper jelly that pegged right at Jim's heat-tolerance level, and now he found himself frequently fixing the finger food whenever appetizers were on the menu.
Jim looked interested. "Really? That sounds cool. Maybe the power will be back on by tomorrow."
"I hope so." Blair sounded wistful. "I mean, hanging out at the loft is great, but watching the game and all the other stuff were things we could do together."
Jim frowned, honestly bewildered. "I don't get it, Chief. We do stuff together all the time. What makes tomorrow so special?"
Blair frowned, unable to explain. "It's Christmas," he replied simply, and let the matter drop.
They reached the loft at last, and Jim managed to maneuver the truck safely into a parking space between two snow-covered mounds he figured were cars that belonged to his neighbors. If the snowplows came along, the truck and everything else at the side of the road would be buried under several feet of dirty snow, but he had no other choice. This was one of the times he wished the building had an underground parking facility.
Gathering up the grocery sacks, they slid and stumbled their way into the lobby of their building, then carted everything up three floors. At least the emergency lights in the stairwell were working, so they weren't climbing through darkness.
Jim unlocked the door, and they went inside.
The loft was gloomy. Snow had covered the skylight, filtering the faint daylight until the inside of the loft looked like late dusk. The Christmas tree stood dark and forlorn in the corner, while ice crystals slowly encroached across the glass of the French doors, further shutting out the light.
Quickly, they unpacked the groceries and put them away. Jim used a match to light two burners on the gas stove, then put on two pots of water to heat -- one for coffee and a larger one for the washing up after dinner. He dug out the stirfry pan and put in on a cold burner to wait until it was needed.
Then he went around the loft and turned off the emergency lights that had come on automatically when the electricity had gone out. He would conserve their battery power until it was needed.
"I'll go on down to the basement and get the lantern," he said when he was finished. "It should light most of the loft, and you can use a flashlight if you need to go to the bathroom or anything."
Blair was assembling the vegetables for their dinner. "OK. Would you bring up a couple of sleeping bags, too?" he asked. "Just in case the heat stays off all night."
"Sure," Jim agreed, heading out the door.
After he was gone, Blair paused in his dinner preparations and gazed around the depressing room. The television screen was a blank eye. Irrelevantly, he remembered hearing television referred to as the "cool fire", the modern day equivalent of the family gathering around the campfire at the end of the day. But he didn't agree with that theory. Families may gather around the television the way their ancestors gathered around the fire, but they seldom told stories or shared experiences of the day. They weren't together in a way that really mattered.
Now, without electricity, he and Jim wouldn't have even that illusion of togetherness.
With a long sigh, he went back to chopping vegetables and slicing lean meat for their supper.
Jim came back a few minutes later, his arms laden with camping equipment, and Blair helped him get it sorted.
The lantern went onto the table, where it could cast its light throughout the large loft space. One sleeping bag went onto the sofa, the other onto Blair's bed.
With the immediate chores out of the way, Jim turned his attention to the fireplace, and soon he had a cheerful blaze warming the room. The logs weren't real, but the flames were, even if they were created by gas jets.
Jim's cell phone rang, and Blair groaned. "Not work," he prayed quietly.
Jim answered it, then grinned and shook his head at his partner. "Thanks, Joel. We made it home OK, and Sandburg's starting dinner. Just save us some of that turkey and roast, OK?...Yeah, Merry Christmas to you, too...."
He disconnected the call. "The power's out at Joel's place, too. The outage seems to have hit about a quarter of the city."
They finished dinner preparations together, their conversation sparse but companionable. Soon, the rich, varied aromas of stirfry joined the scent of pine from the Christmas tree.
"You know, maybe you're right," Blair commented quietly as he dished up their meal and Jim set the table.
"Of course I'm right," Jim agreed, then grinned. "About what?"
"We do things together all the time -- maybe we don't need a special day to affirm what we have."
"Am I infecting you with the bah-humbug spirit?" Jim chided with a chuckle.
Blair grimaced. "No, not exactly. I mean, even though I enjoyed all the Christmas parties and stuff at work and you didn't, it was because you're just not a people person and not because you didn't share the sentiment, right?"
"I think so," Jim agreed cautiously, working his way through the treacherous minefield of Sandburg logic. "I don't like crowds, and I don't like office parties, but I don't begrudge them."
After they'd sat down and started eating, Jim added quietly, "Blair, dinner at Joel's with his family and Simon and Daryl would have been great. They would have made us feel welcome and let us join in their Christmas celebration, but as much fun as it would have been, we wouldn't have been family, not in the way that mattered."
Blair felt a surge of sadness that almost killed his appetite. Jim was right, of course. Like the illusory togetherness of the television set, Christmas was a family event, and no matter how much he wanted to be a part of it, he wasn't.
"Whoa, partner, let me finish here," Jim cut into his thoughts, and Blair raised his eyes to meet his loftmate's concerned gaze. "I wanted to say that I'm exactly where I want to be on Christmas, and with the person I want to celebrate it with. If that's not the sort of Christmas spirit you were looking for, I'm sorry, but it's the best I have to offer."
Blair's sudden smile was radiant. "It's more than enough, Jim," he replied sincerely, blinking to drive back the mist that threatened to fill his eyes. "And I feel the same way, too."
The lantern suddenly sputtered and went out, as if amused by such an abundant display of emotion.
They laughed at the same time, and Jim said, "I guess I picked up the wrong propane bottle, Chief. Finish eating and grab the flashlight. It's your turn to go down to the basement."
They finished eating by the flickering glow cast by the fireplace, then Jim cleared the table while his partner shrugged into his jacket, checked the flashlight beam and headed out the door.
"If I'm not back in fifteen minutes, send out a search party."
"You got it," Jim promised, dumping the dirty dishes in the sink.
Ten minutes later, Blair was back with a new propane bottle for the lantern. He'd barely set foot inside the loft before he stopped in stunned amazement.
"Shut the door, Chief," Jim murmured softly from the sofa. "You'll let out all the warm air."
Numbly, Blair shut the door. Without removing his jacket, he walked across the floor and stopped behind the sofa.
In front of him, showing a total disregard for the current power outage, their Christmas tree was twinkling in all its multi-colored splendor. In the semi-darkness, it looked particularly grand.
Blair almost sputtered. "Jim, how did you -- I mean, how -- ?"
"Gotta have a Christmas tree for Santa to put the gifts under, right?" Jim returned midly.
Blair frowned. "You said we weren't exchanging gifts," he accused, distracted from his surprise for just a moment.
"Right, we're not," his partner assured hastily, "but Santa Claus is another matter altogether."
"Yeah, right." The sarcasm couldn't achieve its proper timbre when blended with Blair's delight. He smiled to himself: 'Santa' had already stashed a few gifts for Jim under Blair's bed. "How did you do that?"
Jim shrugged. "Simple. I had a DC to AC converter. I hooked it up to a couple of those big flashlight batteries, plugged in the tree, and -- voila -- let there be light!"
"Whatever you said, I am impressed."
"I hope you're still impressed when the whole thing blows up."
"Is that likely to happen?"
"I don't know -- I've never done anything like this before."
Jim didn't sound too concerned, so Blair refused to worry about it. He put the new propane bottle next to the lantern, shed his jacket and hung it up, then grabbed a couple of beers from the refrigerator. Plopping down beside his partner, he handed over a bottle and opened his own. "This is nice."
Jim nodded. "Yeah, it is." He held up his bottle in a toast. "Merry Christmas, Blair."
"Merry Christmas, Jim," Blair returned happily.
He felt surprisingly content. Jim might not have been overt in displaying any Christmas spirit, but he'd had it when it counted. Blair had wanted the holiday to be special, and Jim had gone out of his way in an effort to make it so. They both had. If that wasn't the Christmas spirit, then Blair didn't know what was.
They touched bottles, then each took a drink.
After a moment, Jim asked hesitantly, "Do you have any more of your childhood Christmas stories you'd care to share?"
"I am a wealth of Christmas memories," Blair agreed, slouching into the cushions and spreading the sleeping bag across their legs to ward off the chill of the approaching night. "Did I tell you about the Christmas we spent with the circus....?"