Production No. BPP-609

written by:

edited by: Cassima, Alyson E., and Gabrielle Bessey.

December 20, Morning

It was only 7:00 in the morning and the office was already buzzing with activity. Detectives and officers from the night shift were still finishing paperwork in order to depart as soon as possible and day shift personnel had arrived early to get a jump on the workload sitting on their desks. Christmas was only a week away and all who had vacations planned did not want to change or shorten their plans due to work not being completed.

Even though the biggest holiday of the year was so close, the general surroundings of the bullpen didn't show it. There was a pine wreath attached to the outer door, but that was the extent of decorations with the exception of one desk. This belonged to Rhonda Cameron, Simon Banks' office manager. She had a miniature pine tree, with tiny ribbons adorning it, sitting on one edge. Surrounding that were a few Christmas cards she received, displayed for all to see. On a cabinet behind her desk, sitting on a holiday doily, was a ceramic music box with the figure of a little boy holding a drum. At frequent times during the day, Rhonda cranked the key on the bottom to allow tinny strains of the song "The Little Drummer Boy" to waft across the area. Only the popularity of the woman, and the fact that she had received the music box from her boyfriend, Police Commissioner Matthews, prevented the gift from disappearing or finding its way into the trash.

Detective Jim Ellison was already at his desk with one case file open and three others waiting in his 'IN' box. None of the other people in the area approached after taking a good look at the man. The expression on his face was stern enough to keep even the hardiest person from trying to start a conversation. This morning, Ellison's bright blue eyes contained a laser-sharp glint that threatened to freeze anyone taking a step in his direction and the muscle twitching in jaw warned of a possible explosion of his famous temper.

Jim heard the soft chime of the elevator reaching the floor housing Major Crime and, while keeping his head down to continue working on the file, he focused his other senses in that direction. The odor of cigar smoke and soft musk cologne told him that his superior, Captain Simon Banks, had arrived on the floor. The heaviness of the tall man's footsteps told Jim that Simon was not in a very good mood. Glancing up, what his senses detected were confirmed by the imposing figure of his angry black Captain striding across the room toward his office. With a small but satisfied grunt, Ellison nodded slightly and returned his attention to his work.

Five minutes hadn't passed when Jim raised his head and looked toward the entrance of the office. Focusing his hearing in that direction, he waited. Again, he heard the soft chime and the metal on oiled metal sound that elevator doors make when they open. A familiar voice said 'excuse me', then Jim heard the squeaky tread of sneakers on the linoleum floor. The tantalizing scents of rich coffee and fresh baked confections preceded the entrance of Detective Blair Sandburg into the room.

"Hey, Jim. Sorry it took so long, man. You would not believe what I had to go through just to get us some breakfast. There was this rude lady, in what had to be the most obnoxious looking coat, that butted in line before me yelling that she was double-parked and running late. I mean, I think Megan's 'dingo' jacket looked better than what she was wearing." Blair breezed past Jim's desk toward the one he was assigned, setting down two large styrofoam cups and a bag on his desk, and started divesting himself of the layers of clothing he wore.

The weather in Cascade, Washington was typical for December, cold and damp, and Sandburg really didn't enjoy being cold. His monologue continued. "And then there was the kid behind the counter. Apparently Missy is ill today, so they've got the kid that normally busses the tables behind the counter handling the customers. Let me tell you, I don't think the guy can spell multi-tasking, much less understand what it means or how to employ it. I had to give my order three times before he had it right, 'cause I knew that you would really be pissed if he gave you one of those flavored decaf coffees... and it looks like you're already pissed. What's the matter, Jim?" Blair asked when he noticed that Jim was staring up at him with a passive, but hard look.

"I was just wondering how cold and hard my donuts were going to get by the time you finished with your little speech there, Chief."

Blair reached for the sack and hesitated before opening it. "Well, they didn't have ready those cake ones you really like, so I got you a muffin. And before you go into a tantrum, just trust me when I say you'll love what I did pick up. The smell coming from them had me salivating like Pavlov's dog, so I'm sure you won't mind the substitute."

Ellison took a discreet sniff at the bag and closed his eyes in concentration. "Cinnamon, for sure, and nutmeg with nuts and... oatmeal?"

Sandburg broke into what could only be described as a thousand-megawatt smile. "Yeah, on the nose, Jim! I even made sure they did not have any raisins in them, since you had that trouble a couple of weeks ago. Enjoy." Taking the napkins out of the bag, Blair pulled out a large muffin and set it on his desk, then passed the bag over to his partner. Grabbing the cup that didn't have any stains on the plastic lid, he set the coffee on Jim's desk and plopped down into his own chair.

Ellison peered into the bag handed to him, then over toward his partner. He saw that Sandburg wasn't paying any attention to him, focusing totally on peeling the paper cup off the bottom of his muffin. With another inhalation, Jim smiled at the blend of scents and pulled out his own confection. He was just placing a large piece in his mouth when he heard an angry shout emanate from Simon's office.

Blair also flinched at the loudness and tone of the voice. "Wow, even I can hear that. I wonder who pissed off Simon this time?"

"He was angry when he came in," Jim answered around a mouth full of muffin.

"Can you tell who it is?" At his partner's glare, Blair held up a hand. "Hey, man. It's for our own safety if we have to beard the lion in its den. I'd like to know what weapon we need to bring in with us."

Tilting his head slightly, Ellison easily heard both sides of the conversation.

"Damn it, Joan! You knew that this was my year to have Daryl for Christmas."

"Don't you swear at me, Simon Banks. Our son is old enough to make his own decisions. I just loaned him the money for the ticket."

~sigh~ "I'm sorry for swearing and I know how old Daryl is. This just seems awfully convenient that he'd decided to take this trip during the same week that he was supposed to spend with me."

Bringing his attention back, Ellison turned to his partner. Sandburg was staring at him like an expectant puppy.

"Well?" Blair's impatience was evident in his voice.

"He's talking to his ex. Sounds like she gave Daryl money so he could take a trip somewhere over the holidays."

"Oh, that sucks. Simon had big plans for Christmas with Daryl, and the fact that Joan helped spoil them is not good. I vote that we avoid any reason to go into his office for at least the morning. I don't think I can handle an angry Captain just now."

Ellison nodded and opened his mouth to reply when the phone on his desk rang. Glancing over to Banks' office while picking up the receiver, he saw that the Captain was still in the conversation with his ex-wife. "Ellison... We'll be right up." Hanging up, he turned to Sandburg. "Chow down quick, Chief. We've been summoned." At the confused look on the smaller man's face, Ellison pointed upward.

Closing his eyes, Blair groaned. Jim's gesture automatically meant that they were to present themselves at the Police Commissioner's office, which probably meant that they were going to be 'tasked' for a special assignment. "How long are we going to have to pay the piper, man?"

Ellison sighed. "As long as Matthews is in office, we'll be asked to help him with 'special' cases. Wait." Placing a hand on Sandburg's chest, he looked down at his partner with a frown. "There's not any of those... conventions coming up, are there?

"Nah, man. You're safe from aliens, actors and the mesmerizing light shows that are associated with them at least until March or April." Blair chuckled and gave Jim a slap on the back as they continued toward the elevator.

Jim grimaced. "Just make sure you have that weekend marked on the calendar. I'm sure we'll have to be out of town for some important reason."

"Please go in, detectives. Maybe you can convince him," Matthews' secretary muttered in suppressed anger and pressed the button that would allow entry into the inner office.

Glancing at his friend in puzzlement, Ellison led the way into the Police Commissioner's office. His confusion was cleared up as soon as he saw Craig Matthews limping across the office, a bloodied handkerchief held to the man's cheek.

"Commissioner?" Ellison queried, striding over to the man. "Are you all right, sir?"

Blair almost followed until he noticed another figure huddling on a couch. It was Rhonda, Banks' office manager and, as was revealed over six months ago, Matthews' paramour. Changing his direction, Blair knelt down before the obviously upset woman.

"I'm okay, Detective Ellison. Just a small encounter with one of our local street denizens working with an accomplice. They wanted my wallet and M'lady's purse, and I had to convince them otherwise. But I'm afraid I didn't do a very good job of ducking at the right time."

"Where did it happen, Commissioner?" Ellison asked, gesturing at the cloth at the Commissioner's face. Matthews pulled the cloth away, allowing the other to get a better look at the injury. It was a gash along the man's cheek; long, but not deep enough to require stitches.

"Would you believe at the side door of our very own building?" Suddenly uncomfortable by the scrutiny Ellison was giving him, Matthews replaced the cloth against the wound and limped over to his desk. "I had my driver drop us off there and, believe it or not, this man in a Santa Claus suit walked up and pulled a knife on me. Demanded my wallet and watch. When I refused, he punched me with what must have been brass knuckles, then this youth came running by and knocked Ms. Cameron down to steal her purse."

"Are you okay?" Blair gently asked the shivering woman in front of him.

When Rhonda raised her face, her expression wasn't one of fear, but of anger. "I'm fine, Blair. Just angry that those jerks thought I was easy prey. If they hadn't knocked me down, we would have been able to catch those two." Looking over at the Commissioner, Rhonda gave him a brave smile. The man's eyes softened to show what could only be considered deep affection for the woman.

Ellison cleared his throat to get Matthews' attention back. "That cut on your face doesn't look like it will need any stitches, but I know you didn't wanted us up here for a medical opinion, sir."

"No, detective. The reason I asked you two here is to document the incident and to have it handled with the utmost amount of discretion."

"You want us to handle a mugging case?" Blair's voice held a tone of incredulity.

Matthews sharp glance at the younger man caused Blair to quiet immediately and turn his attention back to Rhonda. "While I know that charges have to be filed in order for a proper arrest to be made, I am concerned about the repercussions the precinct might receive over the type of press this would cause. 'Police Commissioner mugged outside of Cascade P.D. by Sidewalk Santa'. How would it look that even the area of town around our building is not safe? Especially since this time of the year is very important for the local businesses."

"I, uh, understand what you're saying, Commissioner." Ellison pulled out a notebook and pencil from the back pocket of his pants. Giving a quick look over at his subdued partner, Ellison sat down in the nearest chair with the writing instrument poised. "If you could start with a description of the two perpetrators, sir."

An hour later, Jim and Blair arrived back down at their desks in Major Crime. Rhonda was with them, having calmed down enough to go to work. The Commissioner had asked that they escort her down despite her protests that she was able to travel by herself.

As they parted at the entrance, Blair threw a furtive glance at her departing back. "I don't think she was kidding about taking care of those muggers."

"She wasn't, Chief. Rhonda has been taking self-defense classes ever since Garrett Kincaid and company took over the building that first time you were here. I think she's up to a brown belt by now."

Blair smiled and murmured appreciatively over at the woman nearing her desk, "Way to go, Rhonda."

"Ellison! Sandburg!" The strong voice of Simon Banks rang throughout the room. Both men turned to the shout and saw the stern visage of their captain standing in the doorway of his office. Without another word, he turned around and reentered his office, leaving the door open.

With barely audible groans, the two men answered the call. Entering the office behind his partner, Ellison closed the door behind him. Others in the area nearby almost relaxed in relief that it wasn't their names called.

"You gentlemen want to tell me what caused your disappearance this morning?" Banks sat behind his desk with a mug of steaming coffee in front of him, but he offered none to the two standing in front of him.

"We were, uh, called upstairs," Blair spoke up first.

~sigh~ "Does that mean I'm going to lose you two for another 'special' project?"

Ellison spoke up. "Probably not. It was more like a... let's just say it's a minor request that we can handle along with our other duties."

"But one that I don't have a need to know, I take it." The two in front of him looked at each other and said 'no' almost simultaneously before looking back up at him with semi-innocent gazes. "All right, then let's get down to real business. There was another nursing home hit yesterday. The Lewis Memorial Convalescence Center over on Carson Boulevard. It is the same M.O. as the other two, only this time one of the residents had a massive heart attack while his room was being vandalized. He died before medical help could arrive on scene."

"Ah, geez. It's almost Christmas. How can people prey on the elderly at this time of the year?" The disgust could easily be heard in Sandburg's voice.

"The same way they do it every other time of the year, Sandburg." Banks snapped at the younger man, seeing him jump at the harshness of the words. "Con men just know that people are easier to dupe at this time, especially old people."

"We'll head over there right now, Captain." Ellison spoke up to take Banks' attention off his partner.

"Because it's another nursing home and due to the holiday, the press is having a field day with our lack than stellar performance. I want some progress on this ASAP." Having given his order, Banks turned his attention to a folder of papers in front of him. When he didn't hear the two in front of him leave, he looked back up. Sandburg was gesturing at his partner. "Did you two want something?"

Blair jerked his attention toward Simon, then looked quickly over to Jim before taking a step forward. "Well, Simon, we couldn't help but overhear your... telephone conversation earlier."

Banks glared first at Sandburg, then over at Ellison who stood with his hands clasped behind his back looking at some spot on the wall. "You eavesdropped?"

"Well, I could almost hear what you were saying all the way out at my desk and I don't have Jim's ears. We were worried."

Ellison finally looked at Banks. "We're sorry that Daryl won't be spending the holidays with you, sir. If you want, you can join Blair and me at our place for Christmas dinner. Right now we're only having Naomi show up sometime around the 24th."

"Aren't you going to spend the day with your father, Jim? Last I heard, he'd invited both you and Steven over," Blair voiced in surprise.

The muscle in Ellison's jaw flexed; the only outward display of emotion from the man. "He called last night and said he had to be out of town then for a couple of days. Business."

"Ah, man. I'm sorry, Jim."

"Its okay, Chief. Just status quo." Ellison returned his attention to Banks. "What do you say, Simon?"

"I'll think about it," Banks answered noncommittally as he leafed through some papers on his desk. Looking up with his face composed into a neutral expression, he turned a baleful glare at his two detectives. "Now, I suggest we get back to work. And Ellison, keep your ears away from my telephone calls."

"Yes, sir," Jim said contritely as he exited the office. "Thanks, Chief."

"Hey, we escaped with only minor ass chewing. I consider that a huge success, man."

"Then let's take our slightly chewed butts outta here and go check out that nursing home. Maybe we can pick up something that will help us solve the case." Grabbing their jackets as they passed the coat rack, Jim handed Blair's off to him and led the way out of the bullpen.

Blair paused at the doorway when he heard the raised tone of Detective L.T. Rafe's voice. Looking in that direction, he saw the dapper detective sitting at his desk with the telephone in his hand.

"David! Listen to me. Stay calm and we'll think of something... I know it's not fair..." Rafe looked up, feeling eyes staring at him. He was right. Henri Brown, whose desk sat beside Rafe's, was watching him with concern in his dark brown eyes. Embarrassed, the sharply dressed man mouthed a silent 'sorry', then lowered his voice and turned away. "Let's talk about this tonight. And we're also going to talk about that fraternity... Yes, we are. Okay?"

"Anything I can help you with, buddy?" Brown asked as soon as Rafe placed the receiver down.

Rafe smiled nervously. "No, but thanks for asking. David is having a small problem at the college. Nothing to worry about." Feeling another set of eyes on him, Rafe turned to see Sandburg standing at the door to the bullpen.

The rookie detective raised an eyebrow in his direction, then jumped slightly at the voice of Ellison from the hallway. "Sandburg! Let's move it."

Rafe shook his head and waved a hand, releasing the young man to jog out of the room. "Damn academic requirements," Rafe mumbled as he grabbed his coffee cup and headed for the break room.

Lewis Memorial Convalescence Center, Midmorning

The blue and white Ford truck pulled into a visitor parking space outside the one-level brick building. A soft drizzle had started to fall, giving the area a hazy, depressed look despite the Christmas decorations adorning the entrance and several of the windows.

Blair pulled his jacket closer around his body and closed the button at the top in an attempt to ward off the chill he felt through the material. "How some people can prey on places like this just boggles the mind," he said softly, knowing Jim could easily hear him.

"Takes all types, Chief. We'd be out of a job if it weren't for them," Ellison answered, putting the gearshift of his vehicle into park and turning off the engine.

"I wouldn't mind being unemployed if there weren't any more criminals."

"You and me both. But there are bad guys out there and we are needed around to find and arrest them." Opening his door, Jim adjusted the ball cap on his head and stepped out of the truck. "I'll go speak with the administrators of the home and see if they can remember anything more than what they told the uniforms. Why don't you wander around and see if any of the residents might be willing to talk about what happened."

Blair saw the smirk his friend threw in his direction. "What makes you think they'll want to speak to me more than you?"

"Well, I've noticed that... mature women really have a thing for you, partner. Who is it down in personnel that always sends up those great peanut butter cookies for you?"

Blair hesitated for a moment, then blushed slightly as he hurried to keep up with his friend. "Lydia Cronister. She's old enough to be my grandmother, but keeps finding reasons to come up to the office."

"See what I mean? Must be something special about you that creates this special trust with them. So, I think you need to use that special 'something' and go talk with a few of the people." Reaching the entrance of the building, Jim paused to look at Blair. "Besides, Chief, I've already read the report on the robbery and the people who run this place didn't seem to be too cooperative. I think I can do a better job of intimidation if they don't have an audience to appeal to."

Blair chuckled and reached for the door handle. "You're so full of it, Ellison." Opening the door, he allowed the taller man to enter first.

Once inside, Jim saw the sign that pointed toward the manager's office behind the reception desk. Nodding at his partner, he stepped up to the woman sitting behind the desk and pulled out his wallet with his badge. When she pointed behind her, he stepped around the desk and started walking in that direction.

Seeing Jim leave, Blair looked down both hallways branching off from where he was standing. The one down to the left had the appearance of being nothing but residents' quarters, the doors all evenly spaced and the closest one sporting a placard with a person's name on it.

Down the right hand corridor, there were a fewer number of doorways. The odor of food, along with the rattling of dishes, also came from that direction, telling Blair that the dining room was down that hall and probably other common areas of the Center. Loosening his jacket and unwinding his scarf so that the ends hung loosely down his front, he started walking down the hall. Glancing into the first open door to the right, he was correct in his assumption that it was the dining area. Continuing his steps, Blair found the first entrance to his left to be a closed and locked door. The placard beside it read "Pharmacy".

At the end of the hall was a large doorway without any door attached. Peeking through the entrance, Blair saw that it was a community room. On the left side, in the corner, a television was playing. Around it, in wheelchairs and regular chairs with canes and walkers propped to their sides, were mostly elderly men watching a basketball game. Next to that area were several tables with a mixture of men and women, playing chess, cards or other games.

Closer to the doorway were a group of elderly women talking, reading or working with yarn. Allowing his friendliest smile to spread across his face, Blair approached this group and introduced himself while showing his badge. Squatting down on one knee so that the ladies wouldn't have to crane their necks to look up at him, he started to talk to them.

Forty-five minutes later, Blair thanked the ladies for their time, promised that he would return to visit after the holidays and stood up straight to stretch the stiffness and massage the deep ache that had settled into his right leg from kneeling down on it for so long. It was a reminder from the run-in with Dawson Quinn not that many years ago. Even though the bullet wound was long healed, cold and damp weather along with cramped quarters caused the appendage to remember the incident.

As he adjusted his jacket more comfortably onto his shoulders, Blair glanced toward the door. He expected Jim to be standing there impatiently due to the amount of time he'd spent talking to the ladies. Who he saw treading past was the last person he expected to see. It was a familiar looking man with shaggy red hair, and an equally unkempt red mustache and goatee, wearing clothes that looked like they had seen better days.

"OhmyGod," Blair whispered when he recognized who the man was. "Gabe?" he called, raising his voice. But it couldn't be him. Could it? The last time Blair had seen the man he knew as Gabe was a couple of years ago. He'd told Blair that he was there to perform a miracle. Many of the city agencies had been on strike, the precinct had been inundated by homeless people and a hired killer was after a young man in lockup who'd seen the assassin's boss kill a man. 'Gabe' had stepped in front of a bullet meant for the kid. He'd then disappeared when he was at the hospital waiting for treatment.

But that was not the whole story. Gabe had been identified as a college professor who'd disappeared a couple of years before he'd shown up in the Cascade precinct. However, the most important piece of information was that Professor Harold Blake, otherwise known as Gabe, had died of exposure a year earlier. Though no one wanted to admit it, the possibility of the man actually being an angel sent back to perform a miracle wasn't all that far-fetched.

When the man didn't respond to Blair's call, he raced over to the door and slid into the hallway, barely avoiding the nurse walking past. Other than the medical person, the hallway was empty. Blair turned around and peered in all directions, thinking he'd mistaken the direction the man had gone. No one was there. Blair trotted down the hallway toward the front door and in the direction he was sure Gabe had gone. Reaching the foyer, Blair couldn't stop fast enough to avoid colliding into his partner coming around the corner.

"Whoa there, Chief. Where's the fire?" Ellison asked, catching Sandburg in his arms.

"Jim, did you see him?" Blair struggled away in a slightly agitated state. Once he was untangled from Jim's arms, he spun around to look in every possible direction.

"Calm down, Sandburg. See who?"

"You're going to think I'm crazy, but I swear I just saw Gabe. Remember him? From that night at the precinct with the crocodile and Kaplan and Johnny Mercado."

"The guy you thought was the angel? That Gabe?"

"What other Gabe do I know, man? It had to be him." Blair spun around a couple of more times until he was convinced that the one he was looking for wasn't in sight. "Jim, humor me here for a minute. Take a listen around and see if you can hear him. He was always praying or chanting." Blair stared up at his taller friend, his eyes almost pleading.

Jim couldn't refuse, not with the way Blair was looking at him. Tilting his head slightly, he 'listened' to the sounds around the Center. Down the hallway that his friend had come, Jim easily picked up the noises and voices from the recreation room and the kitchen area, but none of them sounded like the voice he remembered from that night at the station. Down the other passage came different sounds; a phlegmy-sounding cough of someone struggling to breathe with an oxygen mask over their face, a moan from another in pain. All he was hearing was from men and women who hopefully were there only temporarily.

Coming back to his surroundings, Jim shook his head sadly. "Sorry, Chief. No one is here but the residents and the staff."

Disheartened, Blair gazed once more around the area. "I know I saw him."

Ellison grabbed his friend's arm and gave it a shake, bringing Sandburg's attention back to him. "I believe you, Blair. But he's not here now. Are you ready to go?"

"Yeah, I guess so. Damn it." The last came out almost as a whisper as the two men exited the building and headed for their vehicle.

Back at Major Crime Bullpen

As he walked toward the doors to the bullpen, Captain Joel Taggart was busily reading a report he'd just finished writing when he almost collided with a smaller, brown-haired figure striding through the opening. Halting suddenly, he looked up to see the obviously furious Inspector Megan Connor wrench her body to just miss his as she barreled by. He could hear her muttering in suppressed rage, American slang intermixing with her Australian cursing.

"Whoa! Hey, Megan," he called out, trying to catch the woman's attention. The Inspector either didn't hear him or just ignored the Captain as she continued in the direction of her desk. Squaring his shoulders, Taggart followed. "What's the matter, Connor?"

Slamming her purse down on her desk, Megan looked up to see Joel's concerned face across from her desk. Holding up her index finger to signal that he wait, Megan yanked at the buttons to her coat and practically tore the garment from her body. She dropped the coat onto her chair, then pressed down upon the back, closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths in an attempt to bring her temper back into control. When she felt slightly calmer, she opened her eyes back up. "Sorry, Joel. I just had the most infuriating conversation with this... this... blasted 'sheila' at the airport! How women like that get jobs that allow them to interact with the public is beyond my reckoning."

"Was there a mix-up in your reservations? I thought you'd planned on going home over a month ago." Joel stepped around the desk so that he was almost a barrier between the angry woman and the rest of the room.

"There weren't any reservations. They had no record of me making them and couldn't find me in their computer. I have a confirmation number, and that idiot couldn't locate it in her computer." Running her hands through her hair to calm the flying curls, Megan began to pace in the little area behind her chair. "I even tried to call my credit card company to prove that they've already charged my credit card, but I couldn't get through. Argh! I can't believe this is happening."

"Did you make another reservation?"

"I'm supposed to leave in three days, Joel. Do you know what the price of a new ticket is when the flight is this close? I almost need to take out a home mortgage to meet that price." Her anger finally running out, Megan dropped wearily down into her chair. Placing her elbows onto her desk, she dropped her face into her hands.

Taggart could see that the woman was close to tears, despite all her efforts to maintain her composure. Grabbing a nearby chair, he pulled it up close and dropped his voice so that she was the only one to hear him. "I know how much you want to visit your family, Megan. Especially at this time of the year. Would you take a loan from a friend until this mess can be straightened out?"

Connor looked up from her hands, surprise written all over her face. A tender smile replaced the fire state was still in her eyes. "Thank you, Joel. But I can't ask that of you. I know that you and your wife have plans that would be severely hampered if you lend me money."

A small grimace appeared on Joel's face for a few fleeting seconds before it returned to being one of concern. "Our plans have changed, but friends help friends during times of trouble." Reaching out, he placed a hand onto Megan's arm.

"Yes, they do. And I'll think about it, my friend." Megan placed her hand over Joel's and gave it a gentle squeeze. Her eyes locked onto Joel's gentle brown ones and glistened with tears.

"You going to be okay here?" he asked, releasing her arm and standing. At the woman's nod, he picked up his papers from where he laid them on the desk and resumed his movement out of the office.

Watching Taggart leave, Connor blinked her eyes furiously to clear the moisture that threatened to spill out and brought her emotions back into control. "Crazy, wonderful Yanks," she muttered, then turned her attention to the work on her desk.

Cascade P.D. Parking Garage, Afternoon

Ellison was just pulling his truck into a parking space in the garage under the building housing the Cascade P.D. when he noticed Detectives Brown and Rafe standing beside Brown's car having an intense discussion. It looked like Rafe was trying to calm the other down. Stepping out of the truck, Ellison could easily hear the conversation.

"Listen, H. If you really need some place to stay, my couch has a hide-a-way bed. David used it until I picked up a new bedroom outfit for his room and he said that it's really comfortable."

"Thanks, L.T., but I don't want to be a bother. This is supposed to be Christmas with David and I know how important it is for you two to spend time together, especially if he's having some problems." Brown raised an eyebrow with a questioning look at his partner.

Either ignoring the hint or just not catching the question, Rafe stayed on the subject. "Hey, man. You're not going to be an imposition. I really understand what you're going through."

"Gentlemen," Jim interrupted, walking closer to the two detectives. Blair was close on his heels. "What happened, H? Where you a bad boy and the 'little woman' tossed you out of the house?" The humor could clearly be heard in Jim's voice.

"That would be a blessing at this point. I was just informed by Lori that her family has decided to spend this year's Christmas season with us." Brown ended his announcement by dropping his head down to his chest and closing his eyes.

"You don't mean..." Jim started, but halted at the nod from the black detective.

Blair gave a low whistle. "Wow. The head 'Pooba' of the triple K is actually going to grace you with his presence?"

"That's Grand Dragon, Hairboy. He takes exception to anyone getting it wrong. He and his entourage left today and are driving across country. They are expected to show up around the 24th, after picking up a couple more of the family on the way."

"How many family members are coming? Do you have enough room?" Blair asked.

"God only knows how many will make the trip. I understand that there will be at least two or three motor homes in the group, but I've been told that 'Grandfather' expects us to make sure he has a room in our place."

"I've offered to let him stay at my place," Rafe interjected, but Brown waved him off.

"You live in an apartment, L.T. It's barely big enough for the two of you."

"We'd offer you a place with us, H, but Sandburg's mom is flying in to spend the holidays with him." Ellison glanced over to confirm the statement with his partner.

"Us, Jim. Naomi said she wanted to spend some time with you, too. She's got some new culinary delicacies she'd picked up on her last trip." Blair waggled an eyebrow at the taller man, then chuckled at the expression returned to him. "Just make sure you remember that she's my Mom, man."

"How can I forget, Chief? Her meditating in the middle of the living room is definitely more disrupting than yours. At least I got you using a better brand of incense." Jim smiled as Blair smacked his arm, then turned back to Henri. "I'm sure things will work out, H. Let us know if we can do anything for you. Let's go, Chief. We've paperwork to file and reports to be written."

Giving the depressed detective a slap on the back, Ellison started walking toward the door that would lead to the lobby of the building and the elevator. Sandburg followed behind, shaking his head in disbelief.

At the Loft, Later that Day

Ellison clutched the mail he'd retrieved from the mailbox in his left hand as he juggled his keys with his right until the loft key was separated. He was just inserting it into the lock on the door to his place when he heard the outside door on the first floor of the building open. Pausing for a second, he listened and heard the crinkling sound of paper sacks, squeaking sneakers treading up the stairs and breath becoming more labored as the individual struggled with the load being carried up the several flights. When he heard the familiar voice of his roommate, he smiled. Blair was grousing quietly over the fact that the building's elevator was out. There had been complaints filed about problems with the system for over a month, but nothing was ever done. It finally died a painful death last week and wasn't expected to be repaired for another week. With a shake of his head, Jim finished unlocking the door, then leaned against the door jam. He began flipping through the mail as he waited for the younger man to make his appearance at the last level of stairs that extended up to their floor.

"Need a hand there, Chief?" Jim asked when he finally looked up.

"That would be nice," came the slightly sarcastic reply. Blair held a stuffed grocery bag in each of his arms and clutched a third with both hands. His arms were aching from the strain of trying to hold onto the bag and juggling the other two. Seeing Jim smile at his words, Blair rolled his eyes as his larger friend casually strolled over to the top of the stairs.

Jim plucked the third bag from his hands and turned back to the loft door. Hearing Blair give an exasperated sigh and trudge after him, Jim stopped just inside the portal and allowed his friend to enter before closing and locking the door.

"Hope you don't mind. Stopped by Chen's and picked up dinner 'cause I really didn't feel like cooking tonight," Blair explained when he saw his friend open the sack he carried and pull out a white takeout container. "Told them to make sure there was absolutely no MSG this time." At Jim's raised eyebrow, Blair smirked. "Hey, I was just as miserable taking care of you as you were feeling the last time."

"So self sacrificing, Chief." Jim smiled to belie the tone of the words.

"I try hard, man. Anything in the mail besides bills and advertisements?"

Setting down the sack and container, Ellison fingered through the letters again. "Mrs. May stopped me. She accepted a telegram for you, again. I don't know how she convinces postal and delivery people to let her sign for things."

Blair just smiled and started to unpack one of the bags he'd set down on the counter. "It's that motherly aura about her, Jim. She just toddles up on that cane of hers, blinks those soft eyes up at whatever carrier is there, and has them totally convinced she's everyone's mother. Watched her do it, man. Talk about a class act."

Ellison chuckled lightly with Sandburg, getting a mental image of their neighbor performing her act. Little did her unsuspecting victims know that the elderly Mrs. May had been known to take a cane or other various weapons to unwanted solicitors and delinquent youths who've try to deface their building with paint.

"Open it for me, will you?" Blair asked, opening the refrigerator to put away the perishable groceries.

Tossing the rest of the mail onto the table, Jim flipped up a loose back flap of the telegram's envelope and easily opened it. Pulling out the telegram, he gave it a quick peruse, grabbed the envelope to check the return address, then read it to himself again.

When his friend didn't immediately read the contents of the telegram out loud, Blair paused. "Jim? What does it say?"

"It's from the American Consulate in China." Ellison stopped and looked up at his roommate, his face carefully devoid of emotion.

Slowly, Blair walked over to his larger friend, his eyes fearfully going from the paper in Jim's hands up to the man's bright blue eyes. Reaching out, Blair took hold of the telegram and started reading. One minute... two minutes passed as he read the message several times. "My mom... They can't find my mom or her group."

December 22, Morning

Ellison could almost feel the tension and anger emanating from the bullpen as he neared the doors. If he thought that yesterday had been a little tense, either due to the impending holiday season or the workload, today it felt downright hostile. Scanning the room as he walked to his desk, he carefully observed all of his friends and fellow public servants.

He could see Brown and Rafe having a quiet but intense argument at their desk, their chairs slid together to keep them from having to raise their voices. Connor was sitting hunched over her desk, the receiver of her telephone clutched tightly in her hand. From the expression on her face, the conversation was not a pleasant one. Turning his head when he finally reached his desk, Ellison saw Taggart yawning mightily before taking a swallow of coffee. The Captain's face looked haggard, his eyes puffy and his clothes were rumpled. It looked as if he'd slept in them.

Taking off his damp jacket, he tossed it toward the coat rack and smiled when it landed firmly on a rung. Just as he was pulling out his chair and sitting down, he froze at the voice that barked at him. The door to Banks' office was standing wide open.


Straightening back up, Jim released a silent sigh and trudged toward the open door.

Simon wasn't sitting at his desk when Jim entered the office. The tall Captain was standing at the window facing the street, his arms crossed over his chest and his body filled with tension.

"You wanted to see me, sir?"

"Where's your partner?" Banks asked without turning around.

Taken off guard by the question, Ellison hesitated before answering. "He, ah, decided to go by the Chinese Consulate. There was a telegram waiting for him last night concerning his mother and the group she was traveling with over there."


"They've yet to show up at this retreat over there. They're more than two weeks overdue."

Banks took a deep breath and turned away from the window. Instead of walking to his chair, he moved to the front of his desk and propped a hip onto the edge. "How's the kid doing?"

Sensing that their conversation wasn't going to be official, Jim pulled over a chair and took a seat. "He's upset, understandably. No one would tell him anything over the phone, so he decided to ask his questions in person. He'll be in as soon as possible, if that's not a problem."

"No, I can understand what he's probably going through." Banks pinched the bridge of his nose, then looked toward the room outside of his office. "Sure doesn't feel like Christmas is only six days away."

"I was thinking the same thing as I drove in. Daryl won't be with you, Sandburg's mother is missing and H found out Lori's grandfather has decided to spend the holidays with him."

"Ouch." Simon winced at the information. "I don't envy him. Or Joel. He slept over at my place last night. Had a fight with his wife and decided that stepping away from the situation might help."

"I thought he looked a little frazzled. And Connor?"

"Can't get home. Seems the airline has no record of her purchasing a ticket despite her credit card being charged. And the cost of a ticket now..."

"I know she was really looking forward to going. I remember spending several Christmases in strange places. Only with me, I didn't have family to spend it with like she does so it wasn't such a big deal. When does Daryl leave on his trip?"

"In two days. He called last night and we tried to talk, but--"

"Yeah, I know, sir."

The two men sat quietly for several long seconds before Banks subtly shook himself, stood up and circled to sit in his chair. "Got an interesting report that might be connected to that con artist group with the nursing homes," he finally said after adjusting his glasses and picking up several pieces of paper and handing them over his desk toward Ellison. "Your idea of sending a query out to all of the centers located in Cascade and the surrounding communities paid off. They passed the information off to the hospitals and Cascade General contacted the precinct. They were contacted by a group representing an obscure charity organization and have visited their geriatrics ward off and on this week."

Jim scanned the pages before looking up. "This indicates that the people have been there a couple of times talking to the residents."

"Apparently, one of them is made up to be an elderly person and wheeled into the ward by a couple of younger people. The decoy starts bothering the staff while the others wander throughout the ward."

"Looks like they've been there right at the shift changes for further confusion." Glancing at his watch, Jim noted the time. "Shift change should be in about two hours. If they follow their pattern and don't get spooked away, we might have a chance at catching them."

"That's my belief, too. When Sandburg shows up, take Brown and Rafe and get over there."

Standing up, Jim walked out of the office. "We'll get on it, Captain. Oh, and sir?" Jim paused in the doorway and waited until Simon looked up at him. "You're still welcome to come over. I'm sure Blair will need the company."

"Thanks, Jim." Banks gave his detective a grateful smile at the offer, then bent back over his work.

As Jim approached his desk, he saw Blair striding through the doors of the bullpen with barely repressed anger radiating from his body. The younger man practically slammed his ever present backpack onto his chair and started stripping out of his coat and scarf.

"You would NOT believe what I just went through, Jim. They wouldn't tell me anything. Anything! Argh!" Blair clenched his hands into fists and banged them on top of the back of his chair.

Grabbing onto Blair's shoulders, Jim started to knead the tension out of them. "Take it easy, Chief. Take a breath and calm down... That's it. Now, what happened?" When he felt like his friend was back in control, Jim eased Blair down into his own chair and leaned against the desk in front of him.

Blair closed his eyes and took several calming breaths before he felt in control enough to speak. When he opened his eyes back up, tears glistened in them. "First, this guard wasn't even going to let me into the building. After I was able to convince the guy that I had a legitimate reason to speak to the people inside, I got stopped by this aide inside the door and she wouldn't let me pass. I finally found out that there wasn't anyone there to talk to in the first place. I left my card, which she didn't even look at, and asked her to please call me if any news came it. She said that she would inform the ambassador of my request when he returned."

"Any idea when that would be?"

"No, damn it! I just don't know what to do, Jim."

Leaning forward and placing a comforting hand onto the smaller man's shoulder, Jim gave it squeeze. "We can call the Red Cross. I know they have ways of finding out stuff and getting people into countries that have had their borders shut down in war. I'm sure the fact that Naomi's group has been missing for so long is reason enough for them to check the situation out."

A glimmer of hope appeared in Blair's eyes. "Yeah, right. I guess I forget about them." Dragging open the bottom drawer in the desk, Blair hauled out a thick telephone book and started thumbing through the yellow pages until he reached the charity listings.

"Make it quick, Chief. We've got a line on our con artists hitting the nursing homes and Simon wants us to take Brown and Rafe with us this time." Standing up, Ellison leaned over and grabbed his jacket.

Blair waved one hand, then continued scanning the page in front of him as he reached for the telephone with the other. "I'll meet you in the garage. Five minutes, promise."

"Make sure that you do," Jim replied over his shoulder as he walked over to Brown and Rafe's desks. His approach was undetected and he was able to hear their conversation.

"I'm telling you, L.T., you should ask Hairboy about that. He's spent years working with that system and he has to know of some way to get around it," Henri voiced.

Rafe just shook his head. "We've talked to everyone you could even think of talking to, and maybe a few even Sandburg wouldn't know. University policy is to not round up the numerical scores. So, his 2.45 average cancels him out of the scholarship for the next semester."

"And he has to re-apply for next fall and start all over again. I'm really sorry this happened, man."

"Thanks, H. Now, I've got to find some way to open David's eyes about those fraternity guys he's been hanging with short of pulling their arrest records." Rafe leaned back and rubbed his hands over his face, then noticed the presence standing near him. Looking over, he saw Ellison waiting patiently and quickly stood up. "Jim, hey. Didn't notice you there."

"No kidding." Jim gave the clean-cut detective a lop-sided smile. "Sounds like David's having some difficulty at Rainier."

"It's nothing, really." The smaller man gave a small wave of dismissal.

"Don't believe it, man. The kid's scores are just slightly under the academic requirement and he lost his scholarship for the spring semester," Henri spoke up, earning a glare from his partner.

"I thought David was doing pretty good at school."

"He was, until he got interested in pledging at this fraternity. I've seen his tests and I just can't understand how they only add up to the grades he got. But it's nothing for you guys to worry about. Did you need something, Jim?"

Rafe's quick change of the subject had the other raising an eyebrow at Brown, but at the black detective's subtle headshake he let him get away with it and continued. "We have a lead on the group ripping off the nursing home residents. They've moved their operations to the hospital. The Captain wants you two to back up Sandburg and me when we go over to Cascade General since there is a possibility of them showing up today."

"We're down on that," Brown jumped up from his chair with a wide grin, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "I'm in the mood to take down a bunch of lowlifes that like to prey on old folks." Rafe nodded in agreement.

"Great." Looking over at his partner, Ellison saw that the younger man was talking to someone on the telephone and the expression on his face was no longer one of frustration. "Let's head on down to the garage. Sandburg will join us in a couple of minutes." Leading the way, he walked out of the bullpen.

With a sigh of relief, Blair hung up the receiver of the telephone. It felt good to talk to someone who was willing to listen to his situation and have them offer to help. The Red Cross official, after taking down the information Blair gave concerning his mother's itinerary, promised to contact their office over in that area and get back with him as early as tomorrow with any news.

Standing up and grabbing his backpack, Blair started toward the doors when he noticed Joel Taggart sitting at his desk with a forlorn expression on his face. The man's eyes were staring off into space. Unable to just walk away, Blair strolled over toward his friend.

"Joel? Hey, man, are you all right there?" he asked, startling the man.

Straightening, Taggart started rustling through the papers on his desk. "Blair, uh, yeah. Everything is great. Why do you ask?"

"I don't know, man. Maybe it's the lost look I saw on your face just a few seconds ago or the fact that you look like you're under some pretty big stress. Talk to me, Joel. I looked the same way last night and talking to Jim helped me." Leaning onto the other man's desk, Blair's voice dropped down until he was sure no one else, with the exception of Jim, would be able to hear him. "Something happen at home?"

With a grimace, Taggart allowed the feigned expression to fade from his face and looked up into the concerned deep blue eyes staring at him. The younger man in front of him had become a very close friend over the years, and Taggart knew that he could trust Sandburg with anything he told him.

"I thought it wouldn't be a big deal. We'd been saving the money up for a nice trip, so I went down to the travel agency and booked us a cruise in the Caribbean from Christmas Eve until after the New Year. I thought it could be like a second honeymoon."

"But that's not the way your wife took it, was it?"

Joel gave a snort. "You would have thought that I had committed the worst sin in the world. How could I even think of spending Christmas away from the kids? Didn't I want to spend the holidays with family?"

"Ouch, man. That doesn't sound very good."

"That's putting it mildly. Of course I yelled, she yelled, then we decided that it would be best if I spent a couple of nights elsewhere. Simon was gracious enough to let me stay with him, since Daryl wasn't coming home."

"Ah, man. I'm sorry, Joel. Is there anything I can do to help? Maybe mediate between the two of you or something?" Reaching forward, Blair placed what he hoped was a comforting hand on the older man's forearm.

Joel smiled up at him. "Thanks for the offer, Blair, but I don't think so this time. I doubt the travel agency will even consider it, but probably the best thing I can do is try to turn in the tickets and take whatever loss there will be on the late cancellation.."

"And then?"

Joel sighed. "And then I don't know. She is really angry this time. It might not be until Valentine's Day that she forgives me."

"My mom was supposed to visit for Christmas, Jim was supposed to spend the day with his dad and brother and Simon was supposed to spend the holidays with Daryl. But now, it looks like we'll all just be sitting around the loft. You know you're more than welcome to come and join us." Sincerity gleamed from Blair's face.

Giving the younger man a warm smile, Joel pulled Blair's hand from his arm into his own two and grasped it tightly. "Thanks for the offer. It's the best thing I've heard all day. Would there be room for another lost soul?" Leaning around, Joel looked toward Megan, who'd just slammed the receiver down onto her telephone.

Peering over his shoulder in the direction Joel indicated, Blair saw who he meant and nodded. "No problem, man. The more the merrier. Gotta run, or Jim will take off without me. You okay here?"

"I am now."

Giving his friend what would be considered almost a blinding smile, Blair jumped up and practically danced out of the room. His heart was ten times lighter than when he'd entered.

Ellison, Brown and Rafe stared at the number indicator on the elevator, each lost in their own thoughts during the slow ride down to the garage level of the building. The car was stopping on every floor picking up and dropping off residents of the building. At the first floor, the doors stayed open for what seemed like an interminable amount of time.

Ellison gave a grunt of irritation and leaned against the back of the elevator car with his arms crossed over his chest. That is, until he saw a familiar figure through the front doors of the building. The man had shaggy, reddish colored hair, a mustache and goatee and was dressed in rumpled clothing that had seen better days. The individual looked through the glass straight at Ellison and gave him a childlike smile. Gabe!

Leaping forward to slam his hands at the closing doors, Jim thrust them back open and ran out of the car, unmindful of the calls from his two friends. A man walking into his path made him halt abruptly and stumble to the side to prevent running the guy over. When he'd regained his footing, Jim muttered a short apology and continued toward the door. Bursting out of the building, the familiar figure was no longer in sight. Swinging his gaze from right to left, Jim searched in vain for another glimpse of the man he thought for sure had been Gabe. He heard the arrival of Henri and L.T., but paid them no attention.

When his eyes swung around to his left, Jim saw a man in a Santa Claus suit standing at the edge of the alley and huddled in conversation with a young man. Using his enhanced sight, he zeroed in on the purse the youth held open in his hands and the other was rummaging through. "Rafe. Go back through the lobby to the side door and come around behind Santa and his elf over there," Jim ordered. At the other's hesitation, he continued, "There is a team that has been mugging people outside our building and got Rhonda yesterday. One was dressed up like Santa." At the mention of their favorite office manager's name, Rafe flew back into the building.

"I can go across the street and make sure they don't take off that way, Jim," Brown offered. At Ellison's nod, the detective trotted carefully out into the road.

Walking casually down the sidewalk, Ellison kept his eyes on the pair and extended his hearing.

"Damn it! Eight bucks and no credit cards. I thought you said she'd be carrying."

"She was. I mean, I thought she was. She had this massive rock on her hand and one of her bags was from Lord and Taylor. I mean, you have to have bucks to shop there."

"Stupid!" ~smack~ "You can pick up those bags anywhere and the ring could have been bought at a garage sale. You were supposed to observe the car they came from, see them make a purchase, anything to verify their wealth."

Ellison heard enough. This had to be the pair that had mugged the Commissioner. Glancing to his right, he saw Brown in position across the street, watching the pair closely. Extending his hearing into the alley, he could pick up the sound of someone walking stealthily. There was a rustle of clothing and a snap being opened that told him Rafe was unholstering his weapon. Knowing that his backup was in place, Ellison increased his pace.

When Jim was within 50 feet, the Santa Claus saw him and froze. The young man with him spun around in fright and, realizing the situation, took off across the street.

"Freeze! Cascade P.D.!" Jim yelled, pulling his weapon and leveling it on Santa. The man looked like a rabbit caught in the gaze of an eagle, the fear emanating from him in waves. He made a move to run into the alley, but saw the menacing figure of a dark-haired man walking toward him also pointing a gun.

"Chill man!" came Brown's voice from across the street. Ellison spared a glance in that direction and saw that the black detective had the struggling youth by the collar and was forcing him against the wall. Satisfied that the accomplice was taken care of, Jim turned his attention back to Santa.

"Put down the purse and raise your hands," Jim ordered.

With a defeated look on his face, the man obeyed. He didn't struggle when Rafe swung him around and had him spread-eagle against the wall. Nor did he struggle when the pair of uniformed officers trotted up to take him and his accomplice under their control, Ellison instructing them to book the Santa and youth on charges of theft, assault and possibly more criminal counts.

"Good eye, Jim," Henri snickered, then jumped back a step at the look the taller man threw at him.

Jim knew what the black detective was referring to with his remark and still was a little uneasy about the number of people who now knew about his abilities. He was about to reply when he caught sight of Gabe again at the edge of his eyesight. Swinging his head, he saw the mysterious man standing at the end of the block staring at him. He smiled again and held up his two hands clasped together. The blare of a car horn caused Jim to jerk his eyes away for just a second. But that was all that was needed. When he looked back, Gabe was gone.

"So you believe me now that you saw him yourself," Blair asked his partner after the other told him what had happened outside of the building.

"I believed you before, Chief."

"Yeah, sure."

"I did. Anyway, we never would have caught our mugging Santa and elf if I hadn't seen him outside of the front doors. It was like..." Jim hesitated in his description, unable to voice the words.

"Like he was trying to get your attention so you could catch the guy. The Commissioner is going to be VERY happy that you did, man. He might even reward you." Blair grinned at his partner and raised an eyebrow when the larger man looked at him. The result was a backhanded smack on his arm. Blair had tried to shift away, but the confines of the truck didn't allow it. So he accepted the action and laughed at how Jim grimaced.

"Very funny, Sandburg. I didn't catch the guy just to be in Matthews' favor. The pair had just mugged another woman. I don't like that happening on my watch."

"I hear you, man." Blair gazed out his window, thinking hard on why a man who'd disappeared from a hospital without being treated after being shot would suddenly start appearing again. He was jolted out of his thoughts by Jim's voice and a lighter tap on his arm.

"Earth to Sandburg. Are you back with me, Chief?"

"Yeah. Sorry, Jim. I was just wondering why Gabe is back around."

Ellison gave his partner a small grin. "That's what I was asking you. We haven't seen him for more than two years and he's shown up twice in as many days. Why?"

Sandburg brought a hand up to his mouth and pulled at his lower lip, his eyes were focused down onto the dash. "Well, the last time, he told me that he was here to perform a miracle. I mean, he did jump up and take the bullet meant for Johnny Mercado."

"Oh, come on, Sandburg. A miracle?" The words came out with a sarcastic tone.

"Hey! You asked me why and I'm just thinking aloud here. I have no idea why he's back here and won't until we catch up to him and ask. Okay?"

Ellison held up a hand in complacency. "Okay, Chief. Okay." Spinning the steering wheel of the truck, he pulled into the parking lot of Cascade General Hospital and stopped in a parking space at the outer edge of the lot. Brown's sedan followed close behind, choosing a space nearby to park. Stepping out of their vehicles, the four men met at the back of Jim's truck.

"Chief, since you're less likely to tip our quarry off, I want you to enter through the front door. You're a young man coming to visit his grandfather. Got it?" At Blair's nod, Jim turned to the other two. "You two can flip a coin to see who goes in next. The other will go with me around to the back."

Brown looked at Rafe, then grinned. Putting one arm around his clean-cut partner's back and digging into a pocket with the other, the two walked a couple of feet away. After doing what appeared to be tossing a coin, the two came back.

"Let's go, Ellison," Henri ordered in a gruff voice and started around the vehicles toward the side of the building. Shrugging at the man's action, Jim followed. He heard the two younger detectives talking.

"Henri sounds upset. Why?" Blair asked.

Rafe snickered. "He lost the toss. He has to go with Jim."

Blair's quiet laughter followed Jim across the parking lot.

The Geriatrics Center of Cascade General was a two-story brick building that sat diagonally from the main entrance of the hospital. Designed to take elderly patients on a short-term basis, after initial treatment from the hospital, the Center would stabilize them until they were able to be discharged to their home or to a long-term facility.

Entering the lobby, Blair stopped just inside the doorway to check his watch. The digital dial read 10:47, less than fifteen minutes before the next shift of care personnel were supposed to take over. As if to confirm that information, a male and female in medical garb stepped around him and headed toward the door marked 'STAFF'.

Swinging his gaze around the area, Blair saw a couple of young children occupied by a television playing in the far corner, a woman standing at the counter talking to an orderly and two elderly ladies sitting together in the middle of the lobby. There was a third woman nearby in a wheelchair, talking to the other two in a fervent manner.

"Excuse me," Blair voiced quietly to an older black man sitting at a computer behind the counter. He wore the standard white lab jacket of a medical person and his nametag read Dr. Casey. "I was wondering if you could direct me to the administrator on duty."

Looking up, the doctor first saw the pleasant face of a long-haired young man. Then his eyes strayed down to the gold detective badge the youth had lowered so that it was only viewable to someone on his side of the counter. At the man's nod, Blair closed the wallet and slid it back into his pants pocket. Leaning forward onto the counter, he lowered his voice, "We received a phone call this morning and I'd like to speak to either the administrator or whoever made the call. It is urgent."

"Please come with me," Dr. Casey said, standing up and walking around the corner until he was standing in the hall to the left. "I'm the one that made the call, but it's probably not a good idea to talk out in the open. I wasn't expecting you to show up today."

Walking over to the doctor, Blair smiled at the surprise in the man's voice. "We really want to stop these people before they hurt someone else, Doctor."

"You're not the only one they sent, are you?" The man glanced around Blair back toward the lobby.

"No, sir," Blair chuckled in answer. "My partner and another are circling around to the back and will come in that way. There'll be another following me shortly."

The doctor relaxed slightly. "That's good, because I think they are already here. A man and woman have already gone down the hall and are in the Recreation room. It's around back and I've got one of my orderlies watching them. That woman," Casey nodded to the lady in the wheelchair, "is the one they left behind. There are two young men I don't remember seeing before who've gone upstairs into the wards. I'm not sure where they are at this moment."

Reaching into his jacket, Blair keyed the radio he had placed there before leaving Jim's truck. "They're already here, guys. One in the lobby, two upstairs and two near you, Jim. I'm heading up." After releasing the button, Blair heard a double click from the radio as a reply to his message. Giving the doctor a smile, he walked over to the elevator and punched the button to call the car.

Before the elevator car arrived, Blair watched Rafe walk confidently through the doors and up to the counter. He was met by Dr. Casey, and the two stepped over to the side so that they would have a clear view of the lobby. Rafe looked around, saw Sandburg and gave a slight nod with his head before turning his attention back to the doctor.

"Show time, H." Giving an unconscious check of his holstered weapon at his back, Jim pulled open the door he and Henri had waited at and stepped carefully into the building. Pausing, he opened his hearing to the surrounding area and carefully filtered out all the incidental noises.

"I'm sure you must be so relieved that your grandchildren will be so well taken care of. But I can't help to think about all those who don't have such security. Without Safe Haven, there are many who would never know what a home is."

Ellison knew this had to be one of the con artists. He could almost hear the oiliness in the voice. Motioning to Brown, he walked in the direction of the voice. Understanding their surroundings, neither man drew their weapons.

Peering around a corner, Jim saw a large Hispanic man in a white uniform leaning against a wall pretending to read a chart. His attention was actually on a doorway halfway between him and the detective.

The orderly's attention shifted when Ellison and Brown stepped around the corner, his body stiffening at their appearance. He relaxed when a badge was displayed, then nodded and backed away when the other gestured at him.

With another gesture toward his companion, Jim motioned for him to walk casually past the door to the room and set himself up on the other side. Henri complied, a wide grin on his face as he passed the taller detective. Due to the location of the room, Jim stayed at the corner to prevent being spotted by their quarry. He wanted to make sure Henri heard and witnessed the actions of the con artists to back him up when it came time to prosecute them.

When Ellison started to focus his hearing back onto the occupants of the room, he felt the presence of someone move hesitantly to stand behind him. Just as he was about to turn and see who it was, a familiar voice spoke softly.

"With ears that can hear a hundred miles, what is the most important thing you should be listening for?"

Swinging around sharply, Jim almost fell into Gabe since he was leaning in toward the detective. Jim took a stumbling step back and looked critically over the figure in front of him. The smaller man hadn't changed too much from what he remembered. His clothes looking more rumpled and tattered, but his face still held the same wide-eyed, angelic innocence. Jim opened his mouth to speak, but stopped when Gabe turned his face upward and, with his hands clasped together, pointed toward the ceiling.

With a sinking feeling building in his stomach, Ellison tilted his head slightly and focused his hearing up toward the second floor. Without any difficulty, he was able to pick up the familiar tones of Blair's voice... and it sounded like the younger man had once again found himself in the middle of a situation.

When Blair stepped off the elevator, he felt like he was on a hospital floor. There was a large desk area in front of the elevators with several nurses and orderlies behind it. They looked to be in a mild state of confusion that he figured was common at a shift change.

Approaching the station, Blair displayed his badge and asked if any of them remembered seeing two young men on the floor. One of the nurses looked up and shook his head in the negative, then immediately turned his attention back to the charts lined up along the counter top.

Accepting the dismissal, Blair started walking down the hallway to his left. If the ward were set up in the same pattern as a hospital, he would be able to completely circle around the floor and end up back at the elevators. Trying to look as if he belonged on the floor, Blair kept his pace slow and comfortable as he glanced into each room he passed.

Few were empty, attesting to the fact that this area of the hospital was busy, and most that were occupied had what appeared to be family members with the occupants. Balloons and cards decorated most of the doors as well as signs indicating the usage of oxygen and other medical pieces of equipment. Letting out a sigh of frustration, Blair continued to travel the floor, searching for two that didn't belong.

Reaching the back part of the floor, where the view from the windows was of the highway and the Cascade skyline and there wasn't very much people traffic in the area, Blair glanced into a room on his right. What he saw set off silent alarms in his head, but he kept walking past. A young man dressed in a long coat and carrying an open backpack on one shoulder was opening the door to the armoire in the room. He cast a furtive glance to the sleeping occupant of the bed before reaching into the piece of furniture.

Sandburg continued on down the hallway and stopped at the water fountain three doors down. Bending over to take a drink, he kept the area he'd just passed in the corner of his eye and took a drink from the fountain. No one came out of the room. Confident that he hadn't been noticed, Blair stepped quietly back down the hall and flattened himself just outside the door. His heart rate accelerated and his breathing increased with the thought that he'd found at least one of the members of the gang that was ripping off elderly people. Peeking into the room, Blair saw the old man lying in the bed beginning to stir awake. He had to move quickly.

Cursing the fact that he didn't dare use the radio on him to call for backup for fear of alerting the other, Blair did the only thing he could think of. He 'called' out quietly to his partner, unconsciously hoping his quarry couldn't hear him. "Jim. I'm upstairs at the back of the floor. Room 226. I've got one guy up here going through the rooms, but don't know where the other one has gone. I could really use you up here, man."

Pulling out his wallet and displaying his badge, Blair stepped into the room, blocking the doorway. His sudden appearance startled the young man into leaping away from the closet and dropping the coat he'd been rifling through onto the floor.

"Take it easy, man," Blair ordered the frightened youth, holding up the badge with his left hand and holding his empty right hand out away from his body. The elderly man on the bed awoke with a gasp, then silently watched the scene in front of him.

The youth, for the young man was clearly only in his teens, quickly dug a hand into his coat pocket and pulled out a knife. With a flick of his wrist, the blade popped out and the kid jabbed it in Blair's direction. His eyes swung wildly around the room looking for an escape.

"Whoa!" Blair cried out, jumping back and out of the way of the swinging blade. "Easy, man. Put the knife down and your hands up. I don't want to hurt you."

The youth grimaced and swung the blade again, trying to force Blair away from the doorway. Suddenly, his eyes flickered to something behind the detective and a small smile appeared on his lips.

That was the only warning Blair received and, knowing that he was in trouble, he acted immediately on it. Rushing forward, he knocked the arm holding the knife away, grabbed the front of the kid's coat and swung him around until he slammed into the closet door. Stunned, the youth dropped the knife, allowing Blair to swing him around until he was able to use him as a shield against whoever had appeared behind him. He pulled one of the kid's arms behind his back and had his own arm holding the kid across the chest.

The person standing in the doorway was obviously his captive's partner. Taller, and older, the man was holding a backpack with one hand and had a small caliber gun pointed at Blair with the other. "Let him go," the man ordered.

"Cascade P.D. Put down the gun, you're under arrest." Blair said with false bravado. He tried to paste on his face the same cold imposing expression of 'don't mess with me' that he'd seen on his partner's face so many times, but didn't think it was working. "You don't want to do anything stupid, man. It was simple robbery until you pulled the gun. Now it's assault and you're looking at possible jail time. Don't make it worse."

The other man gave him a grim smirk and pulled back on the hammer of the weapon, the ominous click filling the room. "I said let him go."

Blair's breath had sped up considerably. The youth in his arms struggled for release, but Blair kept a tight grip, knowing he was probably the only reason the other hadn't shot at him. "My partner will shoot you before you even start to press the trigger, man. Put it down."

The other man chuckled at the comment and started to extend the hand with the weapon. Suddenly, he felt something cold and metallic press against the back of his neck. He froze.

"I'm pretty sure my partner told you to put down the gun, dirt bag," Jim spoke into the man's ear, his voice low and threatening.

With eyes opened wide in surprise and no small amount of fear, the man carefully released the weapon and allowed it to swing loosely in his hand as he moved his arms away from his body. He felt the man behind him reach around his body and remove the pistol from his hand before he was shoved face first into the wall.

A nurse skittered around the two toward the man lying in the bed. Snapping on the light over the bed, she began speaking in a soothing voice, checking his vitals and hooking the oxygen system up.

"You okay, Chief?" Jim asked, pocketing the confiscated weapon and, still holding his own pistol to his prisoner's neck, started frisking the man.

Copying his friend's actions, Blair started taking care of the kid in his arms by forcing him face first into the front of the closet and pulling out his pair of handcuffs. "I am so glad you heard me, Jim. You really must have hustled up the stairs to get here so fast. I was going to wait for you or one of the others to make it up here before I moved, but the old guy there looked like he was starting to wake up and I didn't want to even think of what might have happened if he had while this boy was going through his things, though I wasn't sure where the other guy was and I know I should have waited for backup and all--"

"Sandburg!" Startled at the interruption, Blair stopped his actions and looked over at his friend. "I was already up here when you called out."

"Did you get the others down stairs?"

"Brown and Rafe are rounding them up now." Tilting his head slightly, Ellison 'listened' down toward the area he's just left. He 'heard' Rafe talking to Brown and telling him that the uniforms had arrived and they could go ahead and arrest the pair in the ward.

Pulling his prisoner over to where his partner was handcuffing the other guy, Blair asked, "What do you mean 'rounding them up'? Didn't you have them before you came up here?"

Several expressions flitted across Ellison's face before he was able to school it back into control. "Someone... told me that you were in trouble," he finally said. Grasping his prisoner by the arm, Jim pulled the man into the hall and started walking back toward the elevators. He could hear Blair following; the kid he was dragging with him was scuffling his feet on the floor.

"Told you?"

"Yes, told me, Sandburg. I didn't stutter."


When they reached the elevator, Ellison jabbed at the call button and stared at the floor indicator over the doors for several long seconds. He knew his friend wouldn't just let him go without answering, but he wasn't sure of what words to use that would make sense. Finally, he tore his gaze away from the elevator and looked down into the curious blue eyes of his friend. "Gabe showed up again. Just when H. and I were going to take down the couple, he appeared behind me. In his typical, cryptic manner, he told me you were in trouble."

"Wait a minute. He was just downtown at the precinct. How did he know to get down here? Do you think he followed us?"

The elevator doors opened and Ellison pulled his prisoner into the car. Blair was right behind him. "I don't know, Chief. He just... was there behind me. Again. And I'll bet you that we won't be able to find him if we do a search of the area."

Blair could hear the frustration in his friend's voice. One thing Jim Ellison hated was anything that couldn't be explained logically or was just down right mystical. Despite the fact that he'd seen ghosts and had a spirit animal that seemed to appear at the oddest moments, Jim Ellison was a very practical, down-to-earth man.

"Wow," was all that Blair could think to say.

"Yeah, wow," Jim answered, sarcasm dripping from his voice.

The two detectives remained silent as the elevator made its way slowly down to the first floor and opened to a lobby area filled with uniformed policemen and frenzied medical people. Passing their prisoners over to the waiting officers, Ellison took off toward the doors leading out of the building with Sandburg struggling to keep up with him.

Jim felt like he had to get outside and get into some fresh air. Twice, now, a man appeared and helped him apprehend criminals. This time, he'd also helped him keep his friend and partner from getting injured. The whole idea completely bothered him.

Walking until he was several feet from the entrance and not too far from the entrance to the main part of the hospital, Ellison froze when a familiar figure exited from the doors of that building. "Dad?"

William Ellison stumbled to a halt, his mouth dropped in surprise. "Jimmy? What are you doing here? Are you hurt?" Mr. Ellison looked his eldest son over carefully.

"What are you doing here, Dad? I thought you had some business meeting you had to be at or something."

"Well, I... you see," William started, then glanced at the smaller figure behind his son. He saw Blair give him a shy smile, step back, then go back into the building behind him, leaving the two men alone.

Jim heard his partner murmur 'I'll be inside' before leaving, but his attention was on his father in front of him. The older man looked embarrassed, as if being seen at the hospital by one of his sons was the last thing he wanted.

The two men looked at each other uncomfortably before Jim decided to break the silence. The muscle along his right jaw twitching was the only outward sign he gave of any emotion. "If you didn't want to spend the holidays with me, you didn't have to use an out of town business meeting as an excuse."

"I didn't make up the meeting as an excuse, Jimmy. Something has come up and I didn't want you to worry."

"Does Steve know you haven't left town, or is he in this with you?"

Scuffing his foot at a mark he located in the cement, William opened and closed his mouth a couple of times before he was able to get the words out. "It's not that way, Jimmy. I told you and Steven I was going out of town because I didn't want you worrying about me and messing up your holiday. I just thought the two of you would still get together and enjoy Christmas."

"Why, Dad? What is so important that you'd lie to the two of us... again?" Crossing his arms across his chest, Jim focused an icy stare onto his uncomfortable sire.

"This is not the place to talk about this." Straightening up, the older man tried to stare down his son, but he was no match for Jim's firm gaze.

"Where would you like to go to discuss this? The cafeteria? There's no one around to hear us, so just spit it out."

"You know, I knew you would have this attitude. Your plans get disrupted and I'm the bad guy."

"You're the one with the attitude, Dad. If you want to be this way, then fine. I'll see you later... maybe." Throwing his hands up into the air in exasperation, Jim turned around to walk back into the building when he felt his father's hand grasp his arm. Turning around, he saw that the defiant man had wilted down into the frail figure of his father again.

"Wait! I'm sorry, son. I don't want to fight. It's just that... Damn it, it's hard to admit you have something wrong when you've always had to be the strong one."

"Been there, done that and it doesn't really help those who care about you."

"I know, Jimmy. I'm sorry." William cleared his throat, then took a deep breath and released it before continuing. "You see, I had a check up last week and the doctor said that the results of the tests were odd. Something about an enzyme problem and some irregular readings with my heart. I am going out of town tomorrow, but it will be down to San Francisco to see a specialist for some more detailed tests."

At the utterance of his father's words, the anger drained from Jim like someone had pulled a plug and left him with a lump in his stomach. He'd never seen his father ill in his entire life, though his frailty had become more evident over the years. Jim scanned his father and noticed little signs on the older man's face that proved his words. The was a pallor about the man, more than would be expected for this time of the year, and a slight bluish tinge around his lips that could be an indication of not enough oxygen. Listening to the older man's heart, he couldn't tell if there was any type of irregularity.

"You should have told me, Dad."

"Why? And have you hovering around me like I'm going to keel over any moment? I don't need that right now and you don't either. You've got enough going on with your job and your... you know." William gestured toward his own eyes and ears to indicate Jim's senses. "I don't want you to tell Steven about this. He doesn't need to have his holiday ruined, too."

Seeing the stubbornness flare in his father's eyes, Jim threw up his hands. "I don't understand you, Dad. We're family and you're shutting us out. Not wanting us with you at this time has already ruined it. If you think it might be something I should know about, give me a call when you get back and let me know what happens. Merry Christmas, Dad."

Spinning around in anger, Jim stalked back up the sidewalk toward the Geriatrics Center and entered the building, leaving William standing with his mouth hanging open.

December 23, Major Crime Bullpen, Midmorning

Simon Banks stepped off the elevator to the floor housing his department, his attention on the work schedule he carried. Unerringly, he made his way into the bullpen and toward his office without bumping into anyone or anything in his path. Reaching the door to his office, he stopped short when the presence of someone waiting there registered. Looking up, he was surprised to see his son, Daryl, sitting in a chair with a cup of coffee in his hands.

Taking a quick glance at his watch, he asked, "Daryl. What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be on a flight right about now?" Moving into the office, he took the empty chair sitting beside his son.

Daryl gave his father a shy smile and fidgeted uncomfortably in his chair before speaking. "Uh, yeah, Dad. But something came up and I couldn't leave. I mean, I was at the airport and just waiting for my plane to be called when I, uh, decided that it wasn't right to go."

"I don't understand. You were so excited about taking this trip."

Putting his coffee cup down on his father's desk, Daryl swiveled around in his chair until he faced his sire. "And I was. I got to the airport and started thinking about all the things I was going to do at the resort. Then, I met this really strange guy and he started talking about how important it was to spend as much time as possible with the ones that we loved, because we never know when there won't be any more time. It was really weird, but I felt like he was just looking straight through me with those eyes of his and reading my soul. Before I knew it, I was telling him about the hairy situations you and I've both been through and how close we've become."

Banks stared at his son with concern. "Who was this guy?"

"I have no idea, Dad, but he didn't act like he was dangerous or anything," Daryl said with a shaky laugh. "Though he did look like he'd slept in his clothes a couple of nights in a row. He had sort of long red hair and his goatee needed trimming. Anyway, one minute I'm sitting alone going over some stuff I was taking with me, and the next minute he's in the seat beside me asking if I was traveling alone. Somehow we got onto the subject of families and how we take the miracle of having someone that loves us for granted. And the more we talked, the more I felt that going on the trip was completely wrong. So, if you'll still have me, I'd love to spend the rest of my holiday with you."

A large smile spread across Simon's face as he reached up to clasp his hand on the back of Daryl's neck, giving it a small shake. "What do you mean if I'd have you, boy? You're my son and you're welcome at my place anytime. Where's your luggage? Were you able to get it back from the airport?"

Daryl's smile matched the one on his father's face. "My bags are sitting at Rhonda's desk. I didn't want to just have them lying around."

Reaching into his coat pocket, Simon pulled out his keys. "Here. Use the car to get your stuff home, then come back and pick me up around 5:00. We can go get something to eat, then do whatever you want."

"Cool," Daryl commented, looking at the keys like they were made of gold. When he stood and looked back up at his father, tears hovered at the corner of his eyes. "I love you, Dad."

Standing up, Simon opened his arms and, when his son moved into them, gave the young man a big hug. "I love you too, son," he whispered, his voice choking with emotion.

Slightly embarrassed, the two men broke apart. Daryl waved at Simon as he turned to walk out of the office, almost bumping into Jim. The black youth apologized quickly, wiping the moisture that threatened to spill from his eyes, and sidestepped around the larger detective.

"Hey, Daryl," Jim commented as the young man fled out of the office. The reply was a quick, behind-the-back wave as Daryl raced over to Rhonda's desk to grab a large, stuffed duffle bag, then out of the bullpen toward the elevator. "I thought he was supposed to be leaving today."

His back turned toward his detective, Simon quickly wiped his eyes, then moved around his desk to make the pretense of getting himself a cup of coffee. "He ~ahem~ said he had a change of plans. Coffee, Jim?"

"Thanks. Change of plans, huh? That's great. I take it you two will be spending the holidays together." Jim gave his superior a broad grin when the other turned around to hand him a mug. His sentinel eyes could easily see the presence of moisture still in the Captain's eyes and the way the man was trying not to look in Jim's face.

"Yeah. Daryl is going to take his stuff to my place, then come back to pick me up for dinner." Banks turned and stared off out his window. "It's really strange, but I had been wishing somehow for a miracle to happen that would get him to decide to stay and now he is."

"Did he say what it was?"

Ellison's question brought Banks' attention back into the office. "Huh? Oh, what changed his mind? He just said that he talked to this guy in the airport and decided that he wanted to stay."

Jim's eyes narrowed as a thought came to his mind. "By any chance, did Daryl tell you what the guy looked like?"

"Just some red-haired guy that looked like he wasn't too well off and had probably seen better days. Why? What's going on?"

"Sandburg and I've been seeing someone... someone who we know pretty good that keeps showing up at the strangest times. Remember a couple of years ago with all the city services were on strike and there was that murder Kaplan was involved with?"

"Who can forget? Homeless people all over the building, a crocodile that decided the ventilation system would make a good home and a killer running around the building shooting it up to kill that Mercado kid."

"Do you remember the guy Sandburg and I brought in. The one we thought might be a witness to the murder?"

"Oh, yeah. Blair was convinced that the guy might have been an angel because he wrote his statement in some weird dead language." Banks laughed at the memory. His laughter faltered when Ellison didn't join in. "You're not trying to say..."

Jim held up his hands to halt his superior's statement. "I'm not saying anything, sir. However, we've both seen this guy around town again. Sandburg saw him at that nursing home the other day and I saw him twice yesterday. He was outside the building just before we arrested the Santa mugger, then he showed up at the hospital later." At the last statement, Jim dropped his head to stare at the mug he was fiddling with in his hands.

"Did something happen at the hospital that I need to know?"

"Not really, sir. He, he just appeared behind me and... and told me I needed to pay attention to where Sandburg was and what was happening. I found him confronting two guys that were going through patients' stuff in their rooms."

Banks folded his arms across his chest and stared at his detective, watching the man squirm slightly in his chair. "The kid was in trouble. Where was his backup?"

"We were all working on taking down the others of the group. He now knows that he shouldn't have tried to stop the two on his own, but there were extenuating circumstances. But that's not the issue. There is no way that Gabe could have made it from downtown to the hospital unless he had been following us, and I would have noticed a tail. Also, how did he know Sandburg was in trouble?"

"So you think this Gabe is running around here helping us? Performing some types of miracles?" Banks' voice held an incredulous tone.

"All I know is that I never would have gotten off the elevator on the first floor or known that Blair had been in danger if Gabe hadn't been there both times."

"Daryl described the guy who had talked to him at the airport as having red hair, needing a... shave... and--"

"Dressed in rumpled clothes that looked like he'd been sleeping in them. That's Gabe, Simon." Jim sat back in his chair and stared straight into his Captain's face, daring him to disagree.

Both men were silent as they considered the situation. Finally, Banks leaned forward onto this desk. "Maybe there are some things that we shouldn't question, Jim. You were able to help Blair out when he was in trouble and my son decided he would rather spend Christmas with me than take a trip with school friends. I'd say we both received minor miracles. Wouldn't you?"

Jim studied his boss carefully, but didn't answer. Drinking down the last of the coffee in his mug, he stood up and walked over toward the door. Pausing for a moment, he looked back. "The invitation is still open to come over tomorrow night." With a small grin on his face, Jim walked out the door and closed it behind him.

As Ellison walked toward his desk, he noticed a young, uniformed officer standing in the middle of the bullpen with a confused look on his face. He held a piece of paper in his hand that he looked at occasionally as he scanned the room.

"Can I help you, Officer... Danko?" Jim asked, approaching the man and reading his nametag. The officer swung around quickly at the voice, quickly brushing back his dark bangs that fell into his eyes.

"Thank you, detective. I'm looking for a Captain Joel Taggart. I was told he had a desk up here," the officer replied, looking relieved that someone could help him.

Taking a quick look in the direction of Taggart's desk, Ellison turned back to look over the man in front of him. While his gut didn't indicate that the officer was any danger, it wouldn't have been the first time someone dressed up in a police uniform, got into the building and did some damage. Danko looked to be young, maybe in his early twenties if he was lucky, and he wore a wedding ring on his left hand that looked very new. He also appeared to be nervous under the scrutiny of Ellison's gaze. But that wasn't unusual for anyone in that situation and the fact that the detective towered over him.

"The Captain's desk is over there. I'll take you over," Jim offered. At the nervous officer's nod and genuine smile, Jim relaxed slightly and led the way across the room. "How do you know Taggart?"

"Actually, I don't, sir. You see, I just got married a week ago and my wife and I are trying to get away for our honeymoon. We had actually planned on getting married next year when Lisa found out that she was pregnant. So, if we want to take a honeymoon, we have to do it now. However, we're booked to travel on this cruise ship next year and--"

"The holidays are the hardest time to get reservations unless you plan about a year in advance. I know." Reaching Taggart's empty desk, the two men stopped. "Joel's probably just stepped away for a minute. Go on."

Looking down at the paper again, Danko took a deep breath and continued, his demeanor a little more relaxed. "Well, I put an announcement on the bulletin board two days ago in the hopes that someone might want to trade or know of someone that does. I went to the board today and this guy was there writing on it." Danko held out the piece of paper.

Taking the slip, Jim read the precise lettering. ~Go see Capt. Joel Taggart, Major Crime Division. He is looking for someone to trade with.~ "Did this guy look a little strange to you?" he asked.

"Strange? How? He didn't look like he was crazy or dangerous."

"Was he shorter than me with longish red hair and a rough looking goatee?"

Danko's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Yes, sir. He also looked like he'd seen better days. Don't tell me he's one of those jerks who likes to pull dirty tricks on people, giving them false info to get their hopes up only to see them crash back down."

Jim smiled and shook his head. "No, I don't think so. He's someone that seems to be working hard at making sure several people have a happy holiday. Joel." Seeing him coming back into the room, he flagged the Captain over. "I have someone here who just might be able to solve that little problem you're having at home."

"Jon Danko, sir," the young man spoke up, sticking out his right hand. "My friends call me JD."

Chuckling to himself, Ellison left the two men to solve their problems together.

At the Loft, Late Afternoon

The lights on the Christmas tree sitting in the corner blinked randomly, offering a little Christmas cheer in the loft. The tree had been Jim's idea, something traditional to decorate the place, while Blair wanted the chore of decorating it to ensure that it was sentinel safe. He put lights on it that didn't blink in any pattern that could cause Jim to have a zone-out if he looked at it for any length of time. Blair also made sure that there weren't any overpowering scents from it or the candles he regularly burned that could send Jim into any fits of sneezing.

Despite the holiday ambience the tree brought to the loft, the atmosphere was anything but that. Blair worked in the kitchen, keeping himself busy with one of the few things he could do when his mind was in turmoil. It had been two days since he'd received the telegram concerning his mother, Naomi. Yes, she was a free spirit who came and went as she desired, but she had promised to visit this year at Christmas. And Naomi had never broken a promise to her son.

Casting several long looks over toward the telephone, Blair tried to will it to ring. Finally, in frustration, he stalked over to the device and picked it up. His fingers hovered over the buttons as he warred with his consciousness. It had been long enough, so why hadn't the Red Cross called him? Maybe because they haven't found anything yet. Had he considered that? He had been stonewalled by the Chinese Embassy, maybe they were having problems, too. With a small groan, he firmly placed the receiver back down and went back to dinner preparations. The sound of keys in the door lock took his attention to that direction.

"Hey, Jim," Blair called to his roommate, returning to the food in front of him.

"I was wondering where you disappeared to this afternoon, Chief." Dropping his keys into the basket on the table by the door, Ellison started to divest himself of his outer clothing. "My first thought was that you were out Christmas shopping or something until I remembered how you bragged about finishing it after Thanksgiving."

"Sorry. I told Simon that I wanted to go check with the homeless shelters to see if Gabe had showed up at one of them. The weather has been a little too nasty to live in a cardboard box in some alley." Wiping his hands onto a nearby towel, Sandburg opened the refrigerator and pulled out two beers. Walking out of the kitchen area, he handed one to Ellison, then continued on toward the balcony windows. Light flakes of snow drifted past the windows.

"No luck, I take it."

"Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nothing. It's like the man has found one of the best hiding places to stay this time. I've got a drawing of him floating around in case he does show up at one of the food lines. He did eat the last time he was here, so I figured he's not quite... you know." Blair waved his free hand toward the ceiling.

"Smart thinking. I'm not all that comfortable with the idea that he might be--"

"A ghost, or maybe an actual angel."

Jim gave a snort. "Well, if he is an angel, he's performed a couple more miracles."

"Oh? What happened this time? Did he point out a little old lady needing help with crossing the street?"

"Nothing so heroic. Seems Daryl met this strange but familiar man at the airport who convinced him that spending time with those he loved was very important. He canceled his trip and will be spending Christmas with Simon."

"Wow. I guess Simon's dancing on the clouds right about now. What was the second one?"

Taking a long drink out of the bottle in his hand, Jim savored the burst of flavors he identified from the beer before finally speaking. "Remember that problem you said Joel had?"

"Yeah, major faux pas that torqued his wife off to the max and got him reservations at Chez Banks. Don't tell me Gabe fixed that problem, too?"

"Okay, I won't. But by now there is probably a very happy newlywed couple racing to pack their clothes for a trip and Joel is on his way home to beg for forgiveness and reclaim his rightful place."

"It's nice to see that some people will be having a happy holiday."

Ellison fiddled with the label on his bottle, easily hearing the pain and disappointment in his friend's voice. He decided to change the subject. "I hope you're ready for a large crowd tomorrow night."

"Something told me that, so I've decided to get a jump on it tonight." Glancing over his shoulder, Blair pointed back toward the kitchen.

Looking in that direction and taking a sniff, Jim could easily identify the odors of onions, celery, toasted bread and spices he knew were used in Swedish meatballs. With a nod, he brought his attention back to the windows and his partner. "How are you doing?" he asked suddenly.

"I'm okay," Blair lied.

Jim placed a comforting hand on the smaller man's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "I'm sure she's okay, Blair. I would almost bet that she's on her way back now and just forgot to let anyone know her plans. Naomi has this ability to show up at the most inopportune times. You know that."

Blair chuckled, remembering how his mother appeared while they were working on the car theft ring, then again when she called him during a shoot out. "Yeah, you're right."

"Of course I am, Chief."

"So who else has--" A knock interrupted Blair's question. Looking up at his larger friend, who gave him a shrug of his shoulders, Blair walked over and answered the knock. When he opened the door, he was surprised to see Steven Ellison standing there. While he looked as dapper as any other corporate executive, Blair could see that there was something definitely bothering the man.

"Hi, Blair. Is my brother--"


With a nod to Blair as he entered, the younger Ellison strode quickly over to his brother. "Jim, what is going on with Dad? I called his office to see if I could at least get a telephone number of where he was staying, but they wouldn't even tell me where he was going. What is he doing that is so secretive?"

Jim's jaw muscle twitched as he worked to withhold the anger he felt. "It's nothing you should worry about. Our father has decided that we don't need to know where he is going so that we won't worry about him."

"Why would we worry? About what? What aren't you telling me?" Blue eyes stared into blue eyes, the younger set conveying the need for assurances by the older.

"I only found out yesterday and I couldn't find you, Steve. He didn't want me to tell you that he's going out of town to see some specialist about a possible medical condition. He said that he didn't want to spoil the holiday for us." Sarcasm dripped from Jim's voice.

His mouth dropping open in shock, Steven looked over at Blair, whose face was a study in stoicism, then back at his brother. Wiping a hand over his face, he looked around the loft until he located the couch and sat down. "That bastard," he whispered.

"I'm with you on that," Jim answered and sat down beside his younger sibling. "But I'm not going to let him get to me. If he doesn't think we need to know what is happening with him, then he can just handle it on his own. You're more than welcome to come over tomorrow night and spend the evening with us." Glancing over his shoulder, Jim saw his roommate give him a nod to approve of his offer.

"You don't have to... I, I don't want to intrude if you two have something planned." Steven twisted around to where he thought Blair was standing.

At the lost look on the younger Ellison's face, Blair stepped forward and into the conversation. "Hey, man. Family is never an intrusion, especially at this time of the year. You know that you are always welcome and you can bring a guest, if she's not busy."

At the sincerity he heard in Blair's voice and the look of hope in Jim's face, Steven gave them both a tremulous smile and nodded. "I'd be happy to come. Thanks."

December 24, Major Crime Bullpen, Early Afternoon

A wild shout split the air, stopping all activity from the scattered desk about the room. Henri Brown had leapt up from his chair and was performing some type of dance around his desk. As Rafe started to walk past, he grabbed the dapper detective, pulled him forward and gave him a noisy kiss on the forehead before letting go.

"Geez, H!" Rafe complained, stepping out of the other detective's range and wiping his hand across his forehead. "Warn a guy before you start going strange."

Brown released a loud, boisterous laugh as he collapsed down into his chair. "L.T., there is a God in heaven and he has chosen this time to smile upon me."

"What happened, Henri? Did you win the lottery or something?" Blair called over from his desk. Jim had turned around and was also watching the proceedings.

"Ah, much better than that, Hairboy. Much better." Brown leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his neck.

"Well? Don't keep us hanging here, man."

"You know all that moisture we've had coming down around here this week?" Getting nods from his audience, he continued. "In the mountains, it has been a heavy snow and the passes were closed down yesterday."

A look of annoyance crossed Rafe's face over the obvious delay from the other. "It's been snowing in the mountains. Big deal, H. That's what happens in the winter. What does that have to do with you acting like an idiot?"

Brown leaned forward and gave a big sigh, the expression on his face changing to one of disappointment. "That phone call I just had was from Lori. She just received a call from her father telling her that they won't be able to make it for Christmas. They were stopped and turned back on the other side. Gee."

Realizing what the information meant, Sandburg started to chuckle. Rafe joined in quickly, which caused Brown to dissolve into a fit of giggles. Ellison just smiled, shook his head and turned his attention back to the work on his desk.

"What horrible luck, man," Blair struggled to say with sincerity.

"Yeah, H. I know you were looking so forward to his visit," Rafe chimed in, forcing a solemn expression onto his face. "What's he going to do now?"

Wiping tears of laughter out of his eyes, Brown finally calmed down. "He's still coming, but will be a few days late. The passes aren't expected to be opened back up until near New Years."

"Of course, Lori is going to be devastated."

"And probably needs something to divert her attention from this 'horrible' situation. Why don't you come over to our place tonight, H?" Blair asked. "Rafe and David agreed to come and, if she still can't get out, Megan intends to be there. It can be a Major Crime Christmas party."

Brown looked carefully at Sandburg before asking, "You making anything that requires it to sit under your sink for a few days to 'age'?"

"No, but if you're really wanting me to make some of that for you..." Blair started, his eyes opened wide in innocence and honesty.

Henri waved his hands in front of himself. "No, no. Don't go to any trouble on my account, man. I'll check with Lori and see if she wants to come. We can bring some of the stuff she was making for the clan tonight."

Blair laughed at the expression on the black detective's face. He loved teasing the others concerning the variety of foods he learned to cook on his many expeditions. "You both are welcome and we're going to start the party around 6 pm."

"Speaking of which, Chief, you might want to take off now. You said that you needed to stop and pick up some more bottled water at the store," Jim reminded his partner. "Better get on the move before it closes."

"Oh, right! I almost forgot. You'll take care of those files I got there, Jim?" Blair pointed at the two folders on his desk as he rushed past to grab his coat.

"Yes, go. I'll make sure they get back down to records. Now move it, Rookie," Jim growled in a mocking way.

Turning around backwards, Blair performed a salaaming on his way out. "Yes, oh senior detective. I hear and obey." When he reached the doors, he started laughing as a paper wad was flung in his direction. Then he gave his partner a mock salute and left.

"Smart ass kids," Ellison muttered under his breath, but a smile hovered on his lips. Rolling his chair over to the desk next to his, Blair's desk, Jim was reaching for the subject files when he picked up the sound of someone running toward the bullpen. Concerned, Jim stood up, turned around and rested a hand onto his weapon behind his back until he saw who burst through the doors.

"L.T!" David Rafe ran into the room and straight toward his brother's desk waving a piece of paper over his head. "Guess what?"

Leaping forward, Rafe grabbed his brother's arms to stop him and walk him quickly over to his desk. "David, slow down. You can't just run through the building without someone thinking something is very wrong."

David had the good graces to drop his head and blush lightly in embarrassment. "Sorry, L.T. I was just so excited that I couldn't wait to give you the good news."

"That's okay, kid," Brown spoke up, hoping to stop the scolding he knew Rafe was going to give his brother. "What's got you so excited? You win the lottery or something?"

Looking at the detective, a wide smile reappeared on the young man's face. "Better, Detective Brown. I -- read this to my brother, please. I don't think I can even see straight right now." With a flourish, David presented the letter to Henri.

"Okay, let's see here. ~ahem~ Dear Mr. Dawson. Oh, this sounds serious, kid. When they start calling you mister..."

"H.," Rafe admonished.

Brown just smiled and turned back to the paper. "Okay, sorry. I couldn't resist. Dear Mr. Dawson. At the request of Professor Harold Blake, an audit was performed on the computer system handling the final grades for the freshman students of the Fall 2000 semester. It has been learned that there was an error in the posting of your final Grade Point Average in which two numbers were transposed. You true final GPA for the Fall 2000 semester is 2.54 and therefore sufficient for you to remain a student at Rainier University for the next semester. We apologize for this problem... yada, yada, yada. Does that mean what I think it means, kid?"

"Yes! My scholarship is still good and I can register for the next semester next week." Joyously, David leaped forward and into the open arms of his older brother.

"I knew the score had to be wrong, David," Rafe voiced proudly into his brother's ear as he tightened his arms around the younger man's vibrating body. When the two men separated, Rafe maintained a hold onto David's arms and locked eyes with him. "I also know you are smarter than what those scores show. We're going to work on that next semester. Right?" He gave the younger man a little shake for emphasis.

"You better believe it, L.T. I promise," David replied with sincerity.

Megan Connor's voice interrupted the little gathering. She had been listening from her desk, but moved toward the men when what was being read caught her attention. "What was the name of that Professor, Henri?"

When Brown handed over the letter, he watched several emotions flash across the Australian Inspector's face as she read it. "Something wrong, Connor?" he asked.

"They have to have the name wrong," she replied, rereading the letter several times.


Looking up into the faces of the three men in front of her, she explained, "Professor Harold Blake is the same person we know as Gabe. Remember? He was actually declared dead several years ago, but showed up here during the Johnny Mercado situation."

"Oh, yeah," H. murmured, rubbing his head. He had a vivid memory of being attacked from behind when he was trying to release the young man from his holding cell after an explosion in the building.

"Then this could be just a hoax?" David's voice quivered slightly.

Seeing the fear in the younger man's eyes, Megan gave him a smile of assurance. "No, I think the university did find the error and corrected it. But the person who requested the audit couldn't have been Professor Blake."

"Are you sure, Connor?" Ellison asked, entering into the conversation. He had been listening to all that had transpired and couldn't stay silent. "There have been several sightings of Professor Blake or Gabe or whatever name he is going by this time around Cascade. From what has been happening, it doesn't surprise me a bit to hear about this."

"No longer the skeptic, Jimbo?"

"Let's just say that the evidence is starting to outweigh what I believe. Sometimes, there are things that you just have to accept."

Megan opened her mouth to argue some more when the telephone on her desk rang sharply. Racing back over, she quickly picked up the receiver. Worried about the anxiety on the woman's face, Jim listened in on the conversation.

"Inspector Connor."

"Megs? Where are you, girl? I've been waiting for an hour for you."

"Da? Is that you? Where are you?" Surprise exploded across Connor's face.

"I'm at the airport. Didn't you get my telly, girl? I sent it a few days ago after I won the tickets in the contest."

"What telegram? What are you taking about, Da?"

~laughter~ "Are you going to come and pick me up or should I just work on catching the next flight back?"

"Don't you move, old man," Megan threatened, pulling her coat from the back of her chair. "I will be there before you can finish your next beer."

"Just make it here in one piece, my girl. These bloody Americans drive on the wrong side of the road and I traveled too far to spend our time together sitting with you in a hospital. Love you, gal."

Tears threatened to flow from Megan's eyes. "I'll be careful. Love you, Da." Hanging up the receiver, she looked up into a pair of glowing blue eyes.

Ellison gave Connor a knowing smile and winked. He had no way to prove it, but it was just possible that another miracle had occurred. Connor smiled back, grabbed up her purse and ran out of the bullpen.

At the Loft, Late Afternoon

The soft scent of French vanilla floated gently around the loft, emanating from the candles burning in several places throughout. Playing at a very low level were the soft tones of an American wood flute accompanied by a guitar. If one were to listen to the tune, they would recognize that it was a traditional Christmas song.

Blair sat on the floor in the middle of the loft, his legs in the lotus position and his arms resting comfortably on top of his knees. If anyone were to observe him, they would think that he was deep in meditation and that nothing would be able to disturb him. They would be wrong. Blair's mind refused to conform to the path he was trying to send it and a myriad of thoughts continued to bombard him.

Three days and still no word. Some Christmas this is. Stop it! Negative thoughts breed negative attitudes. I just need to relax and let it all go... I wonder if I shouldn't search around for Gabe. Maybe he can do another one of those miracles... Relax. I just need to relax and breathe. In with the positive feelings... out with the negative ones... This isn't working.

Blowing out a blast of air, Blair slumped down and leaned back against the couch behind him, rubbing his hands over his face. After arriving home and checking on all the preparations for the evening, he called the Red Cross office to see if there had been any information concerning his mother. No one picked up the phone and he really hadn't expected anyone to be there in the first place. It was Christmas Eve and everyone from that office was probably home with their families.

So, he'd been trying for over an hour to clear his mind and calm the nervous energy that threatened to overwhelm him, but it wasn't working. Finally, in frustration, he jumped up, grabbed his coat and walked out onto the balcony hoping the fresh air would help.

It was almost dark, the setting sun providing a brilliant show of colors on the few remaining clouds off coast. Already, a few stars appeared overhead to herald in the night. Throwing his coat over his shoulders, Blair wandered out to the edge of the balcony and leaned against the wall. For once, he was unconcerned about the height from the street to where he stood.

Time passed and the sun set completely, cloaking the area in a soft darkness. The only light around came from the candlelight streaming from the living room. The street sounds seemed to fade into the night and a calming peace seemed to flow over Blair. Turning around, he slowly sank to the ground, leaned back against the wall with his eyes closed and drew his knees up so that he could wrap his arms lightly around them. He didn't look up when he felt the presence of someone walk up in front of him. He thought it was his roommate.

He was wrong.

"Why such sadness on a night of such joy?"

Looking up quickly, Blair saw the shadow of the man he knew as Gabe outlined by the soft lights coming from the loft. Only the glow surrounding the man seemed to be brighter and allowed his face to be slightly illuminated. "My mom is missing, Gabe. How can I feel joy if I don't know where she is or even if she's safe?"

"Is it not said that all you need to do is ask and you shall receive?" The man took a step closer.

Blair searched the face of the man standing in front of him. "From what I've seen and heard, you've helped out many of my friends. Is there anyway that you can help me, Gabe? At least let me know she is safe?" Blair pleaded, his voice soft and shaking. A lone tear fell from an eye and slowly traveled down his face.

Kneeling down, Gabe reached forward and, after carefully wiping the tear from Blair's face, cupped his hands over his head. "You are more deserving than any of the others for a miracle," came the soft, cryptic reply. "All you had to do was ask."

Closing his eyes, Blair relaxed under the hands that held his head. They were warm and gentle and, for no reason he could understand, made him feel safe. He heard the man speaking softly in the tongue he'd used back in the station, but didn't know when it stopped or when the hands lifted.

"Chief? Are you okay?"

Jerking back to awareness, Blair opened his eyes to see Jim's face hovering in front of him. His expression was one of concern. Looking around, he could see that his friend was kneeling in front of him with a hand resting on his knee.

"Where did he go?" Blair asked, sitting up and swinging his head around to check out the whole area.

"Who, Blair?" Moving back, Ellison held forth his hand and helped his friend stand up.

"Gabe was here, Jim. He was there, right in front of me, and I was talking to him. Right where you were kneeling. Didn't you see him?" Taking a few steps around the balcony, Blair could see that he and Jim were the only two there.

"No one was here when I got home, Chief. I saw you sitting out here and got worried." Picking up the coat that had fallen off Blair's shoulders when he stood, Jim carefully wrapped it comfortably around the smaller man's shoulders. "What did you talk about?"

Blair gave a snort and slumped slightly under his friend's hands, his eyes downcast in sorrow. "I asked him if he could help me find my mom. Stupid, huh? Thinking the man could do miracles."

"Oh, I don't know about that, Chief." Turning around, Ellison stepped to his friend's side and pointed him toward the balcony doors.

"Hello, sweetie," came the soft voice of Naomi Sandburg.

Gasping the word 'mom', Blair's eyes opened wide to the sight of his mother standing in the doorway to the living room. After taking a stumbling step in shock, he quickly ran forward and engulfed the petite redhead in his arms, his head buried into her neck. Tears flowed freely from both mother and son.

"I'm all right, sweetie. I'm right here," Naomi murmured softly into her son's collar as she rocked him gently.

Taking a mighty sniff to clear his sinuses, Blair leaned back to look Naomi in the face. He blushed lightly when she gave him a gentle smile and wiped the tears from his face. "What happened to you? Why didn't you let me know where you were?" he asked.

"It was bad karma all the way around, baby," Naomi answered with a twinkling laugh and walked both of them back into the living room. Jim followed close behind, closing the doors after him and picking his friend's coat up off the ground once again. "First, we had the most horrible guide you could ever consider and he had no idea where we were going. Then, the radio we had with our group would never work and it seemed that everywhere we stopped the telephones didn't work. When we got to places that did have working phones, I tried to call you every chance I had, but I always got either a busy signal or just couldn't get a connection. Finally, I gave up trying and decided to just get here as fast as I could. I'm sorry I caused you to worry, Blair."

"I found her on the doorstep when I got home, Chief. You know how I am with stray kittens," Jim teased and was rewarded with a light slap on his arm from Naomi as he walked past toward the kitchen.

"When the cab dropped me off, I saw your car and knew you were home. By the way, very nice year for a car, dear." Blair chuckled as he led his mother to the couch and sat down with her. "Anyway, I had been trying to get your attention when Jim came up the stairs and let me in. What happened to the key you used to keep over the door?"

Blair looked over at his partner and saw the man grimace at the memory of the person who'd once found the key and left a very nasty surprise in the middle of the living room. "I've learned that it is not very safe to do that, Naomi. You never know who might find it and let themselves in with intentions of robbing you." Changing the subject, Blair stood up, keeping hold of the woman's hand. "You want some tea, Naomi? I've got this great blend that is good for soothing nerves and I could use about a gallon right about now."

At his mother's nod, Blair slowly released her hand and walked into the kitchen. When he reached the counter near the sink, he placed his hands onto the edge and dropped his head. As quietly as possible, he took slow, deep breaths and carefully released them.

"You doing okay, Sandburg?" Ellison asked, moving away from where he was working on preparing the vegetables for the party to his friend's side.

"Yeah, man. I'm fine. Just trying not to fall to pieces. I don't know whether to laugh hysterically or start bawling." Blair tried to make his voice sound light, but Jim could easily hear the emotion his friend was trying to control.

"I don't think your mom would mind if you did either."

"What about you, man? You won't think bad of me for allowing my emotions to take control?"

"Oh, I might consider you a self-centered goober." The smile of Ellison's face belied his words.

Blair smiled back, becoming calmer with the familiar chatter. "I think I can accept that."

"Good. Then get you butt in gear, Goober. We've a party to set up for tonight."

Laughter and conversation overshadowed the Christmas music playing gently on the stereo. Anyone looking through the balcony window would not believe that a majority of the people in the room were dedicated, experienced public servants who had experienced many of the evils that man could devise.

Blair moved through the group with a new tray of food to replace the empty platter on the table next to the balcony windows. He stopped briefly to receive a soft kiss on the cheek from his mother when she paused in her conversation with Simon. The large Captain laughed heartily at the blush that appeared on his youngest detective's face, causing the young man to blush harder.

As he approached the table, Daryl jumped up from where he was perusing the CD collection to help shift things around so that Blair could set the platter down. "Great food, Blair. Think I could possibly get some of the leftovers to take back with me to dad's place?" the youth asked, grabbing some of the snacks with each hand.

"Sure, no problem. That is if you can keep certain bottomless pits around here from scarfing it all down." Blair threw glances at his partner and Henri Brown as they both moved up behind him.

"Who are you calling a bottomless pit, Hairboy? I'm taking care of my lovely lady by making sure she has sufficient nourishment for the evening," H. argued, reaching around the smaller man to fill the plate he carried.

"I happen to know that Lori likes the vegetables more that these little fat pills, H. Try another excuse."

"Ignore him, H. The fact that we've happily eaten everything he has placed out here has already made his head swell," Jim jumped in to defend the other detective.

"Since you mentioned swelling, Jim, how soon before you have to loosen your belt another notch?" Blair wasn't able to duck the hand that reached forward to swat him lightly on the back of his head. With a laugh, he grabbed up a couple of the empty dishes and started moving back toward the kitchen.

"Need a hand, Blair?" Steven Ellison asked, picking up some empty glasses and following the smaller man. "My brother takes the title of host to heart by the looks of it." Looking back at the subject of his words, he was rewarded with a tongue stuck out at him from his elder sibling.

"Only if you want to, Steven. I may be taking care of this portion of the party, but Jim gets to handle the clean up tomorrow. He doesn't think I can do it up to his standards." Blair answered.

"Jim was always so particular on how his bedroom had to be set up, that I used to see if I could fool him by moving just one thing around every now and then." Steven placed the glasses on the counter, then leaned back against it to look toward his brother.

"How often did you get away with it?"

"Never. Jim always knew that something was out of place the minute he stepped into the room. I never knew how he did it until recently." The two brothers' eyes met and the older set crinkled when Jim smiled. He nodded at his younger brother to agree with what he said.

Blair kept his attention toward the sink, not knowing his partner could hear his conversation. "It was probably perfect training for when he joined the Army. One day, he's going to make some woman a great wife with his housekeeping abilities."

Steven had just taken a drink when Blair made his statement and struggled not to choke when he saw his brother shoot a glare at the smaller man's back. Turning quickly, he regained his composure. "Well, I have to say you two throw a great party. Thank you for inviting me."

"No problem, man. I'm just sorry your lady couldn't come tonight."

"As you said, Christmas is a time for family and I'm glad she was able to go see hers."

Blair was about to ask a question when he thought he heard a knock on the front door. Looking over at Jim, his suspicion was confirmed when the larger man started moving through the group toward the entrance. Blair glanced around to see if he could notice anyone missing. He shrugged his shoulders at Jim as the large man passed, indicating that he couldn't think of anyone that hadn't yet arrived.

Opening the door, Jim was surprised to see his father standing in the opening. "Dad? I thought you were going to be out of town." Jim barely kept the anger out of his voice. He heard someone come up behind him and deciphered by the man's cologne that it was his brother.

"Hello, Jimmy. Steven. As you can see, I... I didn't go." The elder Ellison shifted nervously under the powerful gaze of his oldest son. "I didn't know you were having a party. Otherwise, I would have waited until tomorrow to speak with you. I don't want to intrude on your gathering." Turning around, the older man started to leave until he was stopped by a hand on his shoulder.

It was Jim, with Steven standing by his side. The door of the loft had been closed to allow the three men privacy. "What did you want to tell us, Dad?"

Taking a deep breath, the older man looked directly at his children. "First, I'm sorry. I was wrong in trying to deceive both of you about my trip. To be totally truthful, I was scared. You both know that I try to take the best care of my health and to have a doctor tell me the things that he did, well, I just panicked."

"You were wrong," Jim started, holding an arm out to prevent his brother from moving forward. The younger man's heart rate was elevated and Jim could almost feel the tension emanating from his brother. He didn't want a fight started tonight. "So why didn't you go see the specialist if you were that scared?"

"I decided to reschedule the appointment after we had that little... discussion at the hospital, Jimmy. After you left, I took a walk around the grounds and started thinking about what you said. You were right to be angry with me and I thought that I should call you and apologize, but I knew that you were really angry and probably wouldn't even hear me."

Steven spoke up. "He's got you there, Jim. Your hearing does tend to get a little selective when you allow the Ellison temper to rise."

Jim's gaze softened as he realized his brother was right. "Okay, I'll admit that I wouldn't have been the most receptive person then."

"So, as I was walking around, I met this very strange young man working in the garden. He was taking the gentlest care with the area despite the fact that it is winter and nothing was growing in it." As he paused, William didn't notice that with his words, Jim stood up straight and listened carefully. "When I asked him why he was working on the garden now, he looked up at me and said the strangest thing."

"Did he have red hair and a goatee, Dad?" Jim asked, knowing the answer before his father gave it.

"Yes, but it didn't look like he'd had a haircut or trimmed his face for a long time. How did you know?"

"I'll explain in a minute. What did he tell you?"

Giving his elder son a confused look, William continued. "Well, he said that no matter what season of the year or time in something's life, you should always take care of those things that are entrusted to you. He also said that I should listen to my heart, that it was stronger than I thought. Strange, eh?"

Steven nodded his head in agreement, but Jim gazed over his father's head thinking about what he said. He brought his attention back when William deliberately cleared his throat. "Sorry, Dad. But I'm pretty sure I know the man you met. He's a little... eccentric in some ways."

"Maybe so and maybe not. But after I left him, I started thinking about the check up I just had and why did I need to travel all the way down to San Francisco when we have other doctors around here or in Seattle who could give me the same second opinion. So, I got a referral to see one yesterday and he thinks what I might have is a circulatory problem. Something that is not allowing the proper flow of my blood."

Relief flooded across Steven's face at the news, then he quickly schooled it to match his brothers' calm expression. "Does he know what it is or what you might have to do? Will it require surgery?"

William gave his younger son a gentle smile. "At this time, no surgery is needed since he's pretty sure it is not my heart that is the main problem. I'm going to have to take some medicine for my circulation and see the doctor again in a couple of weeks for more tests."

Jim listened to his father's heart and could tell that the man was telling the truth. He wasn't holding anything back this time.

"Well, I guess I'd better take off and let you two get back to your party," William said, stepping forward in hesitation. His arms twitched outward, indicating his desire to give Steven a hug. The younger man moved forward stiffly, embraced his father lightly, then shuffled back to his original position. Sticking his hands into his pockets, Steven allowed his gaze to wander anywhere but toward his father.

When William looked up at Jim, his eldest son surprised him.

"You don't have to leave, Dad. It is Christmas and we did plan on spending time together." Jim offered.

William looked wistfully at the apartment door, then back up at his son as he shook his head in the negative. "Thank you for the offer, but I left Sally at the house and told her I would be back tonight. But I know she would be very happy if you two would still come over and have dinner with us tomorrow. I... I'd be very happy, too."

Jim gave his father a smile as he stepped forward to give the man a hug. "We'll see you tomorrow, Dad. Steve, want to ride with me?"

"Yeah, sure," Steven answered, his voice neutral.

The two brothers watched the older man walk down the corridor to the stairs. He wasn't sure if it was due to the man's confession to his sons or relief over his medical condition, but to Jim it seemed as if the older man's gait was lighter and less stiff.

When William disappeared down the stairs, Jim turned to Steven. "Come on, little brother. There's still a party going on and probably a million questions ready to be asked."

Steven laughed at the resignation in his brother's voice, knowing exactly who would be asking most, if not all of the questions. Accepting Jim's arm across his shoulders, the two walked back to the door and re-entered the loft.

As the two men moved through the room and started fielding the questions being thrown at them, no one noticed the lone figure standing just in the shadows out on the balcony. He was watching the party and the interaction of all who were inside. With a gentle smile at the peace and joy that was obvious in the room, he turned and walked into the darkness and was gone.

The End

Sometimes the holiday season doesn't turn out as you would expect it to, unless there is a special someone with the ability to change that. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, and peace and joy to all throughout this blessed season.

All rights for this story are reserved. Please do not use any newly developed character or any part of this story without written permission of the author.

Like this episode? Email the writer: shallan@mho.net
Want to comment on production? Contact Black Panther Productions: bpproductions@wildmail.com