Jim Ellison was tired. He and his partner, Blair Sandburg, had just finished the latest in a series of all-night stakeouts. This one had just been the most boring stakeout of all boring stakeouts to date. Even Blair acted like he was tired, to Jim's knowing eye. After all, he was a Sentinel, a very special person with very special enhanced senses whose job it was to protect the tribe. Jim was a Sentinel, Blair was his Guide; it was his job to know these things.
One thing he didn't know was exactly how they'd pulled this duty in the first place. They found the note where it had been taped onto the CPU of the Ellison/Sandburg computer. It said they'd volunteered -- or been volunteered, somehow -- to cover for the others "until Monday", which in Captain-Simon-Banks-speak, really meant, "until the situation is handled so deal with it, Jim".
It was a lot to deal with. Rafe and Brown had the flu. So did most of the rest of the department, including Simon. Not that that really mattered, since the captain had arranged ahead of time to have the holiday season off so that he could spend time with his son. The interests of the holiday season, and all that. That left Jim and Blair alone in Major Crime to cover the entire shift.
And Blair technically wasn't even a cop.
Fortunately, the criminals had apparently taken the holidays off in Cascade. Desks were clean all over Major Crime ... or had been until Simon had heard about it and phoned in an order to Jim. Something about breaking out the cold case files for re-examination. Piles and piles of dusty old cold case files. Some of which had been languishing for years. Jim had begun sneezing as soon as the first box came up from storage.
It was enough to make a Sentinel sniffle.
Blair, though, knew he didn't have the flu and wouldn't let him go home sick. The big meanie.
Between that, the constant wet snow and near-blizzard conditions, the ten-plus inches of glare ice, and the whipping wind that could freeze toxic waste, there were ... the Christmas carols. Jim shuddered. Thank God Christmas didn't come more than once a year; one more 'fa-la-la', and he was gonna deck the halls with somebody's Christmas tree.
Or else shove it where the sun didn't shine. Maybe start a new tradition ... instead of stars or angels on top of the tree, shove the stupidest member of the family up there. Keep 'em out of trouble for the whole holiday season. The thought warmed him all the way back to the loft.
Unfortunately, the loft also served to remind Jim of something else. He and Blair had talked earlier, during the longest stakeout of all -- to pass the time -- and one topic had been whether or not to decorate the loft. Blair wanted to, Jim was amenable to decorating so long as it was tasteful and neat.
Nothing was more annoying than those people whose lights blinked on and off like strobe lights on speed. The only worse offenders, to Jim's mind, were people who went overboard when it came to Christmas decorating. Jim saw no reason why any one house would display, among other things, six cheery plastic Santas, ten wooden Rudolphs, a whole regiment of tin soldiers, a herd of plastic penguins, a giant HO-HO in lights on the roof, and five different Nativity scenes (each in a different skin color). Nor did Jim see any reason why people used non-regulation Christmas colors when making their light choices.
Orange, for example.
Or purple. That was even worse.
What did purple have to do with Christmas?
If he had to go deal with the Pfeiffers again this year, Jim swore that this time Pfeiffer Senior was going to get clocked over the head with his strudel. Last year, they'd had so many lights on their house and yard that it became a traffic nuisance. Then it began pulling power from the city to feed the monstrosity. The hospital, the precincts, the fire stations, the streetlights: everything on city power started going down, because the Pfeiffer Pisser was taking all of it, little by little. The last straw came when a 747 headed for Sea-Tac got lost in a snowstorm and damn near landed on their house.
Jim had decorated for Christmas last year, the first holiday season with Blair Sandburg. He'd wanted to make certain he could stand to live in the loft, after all; who knew what neo-hippie weirdo freak stuff Sandburg would do or hang or bring in for the holiday? Jim's plans were plain. White icicle lights wrapped around the upper railing of the balcony, a single tree with simple ornaments, and a small menorah in the window: all very simple,
tasteful, and elegant.
Not that it lasted long, after Sandburg added some ornaments of his own to the tree. That was all right, though. Jim figured -- even though he'd cut out his own tongue before he admitted it out loud -- that Sandburg added something important to his life, above and beyond the Sentinel thing. He wasn't sure exactly what, but it was there. So hanging some
Sandburg-ornaments on the old Jim-tree was A-OK.
Or something. Jim shook his head. "I must be more tired than I thought."
"Nothing." Which reminded him. "It's your turn to decorate, if you want to." Jim knew Sandburg could do it. The question was whether or not the Sentinel would be able to deal. Hopefully, the Guide would do his duty by his Sentinel and not try to blind, deafen, or drive him insane.
He could hope, anyway.
Sandburg moaned in reply, which sounded like an affirmative. Jim liked to think it meant, 'Of course, oh Great Sentinel of Mine. I shall do my best not to break any house rules while I decorate for the approaching holiday.'
What it actually meant was 'Yeah, okay, fine, whatever, now can I sleep?'
The Sentinel wasn't fooled. Sandburg might be half-asleep on his feet now, but once he got into the whole decorating-for-Christmas high, the Guide would be set. That drum-beating pink bunny had nothing on Sandburg. He might start slow and sleepy, but one thing would lead to another, and pretty soon it'd be morning.
Time to go back to work, anyway.
"Just don't forget to go to bed."
A head shake in the negative answered that niggling little fear. With that, Jim hurried up the stairs to his bedroom, keeping half an ear focused on his Guide's pulse, allowing its gentle rhythm to lull him to sleep.
Jim opened his eyes, expecting to see the familiar ceiling of his loft and the comforting sheets of his bed. He was soundly disappointed.
Not to mention mostly undressed.
He really hoped this was a dream, because if this was real, someone was going to die. Probably him, of terminal embarrassment. Either that, or his dentist was gonna be able to send his other kid to prep school courtesy of Jim Ellison. It was bad enough the man sent him Christmas cards every year.
Not that this meant that standing around in a tee-shirt and boxer shorts in the middle of an orange grove was particularly bad. For a dream, that is. The orange grove part was a bit strange, but maybe the Peru background scenery was being cleaned or something.
A glitter of gold caught Jim's eye through the trees, so he decided to head in that direction. The air was warm, the grass felt good on his feet, and the sun shone like there was no tomorrow. A nice change from cold, wet, wintry Cascade. As he got closer, Jim could see that the structure was a golden circular building. It shimmered and fluttered in the breeze. Perhaps it was made of some kind of silk?
But then this was a dream, so who could tell?
Jim was past caring.
Besides, he'd been an Army Ranger. Whatever it was, he could handle it. Hell, he'd lived with Sandburg for nearly two years. That damn near qualified him for sainthood, right?
The Sentinel straightened his back and marched in parade-fashion into the shimmery golden building. It probably would have made a much prettier picture if he'd been wearing his Ranger uniform and not just his underwear. And civilian underwear, at that.
Inside was a desk with a computer sitting precariously tilted atop it. Seated behind the desk was a young blonde girl, who couldn't have been older than twelve, wearing a blue dress and glaring fiercely at the computer. Whatever was on the screen had to be fearsome, given the heat pouring out of the girl's eyes. Jim wondered what the hell was going on. Was his spirit Guide on vacation for the winter?
Then she looked up at him expressionlessly. She didn't even comment on his striped boxer shorts. (They had been a gift from his now ex-wife, Carolyn, while they were still married.) "Are you here for the show?"
Jim had no idea how to answer that. He decided to ‘go with the flow' as Sandburg said, and something about him being ‘here and now for a reason' seemed appropriate, so he went with it. "I suppose so." It was the best he could do. He was new to all this ‘go with the flow' stuff, still.
"Either you are or you aren't." The blonde girl was decidedly unimpressed by Jim's attempt at flexibility. "You have to be one or the other."
"Good?" Now Jim was confused. Why was that good? Had someone been expecting him? Wait ... that's right, dream.
"Well, of course. We've been waiting for new help for, oh, just ages now." She waved a hand eagerly at Jim, then back at the computer. After asking him some simple questions - name, height, weight, profession - and some that were just plain bizarre - "ever kissed a dog?" - the blonde girl typed away at the computer for several minutes in silence. Finally she turned to him and spoke. "Why don't you wait in the grove while I process your file and get you sorted? Gather some oranges or something."
She still didn't smile as Jim left. He spent about twenty minutes wandering around the grove, opting for the ‘something' part of that suggestion. The oranges were ripe and smelled delicious. Jim could imagine how nice it would be to get up each morning and breakfast on a fresh ripe orange right off the tree.
Sandburg'd like it. No more winter.
That was one thing he hadn't missed while he was in Peru: the winter. He hadn't missed the ice or the rain, either.
Was it still daydreaming if you were in a dream state during the middle of the night? Jim figured he'd have to ask Sandburg in the morning. If nothing else, it'd give the professor something else to talk about than the evils of Wonderburger.
When he re-entered the glowing golden ring, the blonde girl merely stared at him. She just handed him a computer print-out (which looked suspiciously like the luggage tags the airports use) and eyed him critically. "I don't see why They want you to start there. No one lasts long there."
Jim didn't feel that was particularly encouraging.
"Still," she continued, wrapping the tag around his wrist and sealing it closed, "it's just as well. Everyone has to start somewhere. The best place to start is always at the beginning." She looked at him, so Jim felt like he should say something.
"Right," he agreed.
"Of course I am."
Jim blinked. "Where should I go?" He was starting to get a headache.
"Out the door and to the left. Go straight ahead. You can't miss it."
"Where am I going?"
Before Jim could open his mouth to protest, he was out the door and standing in the middle of the grove. He'd never seen anyone move so fast. Not even Brown going after Dolly the Donut Girl on Two-for-One-Tuesday. Maybe he'd stood still and the room had moved. It was possible. This was a dream, after all. It didn't have to make sense.
And he knew that it was a dream and made no sense, which by itself made very little sense. Was it just him, or was he beginning to babble like an idiot? Jim tried to calm down as he walked toward where he hoped the aviary was supposed to be. If he was supposed to be learning some great life lesson from this, then he had no idea what it could possibly be.
The first question got answered first. Which, if you thought about it, was really quite convenient.
He heard the birds long before he saw the building, another one of those gold ring structures. Jim was surprised the place hadn't shattered apart from the sound. All that screeching was enough to set his teeth on edge and he wasn't even there yet.
And the smell....
Jim did not want to go in there.
He'd often wondered how far down he could safely turn the dials of a sense or two without hurting himself. For an emergency, or something. Or, he added, without needing Sandburg there to watch him like a hawk. And could he do it without Sandburg finding out he'd done it? If the Guide found out, he'd have his Sentinel eating sprouts and doing sensory tests for a month.
If not indefinitely.
Jim privately thought that Sandburg had what shrinks today called a Napoleonic complex, some kind of inferiority complex because he was short. Jim also privately would have loved to have seen what might have happened if Sandburg had rebelled against peace-and-love Naomi's teachings.
Sandburg would have made a hell of a Drill Instructor. Or a Navy Seal, possibly. Some of those SOBs were hard as nails, twice as tough, and crazy to boot. Look at how the professor shoved Army Ranger Captain Ellison around. He gave orders and damn well expected the Sentinel to obey, when it came to that stuff. Jim wasn't going to forget the reaming he'd gotten after the cough syrup disaster. Sandburg had warned him not to take any, cold be damned, because he couldn't be sure how it would affect his new senses, and the Guide had been right. The stuff had knocked him for such a loop that he'd been all but insensible.
After giving a sigh loud enough to be heard in New Orleans at the height of Fat Tuesday during Mardi Gras, Jim opened the door and walked inside the aviary. He fiercely resisted the impulse to walk right back out again. The Sentinel automatically counted and catalogued what he saw, even if he wasn't certain what they were.
One tree, heavy with fruit. Ripe pears. Mmmm. And there was a bird perched on a branch.
Another branch had a pair of doves snuggling together, cooing softly at each other. Jim had never seen doves do that. But, then, dream.
A third branch had a quartet of singing birds, and they were making a tremendous racket. Screeching and wailing was far more descriptive of what they were doing. Calling any of them a ‘songbird' would be an insult to any real singing bird. A blue jay had a better shot in the auditions than any of this lot.
The geese weren't any better. They all sat on pallets for laying eggs.
At least the swans were quiet. Someone had brought in plastic kiddy pools for them to swim around in. Somehow that didn't exactly scan logically to Jim, but he didn't care. The other birds were quiet, too. Jim wasn't certain exactly what they were, but there were three of them and they looked exactly alike. Given the pattern here - which was pretty damn blatant, now that he thought about it - he figured he could hazard a guess. "You three must be the French hens, huh?"
None of the hens replied, but the geese answered in a torrent of honks, squeals, and whistles. They also let loose with a torrent of another kind, and it wasn't eggs.
James Joseph Ellison, Captain, Army Ranger, decorated police detective, Sentinel of the Great City, et cetera, et cetera, felt his nerve snap like a toothpick in a hurricane when that Godawful smell hit his delicate nose. Tingles went from his nose and froze his brain; he wondered whether WWI soldiers had actually been exposed to geese in enclosed spaces and had only thought it had been mustard gas. He also hoped that there wouldn't be any brain damage from this, but figured it was probably too late.
Maybe he'd skin that spirit Guide and use its hide for a rug.
If he survived this, anyway.
Jim staggered out of the aviary, slammed the door behind him, and got as far as his legs would carry him before his nose gave out. He fell in the cool grass under an orange tree and dozed.
For some reason he dreamt of ducks.
Quack. Quack-quack. Quack-quack-quack.
Anyway, when Jim woke up, he first checked to make sure there were no ducks anywhere near his position. Nowhere, in fact, anywhere near anyplace he might possibly ever even think of going. There weren't.
Second, he checked his position. Yep, orange grove. Still dreaming. Wasn't it morning yet? Maybe he was really in a coma....
Jim was still musing on that possibility when he arrived back at the first ring. The blonde girl was still sitting there and she still wasn't smiling.
"Gave up, huh?" She didn't sound too surprised. "It was the geese that did it, I bet."
"That was the problem," Jim muttered. "They did it all the time."
While the blonde's face remained expressionless, it looked to him like she had to actually make an effort to prevent any emotion from emerging. Why, he didn't understand. The joke wasn't that funny. Of course, she could just be one of those women who like kicking men when they're down and who got pleasure out of a man's misfortunes.
"So," she said with a straight face - a no-nonsense one, at that - and a pair of busily typing hands, "let's see where to send you now." A few moments passed, during which Jim was again reminded of his scantily-clothed state. This was done by way of a draft that seemed to come from everywhere at once. The girl's voice pulled him out of his search. "Here we are. Go to Lords. They have an opening."
She scanned the computer screen. "That should work."
She then scanned Jim's physique. "That should work very nicely."
Jim made a hasty retreat and didn't bother to ask for directions. He'd manage well enough on his own, thanks anyway.
Eventually, Jim found another shimmery golden ring structure. He figured that, since this was all a dream, he'd find what he was looking for unless the whole point was the search.
Then it occurred to him that he was sounding more and more like Sandburg every day.
It was a frightening thought.
Jim entered the ring, after a cautionary sensory probe turned up nothing particularly odd. Dancing music and people. Big whoop. What he saw inside was not particularly shocking, either, considering the pattern. Ten women, all different shapes and sizes, were all dancing in lovely patterns while dressed in elegant finery suitable for a holiday party. Well, they would have been, if the party had been during the Middle Ages. Or maybe a holiday party thrown by the SCA.
(Whoever that was, exactly. Sandburg had mentioned them once in connection with the Middle Ages, but Jim wasn't clear on what the relationship was.)
The Ladies danced around to the music, their gowns and veils flowing around them like silk. In some cases, that was because the gowns and veils were made of silk. Jim thought they were beautiful in a Middle Ages kind of way.
On the other hand, the Lords - dressed in colorful hose or breeches and tunics - just stood around. Most had cloaks that matched their outfits. Many had swords or a fancy dagger stuck in their belts. A couple smoked cigarettes. One read a book. Another munched a salad. Then one of them, wearing a pair of breeches with a codpiece - which, in Jim's opinion, was vastly oversized - and a dark purple doublet, pointed at him.
"You must be the new boy!" The purple-shirted Lord swished over, his short black cloak trailing along after him like a bad idea. "Finally, we can dance, now that there are nine of us."
And, Jim realized, including him, there would be.
"Now," the Lord continued, "get into costume."
Jim looked at what the other men were wearing.
Hell and damn.
Seemingly in an instant, Jim found himself clothed and armed with a sword. Apparently someone up there wanted to be certain he had no opportunity to get out of this situation. Green tights ... er, hose and a full white tunic with a dark green doublet and matching cloak had appeared on his body. There were boots. Everything fit.
Far too well, in Jim's opinion.
His opinion was underscored when someone whistled. A green hat completed the outfit. The damn hat even had a peacock feather in it. Jim thought he looked like some B-movie director's idea of Robin Hood.
"Oh," the purple-shirted Lord enthused, "those hose show off your legs!"
Jim felt more naked now than he had when he was just wearing a tee-shirt and boxers. Where was Sandburg, anyway? Somewhat mean-spiritedly, he hoped that he wasn't the only one being tortured.
"Now," the Lord continued, swishing about the room, "we can join them!" He motioned excitedly to the other Lords, all of whom began chattering with great glee.
"Oh?" Jim knew he was going to regret the comment.
"Of course, dear boy! Now, leap!"
Oh yeah. He regretted it. Big time.
Blair Sandburg opened his eyes and wondered why the Peruvian jungle looked an awful lot like an orange grove. Maybe he wasn't having a Guide-related dream. Maybe he was dreaming about being in Florida.
Mmmm. Florida. Sunshine. Warmth.
A comforting thought, but not one that made sense out of where he was. It certainly felt warm here, so he was comfortable enough, even though all he was wearing was what he'd apparently dozed off in while thinking about Christmas decorations. Y'know, that eternal question: tinsel or no tinsel?
Blair belonged to the no-tinsel contingent. He didn't like that it was harmful to animals (like cats and dogs who ate it off the tree) or that it usually wasn't biodegradable. He thought the glass icicles were prettier, not to mention more traditional in a European kind of way. Besides, have you ever tried to get tinsel out of your underwear?
It wasn't long before he found himself standing in front of a golden circular building. There was a shimmery tent-like roof that gave the ring an odd appearance. Blair couldn't put his finger on where he'd seen it before.
The young blonde girl sitting inside seemed oddly familiar to him, too. Now Blair Sandburg would never look that way at a girl that young, but she just seemed so familiar. Like he knew her from somewhere.
"You new?" She didn't even glance up when he entered.
After some rather odd questions, she gave Blair an odd look. After punching some keys on her board, mumbling at the screen, and kicking the CPU a few times, the blonde turned to him soberly. "Go to the aviary."
"Where is it?"
"Out the door and to the left."
Blair wanted to ask another question, but she hurried him out of the building. Someone did, at any rate. First he was there, staring at that girl, trying to figure out where the hell he'd seen her before, and the next breath he took had orange-scent in it. He racked his memory all the way to ... wherever this aviary place was.
It wasn't too hard to pick out.
A gold circular building. Just like the other one.
Only this one sounded like a zoo and smelled worse. What was he supposed to do here? The obvious question led to an obvious answer. Blair didn't want to do that.
With a heavy heart - but thankful that he'd had sneakers on when he fell asleep - Blair walked into the aviary. He immediately wished he hadn't. In fact, he wished he'd stayed in the orange grove. He even figured he might have been better off unconscious. The noise was incredible: a shrieking, wailing, cooing cacophony with the force of a raging brick wall. Even the flapping of feathers and splashing of water raised the volume.
Blair couldn't find words to describe the smell.
There is no word in the dictionary adequate to describe the stench of goose-crap, particularly in such quantities. Blair supposed the phrase ‘worse than anything else ever' might work, if you stuck an image of ... well, an appropriate image for the aforementioned dictionary reference.
A mushroom cloud, possibly.
Nevertheless, Blair had survived Kincaid.
He'd survived Lash.
He'd even survived two years of Jim Ellison, which had to be grounds for a police medal for bravery or something. Blair had always meant to ask Simon about that, but there never seemed to be a good time. Usually the times when that thought crossed his mind were the times when the captain had other, more important, things on his mind.
Once inside, Blair decided this whole dream was definitely not Sentinel-induced. A partridge, a pair of turtle doves, a trio of what could only be French hens, four warbling birds of some kind, six geese, and seven swans: what was somebody playing at here?
There was even a pear tree, for Christ's sake!
But he was here for a reason. Allegedly.
So he might as well be useful.
Gathering goose eggs would be useful, or so he thought. Unfortunately, Blair didn't take five things into account. First, the act of collecting eggs from pallets would require him to bend over, putting his head and torso that much closer to the source of the smell. Second, such a position places him in a somewhat untenable and indefensible position if attacked. Third, geese are very territorial and don't like being disturbed. Fourth, geese bite. Lastly, whatever can go wrong, will.
The above paragraph can be simplified thusly: If you put yourself into a position for trouble, knowing that Murphy's Law is in effect, then you deserve whatever you get.
The details of what exactly happened are far too grisly to be accounted fully here. However, it should be noted that when Blair Sandburg exited the building, he looked a bit like a cranky bird himself. Tarred and feathered ... only it hadn't been tar he'd slipped and fallen into, much to his disgust. The few eggs he'd managed to gather hadn't survived the disaster, either. And he was sore ... in places he'd rather not discuss.
His dignity barely intact, Blair gathered what self-control and self-respect that he could, took a deep breath, and willed himself to stay calm. He continued these deep-breathing exercises - with a concentrated effort to numb his sense of smell - all the way back to the first ring.
No way was he going back to that aviary. He'd rather have lunch with Garret Kincaid.
The blonde girl's only reaction when he limped into the building was to sigh in despair. "Those geese! They drive everyone away!"
"Maybe you need new geese."
She raised an eyebrow. It wasn't a smile, but at least it was an expression. "What makes you think it's the geese that are the problem? Maybe we need new people."
Now Blair was even more confused than before. Hadn't she just implied that the geese were the problem? Now he was the problem?
The blonde girl did her typing thing again at the computer and ignored Blair. He ignored her back; the feathers were itchy, and he really wanted a bath. Waking up right now would be good, too. Somehow, though, he guessed the likelihood of that happening was pretty small.
"Excuse me?" Blair didn't think he'd heard her correctly.
"You're to go to Maids next."
"I'm not a girl," Blair pointed out, in what he hoped was a calm and logical manner while covered in feathers and goose excrement. "Why should I wear a girl's costume?"
"You don't seem to have any problem dressing as Doctor Frank-N-Furter every year at the U since you enrolled."
Hell. How did she know about that? Not even Jim knew about that. He knew Jim didn't know, because if Jim knew, Simon would know, ergo all of Major Crime would know, ergo the whole PD would know. What's more, Jim would have done something super embarrassing like buying tickets for last year's Midnight Showing for all of Major Crime to watch Sandburg prance about in lingerie and high heels and sing, ‘In just seven days, I can make you a man!'
The very thought made Blair shudder. If that happened, he'd have no choice but to kill Jim and bury the body somewhere that no one would ever find it. Then change his name and move to Iceland.
Or find something equally embarrassing to hold over Jim's head. Oh, no, Naomi's little ray of sunshine wouldn't resort to blackmail. Yeah, right.
"Nevertheless," Blair argued, "I don't think me acting in a musical and this are even remotely the same."
"That is a show, this is a show." The blonde frowned at him. "You know, I expected better from you. I would think that you, of all people, would object to that as an outdated word."
"Maid is an outdated word?"
The blonde girl threw up her hands. "It is in this context! Think about it, ‘maids a-milking' - who milks cows these days? Not only is it outdated, but also there's a servant and a gender stigma attached to the word. ‘Maid' implies servant, lower class, and female, poor, uneducated..."
Blair listened to her rant, and wasn't exactly certain what to say. After all, she had a point from the feminist perspective. He let her yell about the stupidity of men for what seemed like forever, and wondered if it was morning yet. When she finally took a breath, Blair cleared his throat, and she shoved him out the door. "How do I get there?"
"Go to the left!" It sounded like the snarl of some voracious beast.
Blair knew those had been the same instructions for the way to the aviary. On the other hand, this was a dream. He shrugged, and followed the instructions.
Whatever. He was here for a reason. Although he was beginning to seriously doubt that theory.
After trudging unhappily through a lovely grove of sweet-smelling orange trees, Blair found a third ring structure. It was gold just like the others. Part of the pattern, he figured. Cute.
He entered the building and had seven silent stares directed at him, seven very loud stares, all of the accusing and hostile variety. The girls were all young and pretty, dressed in typical Swiss-Miss outfits that made Blair think of tavern-maids at a Ren Faire. He could not, however, picture himself in that category.
Neither, apparently, could they. With their arms crossed over their, er, extensive chests in a defensive way and braids hanging down like Valkyries who'd misplaced their horned hats, they scowled like a pack of she-demons. Even the cows looked annoyed.
That one cow with no attending Maid looked really angry. Of course, she probably hadn't been milked in a while (maybe a long while). Blair supposed that would make any being cranky, not that he could speak from personal experience on the subject or anything. He imagined, for a moment, that it would be like having an endless case of blue balls, and winced.
Even the thought made him uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, it was about to get worse. In the blink of an eye, his soiled, feathered, and stinky clothes were gone. They had been replaced with something far worse.
It was a lovely slate blue cotton skirt with an attached bodice that laced to fit a lady's bosoms. The full skirt had a split to show a modest peek of muslin underdress, which gathered at the wrists and the throat. The underdress could even be worn on or off the shoulder for the ultimate in flexibility, just when you want to catch the eye of that noble's son.
Any country lass would be thrilled to wear it.
Blair Sandburg was most vehemently not.
He also noted the boots on his feet and that his hair felt tight. He was pretty certain that he didn't want to know why.
Then the giggles started from the Maids in the ring, and he had to know. So he looked into a most convenient mirror that he didn't think had been there a few minutes ago, and immediately wished he hadn't.
Two of them.
One on either side of his head.
He looked like Pippi Longstocking on acid.
This was no dream.
It was a nightmare.
Blair made a strategic retreat. By the time he reached the first ring of this fiasco, Blair could still hear the girls laughing. Just because he'd left the building, that didn't mean his costume had changed. He was going to kill that blonde girl if she smiled, if she so much as twitched in the direction of a smile. She hadn't yet that he'd seen, but still, there was a first time for everything...
Blair stomped over to where the blonde girl sat at her desk, pretending to work. Now that he was closer to her, he could see that she was really playing computer chess ... and losing badly, from the look of the board. "I need to go somewhere else."
He dared her to smile. He double dog dared her.
After a few moments of silence, locked in a battle of wills, Blair finally emerged triumphant. His hair stood at attention and cheered ... not that it had much choice in the matter, what with the braids and all. Blair cheered, too.
The blonde girl took the opportunity to do what she did best and rain on his parade. "Don't get too happy, sweetie-pie. I don't think the Lords will take you. They don't have any openings left -"
Blair interrupted her. It gave him a fuzzy feeling. "No openings left? Someone else must have come here around the same time I did, then, right?" He was sure, so sure, it had to be Jim. Good.
"Tall, blue eyes, real short brown hair?"
Had to be Jim. Blair was certain of that. With who else, out of everyone in the world, was he likely to be sharing a dream?
"Besides," the blonde continued, "you're too short to be a Lord."
"Says the manual."
"What manual?" Blair had never heard of any manual regarding Christmas carols.
"Right there on the wall shelf behind you."
The second he turned his head to look, Blair knew it was a mistake. He was correct. Just as suddenly as his clothes had changed, he was outside the golden ring in the orange grove. And he was still wearing the damn dress.
"So where am I going?" Blair shouted at her. Not because he figured she couldn't hear him, but because he hoped it would make him feel better. It had certainly worked for the Sam-creature while they'd been dating.
What an experiment in masochism that had been. He'd have been better off to have just repeatedly hit himself in the head with a sledgehammer. Or use a Dremel tool on his balls.
The end result would have been the same.
And he'd have saved money.
"Pipers," came the reply, "to the left."
Everything was located to the left.
But then, consider the source.
It took a while for Blair to find the place he was looking for - because he was short, no doubt - but he found a ring with dance music coming from within its shimmery gold walls. He figured this had to be where the Ladies dancing and Lords a-leapin' were. He took a deep breath, tried not to think about how the laces pulled at his chest hair, and knocked at the door.
A guy in a purple doublet answered. "What do you want, Maid?"
"I'm not a Maid!" Blair couldn't stop himself.
"No, you're not," the man agreed. "But even though you've got such a lovely mouth and beautiful cheekbones, we've got a full complement. Plus, cutie, you're too little." He bent down and tugged suggestively on one of Blair's braids. "I like small things, though. They work harder to keep up with the rest of us."
Blair tried to pull his hair free without ripping it loose from his scalp. "Is Jim here?" Oh, smooth way to change the subject.
"Yes, darling, but he's busy." The purple-shirted man leered. "He's learning how to leap without hurting his sword."
"Proper protection for your sword is important, you know," the man continued. "You can't expect to play with your sword - or expect others to - if you don't take care of it."
"I ... see."
"Good." The purple-shirted man beamed at Blair, blew him a kiss, shouted a goodbye, and slammed the door in his face.
The Guide had a headache. He was beginning to think the whole point of this dream was to torture him.
Blair headed for the fifth golden ring, where he supposed the only people left had to be the Pipers and Drummers. They weren't hard to find, he just followed his ears. Even a non-Sentinel like him could find them, they were making so much noise. Hopefully, they were just warming up for the ‘making music' part.
He could hope.
Blair sighed and entered the building. The greeting he received made him wish he hadn't.
"What d'ye want, Maid?"
"I'm not a Maid!"
"No, ye're no Maid," the big red-haired Piper agreed, after looking him over a little closer. "Did ye get assigned o'er ‘ere, lad?"
"Good!" the man boomed. "We've bin one piper short fer ages. Now we can do the job, proper."
Blair wasn't so sure about that. "I don't know how to play."
"Nor do we," he laughed in reply. "The pipes and drums take care o' that themselves. Precious, they are."
A flash of lights caught his eye, and in an instant, Blair realized his clothing had changed once again. Thank God for small favors. Now he was dressed similarly to the way all the others in this ring were dressed.
Right down to his, er, tartans.
Decorative tasseled sporran, check.
Ivory knee socks with decorative tassels, check.
A small black-handled knife, stuck inside one of the socks, resting snug against his leg, check. (Apparently whoever worked Costume in this realm tried real hard to be true to life.)
Leather shoes that laced up the calf, check.
Ivory woven shirt with billowy sleeves, check.
Flowing tartan cloak that matched the kilt, check.
Floppy hat that matched the kilt and cloak, check.
Bagpipes, lavishly decorated with silver and horn fittings and leather straps and a bag in the same tartan as the kilt, cloak, and hat. Check.
Oh yeah. Now he looked manly. Kilts were manly.
"Now, then, lads! Line up, in formation!" The group, including Blair, shuffled into a marching band line-up. They did this even though they'd be marching in circles. It's the thought that counts. "Ready ... and!"
The Pipers piped and the Drummers drummed, and Blair had no idea how much time went by while he was lost in a musical circle of spinning ecstasy. It had to have been a long while. He was tired. Really tired.
Even his hair was tired.
This was going to be one of those dreams where you woke up more tired than you were when you went to bed, wasn't it? Not that he'd actually gone to bed, but the idea was the same.
Blair hated those dreams.
And so did these shoes. What he wouldn't give for a good pair of sneakers.
"Time for a break, lads. Well done! Well done!" The burly Piper was thrilled to death, just absolutely delighted. He lurched over to Blair, slapped him on the back, and watched with glee as the anthropologist fell down. "D'ye e'en know why ye're here?"
"No," Blair managed to get out, as he picked himself up off the floor.
The Piper laughed, a rumble that came up from his toes and boiled its way out his mouth. "Go ask Alice. I'm sure she'll know."
"The wee lassie wi' the golden hair."
Blair couldn't believe it. Well, scratch that, he did believe it. After all, this was no stranger than mystical spirit guides, right? At least now he had absolute undeniable proof that someone out there was out to get him. And Jim called him paranoid. "I'll do that. Thanks." He rushed out.
Even though he'd intended to leave the pipes behind, they hadn't wanted to unbuckle.
Typical. Blair was not in the mood to fight with a musical instrument. So he brought the bagpipes along with him.
So Blair the eleventh Piper hurried along through the grove, feeling like he was either a piper in search of a parade or a parade in search of a piper. He was considering that - and also wondering why he seemed to be spending so much time ruminating over stupid stuff - when a brick wall jumped into his way.
Not a brick wall.
Jim, pretending to be a brick wall.
Jim, a brick wall in green tights. Blair chortled. "What say you, Robin Hood?"
"Shut up, Sandburg."
Blair laughed. At least he was willing to wear a kilt in public. Jim hadn't been willing to wear one or to even go when their invitation to the Highland Games arrived. You'd think that, as an Ellison, he'd want to wear the family tartan. Blair would have, if Jim had let him. What a disappointment that had been. Then Blair realized what was missing, and looked around in vain: with the way Jim was dressed, shouldn't he have a horse?
"What're you looking for?"
Jim sighed, a long-suffering sound that Blair usually associated with work, the Sentinel thing, Naomi, or the Cascade Jaguars' total lack of understanding about defense. The Guide was used to it by now. He'd learned to differentiate the varieties of sighs and determine their intensity and probable causes; Blair could read his Sentinel like one of his anthropology texts. He was a Guide, Jim was his Sentinel, that was his job.
"I don't have a horse."
"It just looks like you should have one."
"I know." Jim gave another sigh, which Blair duly classified as Number Three - ‘I Don't Understand Any Of This.' He certainly did look confused, and probably was, but so was Blair, so hey! Join the club. "The other Lords said that, because I was new, I wasn't entitled to a horse as a mount -"
"-But that, if I wanted, I could take one of the caterpillars."
Blair just looked at Jim and said nothing.
"They're about the size of elephants, and they're furry. Long hair. Very bright colors," Jim continued. "The one Cliff showed me was pink with yellow stripes. His name is Marvin." How Jim managed to keep a straight face through this nonsense had to be a miracle. Well, two could play at that game.
"So why didn't you ride one?"
"They smell funny."
Blair nodded in understanding. His poor widdle Sentinel had such a sensitive nose. He wanted to change the subject. Namely, so that they could maybe get out of this Christmas nightmare before New Year's Eve. "We need to go talk to Alice." Blair started walking and Jim followed in step.
"The blonde girl."
Jim shook his head. "Table leg, Sandburg."
"You actually got her name?"
This was an old argument, a comfortable argument. It was a tiny bit of normalcy in a very strange world. Both Jim and Blair no doubt took great comfort in this small piece of home. They enjoyed each moment all the way to the first golden ring.
"I've figured it out," Jim announced. "We don't need to ask her anything." Blair merely raised an eyebrow so the Sentinel continued to speak. "Twenty-five birds, eight cows, fifty people, and five rings equals," he paused dramatically, "a circus."
"They don't have fifty people," Blair pointed out. "We're fill-ins, remember? And the horses, and the caterpillars...."
"But they're not in the song."
"So what's the point?" There was some truth to that. And Blair had to admit, if nothing else, the five golden rings had been arranged like circus tents. If it was a circus, it was one he never wanted to see again. For that matter, why was answering this question so damned important? Of course, dreams don't have to make sense. Blair went into the building, where he knew Alice was waiting. He asked her.
Blair wished she hadn't. It wasn't like the Victorians had been big on dental hygiene. Ugh.
From outside, he could hear Jim calling his name rather persistently. And loudly. And with an increasing sense of urgency. "Sandburg, get out here!" So Blair figured he'd better see what the problem was.
What the problem was became, well, clear when Blair exited the ring. A giant pair of golden eyes were staring down at them. Huge eyes, each about six feet in diameter. Blair could only imagine how gigantic the animal attached to the eyes would be.
That was the other thing.
They were golden cat's eyes.
With a swish of a massive tail, the black jaguar was visible. He was magnificent, the stars glittering along his fur, the night blending in with the dark of his body. He was power and desire and joy, rolled into one being, his fangs gleaming beautifully in the moonlight....
Blair woke up, feeling more tired than he had been when he fell asleep. Amazingly, though, it didn't look like nearly as much time had gone by as it had felt. Judging by that, he would have guessed he'd been asleep for a year or three.
Oddly, though, there had been a strange kind of point to the dream. Jim had hit on it, but not exactly, he now thought. Today, Christmas carols are heard in malls as Muzak while shoppers run to and fro like lunatics searching for gifts. That was the circus Jim meant - the never-ending circus of holiday merchandising.
It used to be that Christmas was a time for family and friends, celebrations, marriages, and joy. Gifts were given of love, not of money.
Christmas was really about the important things in life. Those are what the carols sing about. Friends and family. Joy. Love. Peace.
That gave Blair an idea.
When Jim headed downstairs early that afternoon, he wasn't surprised to find Sandburg sprawled fast asleep on the couch and snoring like a paper mill after the logging restrictions on government land had been lifted. There was no evidence of gift-wrapping, of any kind of Christmas cheer-making, or of strange decorations within the loft. Nothing offended his Sentinel senses straight away, which was a plus.
There sure weren't any calling birds, French hens, turtle doves, or a partridge in a goddamned pear tree. Thank God.
After waking up Sandburg before he woke up the neighbors, they did not discuss the mutual dream. Certainly not before coffee. Sandburg would probably catch him out later with some touchy-feely, earthy-crunchy questions about it during that night's boring stakeout.
For now, the matter was tabled.
Jim also noted that Sandburg reacted funny to the concept of breakfast. Coffee, fine. Food, not fine. The professor had hit a new speed record to the bathroom, after which point Jim decided not to listen. "All I did was ask how you wanted your eggs." Jim decided that discretion would be the best tactic here.
Toast was pretty innocuous.
An hour later, Sandburg emerged from the bathroom, looking rather ill. Nevertheless, he bravely munched down toast and a cup of coffee. For some reason, he'd decided to forego his usual algae shake, not that Jim was complaining. Jim didn't want to know why. He suspected the answer would get him in trouble with his Guide (in the eating-sprouts-indefinitely-and-doing-sensory-tests-for-a-month way).
The partners spent the remainder of their afternoon decorating the interior of the loft. Jim followed Sandburg's lead - it was his turn, after all - and he mostly liked what he saw. They'd popped popcorn and strung it on the tree. Sandburg had explained that, after the holidays, they could unstring the popcorn, take it to the park, and leave it for the birds. Then, he'd emphasized, they could leave the park, the popcorn, and especially the birds behind them.
They'd made cut paper snowflakes for ornaments and hung memories on the tree. That last one Jim had enjoyed. It had made him think. They'd each taken slips of paper and written down fond memories of their time together, things they were thankful for, wishes for the future, and hung them all over the tree. Sandburg had also hung red beads on the tree, for color, and a small ceramic sparrow in a nest. It was a good luck symbol to have a bird nesting in your Christmas tree, he'd explained.
An electric candle burned in one window, shining by the balcony. That was tradition, too, he'd said. Something about always having somewhere to come home to.
Jim liked that.
Sandburg had said earlier that he'd hung the lights on the balcony and hung a wreath on the front door. Jim hadn't seen either one yet, which concerned him a little. For all he knew, Sandburg might be one of these people who used purple lights at Christmas.
Then came the announcement that Sandburg planned to make eggnog for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Jim wasn't quite so concerned about the lights anymore. Last year, Sandburg had used that same eggnog recipe and brought the brew to the annual Major Crime Christmas Party at Simon's house.
Detective Rafe swore to this day that, when he woke up, it was three days later, his head was buried in a snowdrift, and he was wearing a Santa Claus suit with a full set of pink ladies' lingerie underneath. And there was a box of cigars inside one of the suit pockets. The suit was dotted with confetti. Where any of it came from, he never found out. Neither did anyone else, despite many attempts to figure out Rafe's Wild Weekend.
Rafe didn't know it, but the betting would start as soon as Jim relayed Sandburg's news. It would almost be worthwhile to watch him squirm. Maybe Jim should suggest that Sandburg make wassail, too; the orange-and-cinnamon-laced drink looked innocent enough, but was almost as deadly as the eggnog.
It was a warming thought.
In this happy fashion, Sentinel and Guide prepared for the holiday until it was time for them to leave for that night's stakeout. He liked the wreath; it smelled pleasantly of pine and vanilla, with poinsettias dotting its frame.
Jim didn't see the lights on the balcony until they were nearly at the truck. They were plain white and had a simple message.
A peace sign, in Christmas lights.
Wasn't that the real meaning of the season?
Jim smiled, and turned to his Guide. "Let's go to work."
"So, Jim, what do you think about goose for Christmas dinner?"
"Sounds good to me, Darwin."