Summary: A phone call leads Blair to a series of shocking revelations from William. Which leads to a blow-up with Jim.
No warnings. Rated PG for a few words. Unbetaed.
Disclaimer: All characters, places, and objects from The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly Productions, UPN, and Paramount. All stories are written with the love of the show in mind. No money is being made. All stories are property of the author.
Just another day for Blair. A whirlwind of classes, office hours, his paperwork, Jim's paperwork, police work, class preparation, grading, dinner prep, stakeout ... sleep, and very little of it. Glorious sleep. He thought he'd been sleep-deprived before meeting Jim but that was only a warmup.
Jim wasn't much better off. He woke Blair the next morning saying he'd let him 'sleep in' until 7 a.m. then he took off for the PD. Blair was up with a rush to get to class. Life always had it's ups and downs but lately the ups were coming farther between. After his last class he settled into the day's office hours with hopes for research time while waiting for students.
A phone call took him by surprise. “Hello, Blair Sandburg here. Can I help you?”
“Hmm. Good morning Mr. Sandburg. This is William Ellison. I know this call is unexpected, but believe me, please, that I've given this a lot of thought. In fact, it's taken some time to work up my courage to talk to you. I, ah, think that maybe I could help you and Jim.”
Blair sat straighter in his chair in surprise. “What is this about Mr. Ellison?” he asked with some trepidation.
“I hesitate to speak on the phone about this. I was wondering if you could meet me for lunch, here at my home. Sally can prepare a meal for us and it would be private for our discussion.”
“You mean Jim wouldn't be there?” This was getting even stranger Blair thought.
“That's right. I'll explain later today, if that's alright with you?”
Blair felt very uncomfortable about this suggestion of a meeting with Jim's Dad. “Jim and I are friends, I wouldn't want to keep secrets from him.”
“This doesn't have to remain secret. It would be up to your discretion. But I feel this is important to Jim. I understand the 'guiding' principles of your ethical dilemma, Mr. Sandburg. I feel we need to talk at the earliest opportunity.”
Blair went numb with shock. He hadn't missed William's words or his inflection. He forced himself to at least sound calm though his heart was beating a mile a minute, “I think that's a good idea, Mr. Ellison. I can arrange to be there at your earliest convenience.” Plans were finalized quickly and inconsequential chitchat filled a small block of time until Blair and William felt they could politely and discretely disengage.
It was after noon when Blair arrived at the Ellison home. He was seated in the den with little delay. William was more reserved than even at their first get together at the loft. There had only been occasional and short meetings before, as William and Jim had worked at reconciliation with Blair's encouragement.
He and William were barely on a first name basis, but Blair was afraid what this meeting would mean to his friend and partner, his sentinel, Jim. With apprehension he tried to prepare himself for the unknown topic that William needed to discuss. “William, I don't know why you asked me here but you've got to know my curiosity is intense. Please just tell me what this meeting is about. You know I have to be concerned after that phone call.” Blair was trying as politely and tactfully as he could to 'hurry it up', 'get on with the show', while he himself was taut with tension.
There was a soft knock on the door and then it opened to reveal Steven Ellison. “Sorry, I seem to be a little late. Blair, you must have broken a few speed limits to get here. You must have taken driving lessons from Jim.” His face was too serious for the attempted small joke.
Blair was startled and a little angry, “Look, Steven, William ... I don't feel comfortable excluding Jim from a discussion that seems to concern his family. If it's serious perhaps we should do this when Jim can be here.”
Steven came to sit beside his father's desk. He tried explaining, “Blair, you know Jim told me about his senses. Well, Dad explained something to me last weekend. I encouraged him to talk to you first. This is going to be hard on Jim and we really wanted you on our side first.”
Blair was outraged on Jim's behalf. He was barely able to restrain himself enough not to shout his angry response, “I think you must be out of your minds. If you want to win Jim over, this is NOT the way to do it. Jim is my friend. I won't sit here and have a secret meeting with his family. It's just not right ....”
William broke in, “Please Mr. Sandburg, Blair. This is very hard for me to explain. It isn't that we want you to 'side' with us. We ... no I, need to explain some information that Jim and you need. I've been waiting for some time to talk to you. But before I begin I hope you'll understand, and forgive, what I'm about to confess .... I had you investigated.” At Blair's surprised and angry expression William hurriedly continued, “Please Blair, Jim is my son and I worry about him. This information is very sensitive, and the stakes are too high. I was pleased with the results. I should have trusted my son's choice in a friend. Please, just give me five minutes.”
Blair had to force down his irritation. Like father, like son he thought. Neither could just trust someone. Or maybe it was just that they couldn't trust him. He didn't exactly fit into William's social circle and Jim had been raised in this house, with all the baggage that entailed. William had his private investigator and Jim had his senses to do the lie detector thing. Come to think of it, Jim had probably investigated him too. Well wasn't that just a wonderful idea, he thought sarcastically. “This better be good, Mr. Ellison. I have work I have to get back to at the University and later at the station with Jim. I didn't really come here for lunch. You mentioned 'guiding' principles. What did you really mean?”
William didn't know exactly where to start. He looked to Steven, who walked over to put a hand gently on his shoulder. With a great sigh William asked, “Blair, do you know why Grace left?”
Blair wasn't sure how to answer tactfully. He responded, “From what Jim said I assumed there were irreconcilable differences. Jim mentioned hearing arguments but didn't go into details. I don't think he knows the details. He was just a boy after all. I don't think he really wanted to hear. What child wants to hear anger expressed between the two people he most loves in the world? There were already pressures for him to turn down his senses you see.” William did see and the regret was plainly evident on his face and in his slumped posture. This was a man whose body language usually screamed confidence. Steven moved back to his seat opposite Blair but held his silence for the moment.
William fiddled with a pen and tried to decide how to explain this to Blair. Even though he'd thought long and hard about divulging this information, he now wondered if perhaps he should have talked to Jim first. When he looked up he could see Blair's sincere concern for his son and decided to go ahead. “Grace was a sentinel.”
Blair was shocked. No inkling of this was revealed by Jim. He truly believed that Jim had no idea.
William continued, “I tried to be her guide.”
Blair was doubly speechless. How did he know about guides?
William began to explain, “Her family had a history of these gifts and knew ... I guess you would say, the folklore, that was passed down. She knew she needed a guide. But unfortunately, it wasn't to be me. I haven't heard from her in years. There are other things I must pass on to you also. Along with the folklore there were certain concerns that were passed down in the family too. When Jim became an Army Ranger and went on covert operations, I feared for his life and his safety. And not just from the dangerous nature of his career but from the government itself and the value they would place on his gifts. When Jimmy said he could identify Bud's murderer, it drew the attention of the authorities. Luckily they thought he was just a child that was upset and confused by the circumstances surrounding the death of a friend. But I was terrified for him. That's the reason I tried to make him repress his senses in the first place. And it worked. Until Peru. And until you came along. You ARE his guide, are you not, Blair?”
“Oh God. Oh my God. William, I can't talk to you about this. Jim has
got to be here. I can't listen any further. This is too personal. Why didn't you tell him? Maybe not when he was a boy, but later? This is not my place ....”
“You are Jimmy's guide. This IS your place. But you're right. I have every intention of talking to Jimmy, but I need you to understand the risks to him and to you. Please, there are things that I can tell you both about sentinels and guides that you may not be able to find out by other means. I attempted to be Grace's guide and I heard her family stories. Please let me help you and Jimmy. I owe him that, and you. Please Blair. Stay. We will talk to Jim, I promise. I won't let my son down again.”
Blair wanted to run. Far away. Jim would be devastated. Did William have any idea what this would do to Jim and his relationship with his Dad and Steven, and with Blair? “Where is Grace?”
“I honestly don't know. I don't know if she ever found her true guide. I don't know if she's even alive.” William stared at Grace's picture on his desk. “Wouldn't she have contacted me if she had found her guide? If she was still alive?”
Blair saw the grief etched on William's face. But, to be truthful, his concern right now was for Jim. “William do you know what this will do to Jim?” Blair leaned toward this man and tried to calm himself. He had to be calm and stay calm for Jim's sake.
“That's the reason I waited so long. I knew this would hurt him deeply. I wanted the family to have a chance to repair our relationships. This may ruin our reconciliation and that would ... it would be difficult to accept. But this is owed to Jim, this knowledge of his heritage. Seeing you two together makes me regret even more that I couldn't be what Grace needed so badly.” He looked to his son's guide with hope, “Jim does have spells, like minor seizures? Where he loses awareness of himself and his surroundings? You help him with these, correct? Jim was still very young when Karl Heydash was murdered. He was still so young that he didn't have full use of his senses. I had hoped that he'd avoid the seizures altogether.”
Blair swallowed with difficulty. It was a revelation that this man had loved his son enough to risk losing him. Years ago he had risked everything their relationship could have been to spare him. He spoke with sincere conviction, “I help him William. I am his guide. I am also his friend. I help him to the best of my ability. But you're right in that Jim and I could use your help. I need to call Jim and have him meet us here as soon as possible. I'll call Simon Banks too and explain that Jim and I have a small sentinel ... crisis. Hopefully he can arrange a little time off for Jim. This is a busy time for Jim at the PD. Luckily for me, finals will be done this week at the University and then I'll have some free time.”
William was concerned, “You're speaking of Captain Simon Banks? Jim's boss? He knows about the sentinel gifts? This is unexpected news. Distressing, I have to admit.”
Blair rushed to reassure, “Simon has known since almost the first day that Jim and I met. This was absolutely necessary. Jim and I had to work out something that would allow us to be able to work together, and Simon has been a 'rock'. He's supported us when we needed help and covered for us when things blew up in our faces at times, or when Jim's use of his senses was observed by someone else that didn't know the secret. And it has been a secret Mr. Ellison. I haven't revealed Jim's identity to anyone.”
“Mr. Sandburg, I read your research. It frightens me, as much as a ticking time bomb in our midst would. That is another reason for this meeting. I've always kept track of Jimmy's activities, even in the military. I've cultivated certain contacts. I know about Brackett. Anyone that puts you and Jim together as partners could come up with Brackett's conclusion. I was worried that Jim may not have taken safeguards. Have measures been taken to ... well, I don't know what measures Jimmy would feel necessary. Perhaps to drop out of sight. Perhaps going so far as to obtain a false identity. Leave the country. I don't know.”
Blair wasn't sure this round of shocks was going to end. He'd fearfully tried to broach the subject with Jim after Brackett's arrest. Jim had simply brushed him off with a lame joke about his covert ops experiences being training for a sentinel secret identity. But William's warnings again thrust his whole world, his future, his sentinel ... into a different light. The world as he knew it ... was it ever as safe as he had believed? This new world was darker. And frightening. With those thoughts circling through his head, he replied weakly, “I have to call Jim and Simon. We need to talk.”
Blair's brief call to Jim was enough. Ellison didn't have to be a detective, he knew his friend too well. What had frightened Blair? At his father's house? He could tell that Dad and Steven were there. If they did this to Blair there would be consequences. But they'd just begun to get close after all the years of antipathy and estrangement. He discovered that he didn't want to lose them again. It would hurt. But they couldn't be allowed to hurt Blair either. This was going to be a no win situation, he could just feel it. Something bad had happened, enough for Blair's voice to quiver and crack. Enough for him to beg Simon to come too. Simon was driving his own car. Jim kept him in sight even though he longed to race on ahead. But this wasn't a physical danger that he needed to protect Blair from, it was something else, and he'd need to be calm, and was failing.
Jim pulled into the drive with Simon close behind. He could see Simon's face as he stubbed out his cigar. He looked grim. So, they both suspected something terrible. Jim took a long, deep breath. He felt like he was going into battle. It had been a long time since he had felt this way about facing his father. He hadn't thought it could get this bad again. He'd thought that with Blair's help he could put these feelings behind him. Well, this wasn't getting him anywhere. Let's face the old man and find out what's going on.
He gave Sally a long hug when she opened the door for him. Simon spoke to her quietly in greeting then joined Jim on his walk to the den. Jim spared not a glance left or right in his own childhood home. He sensed Blair's agitation. His Dad's and Steven's vitals were elevated, too, as he and Simon entered the room.
Blair stood hesitantly, “Man, I was sorry to interrupt your work. You too Simon, uh, Captain, ... Simon. I'm glad you both could come. We have a lot to discuss.”
William stood and came around his desk. His gravity underscored the tension evident in the occupants of the room, but he played host with seasoned grace, “Captain Banks, I remember you from the Foster case, and I believe you know my son Steven also.”
Steven welcomed the Captain with a handshake, “I'm just glad Jim proved I wasn't the murderer in that case. I would probably know you much better if I'd been arrested.” It was a lame joke and everyone knew it. “Well, why don't we sit down and get comfortable. This could be a long afternoon,” and evening he thought. “Would you like something to drink or eat? Sally prepared a meal for us but we've been too absorbed in our discussion to even attempt it.”
They settled for drinks and made themselves comfortable. Jim tried to get the conversation going. He could tell they were avoiding the subject ... whatever it WAS. Jim tried the direct approach and turned to his friend, “Blair, what's going on?”
Blair stared down at nothing and with one hand worried at the bracelet on his wrist. Where should he start? He didn't want to dump this in William's lap. But maybe William was right. It might be better if Jim heard it from him. This was information that his father had withheld, about his and Steven's mother, about Jim's own gifts. And tragically, about a sentinel that may never have found her guide. If he could soften that blow a little, all to the good. Looking up and into Jim's eyes he began William's tale.
It didn't go well.
leaped from his chair. Blair stood slowly, and bravely went
to stand between Jim and his father. Waving his hands gently in what
he vainly hoped would be a calming motion, he approached him, “Jim
this is a shock to you I know.”
“NO. YOU have no idea. THIS is my father's idea of how to control his family to suit his own purposes. All of it ... lies! He knew all along about the senses. He knew the real reason my mother left. What else Sandburg? Oh yes, he told YOU. Not me. You. A researcher with his own lab rat. And he dangled sentinel folklore as bait.”
“Jim, please. He did this out of love for you. Fear for you. Please, at least hear me out,” Blair pleaded.
“I think I've heard enough. He called you and you ran right to him. Another chapter for the dissertation? Or maybe a second book for the best seller list? Huh, Sandburg? You're no better than him. Get away from me.”
“What?! Jim? This isn't a conspiracy. We all care about you, man. Just give me a chance to explain,” begged Blair, terrified that the situation was already so far out of control as to be irretrievable.
William was appalled. It was bad enough that Jim was furious with him, that he had expected, but he couldn't be allowed to turn from his guide. “Jim, Blair never knew anything until I called him today. He questioned me right from the beginning .... ”
“I'm sure he did Dad,” Jim answered in a barely controlled rage. He roughly pushed by Blair, knocking him to the side in his effort to reach his father.
Steven meant to intervene but he was on the other side of the desk.
Simon hesitated a moment too long to interfere in this family discussion on the verge of violence.
Blair didn't hesitate. When Jim pushed him aside he grabbed Jim's arm hoping to turn him toward Blair and away from a physical confrontation with Jim's father. Jim followed through the perceived 'attack' by Blair with an elbow to his diaphragm, knocking the wind out of him. His other hand followed that up with a punch to the ribs. With perceived multiple betrayals, not just by Blair but also by his father and brother, Jim allowed his rage to surge out of control. He grabbed Blair's shirt and shoved him up against the bookcase, scattering books and mementos to the floor. Blair managed only a strangled gasp. Jim didn't want to hear excuses for Blair's betrayal, and his fury blinded him to the consequences of his actions as his hand closed around Blair's throat.
Simon's bellowed, “ELLISON,” brought Jim's head around. Simon stepped toward Jim with the intention of stopping him if he wouldn't listen to reason, although he didn't know if he could stop the enraged man. Simon was bigger but lacked Jim's training, and the insane rage he'd seen in his friend's eyes frightened him. “Let him go Jim. That's Blair. Look what you're doing to him, man. Let. Him. Go.”
Jim looked. And the hot rage withered. Jim spoke in a choked whisper, “No, oh no. Blair?” A numbing cold then permeated Jim's thoughts and actions.
Blair hadn't been able to breathe since the elbow to the diaphragm. The gasp of air he'd then attempted was thwarted by Jim's hand around his throat. There was no way he could have answered Jim even if he'd known what to say. The blackness encroaching on his vision was the only thing he could think about. It was easier to contemplate the blackness, the emptiness. He didn't want to think about the end of this face off, the end of their friendship, of Jim's hatred of him. When the void continued to grow he welcomed the blackness with gratitude as he collapsed unconscious into Jim's arms.
He woke slowly to a murmur of voices half a room away. One of the voices stopped and came to sit on the cushion beside him. A gentle hand brushed at his forehead and a strained voice begged him softly to “ ... open his eyes he was safe now he wouldn't be hurt so if he could just open his eyes now they could talk and Blair could help him to understand ... ”
Blair flailed weakly and whispered a panicked, “J-jim!” A painful swallow followed as he tried to twist out of Jim's grasp. “hurting me, jimm ... can't breathe ... Alex? No, no ... jimm ... don't leave me ... dark ... so tired ... sleep now ... later jimm. Promise me?” came as faint, pleading whispers as he sank into a natural sleep. He didn't hear Jim weeping. The others in the room probably didn't hear Jim either although their attention was focused on the two on the couch. Jim's hand smothered any sound he made, but they could see his shoulders shake.
It was very early. The morning sun had barely crested the horizon with bright sunshine and puffy clouds. A perfect day. A warm breeze ruffled the curtains at the window. Blair watched them and tried to decide whether to get up or just enjoy the quiet. He knew the peace wouldn't last. He had decisions to make, but he couldn't face them right now. If he moved about, someone would notice surely. But a trip to the bathroom was clearly in the near future or he'd embarrass himself.
He lifted his head to check who, if anyone, was present. He sighed when he discovered he was alone. No Jim. No surprise there. Maybe he could just get out of here without anyone noticing. It sounded like a good idea until he wondered where he'd go from here. His car was outside. Maybe Margaret would let him crash there until he could find a place.
Deciding that finding a bathroom would have to wait he struggled with the covers over him and walked to the desk. He wanted to leave a note for William, but then just decided to call later to thank him for letting him sleep on the couch last night. It couldn't have ended well for the Ellisons. Or maybe it did. There was no visible breakage in the room.
He should just leave before anyone discovered he was up. Questions and answers could wait for later. Maybe he didn't want to hear the answers he was expecting. He grabbed up his backpack and walked as quietly as he could to the foyer and let himself out the front door. He had fished his keys out of his pocket when Jim called softly to him from the doorway. He turned to face Jim and leaned one-handed on the side of his Volvo.
“Can't we talk Blair? Are you giving up on me? You should, you know. I'm hopeless. A lost cause. All you get from me is ...”
“Shut. Up.” Blair turned toward his car again and leaned his forehead on his arms on the roof. He whispered into the rooftop, trying to spare his headache, and his heartache, “I'm tired and I'm sore and I'm angry and it's your fault. Do we agree on that? Well?” When Jim didn't answer, he turned toward the door. Jim was gone. Damn.
He shuffled back into the house, leaving his backpack by the door. Jim stood in the doorway to the den. “Where's the bathroom? If we're going to talk I need to take care of something first.”
Jim gestured down the hall, “It's the last door on the right. Dad and Steven are in the dining room. Simon's on his way. He said to call when you woke up. I don't think he trusts me with you, you know?”
“You were out of control. And you were way out of line with your accusations Ellison. Don't think I'm going to allow you to place the blame on me. I tried to get William to talk to you ...”
“I know. I know. He told me and Steven did too. I don't know how to make this up to you. There's no way to say how sorry I am.”
Blair didn't want to let him off the hook, but they had lots of other concerns in this matter. “Just say it, Jim.”
“Just say you're sorry. Do it,” said an exasperated Blair.
“I ... I'm so sorry, Chief ...” Jim started, but stopped abruptly at seeing Blair's reaction.
Blair's posture stiffened then he demanded, “Say. My. Name.”
“But I always call you Chief.” Jim looked a little surprised but continued, “Blair, I had no right to touch you in anger. I had no right to accuse you. I was totally out of control. I asked Simon to arrest me but he wouldn't until you pressed charges. You need to do this Ch ... Blair. I'm so sorry I hurt you.”
Blair stood staring at Jim for a nearly a full minute before replying, “Yeah, I should press charges. You did hurt me. But putting you in jail for a while would just be punishment. I want a lawyer and I want him here now. Well, make that after the bathroom break. Talk to your father, he must have a good lawyer. I'll talk to you in a few.” With that he turned down the hall, pleased that he'd made Jim pale and clench his jaw. It was a small revenge that he didn't feel too guilty about.
Breakfast was quiet and Blair said little except to confirm that a lawyer was on his way. When he arrived he and the lawyer sequestered themselves in William's den. Blair instructed Simon to keep Jim busy so he couldn't listen. A courier arrived later with a package for Blair which Sally delivered with some disquiet. She knew what had transpired the previous afternoon and evening. After fifteen minutes everyone was called into the den.
“Jim, Mr. Dickenson has helped me draft a contract for you to sign. It's totally up to you whether you sign it or not. I have to warn you that if you don't agree to the provisions I will move out of the loft immediately and sever all communication with you.” If Jim was pale before, this must have been an even bigger blow. He sat heavily in the chair at the side of the desk, staring at Blair in disbelief. Simon's reaction was similar. William and Steven looked on with a speculative look. “Mr. Dickenson will explain the particulars and then you can read and sign, or not. The others are requested to witness. Is that alright with all of you?” They glanced at Jim and each other but agreed.
Mr. Dickenson glanced at William uncomfortably, then speaking to Jim, “This is most unusual Mr. Ellison, but the decision is up to you. I've been instructed to inform you that these provisions are nonnegotiable. Ahem. The first is that you undergo psychological therapy for anger management and other issues to be decided after consultation with your doctor.” He sat back in startlement as Jim leaped to his feet.
Blair remained unmoved. He'd been expecting just such a reaction. “Sit down Jim. There's more.” Blair had spoken calmly.
Jim stared at Blair. He searched his eyes, stared at the dark bruises he could see and suspected others hidden by his clothing. He knew Blair's ribs and back were hurting. He looked a little sick, but he nodded assent and sat again, to Mr. Dickenson's obvious relief.
With a look of misgiving Mr. Dickenson continued, “Another provision is that therapy will continue until the psychologist and Mr. Sandburg have both signed off on it's discontinuance.” He looked at Jim for some further reaction or acknowledgment of understanding then continued, “Mr. Sandburg has asked for damages for the assault.” At this Jim couldn't meet anyone's eyes. “These damages will be in the form of shared living arrangements at 852 Prospect Ave., Apt. 307, unless agreed to by both parties at some future date.” Jim was openly relieved at this and quickly nodded agreement.
Mr. Dickenson looked perplexed as he continued, “The next I don't personally understand but Mr. Sandburg said that you would, and that it is contingent on the agreement of the witnesses present.” There were curious looks all around. “All pertinent materials and oral traditions concerning family lore that are accessible to James Joseph Ellison will also be made available to Blair Jacob Sandburg.” William smiled warmly at Blair and nodded his agreement immediately. Jim saw the exchange and relaxed his stoic demeanor a smidge. Steven grinned at his big brother in reaction. Relief was evident all around.
“Mr. Sandburg has another provision Mr. Ellison. I find this very strange, but Mr. Sandburg insisted. He said you would understand the reason even though you might not agree. But this one too is nonnegotiable.” At Jim's nod, “At some future date, and in circumstances now unforeseen, you Mr. Ellison, 'will not disappear' without taking your partner and friend, Blair Jacob Sandburg, with you.” Jim's look of shock escaped only Mr. Dickenson as the lawyer continued, “As I stated there are no provisions for noncompliance, and Mr. Sandburg has stated to me that your sworn word would have been acceptable even without a signature, but I advised him to put this all in writing and have it witnessed.”
Jim and Blair could have been alone in the room for all the notice they took of anyone else.
Jim asked for the papers and signed them straight away and handed them to the witnesses. William saw that Jim hadn't even looked at them and understood completely.
“William, Steven. Would you please read the contract. I read it and it should be fine but you're more experienced with legal matters,” Blair requested.
William and Steven put their heads together over the papers, then signed and passed them to Simon, which he also signed, with relief. He'd had his doubts this could ever be resolved. Leave it to Sandburg. They left them alone after the contract was signed. They were still uneasy at the continued silence of sentinel and guide.
Blair barely whispered, “Well Jim? It's up to you. Those are the conditions of your punishment. Yes or no? I know you signed the contract but I need to hear you say it. Swear to me, your guide, that this is a commitment you're truly willing to make. Without reservation.”
Jim answered, “Without reservation, Blair. You're my guide. I thought Brackett was just a crazy, rogue agent. But maybe he knew something I didn't. I don't know why you put up with me Blair. I don't know why you stayed, but thank you. I needed a guide, and I got a friend. One that's a better friend than I've been. One that came to know me and stayed anyway. That's the greatest gift I've ever received.”