Ring Out, Wild Bells



"Christmas Eve and you want to do some tests?" Jim gave Blair a wounded look. "After I shared the family eggnog recipe with you?"

"What, don't use eggs, or cream, just keep the brandy pouring? That's a recipe?"

"Grandma always liked it."

"Whatever. It's just one test, Jim. One. And I promise until the holidays are over, I won't make you do --"

"Hey. Volunteer, remember, Chief. You can't make me do anything."

"Jim…" When Blair wheedled and whined, eyes big, mouth curved down with disappointment, Jim caved. Every time. Blair should test that phenomenon sometime, because it sure as hell wasn't normal.

"Fine. Do it."

"Not yet."

"What? When?"

Blair glanced at his watch. "Midnight. So… another ten minutes to go."

"What's so special about --?" A suspicion was growing. "No."

"Yes!" Blair's eyes were sparkling now, tinsel-bright. Too much nog, definitely. Both of them. "Where were you on Christmas Eve when I was eight, man? I needed you then."

Jim, feeling a little bewildered now, tried to do the math but it was difficult with his brain pleasantly numb. "Uh… I was probably drunk in a bar somewhere, trying to find a piece of mistletoe with someone under it not in uniform or male. After midnight, I got less picky."

"What a waste when you could have been helping me test a hypothesis." Blair shook his head sadly and then brightened. "You can make up for it now."

"How?" Jim was feeling seasonally indulgent and certain of what Blair was going to propose. No test; it was just Blair's way of leading up to the suggestion that they exchanged gifts at one minute past midnight on the grounds that it was technically Christmas Day. Which it was, but they were still doing it after breakfast. He hadn't got Blair much but one of the presents was a music CD and he really didn't want to be listening to tribal chanting that late at night and somehow he just knew Blair would insist on playing it right away.

Besides, it'd do the kid good to wait.

His comfortable assurance was shattered a moment later when Blair pointed up. "Hearing, Jim. Dial it up high. You can't see him -- no one can see him, but those sleigh bells jingle, you bet they do, and if you filter out the traffic noise and the bells… Jim? Where are you going?"

"Bed." Jim gave Blair a disillusioned look. Way to take the mystery out of things. "And when he brings you coal, don't come crying to me, Sandburg."

It wasn't until he was dropping off to sleep that he remembered, the memory wrapping snugly around the onrush of dreams. He'd been five, head filled with sugarplum-flavored wishes for bikes and footballs and candy, and he'd heard, high and sweet over the drumming of rain -- had to be rain -- on the roof, the jingle and peal of… no, couldn't have been…



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