Disclaimer: We don't own any of these guys, they are the brainchild and property of: Rysher,
Panzer/Davis, Greg Widen, Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, Paramount, Pet Fly Productions, UPN
and a bunch of other people. No money made, no harm intended. It's all in good fun, don't take
us too seriously.

Attention: This is an ALTERNATE UNIVERSE. Expect things to be wacky.

That said, this story takes place in it's own time period. Zen&nancy no longer feel the need to
comply to TPTB's time lines.

Story title and lyrics borrowed without permission from Bob Marley (r.i.p.)

Mucho thanks to Suze for always being there, and to MoonPuppy, who is crazy enough to be
resident beta at the House Of Slack, and the wonderful people who have written us, we're still in
shock that people like this soap opera.

Vive la RSM!

Three Little Birds

Part 23

By Zen&nancy

Duncan was surprised when Jim didn't open the door after his first quiet knock. He waited a moment, and knocked a little harder, calling softly, "Jim? Are you awake?"

After a moment, he got a very groggy response. "Yeah...Um, hold on a sec."

Duncan listened to Jim shuffling to the door. He yawned, thinking that he could have used another hour of sleep himself. He was totally unprepared for Jim's appearance when he opened the door. He was bare to the waist, wearing only his boxer shorts. His hair was messed up the way it only got when you'd been rolling around on a bed with someone else for several hours. He had four dark, perfectly round hickey marks, starting at the base of his throat and going in a straight line to the center of his chest. Duncan turned his eyes away quickly, taking a step back into the hallway.

"Are you ready?"Duncan asked him shortly, aware that it was a ridiculous question, but too flustered to think before he spoke.

"Uh, come in?" Jim mumbled, rubbing his hand quickly over his face.

"Okay." Duncan stepped into Jim's apartment, not looking at anything but what was directly in front of him.

"Give me a few minutes?" Jim asked, sounding more awake.

"Alright, but make it quick. We're going to be late." Duncan realized that that didn't make any sense either, it was seven a.m. and the only plans any of them had for the day were to decorate the dojo for Christmas. He knew he wasn't reacting to Jim very well. He was being antagonistic and unfriendly. Something about Jim's attitude made him angry. Maybe it was just that he was so relaxed this morning, or that he'd overslept, when Duncan had made himself wake up to the alarm clock, even though he hadn't wanted to. If he were in the mood to be honest with himself, Duncan thought wryly, he would just admit that it was seeing the marks of Blair's mouth on Jim's chest that had thrown him into this surly mood.

"What crawled up your ass this morning?" Jim asked, sounding sleepy and confused. He didn't give Mac time to answer, going directly to the bathroom and shutting the door behind him.

Duncan stood in the center of the big room, not sure whether he was angry or sorry for not being able to control his emotions. He wanted to be angry.

As soon as the bathroom door closed, Blair sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes and squinting at it. He cocked his head at the closed door, and then at Duncan, across the room. "What's up with you guys?" He mumbled, scratching his head. A second later, memory returned, and he raised a hand to his throat, moaning softly, "Oh man..."

Duncan stood next to the couch, looking at him for a long, silent minute. His eyes moved slowly over his lover's neck, shoulders and chest, covered with dark red and purple welts and bite marks. "Tell him I'll be downstairs," he said quietly, and turned on his heel and walked out of the apartment.

Blair stared at the door closing behind Duncan, his head sliding into his hands. "Oh shit. Not good," Blair wailed softly, rubbing his eyes and trying to catch up to the adrenaline that surged in his stomach. He started to run after Duncan, and then stopped, his hands covering his throat. What was he going to say? Duncan was angry, and seeing him was only going to make it worse.

Jim came out of the bathroom, surprised to find Blair out of bed and standing in the middle of the room. "You look confused, Chief," Jim smiled, coming up to Blair to hug him close to his bare chest. Blair's arms went around him, squeezing hard, and then he pulled away, distress obvious in the sleepy blue eyes.

"Duncan said to tell you he's waiting downstairs," Blair spoke quietly, without any inflection in his voice.

"Are you okay?" Jim asked softly, wanting to pull his Guide back into his arms, but restraining himself.

"Yeah, I'm fine. Don't worry. Go run, okay?" Blair turned his back on Jim, going into the kitchen to start coffee.

"Blair... I don't think..."

Blair interrupted him, not looking up from the spoons of coffee he was measuring. "Please Jim? Just go run with him."

Jim watched him for another moment, wishing that Blair would look at him. Finally, he sighed, and agreed, "Okay, Chief. I'll see you in a little while."

"Yeah, okay," Blair answered distractedly, pouring water into the coffee maker.

Jim left the apartment, not really looking forward to facing Mac now that he was awake. He found him downstairs in the dojo, halfway through a kata. Jim went back to the wall to wait, watching the deadly control of Mac's movements. He was impressed, in spite of himself.

Jim was surprised when Duncan turned to look at him as soon as he completed the form. He hadn't thought that Duncan was even aware of his presence. His eyes were a darker brown than he'd ever seen them, and his heart accelerated beyond what it should have been for the work out he'd just finished.

"Ready?" Duncan asked him sharply, bending down to pick up his towel.

"Yeah. Mac, look, I think..."

Duncan cut him off, still staring directly into the Sentinel's eyes. "I don't want to talk. Are you here to run?"

Jim stifled his anger, exhaling a noisy breath. "Let's go."

They left, not speaking another word to each other. Duncan drove aggressively, knuckles white on the steering wheel, but Jim didn't say anything. If they could get through this morning without beating the crap out of each other, then maybe later they could talk.

Blair stood in the bathroom, his coffee cup on the edge of the sink. He contemplated his reflection solemnly, turning his head from side to side to see the extent of the damage. It was impressive. Jim had managed to mark almost every inch of his neck and shoulders. There were several places where the bruises had formed in the shape of his teeth, and the indentation of each small tooth could be seen.

"What the hell were you thinking?" Blair asked his reflection softly. I wasn't, Blair answered himself, thinking that he really hadn't been thinking at all. It had seemed like the only way to give Jim what he needed, absolute certainty that his Guide was really his. That's true, but it's only half of it, Blair scolded himself, shaking his head in the mirror. "Admit it. You wanted it. You wanted it bad."

Yes, he had, and it had been absolutely incredible, but if it cost him Duncan, Blair knew he would regret it forever. "Oh man, I blew it. I pushed him too far... Oh God, Duncan, I'm so sorry. I'm such an idiot."

Blair remembered the look on his lover's face, and the cold, impersonal tone of his voice when he told him to tell Jim he'd be downstairs. Where Blair wasn't, where he didn't have to look at him or talk to him. Duncan had never spoken to him like that before. They'd had a couple of silly arguments, each ended with them laughing at themselves, as soon as they realized they were arguing. He'd never spoken to him like that, though, as if he was someone Duncan barely knew, and didn't think very much of at all.

Blair sighed miserably, feeling like he wanted to cry, and made himself leave the bathroom. Flopping down on Jim's couch, he couldn't stop himself from going over the whole scene in his head again. The hurt that followed the surprise in Duncan's eyes had been covered very quickly. He's angry, he's angry because I hurt him. He must feel like this is a betrayal, letting Jim rub his face in it... Blair's thoughts trailed off, anxiety growing to overwhelming proportions inside him.

"You fucked up," Blair told himself, going back to the coffee pot for a second cup. He stood at the counter, staring off into space and wondering if Duncan and Jim were talking, fighting, or giving each other the silent treatment. Neither of them were very good at talking when they were angry.

Blair sighed, annoyed with himself for the sound of it. He didn't want to be here right now, in Jim's apartment. The place smelled like him, and the events of last night were too close for him to block out. He couldn't think about it now, he was too upset. If he started analyzing everything that he and Jim had done now, it would only give him more to worry about. Blair decided that he couldn't handle anymore right now. Going back upstairs didn't sound like the best plan either, he wasn't sure he wanted to be there when Duncan got back. The way he'd looked at him before he walked out made it very clear that he wanted some space. Blair decided he'd go downstairs to the dojo and work on the tai chi exercises Duncan had been teaching him. It might help clear his head, and in any case, it was a place that was neither Jim's nor Duncan's, and neutral territory was definitely the safest place to be.

Blair got up from the couch, going back to the bed and finding his jeans and t-shirt. He pulled on the jeans, and grabbed the rest of his clothes. Stopping at the counter top to turn off the coffee pot, he left Jim's apartment, locking the door behind him.

Blair jogged up the two flights of stairs to the loft, glad that Duncan had left it unlocked for him. As usual, he hadn't thought about keys. He'd been more than half asleep when Jim had carried him downstairs last night. Tossing his clothes in the hamper, Blair took a quick shower. This time, he avoided the mirror, brushing his teeth quickly and not bothering to shave. He put on a turtle neck, which hid the worst of the damage, and a pair of soft, baggy jeans that would give him enough room to move. Duncan and Jim had only been gone ten minutes, but he hurried anyway.

When he got downstairs, Blair was surprised to find Spencer in the office. He was sorting though a large box on the desk, pulling out strings of Christmas lights and decorations.

"Hey dude. How's it going?" Spencer called out, coming out of the office to greet him.

Blair rubbed a hand quickly over his face, and tried to sound cheerful. "Morning Spence. You're here early."

"Yeah, it's gorgeous out, really clear, not too cold. I had to get out. I've got a pot of coffee going, should be ready in a minute. Do you know if Mac has more lights upstairs?"

"Yeah, we have at least a dozen more strings. No more coffee, I'm already caffinated. Want some help?"

Blair wandered over to the office, leaning on the wall just inside the doorway. Spencer went back to the desk, where two of the four big packing boxes had already been opened. He smiled at Blair, showing large, even teeth. Spencer was at least three inches taller than Duncan, and lanky. He towered over Blair, but always remembered to stand far enough back that Blair didn't have to crane his neck up to look at him.

"Yeah, sure, I'm just starting to unpack everything. Guess we should string the lights first, huh?"

Blair nodded, trying to make his brain shift gears. "Yeah, I guess. The ceiling's pretty high out there, do we need a ladder?"

"Got one. Mac and Jim go running?"

Blair raised two fingers to the bridge of his nose, squeezing gently in an attempt to relieve the headache trying to sneak up on him. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure they did." He watched Spencer pull a few more glittery items out of the box. "Oh man, those are awesome."

Spencer held up matching three dimensional snowmen to hang from the ceiling. "Yeah, these guys are cool. Did you see the elves?" Blair pushed himself off the wall to dig through the other box. He cataloged the contents as he removed them.

"Streamers, cool. A ton of garland. Snowflakes. Hey, check this out, ornament hangers."

Spencer took the small box of hangers from him, setting it on top of the filing cabinet so it wouldn't get lost. "That's cool, we ran out last year, had to get creative with paper clips."

Blair watched Spencer pull two blue aerosol cans out his box, along with several sheets of stencils with holiday themes. "What's that?" Blair asked curiously, reading the print on the can. "Snow? I don't get it."

Spencer was looking at him in disbelief. "Dude! You never had snow in a can when you were a kid?"

Blair shook his head, baffled. "No, man. I'm Jewish. We didn't do much holiday stuff, unless me and my Mom were staying with relatives, and then it was Chanukah, not Christmas. So what's it for, the tree?"

"No, dude, the windows. You hold the stencils up and spray across them and you get powder that sticks to the windows, looks like snow. It's really cool."

"Sounds like it. Let's see." Blair returned Spencer's grin enthusiastically, following him out of the office and across the dojo to the big doors that separated the dojo proper from the entranceway. Each had a large pane of glass in the upper half of the wood. Spencer held one of the stencils, in the shape of a Christmas tree with a star on the top, and handed Blair a can of snow. "Go for it, dude."

Blair laughed, shaking up the can. He was surprised by the force with which the stuff came out, and tried to cover the space within the stencil evenly. He couldn't really see if he'd gotten it right at first, but when Spencer lifted the plastic stencil sheet, there was a perfect Christmas tree made of sparkling snowflakes on the window pane.

"Wow! That's really pretty."

"Good job, here do another one." Spencer held up another stencil sheet, this one had Santa in his sleigh, with a string of reindeer.

They spent the next half hour covering all the glass in the dojo with the spray-on snow, taking turns holding the plastic sheets and creating the pictures. They'd worked their way to the outside doors and were on their second can of snow when Duncan and Jim pulled up in the T-bird.

Blair felt his heart jump in his throat, and the stencil he was holding slipped a little on the window. Spencer stopped in mid-spray, waiting for him to reposition it.

"Sorry, man."

"No problem, it'll look fine."

That was the best thing about Spencer, he was so easy-going. Blair had liked him from the first morning he'd wandered into the dojo looking for Duncan. He'd surprised him, looking so obviously like he'd just crawled out of bed. Spencer had only smiled and offered him coffee, not the least bit put out by Blair's presence.

Duncan and Jim got out of the car, walking towards them. They'd run their usual three miles without speaking more than five words between them. Jim smiled at Blair, nodding to Spencer, "Looks great guys. Nice work. Lemme run upstairs and shower and we'll get on the lights."

"Okay, sounds good." Blair told him, relieved to see that Jim seemed calm, and in a reasonably good mood. Duncan, on the other hand, didn't look any less angry than he had when he'd left Jim's apartment.

"I'll be down shortly." He muttered, walking past Jim and down the hall to the elevator, a towel slung over his shoulder.

Jim exhaled a frustrated breath, and let his long look at his Guide express his feelings before he followed Duncan inside.

"Um, you know, I think maybe I should go upstairs and see if I can get the rest of the lights and the stuff we bought at the mall. I'll be back down in a few minutes, okay?" Blair watched Duncan's back, biting his lip.

Spencer shrugged, not completely oblivious to the tension between the three of them. "No problem, take your time. I'll sort out the rest of the ornaments."

Blair didn't give himself time to hesitate outside the door to the loft, afraid that he would lose his nerve and go back downstairs. Pushing the door open resolutely, he followed the sound of running water to the bathroom door, knocking gently.

"Duncan? Can I come in?" He called, shifting his weight anxiously from one foot to the other. He didn't have any idea what to say about the marks all over his neck, he just knew they had to talk about it.

Duncan made a noncommittal sound from the shower stall, and turned his back when Blair stepped into the bathroom. Sitting down uncertainly on the lid of the toilet, Blair began to pick absentmindedly at the cuticles of his left hand with the thumbnail of his right.

"Um...Duncan, I know you're like, pretty upset right now, but I wanna talk about it. I'm really sorry."

Duncan spun around in the shower staring at him furiously through the glass door. "You're sorry!"

Blair tried to interrupt, too upset to keep quiet. His words came out in a rush, "Yeah, I am. I'm really sorry, Duncan, it just happened..."

Duncan shook his head, turning off the water with an angry jerk. "I don't want you to apologize to me. Tell the Blair Sandburg who didn't want to be Jim's property any longer that you're sorry. Tell it to the person who said 'My days of submitting to Jim Ellison's will are long gone.' Tell him! Because he's the one being cheated."

"No, you don't understand, man..."

The glass door swung open and Duncan ripped a towel from the rack, wrapping it tightly around his middle.

"Yes! I do understand. I understand that you think nothing of letting him hurt you, letting him mark you as his property, that you think nothing of yourself!"

"Whoa, listen, Duncan. The whole reason the marks are there in the first place is because Jim saw the bruises you left on me, and he freaked."

"So now you're telling me that Jim marking you like a head of cattle is my fault?" Duncan's voice was quiet with controlled fury. He forced himself to look away from the injured look in Blair's blue eyes, it was only making him angrier.

Blair was shaking his head, holding his palms up helplessly in the air in front of him, beseeching Duncan to listen. "No, man. Duncan, please, try to understand this. When he saw the bruises you left on my shoulders, he zoned. It upset him, a lot. For basically the same reason that you're upset now. Jim couldn't understand how I could let you hurt me."

"I didn't do it on purpose!" Duncan argued fiercely, reaching for the brush on the counter top and yanking it brutally through his wet hair.

"I know that, but that's not the point. What Jim did wasn't in retaliation, and it wasn't what you think, honestly. I mean, yeah, he needed to mark me, but I had to talk him into it. It's just, ah, once he did bite me, it kinda got out of hand. I didn't encourage him to do it to submit to him, not at all." Blair paused to suck in air, exhaling through his teeth in frustration.

"Okay, bear with me here, this just isn't that easy to explain, I haven't thought about it enough myself yet. I do know that hurting me was the farthest thing from his mind, and he didn't. Incidentally, you didn't either. I'm not made of glass. I'm really, really, sorry that what happened upset you. I can understand that there's a territorial thing going on here, Duncan, but I think you're gonna have to admit that you're angry at him for acting on things that you're feeling. I mean, look, you're both totally alpha, and you're both normally super secure with yourselves. Everything that's happened in the past few days has put you both in defensive positions, whether either of you will admit it or not. Now, I'm not saying that the solution is to use me for a human map to mark your territory on, but Duncan, he needed it, and I think I did too. I wasn't really thinking, I don't even remember what I said. He was zoned out, and then I had to badger him to get him to tell me what was wrong, and it was the marks of your fingers on my shoulders. He could see your fingerprints on my skin. It was the only way I could think of to make it better."

Duncan took a long, deep breath, trying to understand what Blair was attempting to tell him. They were both so worked up that he doubted that either of them were making sense. "I'm sorry. I'll calm down if you will, and then maybe we can talk about this rationally."

Duncan didn't sound like he'd listened to much of his botched attempt to explain what had happened last night, but Blair agreed anyway. "Okay, I'll let you shave and meet you in the kitchen." He got up slowly, Duncan thought he looked exhausted by the day already. He reached out a hand to catch his lover's arm, pulling him briefly against his chest. "I'm sorry. I think I was a bit out of line. I shouldn't yell at you like that. I love you."

Blair nodded solemnly, in total agreement. "I love you too. Get dressed, we'll talk."

Spencer and Jim both looked up when Duncan and Blair stepped out of the elevator. They both looked more relaxed. Spencer was on the ladder, and Jim was handing him small pieces of tape, his other hand holding the trailing end of the Christmas lights. Spencer looked quickly back to Jim, concerned. He'd noticed that Jim was upset about something this morning, his friend was even less talkative than usual.

Spencer had taken an immediate liking to the older man, who seemed so out of place living in Mac's loft. He'd seemed out of place in Seacouver all together at first, but slowly he was adjusting to his new home. Jim was good company, and a dependable third hand and work-out partner in the dojo, which he greatly appreciated.

"Hey Mac, how's it going? Somebody called for you while you were upstairs, think it was the guys who did the estimate on the weight room. Number's on your desk."

"Thanks, Spence, I'll deal with it later. I don't think we're going to do anything before the holidays are over. We've got another dozen strings of lights for you. Are you dizzy on that ladder yet?"

Duncan came over the base of the tall ladder to look up at his manager, who was standing on the last step, his long arms raised over his head to the reach the dojo's high ceiling. Blair followed him, carrying the shopping bag full of lights and tinsel.

"No, I'm not dizzy, but do you still have that radio in the office? I brought some Christmas music with me for us to listen to while we decorate."

"Yeah, sure, I'll go get it."

Spencer climbed down the ladder, following Duncan to the office to get the cd out of his coat pocket. Blair came over to stand next to Jim, feeling shy and not really knowing why. "Hi. How's it going?"

"I've had better mornings. Started out really nice though."

Blair looked up at him quickly, surprised, and then his face split into a wide grin.

Duncan returned from the office with a two rolls of tape and three boxes of garland under his arm. Spencer brought the radio to the office doorway, setting it down on the floor and turning up the volume. "Deck the Halls" filled the air and Duncan laughed, "That's appropriate. Will you help me string these around the woodwork Blair?"

"Sure." Blair took a roll of tape from Duncan and began ripping off small pieces to hand to his lover.

Spencer was up on the ladder again, with Jim directing the placement of the lights and handing him up strips of tape. Spencer hummed along with the carols, and soon Blair joined him, singing along to the ones he knew and humming the rest.

Duncan and Blair hung tinsel all the way around the dojo, looping the red and silver strings on the dark woodwork. All four of them worked in silence for a several minutes, until finally Jim broke it, asking Spencer cheerfully, "So, Spence, what are doing for Christmas, do you have plans?"

"Oh yeah, my sister's been doing Christmas dinner since my Mom died almost ten years ago. She's married, and I've got two nephews, eight and twelve. They're great kids, really cool. I'll go over there early Christmas morning. Nick and Pete will want me to be there to watch them open presents. We do Christmas lunch instead of dinner, and then the kids go over to their Dad's parents and we get to relax and recover."

"Sounds nice. I think I'm being dragged to Joe's for some sort of grand buffet." Jim grinned up at Spencer on the ladder.

"You'll love it, it's a bash. Hey, Mac, is Richie coming home for Christmas this year?" Spencer called to his boss across the big room.

"Yeah, he should be here a couple days before. He's in Florida, racing."

"That's great. I haven't seen him in ages. Does he need a place to crash?"

Duncan smiled at his manager, thinking that Spencer was not only very perceptive, but also kind and thoughtful. "I think he'd really appreciate that Spence, thanks."

"Oh, no problem, Mac, it'll be great to have him."

Duncan and Blair finished the garland and started putting up the paper wall decorations. Each time Blair took the tape from him, he brushed Duncan's hand, smiling up into the dark eyes. Duncan was quiet at first, but gradually, he gave into Blair and Spencer's enthusiasm, and relaxed a little. "Turn the lights off, Caro, let's see what this extravagance looks like."

Spencer had climbed down from the ladder, he and Jim were sorting out the strings of lights that were left. Blair ran to the wall switch, turning off all lights before he plugged in the extension cord. Running back to Duncan's side, he looked up, spinning in a slow circle. "Oooh, wow! That's beautiful."

Spencer and Jim had made five pointed stars with the strings of lights, covering the entire ceiling with blinking colored stars.

"Glad you like it, Chief. I think it looks good, too."

"Oh yeah, we outdid ourselves here, Dude, it's fantastic. I don't know how you managed to get the stars so straight, they're perfect."

"Nice job guys." Duncan was proud of himself when his voice didn't sound forced. Jim looked up at him in surprise, offering a tentative smile.

"Thanks, Mac. What's next?" Jim returned the extra lights to their box, and walked it over to the corner where the rest of the decorations were stacked.

"Um, well, let's see... We've got all the games for the party upstairs, I think we can wait till next weekend to worry about ordering the food from the deli. I guess the next thing to do is go get a tree.

"Hey, Mac, if you don't need me anymore, I'm gonna take off. I'm going to pick the boys up from school for my sister today. She's Christmas shopping."

"Sure, no problem, Spence. Thanks for coming over. You won't miss decorating the tree, we'll have to set it up and wait a day for the branches to fall anyway."

"Okay, Mac, thanks, I'll see you in the morning then. Take it easy Jim, Bye Blair." Spencer went back to the office for his backpack, throwing them a wave over his shoulder on his way out the door.

"So, listen, Duncan, I'm gonna go upstairs and get some cleaning done. If you need help hauling the tree in just gimme a holler..."

Blair was just coming out of the office, where he'd been digging through the boxes, doing an inventory on what was left.

"Aw, come on, Jim, come pick out a tree with us. Don't you want one for your place?" Blair looked beseechingly at Duncan, and then at Jim.

Duncan almost laughed at his lover's blatant manipulation, but with eyes like that, how could he refuse? "Come on, Jim, let's go get a tree. We need to take your truck anyway, I'm not tying three Christmas trees to the roof of the T-Bird."

Jim chuckled, "Okay, I guess I can drive. I don't want a tree though, too many pine needles. I'll get a wreath for the door or something."

Blair still looked concerned. "Are you sure? You have such cool ornaments."

Blair thought about the Christmases in Cascade. Jim had ornaments from all over the world, collected during his years in the Army. The first year, he'd told Blair a story for almost every ornament he hung on the tree. Just the thought of a young, uniformed Jim picking out delicate blown glass ornaments in a little shop in Switzerland had made him smile.

"No, Chief, not this year, I'm sure. There'll be two other trees around, and I just don't feel like dealing with all the production."

"If you'd like, you could always hang some of them on our tree upstairs." Duncan said quietly, taking Blair's hand and walking over to where Jim stood, near the elevator.

"That's really nice of you, Duncan. Even if he doesn't want to, I do. Jim has incredible ornaments, from all over the place."

"I think the decision's been made, Mac. I'll drag them out of the closet tonight."

"Good. So, two trees, and some wreaths. I think we should go to that lot we saw on the way home this morning, they looked like they had some nice trees." Duncan told him, holding up the elevator gate.

"Okay, sounds good. I'll get my coat and meet you guys downstairs." Jim got off at the third floor, exhaling a breath of relief as he headed down the hall to his apartment door. This day was going far better than he'd hoped it would when he'd woken up that morning. It was Blair. He was the hardest person to stay angry at in the world; he knew that from personal experience. When Blair decided it was time to ease the tension, it was almost impossible to ignore his enthusiastic efforts.

Blair, Duncan and Jim sat quietly in the truck, waiting for the old Ford to warm up before pulling out into traffic. Blair was in the middle, his knees drawn up so that Jim could shift. When the idle had come down and Jim had pulled out onto the street, Blair looked back and forth between them, asking quietly, "So, do we wanna talk about this?"

Jim and Duncan glanced at each other quickly over Blair's head, both smiling when they told him "No" in unison.

"Come on, guys, I don't want us to be upset with each other. I don't want there to be all this underlying tension. Why can't we just talk about it?"



Again, they spoke in almost perfect unison, the same tone of patient aggravation in their voices. Jim and Duncan cracked up, grinning at each other across Blair's head.

"See, sweetie, no tension. Everything's all right." Duncan pressed a quick kiss to Blair's worried forehead.

The light changed, and Jim put the truck back in gear. When he'd shifted through third, he wrapped his arm around his Guide's shoulders, squeezing reassuringly. "Don't worry about it, Chief. We're not gonna spoil your Christmas."

Jim, Duncan and Blair stood grouped around a Douglas Fir in a corner of the tree lot. Blair and Jim both had their hands shoved deep in their pockets, it was bitter cold and the wind was blowing. Duncan was holding the tree up for their inspection.

"No way, man, it's gotta be way bigger than that. The one for the dojo has to be taller than me. The one for upstairs can be a little smaller." Blair was bouncing up and down as he spoke, trying to keep warm.

Duncan laughed, rejecting the tree and following them to the next prospect. Jim was reading the tag tied to one of the pine's branches.

"What do you think, Chief? It's a Blue Spruce. Kinda pricey but it's nice and full."

"I don't know, hold it up."

Jim reached into the tree, grasping the trunk and leaning it upright for Blair's inspection. "Not bad."

"Not bad? It's perfect! This is it. This is definitely the right tree!" His cheeks were red from the cold and his hair bounced as spoke.

"For downstairs, I hope." Duncan told him indulgently, coming to stand next to his lover. The tree was at least a foot taller than Blair, and bushy, with short, dark green needles. "It is a pretty one."

"Isn't it gorgeous? Now all we have to do is find one for the house." He was already scanning the lot.

The man who ran the lot headed their way, seeing Jim holding the huge tree. "Can I help you gents? That's a beaut you've got there."

"Yes it is, we'll take it. We need to find one more, as well." Duncan explained as the tree guy saw dollar signs ringing up in front of his eyes.

"No problem my friend." He stuck a sold tag on the tree. "Now, what are you looking for?"

Jim cut him off before he could break into a sales pitch. "Nothing in mind, thanks. I think we'll just look around."

As soon as the man walked away Blair burst into full rant. "Oh man, was that guy slick, or what? I thought I was at a used car dealership for a minute there. This is Christmas, right? Everybody's supposed to be getting into loving their fellow man, spreading cheer."

"He's just out to make a buck, Chief, but you're right, he is pretty slick."

Duncan had wandered off towards another row of trees, one near the end had caught his eye. "Hey, Blair, what do you think of this one? It's a White Pine."

Blair grabbed Jim's hand, dragging him over to see Duncan's tree. "Ooh, I think I like it. It's different. Really long needles. Feel it, Jim, they're really soft."

Jim humored him, running his hand over a branch. "Nice. Think it'll hold the ornaments? They won't slide off?"

"No, I think they'll hold. Do you like it Caro?"

"Yeah, yeah, I think I do. We've never had a long needle tree, have we Jim? It smells great. Turn it around for me? Gotta make sure there aren't any bare spots."

Duncan spun the tree around for him slowly, watching Blair and Jim's nods of approval. "Do we have a winner here?"

"Yep, sold. Where's Sal the Supersalesman?"

Jim laughed, throwing his arm around Blair's shoulders. It felt good to be alive today. The air was cold and crisp, the sun was shining, and Blair's smile was enough to make him grin all by itself.

"I'll go find him. Pick out a couple wreaths, Jim, we need one for the dojo, too, don't you think?"

"Absolutely, I'll find a really big one for downstairs. Spencer has red bows we can put on it; he said he wanted the biggest wreath I could find."

"Great, I'll see if the guy has rope to tie the trees up with." Duncan went off to find the tree man.

Jim and Blair had found three wreaths and two long strings of pine boughs for the dojo by the time Duncan returned, tree salesman in tow.

"Okay, gents, you're all set. Trees in the truck and ready to go. Did you want those as well, sir?" The man directed his gaze to Jim, who was holding the wreaths.

"Yes, put it on my card." Duncan reached for his wallet, handing over his American Express Platinum Card.

"Very good. I'll be right back with a receipt for you. Now do you folks need lights, or tree stands? We have a huge selection of lights this year, top notch prices, too."

"No, thank you, we're fine." Jim told him smoothly, backing it up with a stare that brooked no argument.

"Okay then, be sure to tell your friends about us. I'll be right back with your receipt."

Blair rolled his eyes at the man's back, slipped an arm through Duncan's. "Unreal. Do you think he robbed us blind?"

Duncan laughed, "Who cares? It's Christmas."

He signed the receipt, pocketing his copy, handing back the pen and the other half of the sales slip.

"Thank you. Merry Christmas."

"You too, guys. Come back next year!"

The three of them walked to the truck, depositing the wreaths and strings of pine branches in the bed. Blair climbed in, scooting over to make room for Duncan. When they were all in the truck, Duncan asked him, "Am I squashing you, Blair?"

"Yeah, but it's good. I'm freezing. Get closer."

Duncan laughed, and obliged, wrapping his arm around his lover to pull him close. Jim smiled, simply happy to see Blair happy. "I'll crank the heat, it'll warm up in here in a second."

"Thanks. It's really getting cold. I hope it doesn't stay this cold, or it won't snow for Christmas."

"Well, you've got a better chance for snow here than you did in Cascade, at any rate." Duncan unzipped his coat, already warm in the close confines of the truck.

"That's true. It might be nice to have real snow instead of cold rain or hail for Christmas, huh, Chief?"

"I am so there, man."

Blair held the door open for Duncan and Jim, who each had their arms full, carrying a tree. Jim had the big one balanced on his shoulder, one hand steadying the trunk and the other holding onto the tree father down.

He set the huge tree down against the wall just inside the dojo with a grunt of relief. Duncan was heading for the elevator with his. "I'll take this one upstairs and set it up and bring down the stand for the other."

"Great, we'll get the wreaths out of the truck," Jim told him, making sure the tree would stay upright against the wall when he let go of it. "Come on, Chief, let's get the rest of it." Jim held the door open for his Guide, following him back out into the cold.

Blair pulled down the tailgate on the pickup, and Jim began pulling the branches forward for him. "Hey, hold your arm out," Jim instructed, and Blair raised his arm out to the side, a confused look on his face. Jim grinned playfully, and quickly hung all three wreaths off Blair's arm.

"Jim!" Blair cried, laughing at his own gullibility.

"Okay." Jim took one wreath off Blair's arm, and dropped it over his head before Blair could stop him.

"Jim! Get this thing off my head!"

Jim took the wreath back, his eyes laughing with his Guide's. Impulsively, Blair dropped the other two, and wrapped his arms around Jim's waist. Jim hugged him back, pulling him tightly against his long body. Blair rubbed his face against Jim's chest, thinking that he couldn't possibly have imagined being this happy last Christmas. He was incredibly lucky.

Jim realized he was standing on the street, hugging Blair in broad daylight, and that he didn't give a damn. "Merry Christmas, Chief."

"Merry Christmas, Jim."

Blair let go, picking up the wreaths and waiting while Jim gathered the strings of branches. They went back inside, trying to decide where the best place to place their enormous tree would be. They talked about it until Duncan came back, deciding that up front was best.

"How about over here?" Blair called to Duncan, when he stepped out of the lift with tree stand in hand.

"Good spot. Let me help you drag it over there, Jim."

They wrestled the tree into it's stand, Blair kneeling on the floor to help guide the tree into place. Duncan held the tree upright while Blair turned the metal screws that held it in place. Jim stepped back, assessing the straightness of the tree's placement. "Little to the left, Mac, you're crooked."

"By how much, a centimeter?" Duncan kidded, tilting the tree a little to the left. He was beginning to learn that between Jim's Sentinel abilities and his somewhat exacting nature, it was good to define these helpful directions.

"No, smartass, about two inches. There, perfect. You got it, Blair?"

"Almost, hang on... Okay, let go."

Duncan stepped back and they all surveyed the tree. "It's great, looks even bigger in here than it did on the lot." Blair told them happily.

"It's gonna be a bitch to decorate. I think we're going to need a ladder for the top branches. It'll look great when it's done, though." Jim commented, walking slowly around the wide spruce.

"No problem, we have ladders. It's the perfect size. The kids' eyes are going to pop out of their heads when they see it." Duncan smiled, wrapping an arm around Blair's shoulders. Blair leaned against him, almost losing his balance.

"Man, I'm exhausted, and starving, too. I think I should go upstairs and make us massive cheeseburgers."

"You feeling alright, Chief?"

Blair laughed, "You guys deserve it. Consider them a reward for making an effort not to bite each other's heads off."

"In that case, I want grilled onions and tomato. Swiss cheese." Jim's deadpan made Duncan laugh.

"I think we should get french fries out of this too, don't you, Jim? And possibly brownies."

"Definitely brownies."

"You're both pushing it,." Blair warned, grinning at his Sentinel and then his lover. "You weren't that nice. Either of you."

"Yes we were," Jim argued, visions of Blair's walnut fudge brownies dancing in his head.

"Oh all right, but it's 'cause it's Christmas." Blair relented, following Jim and Duncan to the elevator.

Blair stood at the stove, spatula in hand. The burgers were almost done, grilled onions and slices of tomato and lettuce were on a plate on the counter. Jim sat on the end of the counter, swinging his legs and keeping up a running commentary on the state of the burgers for Mac, who was across the room, putting water in the tree stand.

When he'd finished with the tree, Duncan came into the kitchen to wash his hands at the sink. Blair flipped the burgers, looking up at Jim and shaking his head in mock wonder. "Man, if anybody had ever told me I'd see Jim Ellison sitting on a kitchen counter top I'd laugh in their face. I gotta get a picture of you like that."

"Yeah, but it's not my counter, it's yours." Jim reasoned, grinned back. His attention turned quickly to Duncan, whose hand had frozen in mid-air, halfway to the water faucet.

"Hey, Duncan, you okay?"

Duncan didn't answer for a moment, and Jim turned to Blair, who was watching Duncan with apprehension, but not surprise.

Finally, the other man answered him, "Yeah, I'm fine. I think someone's come in downstairs, I'm going to go see who's here."

Duncan moved towards his coat, grateful that the katana was in the trenchcoat's sewn-in sheath.

Jim frowned, tuning his hearing to the lower floors of the building. "No one's in the dojo, Mac." He watched Duncan carefully, listening to the gradual acceleration of his heart rate and breathing. He nodded to Jim, but put his coat on anyway. When he had it half way on, he apparently changed his mind, and took it off again. "I guess you're right. Are those burgers done yet, Blair?"

"Yeah, almost." Blair's worried eyes searched Duncan's. His lover shrugged slightly, trying to reassure him with his smile.

Jim cast a long look between them, getting the feeling that he was definitely missing out on something. Blair and Duncan were both quiet for the next few minutes, but gradually, their tension seemed to abate.

They ate lunch on the couch, and talked about their plans for the party. The afternoon passed quickly, all three of them reluctant to move off the couch after their long morning and heavy lunch.

When five o'clock came, Duncan switched on the t.v., turning to local news for a weather report. They watched the day's top stories, each of them commenting on the different reports. Halfway through the broadcast, Duncan rose abruptly to his feet, the same intent expression on his face.

"Duncan?" Blair murmured, reaching for his hand. He recognized the look of Duncan listening to another Immortal's presence instantly, and his stomach turned over. His lover squeezed his hand, then let go, crossing the room to where his coat hung on the rack. "I just realized we don't have any eggnog in the house. Can't have Christmas without eggnog. I'll just run out and get some. I'll be back. I love you, Blair. Don't forget."

He was gone before Jim could do anything but stare back at him in confusion. When the door had closed he turned to his Guide. "Okay, Sandburg, what the hell is going on here?"

Blair's eyes held his for only a second before darting away. He took a deep breath, standing up and going quickly to the kitchen. He needed to have something to do with his hands, maybe that way he could talk to Jim without blowing Duncan's cover.

"What do you mean, Jim?"

"Don't play games with me Blair. We said no more lies. What's going on?"

Jim watched trepidation and anxiety move across Blair's face, his hands scrubbing aggressively at the dirty pan soaking in the sink.

"Duncan had to go. I can't tell you, Jim, I'm sorry. He'll be back." Blair repeated his last words again under his breath, telling himself he had to believe them.

"What the hell can't you tell me? Blair, you're scared to death. This is ridiculous, something is obviously wrong. Tell me."

"It's not my secret to tell. I can't break Duncan's trust, you gotta be able to understand that, man. It's not like he wanted to tell me, I just sort of... I can't talk about this, okay? I'm sorry."

Jim studied his Guide's face carefully, taking in the defensive set of Blair's shoulders and the resolve in the blue eyes. It shocked him, that Blair really wasn't going to tell him, even though he was as distressed as Jim had ever seen him. It hurt too, to know that Blair didn't trust him, that there was something he would hold back from him. That it was about Duncan only made him angry. Wasn't Blair the one who kept preaching openness and honesty in this situation?

"You're really not going to tell me what's going on?" Jim gave his Guide one more chance, looking at him with concern and irritation.

Blair only shook his head, not looking up from the plate he was attacking the sink. "I can't."

He didn't even sound that upset about it. Jim shook his head, trying to shake off the anger. It only helped a little. He made himself take a deep breath before he spoke, he didn't want to lose control of his temper, not with Blair. Not ever again.

"Okay, fine. If you're not going to trust me enough to confide in me, then I can't do anything to help you. I'm not gonna sit up here and watch you worry yourself to death. I'll be downstairs if you decide you need me."

Blair sat cross legged on the bed, hugging Duncan's pillow. He'd spent the last hour alternating between worrying about Duncan and wondering if he'd done irreversible damage to Jim's trust by not telling him. He couldn't, though. He couldn't break the word he'd sworn to his Immortal lover, not for anything. Duncan had made very sure that he understood that 'no matter what' meant absolutely that, and nothing less. It was the biggest compliment Duncan could give him, trusting him with this secret, and he simply would not break that trust.

"I'm sorry, Jim, please don't be mad at me, man. Please." Blair spoke quietly, wondering if Jim was listening or not.

He pushed his face into Duncan's pillow, anxiety rising to frightening proportions inside him. He'd thought about this so many times, how he would have to handle it when Duncan had to take a challenge. Now that it was happening, he couldn't believe he'd let himself be left behind. He should have run after Duncan. At least that way he'd be there, and know if... No, he couldn't let himself think about it. Duncan would come back. He was good, very good, Blair reminded himself, trying to push the fears out. But what if his opponent was better? What if they tricked him? Or broke the rules?

Eventually, his anxiety forced him off the bed, unable to sit still for another minute. Blair went to his tapes in their box on the shelves, searching until he found Bob Marley. Putting the tape in Duncan's deck, he turned the volume up, hoping that the music would block out the sound of his pacing from Jim's Sentinel ears.

End Part 23

Part 24

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