A Sea-Change by Laurie

A Sea-Change - Laurie

Part Four: Trouble, Truth, Trust, Traveling, Tears

Warnings: angst, off screen rape memories, suicidal speculation

I would not wish any companion in the world but you. The Tempest: Shakespeare.

Note: This is the conclusion of a WIP. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 are available as listed.

I stood near the wall at Gate 37 at the Cascade airport and checked my watch again; the flight from Mexico City was late coming in. But finally, the plane taxied up to the terminal and shortly afterwards passengers appeared down the walkway.

It didn't take sentinel-strength senses to locate my guide; anybody with decent eyesight could've spotted the smallish curly-haired guy exiting into the waiting area. I studied my partner, who was trudging along, his head bowed slightly, his bursting-to-the-seams backpack slung over one shoulder. Sandburg seemed exhausted, and given the frantic pace of the last two weeks for him, I wasn't surprised one bit.

The kid had almost plodded past me when he stopped; he raised his head and caught sight of me standing away to the side. I wondered how my presence had registered with him - was it something to do with our bond, or had he noticed me earlier and his brain was just now catching up?

He stumbled towards me, mumbling, "Jim, man, I'm glad to be back in Cascade, but I said you didn't have to come get me. Jeez, it's really late; I was going to catch a cab."

"Nah, Darwin; it's no trouble." I took the backpack and made a show of almost dropping it. "What's in here? Half of the temple?" I lifted it to my shoulder. "Hey -- you hungry? We can stop on the way home, if you need to eat. My treat."

Blair grinned, the tiredness on his face momentarily dispelled. "Is this the big date you've been promising me? The drive-through window at Wonderburger?"

I grinned back at him, slipping my arm around his shoulders, and prodded him a little to start him moving. "Yep. I'll even let you super-size your order. Nothing's too good for my baby."

He snorted, and we strolled down the wide corridor shifting sideways occasionally to avoid panicked idiots who were so intent on getting to their planes that they weren't watching where they were going.

Blair had no other luggage, and for once he seemed too tired to jabber much. He opted to skip ordering anything here or on the way home and just eat at home.

We'd just come through the automatic doors into the damp night, my arm still slung around him, when we ran into a snag.

Two of them.

Agents Nickols and Harriman stepped in front of us, and we halted. I mentally sighed. Obviously, the FBI was still on a kick that Blair'd had something to do with the theft of the nerve gas. I hoped they were here to just set up a time for Blair to come in to talk to them, but I had a sinking feeling they were going to pick him up for questioning right now.

"Detective Ellison. And Mr. Sandburg, I believe?" Harriman said it with a sneer in his voice that I entertained a brief fantasy of silencing. But just for a moment. It would help Blair more if I played nice with the Feebs.

"Chief, meet Special Agent Harriman," I nodded towards the younger of the pair, "and his partner, Special Agent Nickols. They're FBI, and have been investigating Barnes' theft of the nerve gas."

I heard Blair exhale a tiny groan. He'd already been through this with the CIA. Twice. They'd grilled him at the hospital in Sierra Verde and again at the temple, when Simon and Conner had brought the cavalry to track down Barnes. Crap, I'd hoped my report would satisfy the Feebs and they would leave Blair alone. Apparently not. And nobody'd been able to interrogate Alex Barnes; she was still in a potion-induced catatonic state and had been transferred to a state psychiatric hospital.

"Man, I understand that we have to talk, of course you want to know what I saw after she'd kidnapped me, but I'm wiped out here. I'll go over the details later, okay? And you should check with the CIA - hey, maybe what I've already told them will work, if you get their report or transcript or whatever. So, Jim's got your number, right? I'll call you tomorrow."

And Blair tried to push past them. I moved, too, but I didn't think his little end run was going to work.

Nickols laid his hand on Blair's chest, stopping us from walking away, and said, "Blair Sandburg, the FBI is conducting a preliminary investigation into possible terrorist activity and criminal charges involving the theft of nerve gas from Rainier University. We have the legal right to interview you," he looked hard at my partner, "at our convenience, not yours. Don't give us any trouble, boy, or we'll be doing this with you in handcuffs." His eyes shifted to me. Judging me. "Ellison. Turn your partner loose." He made partner a synonym for whore.

I flashed on how it must look to the two of them -- Blair standing so close to me, my arm held tightly around him. They must think we were lovers. And I cursed myself for a coward as I immediately dropped my arm and stepped away.

I'd thought I was ready to be open about being with Blair, but this feeling of shame I was experiencing was giving me a reality check. Shit, the first time somebody who knows me insinuates that I'm enjoying touching a guy, and I pull back. Way to go, Ellison.

I tried to put my arm back around Blair, but the damage had been done.

He pushed away from me, and spoke up. "Hey, you want to get this over with tonight, I guess I've got nothing better to do. Let's go, already." I could hear the hurt tone in his voice, and I cursed myself for that knee-jerk reaction.

"This yours, kid?" asked Harriman, indicating the backpack I was holding.

Blair reached out to take it from me, and our eyes met. I hoped he could read the apology in mine; his expression of tired satisfaction had faded away into bleakness.

"I'll drive him; where do you want to do this at? We can go down to the station," I offered. Maybe being in familiar territory would make it easier for Blair.

"We're going to FBI headquarters in Seattle. And you're not invited, Ellison," Nickols said smugly, taking Blair by the arm and tugging him towards the curb. Harriman snagged the backpack away from Blair, and Nickols sneered at me, "Go home. If we release your little sweetheart, you can pick him up in the morning. If he's arrested then we'll notify you, since you're Banks' pick as the 'liaison' between our agencies."

Nickols pushed Blair into a black Crown Victoria blatantly parked in the pickup lane, Harriman put the backpack in the trunk, and then both of them got in the vehicle. Blair half turned and stared at me when they pulled away, and I saw him shake his head.

What? Was he shaking his head in disappointment that I'd wilted during the first test of putting my money where my mouth was about having an open relationship with him? Or was he telling me not to follow him, to just go on home.

Fuck that! I hurried to my truck and climbed in. I was going to Seattle.

** ** ** ** ** **

"Okay, kid. Let's just go over this once more. Are you currently affiliated, or have been in the past with any environmental or political groups?" Nickols sounded a little heated.

"I know what you're getting at and I'm not some kind of eco-terrorist! And what kind of lame brained, murderous stunt would that be anyway, to kill off so many people and animals in the area where you opened that nerve gas shit!" Blair's voice was rising, the annoyance he was feeling plain to hear.

"Answer the question, Sandburg." That was Harriman. He and Nickols had been taking turns with having a crack at my partner. I rubbed my eyes and popped another Life Saver in my mouth, a multiple-sense precaution to keep myself from going to la-la land while I eavesdropped on Blair's interrogation. I really missed Blair's choker; I wouldn't have had to work to keep from zoning if I was still wearing it. It was getting uncomfortable being in my truck. I yawned and stretched; I'd been listening to this crapola for hours, waiting outside the FBI regional office. It was standard interrogation shit - they were trying to wear Sandburg down, hoping he'd say something they could pounce upon as proof he'd been Barnes' accomplice.

Blair huffed out his opinion of this line of questioning. "Like I already told you... and told you and told you... the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Environmental Defense, and the Coastal Ocean Institute. And I had a grant one summer from the Blue Ocean Institute, to study the myths and stories of the native coastal peoples relating to the Pacific Ocean and connecting waterways of the Northwest coast." There was a pause, then I heard him continue. "Oh, yes. There was another group, very small, practically a cell, you know. But you can quit looking so alert; I was eight years old and my friends and I started a club. We called it 'The Environmental Fun Club,' and we made posters about animal rights and wrote songs and picked up litter." Blair's voice rose in volume again. "Give it up, you guys. I'm not a terrorist; I didn't help Alex Barnes steal the nerve gas. I was a victim; I was kidnapped and she shot me, for Christ's sake." His voice trailed off, and I knew he must be so exhausted.

"You weren't kidnapped, Sandburg. We have the note you left for Ellison, telling him about leaving with Barnes." Assholes. I'd told them back in Simon's office that Blair had been coerced into writing that piece of fiction.

"She held a gun on me. She forced me to travel to Sierra Verde with her and Hettinger. And she was whacko - nuts, crazy, obsessed, whatever you want to call it. She'd fixated on the temple and was convinced that I could find it. That's why she made me go along with her."

"Right. Sandburg, the CIA report stated that you had your passport with you in Mexico. No kidnapper stops and picks up their victim's passport, for Christ's sake!" I tightened my hands on the steering wheel when I heard Nickols explode in anger at my partner.

"Oh, man - don't even start with that crap. I had my passport in my backpack, because Ellison asked me to leave his apartment. Almost everything important to me was in it or my car! I had my birth certificate, financial papers, school documents, my observer's pass, my laptop - all of that stuff was in my backpack. And she let me bring it with me to Mexico." I cringed when I heard him say my name; yeah, he was still angry with me.

"All right, tell us again about what you and Barnes and Hettinger were doing in Sierra Verde. Did you have sex with them both, or just Barnes? Was Hettinger jealous of you? And repeat your statement about how you got away from Barnes, just to end up right back in her vicinity on the beach. Interesting, isn't it, how you showed up again at that temple where she was found with the nerve gas? For a kidnapped victim, you sure weren't trying very hard to get away from her, were you?"

That was Harriman, taking his turn at wearing Blair down. And I was betting that Blair had given something away -- a twitch, a small jump, a look on his face -- when Harriman put the words 'sex' and 'Barnes' into the same sentence. I'd kept in touch with Blair while he was in Mexico; I knew he was still dealing with having been raped. And Harriman and Nickols would be on any indication of a sexual connection like a bird on a grasshopper.

"I didn't know she was down the beach; it was just the way I went to get help. It was my bad luck that she had gone that way, too. If Detective Ellison hadn't been there, I would have died from - well, take your pick, drowning or bleeding to death. And I knew she'd go to the temple and I needed to stop her before anybody else got hurt. And okay, it was stupid, all right! I freely admit that it was a fuck-up on my part. I should have waited and hooked up with Megan or Simon or Jim before heading into the jungle. She captured me - used a blow dart with some kind of knockout stuff -- and tied me up. If Jim hadn't come, I'm sure she would have killed me. She's not sane."

There was silence for a while. I always thought of that as letting the suspect simmer. And I knew that Harriman or Nickols would be hammering Sandburg again with more questions, probably just when the kid thought they were finished. Blair had sat in on interrogations before, but it's different when it's your ass in the hot seat; I'd experienced that during IA investigations.

I'd called it; they let him sit there until he asked if they were done and could he leave now. Then they pounded on him for two more hours. And they kept on asking him about having a sexual relationship with Barnes or Hettinger. They kept bringing up Hettinger, and I wondered if their poking around in Blair's background had revealed he was bi. He didn't date men from the PD, although he did have brief flings with guys he met other places. But not anymore. He wasn't going to be having sex with anybody but me from now on.

All the Feebs had was a bunch of speculation. But they weren't stupid; no doubt they felt he was hiding information. There were gaps in Blair's story and he had tap-danced around answering the questions about Barnes or Hettinger having had sex with him.

I knew he didn't want to admit he'd been raped. I could tell the Feds what they wanted to know, but before I'd left him in Mexico, he'd asked me not to say anything about Barnes sexually assaulting him in the temple. That was the only assault I'd witnessed, but he'd told me in the hospital about the other times. However, that was hearsay and the agents would want Blair to confirm the attacks. Coming clean was his decision to make, though.

Harriman and Nickols pulled out of the interview room, jabbered for a while, and decided to end the questioning for now. I gladly left the truck, tired of being in it all night, and went inside the building, since it was now open to the public. Finally, Nickols escorted him into the lobby where I was waiting. I was determined not to let Blair down this time, and I held out an arm, inviting him to take shelter under it.

Instead, he handed me his backpack. "Jim, my shoulder's pretty sore. Would you mind..." and he gestured at his pack.

Okay. Blair didn't want me touching him in public. I hoped he wasn't going to feel the same way about it in private.

Nickols admonished me as we turned from him to head out the door. "Ellison, you're too closely involved to be handling this case. I'll be informing Banks that we need a liaison who doesn't have a... personal relationship with the suspect."

I angrily responded. "As far as Cascade PD is concerned, this case is already closed. Hettinger's dead and Barnes is in custody at the state hospital in Lakewood. If she ever recovers, then she'll stand trial. We have no intention of bringing charges up against Sandburg."

Nickols stopped glaring at me to glance over at Blair. "This isn't over by a long shot. We'll be in contact, kid; don't leave town." Blair sighed and started walking towards the entrance. Nickols gave me another hard stare before I turned to catch up with my partner.

And I could feel Nickols' eyes on me, boring a hole in my back, as we walked out the door into the morning light.

** ** ** ** ** **

"You okay, Chief?" I was going to suggest stopping for breakfast; he had to be starving by now.

A soft mutter came from where he was sitting, staring pointedly at the scenery rolling by outside the truck window. "No. I'm not fucking okay. The FBI is going to arrest me and my ass is going to rot in jail."

I took one hand off of the steering wheel and laid it on his thigh. He didn't fling it off, apparently he was either too tired to care, or he wanted some comfort despite being pissed at me.

"Blair, I was listening the whole time. Believe me, they've got nothing on you. But they've probably figured out you aren't telling them the whole story. It's making them twitchy. If you told them what she did..."

Blair slouched down and let his head fall back against the top of the seat. "No. I'm not telling them that she raped me. It's not important, and they wouldn't believe me, anyway. I just don't want to deal with them harassing me about it."

He sighed deeply and then barked out a disbelieving laugh. "And, man... they brought up Naomi's involvement with a bunch of activist groups, my own membership in similar or the same groups, me fumbling the flashlight that night, when Barnes got away, and writing the note that said I was leaving with her. They think she shot me because of a lover's quarrel, and I went to the temple to make up with her and get my share of the loot. Or, I helped her steal the nerve gas so I could make an eco-terrorist statement with it, and she double-crossed me. I swear, my head is spinning; they've got so many conspiracy theories they're throwing at me."

I rubbed his leg in sympathy and glanced at him, my tired, beautiful, hippie guide - and hoped I could repair the damage I'd done to this new thing between us when I'd rejected him last night. I took a breath and let it out slowly. "I'm sorry about what happened at the airport. It was just a reflex, that's all. I've done a lot of thinking about what I want in a lover, a partner, and you're it, Blair. I'm ready to come out of the closet; I'll do better, I promise."

Blair breathed out a sound of hurt resignation. "You jumped back from me like a scalded cat, and they didn't even really say anything. What are you going to do when it's a friend like Simon who sees you holding me or kissing me? I don't believe you're as ready as you say you are, Jim, and I'm thinking I'd be a fool to get my hopes up, only to have you change your mind. Just let it ride for now."

"I don't want to, Blair. I want to prove to you that I can take it, that I can make this shift to being openly lovers with you." But was a tiny, treacherous part of me glad he wanted to stall for now? I was going to have a stern talk with my subconscious; I needed all of me on board the train to being out with Blair.

He sighed again. "You're trying too hard, Jim. And I'm afraid you're going to end up resenting me in the end, when people you care about realize you haven't exactly been straight with them." He paused, then laughed. "Not being straight with them, Jim. Get it?"

I could kick my own ass for stepping away from him at the airport. Now I was going to have to convince him I was ready to make this change in my life. And the lack of sleep was catching up with him, because he'd latched onto that half-assed joke and was starting to cackle like a loon.

I pulled over and put the truck in park, the engine idling. I undid his seat belt and hauled him over to me, turning in the seat so I was partially facing him. He was still laughing, so I covered his mouth with my hand until he ran out of steam and quit braying like a demented donkey.

I turned his face towards me and kissed him. I kissed him several times, till he was looking a little dazed. "I'm going to prove to you that I really want you, and I also want the people I care about to know you're not just my guide but my lover. Okay, Sandburg?"

Blair lost a little of the misty expression on his face. "I'm not going to sleep with you right now, Jim." He threw that out almost like a dare.

"You're saying you aren't going to have sex with me until you're sure I can handle having an open relationship with you. I hear you, pal, I hear you. But let's compromise. How about you sleep upstairs in my bed, and I promise not to molest you. But you can touch me, Chief. Anytime you want."

He looked tired, and confused, and a little sad.

"Blair, I'll just hold you. C'mon, what about all the lectures you've given me about the healing power of touch. And we've been apart for two weeks and I missed you. Tell you what, let's stop at House of Pancakes, and then go home and sleep the rest of the day away." I threw in a bribe. "I'll give you a massage and dial up my sense of touch. There won't be a single knot in your body when I'm done."

He studied me, and I could see him wavering. "A massage. Man, after that plane ride, and being up all damn night stuck in a chair, that sounds pretty good."

"My bed is nicer than your futon," I offered.

He laughed again, but he'd lost the hysterical tinge I'd heard in his voice earlier.

"Okay. I'll let you wine and dine me -- and bribe me. I want whole-wheat pancakes with strawberries and blueberries. And this does not count as our big date."

He fastened the middle seat belt around himself and leaned against me. I eased back out into traffic and headed for Cascade.

Keeping Blair with me was worth making a change.

I'd adapt.

How hard could it be?

** ** ** ** ** **

I unlocked my front door and walked in, Blair close behind me. He dropped his backpack and pushed it against the wall with his foot, and then proceeded to walk around the entire living room, like he was on patrol. He ended up stretched out on the couch, and I could see that I'd better get him up and into bed before he conked out right there.

"C'mon, Sandburg. Get your shoes off of the couch, and anyway, why don't you head up to bed? Or maybe you'd like to hit the shower first?" I walked over to give him a hand up.

He looked up at me with half-closed eyes. "Jim, man. It's great to see everything back where it belongs. It was seriously weird to see the loft so empty - you know, like the last time I was here and you'd moved everything out."

"Yeah, well, I was seriously weird, thanks to the seriously weird sentinel shit. And go look in your room. There's something there I know you want to see." I reached my hand down, but he didn't grab it.

"Nah, I'm comfortable. I think you're just trying to move me off the couch so you can lie down." He grinned up at me, smug and sassy; eating a plateful of pancakes had put him in a better mood.

That little shit. I was really tempted to haul him up anyway, and march him to the bathroom and then up to bed, or over to his bedroom and then upstairs, but I could outfox him.

"Okay, I thought you'd want to check over your research, make sure it's all there, but if you don't care about it..."

Worked like a charm. Blair rolled off the couch and made a beeline for his bedroom. I was tempted to lie down on the couch, just to irk him when he came out. Instead, I followed him into his room, where I'd piled all of his stolen papers and disks on his bed.

He was already putting things into piles, and mumbling under his breath, but he stopped long enough to hug me.

"I was so relieved when you told me last week that Joel had located my stuff, but I was afraid it was going to be locked up as evidence. This is so great, and I can't wait to tell Joel how much I appreciate him tracking it down. I was scared stiff that Alex was going to make good on her threat to sic the media on us. Good thing her lawyer was such a procrastinator and put off contacting the papers, right?"

My hunch - checking with lawyers Barnes had known -- had panned out; when the shyster who'd last represented her in court had been told he was holding stolen goods, he'd been only too happy to give Blair's research to the cops.

"It was a close call, Darwin. A really close call, and I hope it was a wake up call for you." I stopped him from picking up another one of his journals of raw data on me, and he turned and looked guiltily up at me.

"Jim, I promise I'm going to go through all of this, and my diss, to make sure I've taken out your name and any information that could identify you. I promise, okay? As a matter of fact, I'm still on medical leave from being shot so I can do it right away, and afterwards I'm going to use the time to put the final touches on my dissertation. I added a lot about the temple while Feliz and I were doing the initial fieldwork, after you left the site. What a lucky break it was that my laptop was in my backpack, and my spare batteries; I've done a shitload of work in the evenings for the last two weeks."

His eyes widened when I touched his face, cupping his cheek and chin, and he locked eyes with me. "I'm holding you to that promise, Blair. Don't let me down; I won't be so forgiving if you screw up again."

He nodded, and I had another thought. "Sandburg? If you're on medical leave from Rainier, how are you going to explain working at an archeological site when you should have been taking it easy?"

He hand-waved away my question. "If it comes up, I'll figure out something creative to tell the university."

"Creative. You mean you'll come up with another BS special, don't you?" I slid my arms around him and pulled him closer.

"Yep, a Blair Sandburg special. Works every time." He laid his head against me and it felt so good to hold him. I wanted more, though.

"No, Darwin. BS as in bullshit. Listen, you can go through this stuff later; you've got a massage coming, remember? Why don't you grab a shower - but leave me some hot water - and go lie down on my bed. Thank God it's Saturday, and I don't have to work, so we can take it easy the rest of the day."

I dropped a kiss on top of his head, and Blair gave a small, blissful-sounding sigh. I released him then, and gave him a small push towards the door. He was ready to crash; the adrenaline he'd drummed up during the interrogation had receded, leaving him drifting towards sleep. I followed him out of his bedroom and shut the door. He disappeared into the bathroom and I went to the kitchen to warm up some olive oil to pinch hit for massage lotion. Jesus, it had been such a long time since I'd touched and mapped Blair's body.

Mmm... going to sleep with Blair in my arms was going to be sweet. And now I had a shot at getting this open relationship thing with Sandburg right. I wasn't going to blow it again.

** ** ** ** ** **

"Ellison." Simon stood expectantly at his door and motioned for me to join him in his office.

He pointed to a chair and I sat down. Then he handed me a cup of coffee -- regular coffee. Ut-oh. It was well documented - by Sandburg, who'd done a survey of the Major Crime department - that if Banks offered you Folgers, instead of exotically flavored coffee, there was bad news headed your way. I sighed, wondering what Simon was about to tell me that would fuck up this week. To quote Blair, 'Mondays sucked monkey toes.'

"Jim, this morning I had a call from the Bureau, asking that you step down from the Barnes case and that another detective be assigned as the liaison to the FBI. What's got their panties in a twist?" Simon walked around his desk and eased into his chair, carefully setting his coffee down on the desk.

"Sir, they're still rolling with the idea that Sandburg was tied in with Barnes, and with her in a catatonic state it's Blair they want to hang out to dry. They questioned him all night last Friday, and objected to me working with them when I said that we had no intentions of bringing Sandburg up on any charges. Oh, and because Sandburg and I have a 'personal relationship.'"

"Because he's observing here and they know you let the kid rent your spare room?"

Banks had opened the door with that question, and I could tell him the truth; namely, that I seriously wanted Blair and that if things worked out for me, we'd be lovers. Again. I could tell him that we'd gone from lovers to friends and were now headed back down Lover's Lane. I could do all of that.

Instead, I opened my mouth and agreed with him. "I guess so, sir. They think I'm not objective enough about Sandburg and that he's conning me, I suppose." Chick-en, I told myself.

"How's the kid dealing with everything? And consider yourself removed from liaison duty; I'll ask Joel to take over." Simon swallowed more of his coffee.

I sat my mug down on his desk. "He's been pushing himself too hard; his shoulder isn't healed up enough yet, and I'm sure he overdid it at the temple. He's on medical leave from Rainier and he wants to finish up his dissertation this week, so don't expect to see much of him around here. And he's worried about the FBI arresting him, but it's all speculation on their part. However, I'm not sure he believes me about that."

I'd picked my coffee back up and was ready to drink it when I thought of something else. "Oh, and he was miffed that his mom had to leave before he could see her. She's coming back in a few days, and he's looking forward to that."

I took a gulp of coffee and thought about what I wasn't saying. Again, I could be adding that he'd agreed to go out with me. Instead, I was making like a clam. Shit, this coming out of the closet was tough. Maybe I should tell Conner first; take her out for a beer after work and explain what Blair meant to me. I was pretty certain she wouldn't react badly. As for Simon, I wasn't sure what he'd do or say. We'd been friends now for years and he might be concerned I wasn't the person he thought I was, or he might be ticked off that I hadn't told him a long time ago -- or, hell, maybe both.

Simon took a folder off of his desk and skimmed the contents, then handed it to me to read when he got up. He opened his door and requested loudly for Conner to join us.

Megan turned down the offer of coffee from Simon, and I passed her the file. I wasn't quite sure why this had landed in our laps; it seemed like a detail for the uniforms to handle.

"Captain, why --"

"Because the Chief ordered his best department to handle this, that's why. Which would include the Cop of the Year," he interrupted. Giving me a sardonic look, he added, "Not to mention the other detectives from Major Crime. And one exchange inspector from Australia. You two'll be concentrating on tracking down the death threats made against Jack Bartley."

"Conner," Simon swiveled his chair towards her, "he's a union leader working on uniting the longshoremen, and his politics have made him a target; he's not well loved by the shipping companies."

He addressed us both. "The Chief is pulling some of the uniforms out of Patrol to assist with security - you can get the details from Mendez at South Precinct. Coordinate with him; oh, and if you need them, Brown and Rafe are available."

"Sir." And I quickly finished my coffee. Megan stood up, the file in her hand.

While Conner and I were walking out, Simon added, "Jim, I'll see if I can get the Bureau to lay off of Sandburg."

"I appreciate that, Simon."

Conner stopped me after I closed the door. "Is Sandy being bothered by the FBI?"

"Yeah, fuckers grilled him pretty good the other night. Let's grab some lunch on the way over to South, and I'll fill you in." I felt my heart speed up a little at the thought that I was also going to confess to her that Blair and I were 'seeing' each other. And I told myself that it was time to stop being a wuss about it. I was who I was, and anybody who didn't like what they learned about me -- well, that would be their problem, not mine. And I could let Blair know tonight that I'd told Conner, and that would make him realize I was serious about changing.

"Right, mate. I fancy that seafood place two blocks over. Want to see if Sandy can join us?" She handed me the file.

I shook my head. "He's hard at work on his computer, and you know how he gets - he probably wouldn't even notice the phone ringing."

She frowned. "You make sure he's taking care of himself, Ellison. He's had a rough go these last couple of weeks."

"Yeah, he has. But we can gang up on him if he needs it." We separated to get our jackets and I waited for her by the elevator.

Standing there, preparing to out myself to Conner, I flashed on something my granny used to tell me: 'Fortune favors the brave, my Jimmy; fortune favors the brave.'

** ** ** ** ** **

I could hear Blair's music as I walked down my hallway, and I was sure half of the neighbors could, too. Earth music. That's what Incacha had called it, when he'd heard the throbbing sounds, and his naming it that had delighted Sandburg no end. I opened my door to find my partner stamping his bare feet in time to the low thrumming notes of the didgeridoo and the rise and fall of melodies that made me think of my experiences in the rainforest of Peru. He didn't see me come in, and I watched while he danced in front of the balcony windows.

Blair was lost in the music, eyes closed, body totally in tune with the rhythmic pulsing of this mix of ancient instruments and voices mimicking animal cries. He once had made an allusion to me being a throwback to pre-civilized man, which I had taken for an insult at the time, but seeing him like this made me picture him as the pre-civilized one. I fantasized him dancing naked, firelight flickering on the designs painted on his body, the beads braided into the strands of his thick, curly, long hair swinging to the beat of the drums, and the choker around his neck drawing my eye to the curve of his throat. He would look wild, and free, and so enticing... I could feel my dick harden as I gazed at him. Maybe he would do it for me, would let me paint Chopec symbols on his skin and would dance for me, until I couldn't just watch him anymore and would have to pull him to me and push him to the floor and... I closed my own eyes, lost in my vision.

The music softened in intensity until there was silence; when I opened my eyes Blair was looking searchingly at me and breathing deeply. I could smell my own arousal - and his.

And I did pull him to me, our mouths meeting in a fierce kiss. He tasted of lust and sweetness, and a sense memory of how it had felt when he'd last allowed me to enter him swirled up from remembrances of years past.

We conveyed frantic signals back and forth, our lips the messengers, negotiating a surrender to the feelings we'd had for each other since Blair had made that first offer to buy me a beer back in La Push.

He drew back from me, and started to unfasten the buttons on my shirt.

"You sure," I said to him, my voice rough with desire.

He nodded, and began murmuring in a desperate tone. "Nothing's sure in life; I'm starting to figure that out. But right now, yeah, I want this. I want your hands on me; I need your hands. I need to wipe out - make me remember us, Jim, and not..."

I stopped his fingers from tugging my shirt free from my jeans. I closed my hand around his wrist and turned, pulling him with me towards the stairs.

He came willingly; he came freely. And I vowed to make it good for him, to honor him for giving me this trust.

** ** ** ** ** **

I left Blair sleeping in our bed and went downstairs to fix us something to eat. Blair's laptop was set up on the kitchen table; I saved his work and put it in his room, then put on water for spaghetti noodles before I showered.

When I came out of the bathroom, my partner had dumped sauce into a pan and was adding in black olives and mushrooms. He yawned and pointed to the high cupboard where the booze was kept, and I reached up and got out the cheapo red wine he used to add flavor to his cooking.

"Thanks, man. I didn't feel like climbing up on the counter." He poured in a good dollop and set the bottle down.

I drew him to me and he snuggled up against me, yawning again. "Sandburg, are you going to be awake enough to eat?"

"A shower will wake me up. I still have some work to do on my diss for the night. I was kind of stuck earlier, couldn't figure out how I wanted to word some things. That's why I was dancing, to try and get my head into a better space; in a way it's almost like meditating, only with movement instead of being still. And I really love listening to the didgeridoo."

He stepped back, reluctantly, I thought, and I impulsively kissed him. This felt both familiar and new, us futzing around in the kitchen, but we hadn't been lovers for over three years and I felt such a wave of love and affection for him. We had always touched much more than mere friends would, but now I would be holding him like this for the rest of my life.

The rest of my life? Yeah. I wanted the right to embrace him intimately for the rest of our lives. Blair was really mine now. Not just my guide and partner, my friend. He was my mate. My lover. And I wouldn't keep him in that dark, secret place in my heart anymore. Nope, I was coming out of this closet I'd stuck myself in since puberty, and I wasn't going to be ashamed about who I loved.

We kissed for a few more moments, before Blair stepped back with a sleepy sigh and meandered over to the john. I hummed to myself and measured out the noodles, using the round gizmo that gave you exactly two servings. Sandburg, on the other hand, would've just dumped half of the box into the boiling water.

The phone rang as Blair stepped back into the kitchen, hair damp and dripping a little on his sweatshirt. I had my hands full pouring the spaghetti into a colander, so he dashed over to get it.

I heard him suck in his breath after he cheerfully said hello. I dialed up my hearing, and groaned to myself when I heard what Nickols was saying.

Blair listened for a minute, said okay, and then hung up. He turned around and looked at me, cocking his head toward the phone.

I nodded, indicating that I'd listened in on the conversation. "I'm sorry, Blair. Simon even called the Bureau to see if they'd quit hounding you. Do you want to get a lawyer?"

He chewed on his lip for a moment, and then shook his head. "I don't want to pay for a lawyer, and you said they don't have anything on me. They're just bluffing, and I can wait it out till they get tired of hassling me. I'll just go back down to Seattle tomorrow, like they've asked, and let them waste my time for a couple of hours. And you don't have to camp out in the truck listening in, Jim. I'll be fine."

Brave words, and I wished I could believe he was as confident about the FBI interrogating him as he sounded.

Blair sometimes forgets that I'm a sentinel. And that I mostly focus my senses on him.

He smelled worried.

** ** ** ** ** **

"All right, Jimbo. Spill. What did Sandy say when you told him you told me that you were interested in him?" I worked through that convoluted sentence she'd just said and then the light dawned. This was the reason Conner had been giving me the fisheye all morning while we were in the bullpen running down phone leads about Jack Bartley's potential whackers.

We had just left the building to interview Bartley where he was being guarded; in a port town like Cascade anything that affected the shipping and transportation of goods was volatile stuff. Bartley was advocating that the Longshoremen make a pact with the Teamsters, and the shipping companies were against it. No wonder the guy needed police protection.

I hadn't even backed out of my parking space before she'd ambushed me with her question.

I considered giving her a flippant reply but thought better of it; I'd started talking about this Sandburg-and-me stuff with her, so it was only fair that I answer her question.

"He said that he'd told you about him being bi a long time ago, and he was, uh, proud of me for taking this first step." There. That was enough to end this conversation. "Say, Conner, how do you want to handle Bartley when we get to the safe house? Mendez said he's a prick."

"Don't change the subject. Is he going to start up with you now? And he told me he was bi but that he wasn't out at the station." She thumped me on the shoulder. "He never told me he was crazy about you. But I could tell. Hell, anybody with half an eye could've figured it out." She sighed. "He's special, Jim. I really care about him, and you'd better treat him right."

"Because you're an Aussie and kick like a kangaroo?" I looked over and smirked at her. Kangaroo jokes always got her steaming.

She bared her teeth back at me; you couldn't really call that display of teeth a smile. "Brilliant as always, Ellison. So, mate, you'd better be good to him. Now, if you want to be lovers with him again..."

I must have given something away because she stopped talking and stared at me. "I see. You and Blair..."

"A gentlemen doesn't kiss and tell, Conner."

She snorted at that. "Sandy will give me the details, wait and see." The expression on her face became serious. "Jim, I know you love him. Be careful with him, he's had such a terrible time lately. I don't know how he'd take it if you were to change your mind about people knowing you're a couple."

"I'm not going to change my mind. He almost died in my arms, Conner. I'm dense, sometimes -- yeah, don't bust a gut laughing or anything." I waited till the snickering died down. "I almost lost him and something like that makes you do some serious thinking. I've got everything I want in a partner, domestic and otherwise, waiting for me at home. Why keep looking somewhere else? I should have figured that out years ago. I'm lucky he chose to be my guide and stick around."

I speeded up the truck to make it through a yellow light before I filled her in on my other news. "Oh, and the Feds asked him to come back down to Seattle to clear up 'a few questions.' He went there this morning. Christ, I wish they'd drop it."

"They can be right bastards, can't they? I hope Sandy makes them chase their tails, like he did those CIA goons."

I made a left turn onto Miller Street and didn't say anything else.

Conner gave me a friendly punch in the shoulder. "This Bartley character -- Mendez sure doesn't sound too fond of him. After we talk to Bartley, let's spread the word around that we're looking for information on a hit being put out on the man. I estimate that half of the death threats I've checked out were just pissed off people venting, but he really is in danger. Good thing he's staying at a safe house."

"Mendez said he's been making noises about leaving. Something about speeches he's supposed to give to the rank and file of his union. If he does leave, that's going to make our job that much harder. Hey, you want to be the hard hitter, and I'll be the one patting him on his shoulder? That work for you, Conner?"

She nodded, and I turned right onto Atlantic Drive. Conner switched on the radio, and we listened to a classic rock station as we drove the rest of the way to the safe house.

** ** ** ** ** **

"Ellison, Conner."

Simon was standing in his office doorway, beckoning us into his inner sanctum. Megan held up a hand, indicating that she'd heard, then continued to talk on her desk phone. I entered his office and took a seat when Simon waved his hand towards his desk area. He got out one of his cigars and took a deep, ardent sniff, then returned it to his suit jacket pocket.

"When Conner gets in here I want a report on the Bartley situation." Simon sat down in his chair and somehow made that shift he does from boss to friend. "How's the kid doing, Jim?"

"He's been working on his dissertation ever since he got off the airplane, except for when he's being hauled over the coals by the fucking FBI. Twice now, they've questioned him pretty hard, and even last night he got another phone call from them telling him not to leave town, in case they want him to answer a few more questions. Simon, can't you talk to Harriman's and Nickols' boss again, and see if they'll call this witch-hunt off?"

Simon frowned. "I'll do that. How's his shoulder?"

"Better, but still sore."

Conner knocked on the door, then entered and took a chair next to me.

"All right, Detective. And Inspector. Talk to me about Bartley."

"He's a blooming jackass, Captain, and I might be tempted to shoot him myself if he tries to grab my boobs one more time. But I just heard from the safe house where he's been stashed; he's insisting on giving a speech at a union hall in an hour and a half." She nodded towards me. "Ellison and I will be coordinating with security during the speech. I've eliminated a good many of the death threats he's gotten as not being serious, but he's stirred up a lot of people. If the union votes the way he's asking them to, it's going to really hit the shipping companies. We should take a hard look at Gunderson Shipping; they'd be the biggest losers if Bartley gets the union boys and girls to vote his way. And they've recently been indicted by the FBI for extortion and strike breaking." She gave an exasperated sigh. "The man's still in need of police protection, at least until after this vote."

I added, "The union votes in four more days. And my informants say that there's a contract out on him. There's a rumor that a pro's involved but I've gotten no names yet, sir."

"Keep me informed. Conner, do you want out? I can put Brown in."

"No, sir. I can handle a yobbo like him."

I made a note to myself to ask Blair what a yobbo was, although I could give a pretty good guess.

Simon made a dismissive gesture, and I managed to beat her to his door so I could hold it open for her. She hated it when I did stuff like that and she stepped on my foot as she passed me. Just another expression of her affection for me, and I was grinning to myself as I headed for my desk. When I answered my cell phone a moment later, my grin widened; it was Blair.

He talked for a minute, telling me that he was 'done, done, done' with his dissertation, at least the first draft, and that he was going stir-crazy from being holed up in the loft for the past two days, ever since he'd come back from that last fun trip to Seattle. And that Naomi was there, but she was going to meditate for a while, and he wanted to tag with me.

I told him where to meet us and turned the phone off.

Naomi was back in Cascade... just in time for a meaningful conversation with her son about me. She'd crossed the country to be here when Blair had been kidnapped, alerted by the FBI's checking to see if she knew where he was. She'd taken it pretty well when Blair decided to stay in Sierra Verde, and she'd left to see old friends or had gone to a New Age retreat or something along those lines. Blair would be pleased to spend some time with her, and it would make him happy to tell her we were together. I couldn't see her having a problem with Blair having a male lover. Having a cop for a lover... well, she might have more trouble swallowing that.

I'd ask Blair about telling her tonight, when we returned home.

** ** ** ** ** **

"Excuse me, excuse me... sorry."

I watched Blair make his way through the union hall crowd that was gathering to hear Bartley's speech, and I told the floor security to let him join us in Bartley's office. The pain-in-the-ass was getting a Kevlar vest fitted and ogling Conner at the same time. He noticed Sandburg when he came in the room, called him a hippie, and started riding him about staying out of the camera's way - unless Blair would shave his legs. Stupid son-of-a-bitch. He probably thought he sounded all macho and mocking towards my partner, who'd let the jerk's insults roll right off his back, but I could smell the truth on Jack Bartley's skin. He was interested in Sandburg. Sexually. But he probably buried that attraction under a bunch of insults because he didn't want to admit the truth to himself. Or he was just an asshole.

I explained that Sandburg was a consultant to the department, and when Blair came over next to me, I patted him on the shoulder. Nothing I hadn't done a million times before, but now it felt like shorthand for how I intended to touch him later tonight. Blair grinned at me when I growled - because he was late -- that it was nice of him to join us. When Bartley's back was turned he blew a kiss at me. The little shit. I'd had to fight back a grin myself when he had done that.

Bartley was busy now, talking to other union reps in the back room where we'd stashed him, and Conner and I did some perimeter sweeps, Blair grounding me with his hand on my arm. I saw nothing unusual.

It wasn't until Bartley went out on the platform and I scanned the surroundings again that I realized we had trouble. A sniper. The crowd saw me aiming my rifle at him and started moving away and making a lot of noise which I tried to tune out, Blair's hand on my back. I focused my vision on the sniper's scope and shot at it, while Connor hustled Bartley off the stage and into a waiting van.

Then Conner, Sandburg, and I ran to where the sniper had been set up. We found a broken scope, the result of my shot. I'd gotten a good look at the sniper's features, and I'd recognized him. I grimly passed along what I'd learned.

"The sniper is Zeller; looks like the Iceman is back in business. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the guy is supposed to be serving a life sentence in a German prison! We're going to need more help; let's go and fill Simon and Mendez in on the good news."

** ** ** ** ** **

Blair parked his Volvo two spaces down from my truck, and I waited for him to catch up to me before we started walking towards the loft. Simon had been thrilled to learn that Zeller was gunning for Bartley, and he'd ordered more of the Major Crime detectives to work in three-man teams in eight-hour stints, with the uniforms, to bolster Bartley's security. I had the ten o'clock shift and Blair had volunteered to go with Conner, Brown, and me, but Simon had told him he couldn't.

Blair was still grousing about it in the elevator as it creaked its way up to the third floor.

"Look, Junior. You're still on medical leave and Simon thinks you need the rest. He wasn't exactly happy that you were there at the union hall this afternoon."

That was an understatement. When Blair ducked out of the meeting about Zeller to take an urgent phone call, Simon had come down hard on me for letting Sandburg tag along. He'd said the kid looked exhausted and should be at home taking it easy. And I'd had to agree with him after Blair returned to Simon's office. He'd looked pale and his heartbeat had been jumpy.

He still didn't look okay - he had a kind of sickly look on his face.

"Chief, I think maybe Simon's right. You should visit with your mom and get some rest. You're sure Naomi is okay?" That phone call he'd received had had something to do with his mother.

"She's been a very busy bee this afternoon, but she's fine. And I'm up to coming along," he grumbled.

I pushed the stop button on the elevator and slipped his backpack off of his shoulder. I pulled him into a hug and after I could feel some of the tension in his body leaving, I bent down and kissed him. He blinked at me when I slowly moved my thumb along his bottom lip.

"Babe, do you want to tell your mom about us tonight?"

He pursed his lips for a moment, then shook his head. "There's some other stuff I've got to clear up with her, and Jim... I need to talk to her alone. Confidentially -- no listening in with sentinel ears. Anyway, you'll have to leave in a couple of hours, and when we do tell her we're together -- I want you around for moral support." He sighed. "She likes you, Jim. But she already thinks I'm too involved with your world. I think she's been counting down the days until I get my Ph.D. and stop riding around with cops."

I took his hand and squeezed it. "I can't really blame her. Marrying a cop is tough on the partner. Although, you know, you're practically a cop yourself. So it'll be hard on both of us at times."

Blair looked solemnly at me. "Are you saying that you consider us married, Jim?"

"Of course I do. Don't you, Chief? We're exclusive, right? We agreed on that last night, in bed." He nodded. "And we're planning on being together for the rest of our lives, right?" He nodded again. "So, Blair Jacob Sandburg, to me, that's being married." He looked kind of shocked.

"Jim, I believe you really think that, right now, but, man..."

"You're afraid I'll act like a putz again, and push you away in public. I may screw up, but I'm telling you now I'm trying to get over myself. So if I do relapse, understand that it's just from habit and I don't mean it. You're braver than I am, Blair. You've always been open about your orientation; I know you only kept a lid on it at the station because of me. You're my guide: I'm going to follow your lead about coming out."

He smiled then, a big, wonderful smile that lit up his whole face.

"Wow! I got married! I'm a married man; I have a husband. This is just so... Wow!"

I had to chuckle at him, and then I kissed him again.

"C'mon, we should stop making out in the elevator and go home. Your mother came to see her kid, and I hear it's not good to piss off your mother-in-law. Let's go see what Naomi's done to my furniture this time."

** ** ** ** ** **

For a change, Naomi hadn't smoked up our home with stinky sage or moved our belongings around. It really didn't matter that much to me if she did rearrange the living room during her visits; I could thank my sentinel sight that I wouldn't be taking a tumble in the dark no matter where Naomi stuck the furniture. And Blair might grumble to me about walking into the table or falling over the couch in the middle of the night, but he still let Naomi indulge her feng-foo-foo-ing.

She was bubbly and gave me a hug, then hugged me again and made some lame comment about how I'd been working out. She had always halfway flirted with me, and I wondered if she would stop when Blair told her we were a couple. Naomi was a trip, according to my own hippie's definition of the word.

She wanted to blabber about something to Blair, but he kept cutting her off; then he asked me if he could talk privately with his mother, reminding me -- in his own very unsubtle way -- not to eavesdrop on them.

I put on headphones and listened to some music till they came out of Blair's old bedroom, Blair trying not to look angry and Naomi pouting a little. Whatever was going on between mother and son, I decided to stay well out of it.

I left for my shift guarding Bartley an hour after we'd thrown together a quick stir-fry and eaten it. I didn't mind chowing down on just vegetables with them; I figured I'd stop at Wonderburger before heading to the safe house.

It was a long night, and there was no sign of Zeller. Bartley was scheduled to give another speech tomorrow at a different location and wouldn't call it off. Since he was in protective custody now, not just accepting voluntary protection, it was the PD's decision to let him give it or cancel it. The speech wasn't till the evening, anyway, so for now we let it ride. Maybe Zeller would be in custody by then, but I doubted it.

When I got home in the early morning hours, Naomi had returned to her current abode - some old lover's place -- and Blair was asleep in our bed. I tiredly stripped off my clothes and slid under the sheets. He was stirring a little so I pulled him in next to me, tightened my arm around his chest, and hooked my leg over his legs. I breathed in the scent from his sleepy body, and he relaxed back into dreamland. And I drifted off to blessed sleep for a few short hours before I went back to the job.

** ** ** ** ** **

The flash of cameras and the word 'sentinel' being shouted into my truck window shocked me and I sat there, stunned, the ignition key in my hand. One glance over at Blair's guilty-looking face and it all became so clear to me. He'd outed me somehow. Furious anger roiled up through me as I ignored the reporters' questions and drove away from them.

He'd fucked up. Again. He started to say something to me and I held up my hand. "Just shut up, Sandburg. I'll deal with you later."

He pleaded, "Jim, I'm so sorry!" But before he could continue I'd jerked the truck over to the side of the road.

"Your choice, Chief. Either you shut your yap up, until I'm ready to hear whatever sorry-ass excuse you've got for fucking me over, or you can get out. And stay out." I looked pointedly at his door and he looked back at me, trying with the tragic eyes bit to get me to soften up. Not happening this time. He'd been warned and warned to take care that my name wasn't connected with his research. I tightened my hands on the steering wheel and, when he didn't say anything or get out of the truck, I re-entered traffic.

We drove in silence to the PD, and at least there weren't any reporters there yet. We rode up in the elevator wordlessly, and my fury was settling from the hot burn of my first reaction to a cold, deep anger. He'd screwed me over but good. And what made it so much worse was that he should have learned his lesson from Barnes stealing his research. He knew, dammit, my feelings about the close call we'd had just a few weeks ago. He'd promised me that he would safeguard my name.

He'd promised me.

** ** ** ** ** **

Simon sighed when he saw Sandburg, but waved him into his office along with Conner and me to hammer out the details of the trap for Zeller. Bartley had been loudly insisting that nobody was going to run him, and that he was more than willing to act as bait to draw the Iceman out of the shadows. I was confident that we could keep him from getting killed, and we decided to take the guy up on his offer.

Sandburg was quiet for a change, and left Simon's office when his cell phone rang. By the time Sandburg stepped back into the room, we had already hammered out a plan to use a dummy as a stand-in for Zeller when Bartley gave his speech this evening. Sandburg diffidently broke into our conversation about security positions, and when he had our attention, he apologetically informed us that Channel Nine was going to run a story on my sentinel abilities on their noon edition of the news.

I was too angry to talk about what Sandburg had done, and I walked out. I deliberately dialed down my sense of hearing. I didn't want to hear whatever fairy tale he was going to tell Conner and Simon. No doubt he would paint himself as the innocent party and not take responsibility for his own damn carelessness.

I left the building after asking the desk sergeant to pass a message to Simon that he could reach me at home - I needed more sleep before tonight. Besides, I wanted some privacy since I was going to have to watch that damn newscast, just so I could be prepared to handle questions from the brass. Keeping my mouth shut as much as possible was my goal, and it would be a cold day in hell before I talked to the press. Sandburg might let himself be interviewed, though.

Sandburg - what to do about Sandburg? I'd stranded him, but I didn't care; he could just cool his heels at the PD. Or he could catch a ride back with Conner, or take a bus. His transportation needs were not my priority right now.

I hit the steering wheel while I waited for the light to turn green. I had to get myself under control, had to try to calm down about this fiasco, although I doubted that I would be able to sleep after watching the broadcast. But I was going to try, because a tired cop is one step closer to being a dead cop.

Once home, I grabbed the remote and jabbed at the control until I reached Channel Nine, and waited for the local news stories to air. I paced around the room while reports of traffic accidents, school board meetings, and the danger of high cholesterol droned on and on. The attempted assassination of Bartley was yesterday's news, and without something new to spark it, it didn't merit a mention on the noon show. Damn. This was a slow news day, which meant that there would be more airtime for whatever information Sandburg had given them.

When I saw my own picture, that damn one from the cover of Time after I was taken out of Peru, I balled my hands into fists. They stayed that way while the reporter explained just why and how my senses were so enhanced. He quoted chapter and verse from Sandburg's thesis. And they showed images of Blair, too, citing his work with the Blue Ocean Institute in researching folklore, and a mix of Rainier photos and ones taken of the two of us working cases.

Some enterprising soul had really dug into his research, because the anchor brought up the Juno case -- where my testimony had been thrown out for claiming to see Tommy Juno shoot Danny Choi from a distance from which anybody with normal eyesight wouldn't have been able to see a damn thing.

God, Danny.

Blair's betrayal made all the other losses I'd had suddenly painful again. Ben Sarris and my other teammates who I'd buried in the jungle; Lila, trapped in a web of intrigue and unable to take a chance on getting free of it with the soldier that she'd just met. Lila, dying in my arms years later. Hector, my friend from Lima, dying at his daughter's baptism because I guessed wrong about when an assassin would make his move. Jack. My God, Jack. Jack got me to start acting like a decent human being again, after being in the snake pit that was Vice. Jack had liked Blair. Had told me I should hang onto the kid.

Guess you gambled on a losing proposition once again, Jack.

I turned the TV off, and suddenly feeling tired, more tired of the way life sucked than physically tired, I went upstairs to my bed to lay down... then got back up and stripped off the sheets. They still held Sandburg's scent and right now I wanted nothing to do with him. Going down to the basement, I stuffed them in the rapidly filling washer and added soap - I needed to wash away any scent reminder of him right now. Too bad I couldn't do the same thing so easily with my mind. I closed the lid and slowly went back upstairs and remade the bed with sterile sheets.

Sleep was slow in coming, but finally I felt myself drifting into a doze. And then my alarm was going off and it was time to head back to the PD and meet up with Conner and Brown. We had a snare to set for the Iceman.

** ** ** ** ** **

Conner and I arrived early at the union hall on 12th Street and set things up for how we wanted to watch for Zeller's appearance. When Bartley was delivered from the safe house, we made him hole up in an office. Conner fitted him with a Kevlar vest, like the last time, and like the last time, he kept calling her babe. I could see the struggle on her face not to 'accidentally' knock him on his ass.

She'd tried to talk to me about Sandburg, telling me that he'd been summoned to the Chancellor's office at Rainier after I'd left the PD, but I asked her to can it. I told her after we got Zeller squared away I'd speak to Sandburg - to chew him out, although she probably thought it would be to make up - but that right now I needed to concentrate on the job. She understood that and dropped it. Every cop knows how dangerous it can be to not have your full attention on your assignment. And I did need to pay heed to my surroundings because it was going to be more difficult to find Zeller without relying on my guide to ground me.

For a dark moment, I even wished that the last three years with him hadn't happened. That after leaving, he hadn't returned. He'd found out I was a sentinel and he was my guide and he wasn't sure he wanted that with me. I remembered the night when he'd cooked for me and I never came home. The night when he'd realized that I'd chosen Carolyn over him. Maybe it would have been better if he had stayed away; I would've had his choker and it would have kept me grounded without having to have a relationship with him.

I stuck that thought away to deal with later. And, maybe, we could survive this fuck-up. I hadn't stopped loving him, even though I was mad enough at him to spit nails. Maybe I was madder at him because I did love him. But right now, I really did need to focus on identifying Zeller before he made his move on Bartley.

We caught the six o'clock news at the union hall, and there was more baloney on it about me being a sentinel. And a brief follow-up story where they'd tried to interview Blair at Rainier. He looked gob-smacked at the questions, and the smart-ass reporter made some crack about his good fortune making Sandburg speechless. My jaw dropped when the story announced that he had a million dollar book deal with Berkshire Publishing and that he was being considered for a Nobel Prize.

A million bucks! A God-damned Nobel Prize? I felt like I'd been dropped down the rabbit hole and any moment some whacked-out playing card would be screaming to cut off my head.

Suddenly I was very eager to talk to the little bastard. Book deals don't happen overnight. And Nobel Prize nominations weren't a dime a dozen. It suddenly occurred to me that all of his panic over Barnes taking his research must have been because if she had released the information early, then it would have fucked up his book deal. He must have been planning this for quite some time. And I felt a bleak despair overtake my anger. It was over. This was the kind of betrayal you didn't come back from. Christ, I would never have pegged Blair as the kind of guy who could stab you in the back while he was smiling at you.

Live and learn.

The next step would be where he'd tell me it just wasn't going to work out with us, and while he would always care for me, he couldn't live with me anymore.

He probably wouldn't spring that on me just yet, though. He'd want to try and talk me into being agreeable; to just accept the fact that of course he'd had to include my name in his thesis for documentation. Maybe try and talk me into going on the talk show circuit with him, doing tricks for the audience; be his pet sentinel.

Well, fuck that! I was going to ask Simon to work alone again. Blair's ninety-day ride-along pass was way past due to be cancelled. And why would he want to tag along and put himself in harm's way, now that he'd achieved his objective. He'd said it not long ago at all - he had enough information for ten dissertations. He was probably already planning the sequel to his first best seller.

I had to admit he was a good storyteller and writer. He could weave in old legends with scientific observations, all with a poetic, deeply riveting style. If the damn thing wasn't about me, I would've probably shelled out cash to read it, even if I'd never met Sandburg.

Conner came over to me and gave me a thump on the back. "You okay, mate?" Thumping me was Conner's way of showing tender loving care.

I gave her a tired half-smile. "Let's just get Zeller nailed. I don't have the time to deal with... other stuff right now."

Simon arrived a few minutes later and we went over all the precautions for Bartley's safety. My attention was seduced away from talking to Simon when a familiar feeling grew stronger inside me. I was so used to tuning in to Sandburg when he was approaching me that I did it automatically... whatever that bond or sense we had about each other was, it had kicked in, so I knew he was coming closer to where I was.

And sure enough, he came slinking into our de facto headquarters, big eyes fixed on me. I stayed away from him and he didn't try to talk to me. When the time came for me to go back out and search the crowd for Zeller, he didn't try to follow. But I heard Simon tell him to go after me and to help me.

He came up to me and nervously started off with some of his usual patter, and I sharply told him that I knew what to do. I left him behind during the time I moved through the crowd, and he had the good sense to stay back.

And then I heard the click of a gun being loaded and I honed in on the sound. But suddenly there were lights going off in my face from cameras. The fucking press had recognized me and reporters were clamoring for my attention.

I was dazed for a couple of moments, but Sandburg rushed over and started manhandling the reporters away from me.

And then Zeller, somewhere in the crowd, shot his weapon, and I was hearing cries of "He's been hit."

It was pandemonium for a while with people screaming and trying to get away, and with cop lights madly twirling out their blue and red beams into the night. In the confusion, Zeller slipped away. We had prepared for this possibility and had set up roadblocks, but I was betting Zeller had an escape route that would bypass any police obstructions.

I was livid. Zeller had been here and had taken his shot, and if the fucking paparazzi had left me alone he would be handcuffed and on his way to a holding cell by now.

Sandburg asked me if I was okay, but I turned away and ignored him. He sounded shaky, but he was not my concern right now. I made my way back to the room where Bartley had been stashed, where security was tight, and was let in. Sandburg had followed me, and was stopped by the officers. I could have okayed his entry, but I didn't. He could wait out where the press could catch up with him, since they were his own personal fan club.

Inside the dingy and poorly lit room, Bartley was sitting on the floor next to the dummy that had taken the bullet for him. And as usual, he was complaining. Conner was explaining to him why he was going to crawl into a body bag and be carried out to the meat wagon.

"We want everybody to think you're dead, Mr. Bartley. You'll be transported to Cascade General, where you'll walk out of the back of the ambulance in an EMT's uniform and will be taken to a safe house again." Conner sounded reasonable but I could tell she was enjoying seeing him uncomfortable.

All in all, it took a while for the charade to go down. When everybody had cleared out, I figured it was time to collect Sandburg and hear him choke out an explanation. I wasn't going to make it easy for him.

He wasn't around, and I asked the uniforms if they'd seen him leave.

And they'd noticed him leaving all right. Kind of hard to miss when the FBI shows up, handcuffs a guy in front of them, and throws him into the back of a black Crown Victoria.

Nickols and Harriman again, no doubt.

Well, Sandburg was a big boy. He'd shown he was able to cut deals with a major publishing house and get himself noticed by the Nobel Prize committee. I decided he could handle a couple of Feebs without my interference. They didn't have anything on him, anyway, so he'd be released in a couple of hours again.

And then I was going to hear why he'd decided to screw me over and go for the brass ring.

** ** ** ** ** **

It was very, very late by the time I walked into my apartment and noticed the blinking light of the answering machine. I checked the messages and deleted the one wanting to sell me a time-share in Florida. I also deleted all the ones from various magazines, TV stations, and newspapers wanting to interview Sandburg and me. I wasn't his fucking secretary and I wasn't going to bother passing those messages along to him.

The one from his mother I kept. She sounded upset and wanted him to talk to some guy named Sid. Well, I wasn't going to call her and tell her that her baby boy was cooling his heels at the regional FBI headquarters. It would only worry her, and I liked Naomi. She was a butterfly, and you don't torment such a beautiful creature by pulling off its wings. Besides, she was probably asleep, and Sandburg would be back tomorrow.

Reluctantly, I listened to the message from my father, who was upset that reporters were calling him. He said he blamed me for not taking more care to keep my secret safeguarded. He accused me of having bad judgment in rooming with Sandburg, said he could tell he was trouble when they'd met, and that I should have kicked him out a long time ago. Steven had called also, but just said that he was giving no comment out when the reporters asked him about me. He sounded ticked off, too. Great. But I couldn't blame Steven or Dad for being pissed. Sandburg had sicced the tabloid hounds on them.

I fell into bed after letting the day's frustration flow off of me and down the shower drain. Tomorrow we'd regroup and figure out how to get that bastard Zeller off the street. We were on a countdown, since Bartley swore that he was going to come back from the dead in time to influence the union rank and file to vote for his initiative. If we hadn't nabbed Zeller by then, he'd be a prime target once again.

I tried clearing my mind, the way Sandburg had taught me, but that backfired. Instead, my anger at him rekindled. But sleep did come, finally. And with it strange dreams.

I was stretched out on the couch, in the loft, watching a National Geographic special on the sealing industry - Blair's idea, not mine - waiting until the Jags game came on. My partner came back from the kitchen, handed me a beer, and plopped himself down next to me.

There were images flashing on the TV screen - seals being clubbed with some wicked-looking long hammer, seals being shot with rifles, dead seals tangled in fishing nets - and then Blair was asking me to tell him the story my granny had told about selkies.

Instead of doing that, I started to hum and sing the old song about selkies she used to sing, though I forgot most of the words; 'I am a man upon the land... I am a selkie in the sea...'

I stopped singing and drank half of my beer. When I put the bottle down on the coffee table I realized that Sandburg had disappeared. I looked at the TV screen and it had gotten much larger, and I wondered when I'd gone to the store and bought one of those home theater screens and how much it had set me back. And then I looked more closely at the footage of seals being clubbed.

Sandburg was there, lying naked on the beach, stretched out comfortably, and snoozing in the sun. I walked up to the screen and yelled at him to get his ass up, he needed to come back home before he got himself killed. He didn't react, and I sighed and jumped through the screen so I could get him up like I'd done just about every morning since he'd moved in with me.

I found myself on a rocky beach, the ocean throwing waves halfway up it, and the hunter nearest me raised his club and smashed in the skull of a young seal, and then he moved towards Sandburg. I couldn't understand why he would want to hurt Blair, and I caught his arm to stop him.

It was Lash, crazy eyes and demented smile, and he said to me, "Who am I now?" I took his club and shoved him away. I turned back to Blair, wanting to save him from Lash, and all I saw were seals.

I screamed out his name and then I felt his emotions, as I had when I had been caught in the riptide, as I had when Barnes had gagged him in the temple; he was scared of me, scared I would hurt him because I was holding the club, and I dropped it and felt the regret coming from him about taking the deal with the publishing company.

I got mad when he reminded me about it, and I turned and walked away. I didn't look behind me to see if Blair was back to human form or still clothed in his seal coat.

I met Harriman and Nickols when I strode away down the beach. They had rifles in their hands and they stopped me. They wanted to ask Sandburg some questions about stealing that nerve gas, they said, but since they were here they might just shoot him instead because he had such a beautiful seal coat.

He was up the beach, I told them, and pointed out that he'd be the only seal with blue eyes. He could take his chances with the FBI, because if he'd really loved me he never would have sold me out. And then I jumped back through the screen and sat down and changed the channel to the Jags game, and knocked back the rest of the beer. I didn't want anything to do with Sandburg right now. He deserved to be punished.

And then I went upstairs and lay down on my bed, and Naomi came in, carrying some tongue sandwiches and Blair's photo album, and we looked at his baby pictures and school pictures and photos of expeditions. He was such a cute little guy, and such a beautiful man. Wistfully, I wished that he hadn't fucked everything up.

Naomi then took some sage out of her pocket, lit it and waved it around, and told me that I needed to cleanse myself of my anger towards her son, that maybe things would never be the same between us but that I should detach with love. Let Blair go because he was a child of the open sea and shouldn't be tied down to a human lover.

I woke up coughing and sneezing, and I realized that I actually did smell sage burning. Damn. Naomi was in the loft.

** ** ** ** ** **

I was still sneezing occasionally as I drove back to the PD, wondering if Naomi's spick and span spiritual treatment was going to keep me from being able to stay at my own place tonight. She had outdone herself this time, but in the face of such an earnest plea to, 'Cleanse the negative energy and purify this dwelling, Jim,' I had caved. I did ask her to air out the place before she left.

But I hadn't stuck around and talked to her for very long; instead, I'd thrown some clothes into a gym bag and decided that I'd grab some breakfast away from home, then head for the PD locker room to clean up.

She'd wanted to know where her son was, since he hadn't answered his cell phone -- probably confiscated by the Feds -- and I'd borrowed a page from his book and slid around the truth. I'd told her he'd had to go to Seattle last night, but I thought he'd be back sometime today. I'd also said she could stay put and wait for him, if she wanted to -- she'd probably rearrange the place, but I really didn't care at this point.

Next, she'd told me how sorry she was to see the changes in our auras from being in such discord, and that she'd hoped we could work things out, because she'd never seen Blair so upset before. I'd left then, before the holy sage could wear holes in my lungs.

I wondered about that last comment of hers, and about my dream, while I drove through the Cascade streets. Probably, I decided, he was upset that he'd killed the goose that had laid the golden egg with that book deal going public too early. He'd no doubt thought he could first talk me into going along with his plans, especially since we'd become lovers.

But my dream bothered me, bothered me that I visualized him as a selkie again, and that I walked away and left him being hunted.

I let out a long sigh as I made the last turn before the station. He must have realized by now that going public with my name had probably cost him our relationship, and maybe he was having regrets, but he would have all that acclaim and money to comfort him. Still, his actions hadn't killed my love for him, even though I was furious and couldn't see how we would ever get past his betrayal. But I couldn't help being concerned about him, and I would call the Feebs and find out if they'd released him yet.

And I'd talk to Simon about damage control and dropping Blair's ride-along pass. I wanted to go back to just being a good cop - without the senses. I could do that. Incacha would disapprove, but then he wasn't here dealing with reporters screaming in his face. If being a sentinel was going to hamper me in my job, then there was no place for it anymore. When I did talk to Sandburg, I'd ask him to help me turn off the senses. He owed me that much, anyway.

There was no point in jumping down his throat. I was glad that I'd waited to talk to him, to let the first flush of anger die down. I'd tell him to go for it, to grab that brass ring and hold on, to welcome fame and fortune.

He wanted that more than he wanted to hold onto me.

I'd take the high road, and just wish him well. Hell, I wouldn't even ask him to move out. I wouldn't have to do that; he'd do it on his own. And I guessed that when he left, our bond would fizzle out. But since I was going to dump the senses, I didn't need a guide anymore, so it would work out.

Must be Karma.

** ** ** ** ** **

I spoke with Nickols and I wasn't pleased to hear what he had to tell me. Sandburg had cooperated with the round of questioning last night until the two agents decided to soften the kid up some more by throwing him in a holding cell and taking another whack at him in the morning.

"I don't know what got into him, but when we took his personal effects, he lost it. Didn't want to give us some leather do-dad of his that he'd had on his ankle. At least, that's what I was told. Kid had to be restrained to get it off of him; although I understand that once it was out of his sight he calmed down." I shook my head. That damn choker of his was still causing problems. Or more to the point, his attitude about it was causing problems.

"Are there charges against him?" He wasn't exactly under arrest when he'd been picked up, but now they could make a case for obstructing a federal officer in the commission of his duty.

"We haven't decided. Look, Ellison. Or should I say, Sentinel Ellison." From the tone in his voice I guessed he was rolling his eyes. "He's not telling us the whole story. You're his... friend. Get him to really talk to us, if he's as innocent as you keep saying. Harriman is interviewing him right now. I'll go in and tell the kid that you want to talk to him. Maybe you can get him to spill, so we can all get off of this merry-go-round. And as a courtesy to another officer, if we charge him I'll let you know. I'm putting you on hold." If Blair talked to me, I'd tell him to tell the whole story - the sentinel angle was out there now, and if he explained about the sexual abuse the whole story would hang together. It would get them off of his back.

A half hour later the Muzak was about to give me a blinding headache. I was tempted to hang up but Nickols had been halfway accommodating for a change, and I didn't want to trash the slight rapport we had going.

Finally, the strains of a butchered Neil Diamond song ended and he picked up. "Ellison, the kid refuses to talk with you. Said he'd been enough of a pain in your life. If we charge him, we'll let you know." He ended the call, and I placed the phone back in its cradle.

There wasn't anything I could do about Sandburg, so Conner and I hit the streets to check with our informants and to serve a warrant on Gunderson Shipping for their files. We sent back boxes of documents for Brown and Rafe to comb through for any connection to Zeller.

We saw a robbery-in-progress after meeting with one of our snitches; without too much effort, Conner and I collared the dunce. He recognized me from the news and actually wanted me to sign his tattoo, so that he could brag when he went to jail that he'd been taken down by 'The Sentinel.' I declined. Was this what I could look forward to for a while? I could ride out the interest until other news stories took center stage, but one of the reasons I'd kept quiet about my abilities all along was because I could be attacked through my senses. Experiments with dog whistles had shown Sandburg and me that the pain could immobilize me and leave me vulnerable. If the crime element figured out how to screw with my senses, I wouldn't be able to work on the street. And I'd resign before being steered to a desk job.

It was late afternoon when we returned to the station, and I had to listen to Brown and Rafe making annoying but predictable jokes about my sentinel abilities.

Simon called me into his office and I updated him on the case. Then he told me he'd been stalling all day, but the brass were demanding a full report on the situation; they were asking some pointed questions about Simon's prior knowledge. He also said that it looked like the Review Board would be auditing my files and convictions. And that meant IA would be involved. Great. I couldn't wait to get torn to shreds by them.

I heard Sandburg enter the bullpen and listened to him head straight to Simon's office. The bond, I guess, because he didn't stop to talk to anybody. He knocked on the door and came in at Simon's invitation.

"Chief." I glanced at him and heard him catch his breath. He looked like shit. "You might as well hear this, too." I shifted towards Simon. "Captain, I'm going to end the sentinel stuff. I was a good cop without it, and frankly, it's now more of a hindrance than a help. And I want to end Sandburg's ride-along."

I looked back at my lover. "You got what you wanted. The brass ring is yours now. And your research is done, so why don't you just let us go."

Blair begged, "Jim, let me explain. I never meant --" But I cut him off.

"It's over, Sandburg. And I've got a killer to catch, and you're not a part of this anymore." I sighed tiredly. "Go home. Your mother wants to talk to you. And speaking of family, my father and brother called. The reporters are bugging them, too. Imagine how thrilled my father is right now, and just when it looked like we might actually start getting along."

"Jim, I want to tell you what happened --"

"When this thing with Zeller is finished, you can spin me any fairy tale you like. You're good at telling fairy tales, aren't you, Chief? But I don't think this one is going to end with a 'happily ever after.'"

Blair gave me another hurt look, but after the last couple of days I was immunized against the Sandburg eyes.

He turned and left the office, but Conner stopped him from leaving the bullpen. The clowns I worked with decided to give him some shit and started jumping him about a TV show based on him and me, with themselves as cast members. Then they started this chant about how they weren't worthy - to be in his presence, I guess.

Simon cleared his throat and drew a picture out of a file on his desk.

"Jim, before you decide to stop using your senses, I think you should see just how close you were to stopping Zeller yesterday before your paparazzi got in the way." He pushed the picture towards me, and I bent over to study it.

And that was when all hell broke loose.

** ** ** ** ** **

The memories from the night before were eating at me, as I drove to the PD through the morning traffic.

Simon's and Conner's blood, screams, the whine of the bullets from Zeller's gun, the sick despair of knowing that I was responsible for this carnage because I should have caught the murderous bastard the previous night. I'd been so close before those God-damned camera lights had blinded me, which was what the photos Simon had given me had proved.

And it should've been me who'd been hit, instead of Simon and Conner, and be in serious condition after surgery. The Iceman had been aiming at me; bending over to look at the photo on Simon's desk had saved me. And had put Simon in the line of fire. The bullet had torn through his chest and had entered Megan's shoulder.

Klaus Zeller had a reputation for getting revenge on law enforcement agents who tried to stop him; he'd killed several overseas in the past. We should have been expecting him to try something like this. I tightened my hands on the steering wheel and wished it were Zeller's neck.

From the trajectory of the shot, Zeller had fired through the outside window into Simon's office. And Jesus, Blair had barely missed getting shot -- he had been standing right next to Megan. Both of us had ended up covered in gore while we tried desperately to keep our friends from bleeding out.

Simon and Conner been rushed into emergency surgery and the hospital had asked for department volunteers to give blood. I'd finished donating and had returned to the waiting room when I overheard Sandburg reciting his blood-donor information to the clerk. Sighing, I waved Joel over before he headed down for his turn. I'd asked him to inform Sandburg that he wasn't allowed to give blood. And to let the clerk know in case the kid tried an end run; Blair'd had surgery himself just a few weeks ago and his body needed to keep every drop he had. Joel had promised to stop him. He hadn't asked how I knew what was going on two floors down; I guess he was a believer in the sentinel senses.

I clenched the steering wheel, thinking about the carnage I'd witnessed the previous afternoon. Thank God that both of our friends were going to live. But Simon being out was going to throw things into semi-chaos, even with Joel filling his shoes until Simon recovered.

I waited at a red light and remembered lying alone in my bed last night thinking about how Blair had barely skirted past the Grim Reaper yesterday afternoon. And I'd had a little epiphany. It had flowed from feeling relief that Blair hadn't been killed, to thinking about how I would feel if I had lost him to death. From there it was only a short slide to realizing that if I lost him for any reason, I would grieve. Hard. And there was this growing uncomfortable comprehension that so far I'd only heard one side of the story - from the press - concerning his released research. I'd been lashing out at him, and, yeah, I had every right to be angry - Blair had promised me confidentiality - but given what we were to each other, I should've heard him out. Because Blair couldn't have been undercover with me all these years - pretending not to be a cold-eyed, screw you over kind of guy. He just couldn't have been. I'd have picked up on it from the unconscious messages only I could read from his body.

Fuck, this was probably just a huge mess that he didn't mean to happen. And when I tracked him down, I'd tell him I was ready to listen to his explanation. He'd taken off from the hospital and gone to the loft - the bloody clothes in the hamper were my proof -- but had disappeared before I came home. And he hadn't come back before I left for the PD this morning. Well, if he didn't show up at the bullpen pretty soon, I'd call him.

The light turned green and I hit the gas. If traffic didn't start moving at a better pace, I was going to flip my lights on. I knew I was on edge -- I didn't like feeling on the defensive with Zeller; I wanted to hunt him down and stop him before he hurt anybody else I cared for.

My cell phone rang, and I hoped it was Blair, asking me to talk to him. Instead, it was Joel, telling me to meet him at a gun shop near Little Russia, at the intersection of State Street and Porter Avenue. They'd gotten a tip on Zeller. I ended the conversation and put Blair out of my mind. Time to concentrate on the job, and only on the job.

** ** ** ** ** **

"Yo, Ellison." I looked up as Brown entered the break room and headed for the pot of coffee. "I heard about the explosion at that gun shop. The word is out that the Iceman was toasted during the fireworks. Has Dan ID'ed the body yet? I hear there wasn't much left for him to work with. Man, I hope it's true and that right now the Iceman's ass is frying in hell." Brown finished pouring himself a mug and sat down facing me at the table.

I took a swallow of my coffee before answering him. "What we know is that Zeller walked into Roger Haber's shop about two minutes before the whole thing went kablooey. And that was no coincidence. Haber may have set Zeller up to take the fall and gone on the run with Zeller's money from Gunderson Shipping's payoff. Haber was the middleman, the contact between Zeller and the company, and we traced an awful damn big payment to him. We planned to pick him up for questioning. He's the one who was most likely to roll over on both the execs from the shipping company and Zeller."

I finished the rest of my coffee and stood up. "Or, Zeller wants us to think he's dead, and that crispy critter down in the morgue is Roger Haber. Zeller might have offed him to tie up his loose ends in this city. Somebody called that tip in saying Zeller would be there, maybe so we would witness him entering that building. And we can't find Haber."

I rinsed my cup and headed out the door, giving a little wave back to Brown when he called that he'd catch me later. Tiredly, I went back to my desk to finish writing up the case notes; If Sandburg didn't show up pretty soon, I'd track him down. We had a lot to talk about and we might as well start clearing the air.

My report was finished, and I was debating eating lunch out of the snack machine, or going out, when Rafe hustled over to my desk.

"Uh, Ellison." His voice was curious, the expression on his face one of speculation. "Sandburg is coming up on the noon news, something about a press conference he gave at Rainier. Thought you'd want to know." He jerked his thumb towards the corner of the bullpen that held the TV; several officers were gathered around it watching. Rafe walked over to join them, and he turned the sound up. The commercial about cat food ended and the news anchor started giving background on Blair's research, and identified me as a sentinel. Crap. When the hell would this story become yesterday's news and bore the shit out of everybody. I hated the speculative looks I was getting - again - from the other guys watching the news.

I started feeling angry once more with Blair and was tempted to just stomp over there and turn the God-damned TV off, but then the picture switched to my partner stepping up to a podium, with the Rainier seal behind him. It was all very official-looking, but Blair looked tired and out of place in his leather jacket and flannel shirt. I guessed he was going to say how honored and surprised he was to be considered for a Nobel Prize and announce when the book would be out. Maybe Rainier had offered him a professorship, and he'd be mentioning that also.

I let my anger die down. Blair was brilliant. Why shouldn't he get the recognition he deserved? And if I couldn't hack it as a street cop anymore, due to being outed, maybe I'd become a forest ranger. Go out to the wilderness to get away, and... maybe he would go with me.

Sandburg was speaking now, his voice strained and trembling a little as he went on about the joys of publishing research. He said that the sections of his dissertation detailing ancient sources and mythology and the recent discovery of the Temple of the Sentinels were accurate and could be validated by other researchers.

I moved closer to the group of detectives - some were Blair's friends, others weren't -- watching the broadcast, feeling mesmerized by the sight of my lover's subdued expression. There was a definite sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop, and Blair's expression became stricken; I pushed up my vision to catch a glimpse of tears welling up, before he dropped his eyes down to his notes. Something was seriously wrong. Blair hesitated a moment, then looked up and spoke strongly, directly into the camera.

"However, my desire to impress both my peers and the world at large drove me to an immoral and unethical act. My thesis "The Sentinel" is a fraud. While my paper does quote ancient source material, the documentation proving that James Ellison... actually possesses hyper-senses is fraudulent. Looking back, I can say that it's a good piece of fiction. I apologize for this deception. My only hope is that I can be forgiven for the pain I've caused those who are close to me. Thank you."

I stood there stunned as the camera followed him as he stumbled away from the podium and headed for the door. Chancellor Edwards, her face pinched in frustration and animosity, stepped in front of him while he was trying to leave. And I saw Naomi hurrying across the room to catch up with her son.

Edwards hissed something to him that was too faint for the listeners to catch, but I heard it. She was throwing Blair out of the university, ordering him to clean out his office, giving him shit for disgracing Rainier.

Blair didn't say anything to her, his face set like stone, and he pushed past her. He'd almost made it outside the room when Naomi stopped him with a hand on his arm, but then the footage ended.

My heart was thudding in my ears; I stayed transfixed while the two anchors added to the story by saying that graduate student Blair Sandburg had been barred from the doctorate program and that Berkshire Publishing had given their own statement that the offer for the three million dollar book deal had been rescinded. There was head shaking and speculation on lawsuits and criminal charges of fraud.

The last juicy item was a mention that it had been confirmed by the FBI that Blair Sandburg was also a person of interest in the ongoing investigation of the theft of deadly nerve gas from Rainier University's HazMat lab earlier this spring. The newscasters recapped that story, ending with old scenes from Barnes' return to Cascade in an ambulance, and told the viewers she was in custody at Western State Psychiatric Hospital and listed as being in a coma.

They reported that it had been confirmed by FBI sources that Sandburg had been with Alex Barnes when she was taken into custody. The broadcast ended with a statement from the FBI, announcing that the case would be closed in the near future. The implication was that Sandburg was going to be arrested.

I turned blindly away when the commercials started back up and walked out of the bullpen.

Well, fuck.

Blair had... he'd... The realization was really hitting home now, what he'd done. He'd lied, and in doing so had thrown out his research, his Ph.D., his professional integrity. He'd done it for me.

For me.

I needed some time alone.

I wanted to inhale air that wasn't tainted by perfume, and aftershave, and the other hundreds of scents that could overwhelm me in a place stuffed with bodies. And the sound of voices and machines in the bullpen was like the tide crashing noisily on the beach; I couldn't think in here.

I went up to the roof, to look over my city and to breathe in the mixture of ocean scent, traffic, and the different odors exhaled by Cascade. I stood there, watching traffic flow down the arteries of this urban landscape, and thought about how Blair had cut his own throat.

Shit, he must feel like he was bleeding out.

My anger at him had evaporated. Gone away. Disappeared.

Whatever fuck-up had occurred, he'd taken responsibility for it and fixed it. But at too high a price.

Should I accept his sacrifice... or admit that I was a sentinel?

I heard footsteps on the stairs and had shook off my introspection when Brown stuck his head out the door. "Sorry, man. That asshole Bartley is here, and he's making noises about giving another speech to the union. Joel wants you to try and talk some sense into him about returning to the safe house."

He sighed, his usually cheerful expression regretful. "And it sucked to watch that news show. Why would Sandburg do such a thing?"

I shrugged my shoulders, wondering if H meant why had Blair outed me or why had he called himself a fraud, but didn't speak. But one answer to H's question was in my mind while I followed him back down to the bullpen.

He had kissed goodbye his work, his academic life, because he loved me. And I'd pushed him, by not listening to him, into showing his love by immolating himself. Rainier colleagues, other anthropologists - his whole academic world -- were going to crucify him.

** ** ** ** ** **

Bartley was his usual charming self, making sexist comments about our secretary, and planting himself in Simon's office for the duration of the afternoon. He was like some invasive plant taking over a garden -- Joel and I had let him borrow the captain's phone and the next thing we knew he was running his whole campaign from behind Simon's desk. He'd made plans to speak at eight o'clock at another rally, after hearing on the news that Zeller was dead from that explosion at the gun shop. I pointed out that it wasn't confirmed that it was Zeller's body but that didn't stop him. Bartley was staying at the PD until time for his speech, so I took a break and drove to the hospital to check on Conner and Simon.

On the way, I tried to reach Blair again. He wasn't answering his cell phone, and if he was at home, he was letting the machine pick up. I knew he wasn't at his office at Rainier; the secretary had said he'd been there earlier and had cleaned out his things. Wherever he was, he was ignoring the messages I'd been leaving him. Or maybe he hadn't gotten them.

I called Harriman, wondering if the FBI had picked him back up for another round of questioning.

"We don't have him. When you catch up to him, you tell him that he's going to remain a person of interest until we hear the whole damn story from him. And to just come in and get it over with. Look, Ellison. If this case gets audited, it'll be our asses on the line for not nailing down the holes in his current story."

He sighed into the phone. "To tell you the truth, I don't think he was in cahoots with Barnes, but I can't put down in my report that the agent in charge's intuition said Sandburg was just a kidnap victim."

I could hear the annoyance and frustration in his voice. "We only put that story out on the air to provide some incentive for the kid to come clean. Look... I'll even bend regulations and let you stay with him while he fills in the blanks. But he's got to talk to us so we can close this case. Barnes is still in a coma, and her doctors aren't holding out any hope she's ever going to wake up. We need the rest of his statement. You tell him we'll keep picking him up till he spills his guts. Good luck, Ellison. That kid's a stubborn son-of-a-bitch."

He hung up, and I parked in the visitors' lot at Cascade General.

Conner was asleep, still in serious condition, but the nurse said she would probably be upgraded to fair by the evening since her vitals were stabilizing. I'd found a toy baby kangaroo in the gift shop and left it for her. She'd probably throw the stuffed animal at my head when I returned tomorrow, but I knew she'd be amused by it.

Simon was groggily awake, but his son and ex-wife were sitting with him so I just said something banal about being glad he was doing so well - he looked like shit, actually -- and told him I'd be back tomorrow. I was walking down the hall when I heard light footsteps running toward me. It was Daryl. I waited, preparing myself to give him some good, uncle-like words of wisdom about his father pulling through and how proud he was of Daryl. I wasn't expecting him to ask about Blair.

"Detective Ellison -- Jim. Mom and I saw the noon news, but Dad didn't -- he'd dozed off -- and my mom said he didn't need to worry about anybody but himself right now and not to mention it. But Blair said he'd cheated, and the news guys think he's going to be arrested by the FBI. Is that true?"

Daryl was a teenager now, but he and Blair were friends despite the age gap between them. I'd had a lot of fun teasing Blair about how he related so well to kids because he was still a kid himself, but Blair wasn't immature. He had the knack of talking to youngsters without being condescending, and he truly valued what they had to say. And I couldn't let his lie kill the respect Simon's son had for him.

"The FBI just wants him to complete his statement from when he was kidnapped. Uh... you know about that, right?"

He nodded, his brown eyes thoughtful. "I remember the first day I met Blair, at the race track, and those big guys were going to hurt me because I bumped into one of them and made him spill his beer. Blair, he kept me from getting my ass kicked, and then Dad and you, and Detective Jack and Mrs. Ellison, you guys found us and arrested those creeps. I was just a kid then, but I'm not one anymore." He straightened his body and I could suddenly see Simon in his posture. "You heard us and knew we were in trouble. And now I understand why you were able to find us even though we were too far away for you to hear what was going on. Blair didn't lie about you in the book he wrote. You are a sentinel, just like he said. Why'd he say he did something wrong?"

"He has his reasons, Daryl. But yeah, he told the truth in his book. It was supposed to be kept secret, and he lied to fix the mistake he made when the story got out. I'm asking you to keep it to yourself. I can't work and do my job, as a police officer or a sentinel, when people can use my senses against me."

He fell silent, thinking, I guessed, about what I'd said. Then he looked up at me with worried eyes. "Is the man who shot Daddy dead, like the news story said?"

"We'll know when the body is identified. You take good care of your dad, okay? I need to get back to the station. And Daryl, thanks for believing in Blair. I'll tell him you spoke up for him."

He hugged me then, a man-child in need of reassurance, and walked swiftly back to his father's room. I followed him with my eyes, feeling helpless to really do anything to make him feel better.

I hated that cops' kids grew up all too fast.

** ** ** ** ** **

I returned to the station and was disappointed that Blair hadn't come in. He was probably lying low trying to avoid the questions reporters and people he knew would throw at him. I left more messages on his cell phone and at home. I didn't like it that I hadn't been able to talk to him. He needed to know I was over his fuck-up in releasing my name; obviously, he hadn't meant to do it or he wouldn't have taken such drastic steps to try and make things right.

Bartley was still enthroned in Simon's office, making grandiose plans for the rally tonight. He quit yelling into the phone long enough to tell me no way was he putting his plans on hold just in case Zeller was still out there. He went back to his screaming, and I left when he started arguing about what kind of fireworks to set off.

Joel stopped me on my way back to my desk from an illicit trip to the vending machines. If Blair had been with me, he'd have lectured me on artificial ingredients and empty calories. I missed that. I missed him.

"Jim, think I can evict Bartley from Simon's office anytime soon? Simon's paperwork is all in there." Joel sounded glum. I didn't blame him. I would never want Simon's job for the paperwork reason alone.

"He's still ranting. You want him to move into the conference room? There's a phone in there - and a door."

My own phone rang as Joel sighed, and I set my two Snickers bars on my desk to answer it. I held up a hand for Joel to wait as I finished talking to the coroner's office.

I dropped the phone into its cradle and shared the bad news with Joel. "They've ID'ed the body found in the gun shop. It was Haber."

Joel grimaced. "Rally's off, then. We need to get Bartley back to a safe house, and he's going to be pissed." A half smile crossed his face. "Maybe there are some perks to being in Simon's shoes. How about you break the good news to him, Jim?"

I gave him a sloppy salute. "Yes, sir."

Bolstered by Joel's orders, I duly walked into Simon's office and took the phone out of Bartley's hand and hung it up. Bartley looked like he wanted to take a swing at me, but I jumped in with an explanation before he could explode. "Mr. Bartley, we have confirmation that Klaus Zeller--"

I grabbed him and forced him down to the floor, yelling at him to stay down. I'd spotted Zeller entering the bullpen with two machine guns. A split second later the deafening noise of gunfire rang in the air, along with startled screams and yells and the sound of bodies hitting the floor.

I made Bartley get under Simon's desk and told him to shut up and stay put. Then I crept up to the window for recon, ready to try and shoot the bastard. Zeller was striding through the bullpen, firing erratically in all directions. He was bellowing, "I want Bartley; I want Bartley."

How the fuck had he known Bartley was here? There was a God-damned leak somewhere. Zeller ducked back out into the hallway, and I shouted again at Bartley to stay the fuck down. I could hear Joel yelling if anybody had seen me, and I went out the other door in Simon's office as Zeller reentered the bullpen and started shooting again. Son-of-a-bitch must have ducked out to reload. Shit, Joel was right in his way, but Rafe shoved Joel out of the line of fire. I heard the bullet enter Rafe's body. He was clutching his arm and he and Joel scuttled behind a desk as Zeller started his baying again.

I fired off shots at him and he went down, but the bastard must have been wearing Kevlar, because he got up seconds later and started laying down a spray pattern of bullets for cover. I heard him roaring," Ellison," with hate in his voice, and I made for the door, hoping he would follow me to get his revenge and leave the rest of the bullpen in peace.

He charged after me, shooting like a madman. I listened when he came out into the hallway to reload, and I turned the tables on him, firing at the crazy asshole, till he made for the doorway up to the roof.

I followed him, and by the time I got up to the roof and took cover behind a grill, Zeller was at the edge of the roof, attaching himself to a rope.

I taunted him. "You missed Bartley again."

"You're lying," he snarled back.

I aimed at him and said, "You might want to consider another career. Toss your weapon away and lie face down. You can't get away; you must've been insane to try this here."

For an answer, he tightened his finger on the trigger, and we exchanged fire.

Pain, sharp and bright, exploded in my leg - he'd hit me. For a moment I couldn't do anything except react to that agony, and he went over the roof's side like some demented rock climber.

I dialed down touch, which dulled the shooting bursts of pain, and lurched over to the edge. Zeller spotted me and fired off another shot.

And all I could think of was Blair expounding on Karma as the bullet the Iceman fired severed his own rope, and he fell ten stories to land with a horrible sound on the top of a car. Good riddance to the S.O.B. But I couldn't spare any more thoughts for the irony of a hit man offing himself by accident, because the excruciating pain in my leg was back, taking over my concentration.

I heard Joel calling my name from several floors below, and I sank down, putting pressure on my wound. It was going to lay me up for a couple of weeks, at least, but it wasn't life threatening. It hurt like a mother-fucking-son-of-a-bitch, though.

People were approaching the rooftop stairwell, and I shouted that all was clear.

H opened the door, gun held ready, and I yelled to him that it was safe -- that Zeller had managed to kill himself by falling.

He came to my side, pried my hand away from my leg, and took off his flannel shirt to help make a pressure bandage.

He patted me on the shoulder and went back to the stairwell, hollering down that Ellison was shot and medics were needed on the rooftop. He hurried back to me and I asked him who else was hurt. Nobody had been killed, but Rafe and Wong and Petrov were injured. However, they would live; thank God.

I looked up at Henri and grunted, "Tell that pain-in-the-ass Bartley that the rally is back on. At least we won't have to put up with the prick anymore. And call Blair. He hears about this on the news and he's gonna freak. Let him know we're okay."

"Sure thing, Ellison, my man; you just relax now, and I'll let Hairboy know you went to the hospital. Hell, he'll probably beat you there."

But he didn't beat me to the ER. He didn't come at all, not when I had surgery, or when I was laid up for two days before being released to go home. I was worried about him. The FBI said again that he wasn't in their custody, and I ended up asking my brother to check if Blair was home or not. He didn't see any sign that my guide had been there recently, except that he had left his laptop on the kitchen table. Steven assumed he wouldn't have gone very far without it and tried to reassure me Sandburg would probably be back soon.

"Maybe he's at that monastery you told me about, the one you and he stayed at before? He's got friends there, doesn't he?"

But when I called Brother Marcus, he hadn't heard from Blair; I dialed up my hearing and didn't detect any signs of lying in his voice or heartbeat over the phone.

Steven chauffeured me home and saw that I made it safely into my apartment. He asked if I wanted him to stay, but I needed some privacy. And I was okay, basically. I couldn't drive for a few more days and I'd have to take the elevator, but I could fend for myself.

I played through the messages on the machine - the majority of them reporters -- and felt even more concern when I realized Naomi had lost contact with Blair after his press conference, too. Her last message had been left only an hour ago, and I called her back.

We agreed that if either one of us heard from Blair or learned where he was staying, we'd get in touch with the other. Naomi was worried; she might go off on a whim, seeking new experiences, and drop out of sight - she'd done it a number of times since I'd known Blair - but Blair was a lot more responsible. He'd never disappeared like this before; always he had left a number for his mother to call, or a message to relay to her about when he would return.

I looked at his laptop sitting abandoned on the kitchen table. With trepidation, I gimped over and opened it up.

And there, on the screen, was a Post-It-Note with my name on it, a file location, and instructions for figuring out the password.

** ** ** ** ** **

I called Simon shortly after shutting down Blair's computer. I tersely relayed that Blair was gone, and hadn't left a destination or indicated when he would return. Simon was concerned but was more inclined to think Blair was just taking some time to think things over and would come back when he'd gotten some perspective on the whole mess.

"Jim, he probably needs to... let's see, how does the kid phrase it... oh, yeah. Process. He needs some time to process. And Jim, he left a note saying he was leaving. This isn't going to be a missing person case, and you can't put out an APB on him."

"He left his car here."

"Well, there you go. He loves that car; he wouldn't abandon it."

"He signed the title over to me. And wrote that he was giving me his laptop, too, because it held his notes on me."

"Look, Jim. Why don't you call around? See if he's holed up with a girlfriend, or if some of his other friends know where he is. But I'm telling you, he's just off licking his wounds, and he'll be back to be a pain in my backside again. Just don't worry so much, okay? I'm betting you'll be getting a phone call from him soon."

But the day wore on, and I didn't hear from Blair.

I called Naomi again, told her he'd left a letter saying he was leaving, and we compared notes on who we should check with to see if he was staying with old friends of Naomi's or borrowing couch space from some of his Rainier buddies. She was relieved to hear that he'd left a message and, like Simon, thought he'd be in touch in a few days.

"Maybe he's been bitten by wanderlust, Jim. After all, there's nothing in Cascade to hold him now. He'll get in touch with me when he's calmed himself and re-found his center. He's my son; I'm the only family he's ever had, and why would he close off our connection? Still, I'll put the word out on the grapevine that I want him to call me. I promise I'll let you know he's okay when he turns up. But Jim? If he doesn't want to see you, I won't betray his confidence and tell you where he is. Just so we're clear on that."

But the grapevine had nothing to report, and his friends and colleagues hadn't seen him. A few gave me some harsh messages for him along the lines of they didn't want to be friends with somebody who could falsify his research.

I didn't know what to say to those people. Part of me wanted to shout to them that Sandburg wasn't the fraud; I was, for hiding my abilities. The other part of me stubbornly insisted that my reasons for keeping quiet about my senses were valid, and that Sandburg hadn't safeguarded my confidentiality. It was a terrible price for him to pay, but it was his to pay. It was his responsibility to keep to the bargain we'd made years ago on the beach, when I'd given him permission to study me; to study a sentinel - a legend existing in modern times.

When I kept striking out on finding Blair, I even called Nickols and told him Sandburg was gone. He had no problem with the FBI putting out an APB on Sandburg, since he was still listed as a person of interest in their ongoing investigation. I kind of felt like a rat, doing that to my partner, but I was getting desperate to find him. Nickols said he'd call me when the kid turned up, and that I could stay with Blair when he was questioned again. That was a concession, a bargain without spelling it out, that I would convince Sandburg - well, try and persuade him anyway -- to make a complete statement in exchange for being there with him. I could, of course, give them the information they wanted, but I still felt it was Sandburg's story to tell. Unless he couldn't speak of the abuse he'd suffered. Then, if he agreed, I'd relay what had occurred to him and he could just say yes or no when asked if that was what had happened.

Four days after I was released from the hospital and could drive again, I took Blair's picture around to local truck stops. It had struck me that he might use his CDL as his way out of town. Nothing. I took out ads in the personals of all major newspapers across the country - 'Chief, call your mother or me. We love you. Jim.' But we didn't hear from him.

I made up posters and plastered them around town, and then I drove to Seattle where I did the same in his old harbor neighborhood and on the University of Washington's campus. I stopped at the urban commune Blair had stayed at, and, surprisingly, Blue-haired girl was still there. Her hair was now pink, but she hadn't heard from Blair.

"We weren't that close, Officer. Blair was friendly and he did his share of the chores, but he really wasn't what you'd call friends with anybody here. But I hope you find him - he's a good guy."

A few private detectives called, because they'd seen the posters, but there wasn't anything they could do that I wasn't already checking on.

I was worried, and, yes angry too, that he'd disappeared -- angry with him and angry with myself. Okay, I'd been pretty harsh on him after the sentinel story was made public, but I hadn't packed up his things and thrown him out of the loft. I wished he'd had a little more faith in me, that I would cool off and we'd work things out.

One week stretched into two, and by the end of three weeks I was back at work. Simon and pretty much all of Blair's friends at the PD weren't sounding so positive that Blair Sandburg would be bopping back into Major Crime anytime soon. Naomi's assurances were sounding a little thin, too. She even decided to consult some psychic weirdo friend of hers about Blair's whereabouts. She flew to where the guy was holding some kind of new age bullshit retreat, armed with pictures of Blair and some of his fetishes and small carvings that I'd let her take from his bedroom. I did some checking on the guy and it seemed to me that Charlie Springer was mostly in the psychic business to make money, but hell, it couldn't hurt. God knows, after my own bouts of the second sight, I shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the supernatural.

I had developed a ritual since Sandburg had disappeared. Every night, after checking phone messages and emails, I would boot up his laptop and type in the new password he'd left for me as a riddle - "what is the name of the Chopec shaman plus the number of Blair's favorite basketball player?" The computer would accept the name Incacha and Orvelle's number and I would click on the letter he'd bequeathed to me. I would read it slowly, all the way to the end, then read it again before closing down his computer and putting it in his old room.

And then I'd go to bed, and in the dark, which was never really dark to me, I'd bring up the memory of those words.

I'm sorry, so sorry that I broke my promise to you... No excuse for not taking more stringent precautions... I printed out my dissertation, the one that should have gone to Rainier, for you to read. It's in a box under my bed. Don't worry, that copy doesn't have your name or identifying information on it. Maybe it will help you; I won't need it anymore. All my notebooks of original data are in the box, too. I blacked out your name. You have no reason to believe me, but I did that before my diss was sent to Berkshire Publishing... Everything is wrong now, and that union leader was killed and Simon and Megan were hurt so badly -- and it's my fault. You would have nailed Zeller at the rally if the press hadn't interfered... Signed the Volvo over to you - consider it back rent... Keep my laptop...

I've seen your scorn; I couldn't stand to see your hate... You didn't even want my blood to be donated for Simon and Megan.

No future for me as an academic... I watched the newscast... The FBI is going to arrest me... Rainer is going to sue me for fraud. You can't have a partner and lover you don't trust... Tell my mother I'm sorry but I can't stay, not even for her.

It's better this way.

Blair

I'd lie there, in my bed, our bed, and stare up at the skylight. 'Where are you, Blair? Are we still bonded? I can't tell from our bond where you've gone. Although maybe I could tell before because I was holding your choker. Are you wearing it now? Or are you hiding it, so nobody else steals it away?'

Just before falling asleep, sometimes I'd remember our first meeting when he'd been there in the surf, pulling me away from the clutches of the ocean.

And crazy, crazy thoughts would enter my mind. Bits of the old selkie stories from Ireland that Granny had told me. Her reading Kipling's The White Seal to me. Picturing how Blair had stood on the beach when I first met him -- wet, and naked, except for his sealskin choker around his neck.

But he doesn't wear his choker around his neck anymore, does he? Oh, Blair. Is your seal skin the leather bracelet you hide on your ankle? Do you keep it there so nobody else steals you away?

Where the hell are you, Chief? Are you living in a small town or a new city?

Or did you go back to your other world, Child of the Open Sea?

** ** ** ** ** **

My senses I kept mostly dialed down these days, except when I needed them for work. Experience during the first week Blair was gone had taught me that if I didn't, the sensory spikes would ambush me. At least I hadn't zoned on anything; probably because my guide had drilled it into my thick head that I should always keep at least one of my other senses somewhat focused on something else while I dived deeply into whatever I was checking out. Could be as simple as popping a Tic Tac into my mouth while I used sight to look for fingerprints at a crime scene.

But I was home, not on the job, so it wasn't until I heard the knock on my door that I used my senses and found that Simon was standing on the other side.

I ushered him in and asked if he wanted a beer. But I knew this wasn't a social call, an impromptu act on his part to swing by and see what his old pal Jim Ellison was up to this Saturday night. Simon always called first, before making plans, and the grim look on his face confirmed that he wasn't bringing me good news.

He waved off the suggestion of alcohol and said, "Come and sit down in the living room, Jim."

"You've got news of Blair?" I could feel my heartbeat's cadence increase.

"Come and sit down." Simon spoke the words gently, and my stomach flipped. If he'd used his normal loud tone of voice, I'd have known everything was okay, that he was going to say Sandburg had been off living in a commune in Vermont, or had been hiking the Appalachian Trail, or had joined the circus, but soon would be returning to be a pain in Simon's backside once again.

Numbly, I sat down on the couch and waited. Simon lowered himself onto the love seat and fixed his eyes on mine.

"I've already called Sandburg's mother and told her. Naomi's catching a flight here tonight; her plane comes in at ten thirty. I can pick her up, if you don't feel up to it, Jim." He sighed, and there was grief in the sound.

I steeled myself.

"Blair's backpack was found this afternoon by some kids poking around the edge of Cascade Beach. It had been hidden under a cairn of rocks, but apparently some of the stones had fallen over, exposing part of it, and they dug it out. It contained some clothes, and his wallet and observer's pass. His driver's license, his credit card, and his emergency one hundred dollar bill were in his wallet, along with about fifty bucks in other bills. There was no letter. This wasn't a robbery, Jim."

Simon continued to talk in that horribly gentle tone. "He didn't own a wet suit, did he?"

I shook my head no, taking in the implications of what Simon had said.

"Jim, I'm so sorry, but everything is leading us to believe Blair committed suicide by swimming out into the ocean. We've alerted the Coast Guard, and other coastal towns and cities, in case his body is found. But it's been a month now since he disappeared and we may never be able to recover it."

He was silent for a moment, struggling with his own emotions. In his own way, I knew he loved Blair, too.

"Jim, you'd mentioned to me that Blair left you a letter telling you he'd gone. I need to see it, probably need a copy of it for the file."

Like a zombie I got up and stumbled into Blair's room and carried out his laptop, placed it on the kitchen counter. I opened it and located the document Simon wanted to see, all on automatic pilot. Simon thought Blair was dead. Thought he'd given up and swum out into the cold ocean until hypothermia dragged him under and he drowned, his body swept out to sea.

No! I couldn't believe that was true. Blair wasn't the type to just off himself! But a rational voice in the back of my mind was reminding me that he'd been under enormous pressure, had felt alone and forsaken, had felt guilty about letting me down, and responsible for Simon and Megan's injuries. Hell, he'd even thought it was his fault Bartley had died at the rally; he hadn't known that it was a dummy that had been shot, and not the union leader.

Maybe in a dark mood he'd hitchhiked to the beach and left his stuff and just done it, just given in to the impulse to make the world a better place by leaving it. If he'd waited another day, even a couple more hours, probably the mood would have lightened and the suicidal impulse would have faded. But if he'd acted while caught in the tangled web of illogical and hopeless thoughts suicidal people experienced -- God, he could have done it.

Simon moved next to me, carefully -- like I was fragile and any vibrations from him stomping around might shatter me.

He turned the laptop around so that he could read the screen. Watching him, I concentrated silently on everything he had told me -- searching dazedly for another explanation.

He sucked in his breath and our eyes met, a surprised expression on his face that melted into one of pity.

"Jim, I didn't know. When did you two - never mind. It's not important now. But I'm so sorry, Jim. He was a good kid, and I always knew he loved you. I just didn't know you were together."

What he said was confusing to me and it must have shown, because Simon indicated the letter. And then gave me a concerned look. "Sit down before you fall over." I shakily obeyed, and Simon quietly added, "His words gave it away, Jim. He called you his lover."

He shook his head sadly. "This letter - in it he passed on his possessions, and apologized for the step he was going to take when he got to the beach. I'm so sorry, but you know as well as I do that people with suicidal impulses often leave messages like that." Simon laid his big hand on my shoulder and squeezed. "Between this letter and how he left his backpack, I think we've got enough evidence to know what he did."

He removed his hand from my shoulder and idly brushed his fingers against the counter. "Jim... I'd understand if you didn't want this letter to go into his file. Or if you deleted the part about being his lover."

I clenched my fists. "I don't care anymore what people think about me. I was ready to come out of the closet when Blair and I became lovers for the second time. I'm not going to deny what he was to me." And when I heard myself use the past tense, like I believed he was really dead, I rebelled and pushed away from the table and stood back up.

"I'm not accepting he's dead, Simon. Not until I see his body! And... And, why hide his backpack? If he was going to swim out to his death, why would he care about hiding it from other people's sight?"

"No." I shook my head emphatically. "He meant to come back. Or he was leaving the door open in case he decided to come back." I looked away, out the balcony doors, and focused my sight on the harbor. "Maybe he left in a boat?"

Then a thought hit me so hard that my knees almost gave way, and I leaned against the table. Suddenly I had to know. It was very, very important that I know.

"What about his choker, Simon? That sealskin bracelet he always carried with him, the one I gave back to him. Was it in his backpack? It wasn't, was it?"

"No, Jim. It wasn't. But that only means he was wearing it when he went into the ocean. It wouldn't have made any difference. Jim, you used to surf! You know what the water temperature is like at that beach. He wouldn't have survived in just his skin!"

I gripped his arms. "I'm not giving up on him, Simon. And I'll pick up Naomi. I... I really have to talk to her."

It was time for all the secrets to be called forth.

** ** ** ** ** **

Naomi is a tall woman, taller than her son. But she felt small to me, folded in on herself, when I hugged her at the airport. Her eyes were swollen, and the lightness of movement I associated with her was gone. She moved heavily and the scent of sorrow exuding from her body told me that, like Simon, she thought Blair had drowned himself.

She seemed exhausted, and I was unwilling to start any important conversation in the middle of the airport. I shepherded her to my truck and stowed her two large suitcases in the back. I opened the passenger door for her, and she took a deep breath and climbed in.

When I stuck the key in the ignition, she laid her hand on my arm.

"Jim..." Another deep breath, that she let out slowly. She was centering herself. Blair used to do it all the time, and I realized that she must have taught him how to do it. Taught him to meditate, to do Yoga. Taught him to explore the world, and to travel lightly. Taught him to value the earth, and the sea. She'd been his only parent and tonight I was going to ask her why he had no father.

"I want to go to that beach. The one he... the one where dear Simon said his backpack was found. I need to say goodbye to my boy. I brought candles with me. Will you take me there tonight?"

I had planned on bringing her back to the loft, to make her some of Blair's tea, add honey to help with the shock I knew she was experiencing, before I asked her to tell me her secrets.

But maybe being on the beach, hearing the sound of the waves, would be better. Would bring back to her that time when she was too young to be a woman and too old to be a child. When she'd met someone and he'd given her his baby.

And I prayed to my granny's God, and every deity that I'd ever heard Blair mention, that the wild tale I'd been concocting in my head was the truth. For Blair's sake, I needed to know that legends and myths could be real, and that they could leave fantasy and walk in the mundane world.

I drew her into my arms and dropped a kiss on the top of her head. Her scent - her usual scent - was partly like Blair's own and it was bittersweet to tease out that familiar aroma from the rest.

"We can go down to Cascade Beach; that's where... And there are things I need to ask you, Naomi. About Blair. I don't think it'll be easy for you to answer my questions, but it's very, very important that you tell me the truth. No matter how difficult it is or how much you think I won't believe you. I promise you; I won't think you're crazy or making anything up."

I released her and started the truck. She gave me a confused look but nodded slightly.

If I was right, if Naomi told me the story I hoped was hers, I could believe that Blair was alive.

And I needed to believe he was alive.

God, Blair. Be alive.

** ** ** ** ** **

Once Naomi had lit her candles - twenty-five small votive flames flickering in the wind, sheltered by the wall of damp sand we had built around them - I didn't know how to ask her what I needed to learn.

She sat down cross-legged on the old blanket I'd brought from the truck and held out her hand. I grasped it and lowered myself to sit beside her. We were silent, holding hands, listening to the waves roll up on the beach, and gazing at the candles that symbolized each year of Blair's life.

"He was such a beautiful child - my friend Gina used to say he had an old soul - and he became a beautiful man. Inside, I mean. He was kind and generous and so brilliant. His soul will be re-born, but oh, how I'll miss my son." I smelled brine, but it wasn't from the ocean.

"Naomi... I think he's still alive."

She raised my hand to her lips and kissed it. "Oh, Jim. It's hard to accept, I know. But I'm not surprised that he chose to go into the sea. He was always drawn to the ocean, and the impressions Charlie had from touching Blair's things were of a beach, and water, and sadness. I hope he gained peace before he... died."

"No. I don't believe that he committed suicide." The breeze blew one of the candles out and I let go of Naomi's hand and I stretched to relight it. For Naomi, the candles were a way of honoring Blair's years on this earth. But not for me. For me, they were a beacon, a light for him to find his way home.

I grabbed her hand again and squeezed it. "He told me a story once. He didn't tell me all of it, though. I'm hoping you will, Naomi." I took a deep breath - Sandburg had taught me how to do that centering thing - and let it slowly out, picturing Blair's face. "Please listen to me, and tell me the truth."

I could see Naomi's face clearly in the moonlight and there was sorrow and pity in her expression. "Jim, sweetie. I hear you. I know you were close to Blair. He loved you, you know."

"And I loved him. I still love him. He was my lover." I felt the involuntary jerk of her muscles. "Are you surprised?"

She shook her head. "A little, I suppose. I'm sorry, Jim. You must feel so alone right now." She was right, but I didn't want her pity. I wanted answers.

"Blair told me that he took something from you. Something that belonged to him, that you had hidden away. He said he'd read your diary and he knew it came from his father's side of the family. It was a sealskin choker, and he left another one in its place, so you wouldn't know he'd taken it back." It was time to ask the real questions. "Where did that choker come from? And who was Blair's father?" I willed her to be truthful.

"Did you call a selkie from the sea, Naomi?"

She was dumbstruck and stared at me with wide, confused eyes.

I gripped her by the shoulders. "Was Blair's father a selkie? Don't you see? Blair went into the ocean wearing his choker. If he's a selkie, then he's not dead... he's just left one world for another."

I breathed out my desperate hope.

"And I can try to bring him home."

** ** ** ** ** **

My hands released her and Naomi found her voice. "Blair discovered his seal skin... Does he know how it works, how to use it? But if he's shifted to his seal shape, then I've still lost him. And Jim, honey, you have, too. The midwife who took it from Blair told me that if he ever transformed and went into the ocean, he would choose the sea over land. He might come ashore for brief times but he would always, always return to the ocean. She said it was the way of the selkies. That's why I hid it, to keep him safe."

Very gently, I asked, "Please, tell me everything. I am a detective and you never know what information will help break a case. I want him back, Naomi. And he's had his skin since he was a teenager, and still made his home on land. I realize now that the first time I met him he was in his seal form." I looked out towards the beach where the rising tide was sending greedy fingers of salt water towards us. "He changed practically under me, when he towed me back to the beach. I had been swept away by a riptide and had gotten hypothermic and lost my sense of direction. One minute this seal was talking to me in my head, and telling me to hold on to him. And then, when I could stand up in the water again, the seal disappeared and Blair was there, helping me out of the surf. He was naked, except for that choker."

Naomi made a small sound of wonder. And then reached up and wiped away the tears drying on her face.

"I haven't wanted to admit it, because it seems so crazy, but crazy is looking pretty good right now. My granny was from Ireland; she told me about selkies when I was a boy. And over the past three years, there've been times when I allowed myself to wonder if my partner and friend was a selkie. I... I had found his skin, in the form of the choker, shortly after we met, when we..." Christ, Naomi was Sandburg's mother and I found myself reluctant to tell her I'd fucked her son just hours after meeting him.

I decided to gloss over the sex part of the story. "Well, anyway, he'd dropped it and I picked it up. I held on to it because, oh, hell - you know that I'm a sentinel, right? That Blair told the truth about me in his dissertation? He's my guide, we're connected, and something about him keeps my senses stable. Otherwise they can be hard to deal with - I get spells where everything is too overwhelming or I can lose myself studying something. I found out by accident that wearing his choker kept everything on an even keel."

I sighed. "At first I didn't mean to keep it from him. I didn't know how to contact him, although I did finally figure out his full name - ID'ed him from his driver's license picture. But he found me before I tracked him down. Now I realize that was because I had his choker. The old stories my granny spun all said that to keep a selkie with you, first steal his or her skin and hide it; the selkie must follow you then, and can't leave until the skin is taken back by the selkie. And if you want your captive to be your mate, then he or she will lie with you. I don't think a captured selkie can tell you no to sex if it's demanded."

She looked horrified. "Oh, Goddess, did you -"

"I hope not. I'm clinging to the fact that I asked him to stay lovers with me, years ago, and he told me no. Maybe you have to make it a command in order to compel a selkie into your bed? I always invited; I never pressed him for sex."

Naomi was listening intently and I continued. "He asked me if I'd found his leather bracelet and I lied. I told myself it was for insurance, to keep my senses sane in case he ever left me. I said I hadn't seen it, but I was wearing it when I told him that. I withheld the truth from him until Alex Barnes stole his choker from me. You remember, she was the woman who kidnapped him? Well, she took it and Blair was compelled to follow her. I told him what I'd done, and I'm so very lucky that he forgave me. He took it back from Barnes and he had it in his own possession when he came here. He was free to transform." I made a frustrated sound. "But how do you call a selkie out of the sea?"

"You told me that he never admitted to being a selkie, right?"

"No. Guess he thought I'd think he was delusional, or some scientists would want to make a lab animal out of him. It's what I would be worried about if I was in his flippers." I gave her an apologetic half-smile. I missed Blair so much just then; he would've laughed at my attempt at a little joke.

"I never told him the truth about how he was born." She studied her hands for a moment and said, "Jim, I was sixteen, and I'd left home. I hooked up with this guy and he had friends who had a communal house in Ireland. I can't say that I was in love with Joseph but he asked me to go with him, and I thought it would be groovy. The house was on the western coast and right next to the sea. It was so very beautiful there, and the people living in that old farmhouse were artists and writers and musicians; there was such good talk and music. I thrived on it."

Naomi smiled in memory, then sighed. "But Joseph decided to move on and dumped me. He left, and that night I was so angry. It was the first time a relationship that had meant anything at all to me had ended. I wanted to get even with him for leaving me and finding another woman. Brighid, she told me that if I wanted a lover for the night I should cut my finger and give seven drops of blood to the sea, and wish with all my soul for a lover to come to me. And to stay on the beach for the night."

I waited for her to continue, but she was lost in thought for a few moments. "So, I took a bottle of whiskey Joseph had left, and a blanket, and I went down to the shore. I was going to get drunk and sit and watch the ocean. I didn't really believe seven drops of blood would bring me a lover, but after I'd had a few slugs from the bottle, I decided I would try it. I cut my finger with a sharp bit of shell and waded out to my knees and squeezed those drops of blood out of my body and watched them fall into the ocean. And I wished for a man to come and make me forget the feel of Joseph's hands on my skin. I... I might have yelled it. I was angry and crying and it was cathartic for me. After a while the coldness of the ocean chilled my rage, and I went back to my blanket. I sipped a little more from the bottle, and then, I guess I went to sleep."

The moon was casting light on the ocean and on Naomi's face. She seemed lost in the past, remembering the night her son was conceived.

She changed her posture, from cross-legged to drawing her knees up to her chest, wrapping her arms around her legs. "I stirred from sleep and there was a man sitting next to me, touching my temples. He was so lovely and so kind. I never even felt concerned that I was alone with him. Of course, that could have been from drinking. I could feel the comfort he was offering to me, but later, I could never remember if he ever actually said a word to me. He wanted to know my name and where I lived, and I told him. He let me know that I was beautiful and he wanted to make my body sing. His hands felt so wonderful... well, we made love the rest of the night." She fell silent, evidently recalling that night of sex and sensations. And I wondered if she'd never settled down with one man because none of her later lovers could match what she'd felt for her selkie man that night.

Naomi shifted and relaxed her legs back down into a simple meditation pose. "Blair inherited his hair and his eyes," she confided with a wistful look. "I've always loved Blair's curls because of that."

She smiled. "My lover kissed me so sweetly afterwards and held me as I fell asleep. He was gone when I woke up. I would have been tempted to think he was just a whiskey dream, except for the evidence of our lovemaking on my body. And the evidence that came later, as I realized I was pregnant."

I patted her on the shoulder, seeing a young girl, heavy with pregnancy, with no partner to help her and no parents to care for her.

"You stayed at that house by the sea, didn't you? Blair told me he was born in Ireland."

"I did. My friends were welcoming, and everybody thought my baby must be Joseph's child. But I knew the truth. I never for a moment thought the man I'd slept with was a selkie, though. I didn't know the legends, and Brighid hadn't told me the lover I wished for would come from the sea."

"How did you find out?"

"Blair was born in that house. An old woman, the local midwife, delivered him. And while I was in labor - when I could spare the breath to talk - she asked me who the father was. I didn't lie to her - I didn't want Joseph's name on the birth certificate, so I said I didn't know. She got the whole story out of me, and it seemed to worry her a lot, that my baby's father was a stranger and nameless. But she didn't make me feel like I'd been a slut. She was kind, too -- as kind as Blair's father, in her own way. She sent one of the men down to the ocean for a bucketful of seawater, and set it away in the adjoining room. Why she did that I didn't know and I soon didn't care as my labor intensified. And then my baby was born and it was truly a transcendental experience."

Her voice became dreamy. "Even now, I can bring back that feeling of being at the crossroads of life and death as my baby left my body and drew his first breath. And when I held him, I was so amazed that I had sheltered this tiny, perfect human being within me. I was so happy."

"And then the midwife took him from me, after his cord had been cut, and my contractions had pushed out the placenta. She carried him into the other room. I didn't want to let my baby out of my sight, so I made myself get out of bed. She didn't know I followed her. I watched her kneel down by that cold bucket of seawater, and I screamed when she pushed my child into it so that the water totally covered him."

Naomi shuddered at the memory. "I thought she was drowning him, drowning him because he had no father. The old woman looked back at me, told me to hush, and to come see for myself what my child was. I was already moving; I was going to save my baby, but when I reached down into the pail to pick him up, he was gone.

"What I saw in that bucket was a tiny, white-furred baby seal, so sweet. And I was scared, and I'm afraid I started yelling and crying that she had stolen my baby. She ignored me and lifted the seal pup from the water. There was a blurring, which happened so quickly that I wanted to rub my eyes, sure that something was wrong with my vision, and there was my baby boy in her arms. The midwife sat right down on the floor and laid him in her lap. She pulled and worried at the skin on his head - I could see that it wasn't baby hair - and she slid off a handful of it. She shaped his pliant skin into a strip about an inch wide and dropped it into the bucket of seawater. Then she stood up, holding my baby.

"I was in shock, and she took me by the arm and led me back to the bed and helped me get in. I was bleeding and she wrapped the baby up and set him down on the foot of the bed while she tended to me. Then she picked up my child and held him while she told me exactly what I'd done the night I'd had sex with my stranger on the beach."

"She told you about selkies."

"Yes. And she told me that if I couldn't love and care for this child, she would take him to the convent in the next parish, where the sisters would make sure the baby had a good home far away from Ireland and the sea. The sisters would keep his skin safe for him. And Blair wouldn't have been the first selkie baby she'd taken to them. She said that if I kept the boy, I should leave soon. When the child was no longer a nursing babe his father would come for him, if I lived here on the coast. And I wouldn't be able to keep myself from giving the boy to his father because a selkie in possession of his skin holds power."

"I know you kept Blair and left Ireland. But I'm confused about his choker. If you held it, then how come you didn't get suspicious when he was able to leave you to travel and go to college?"

"Maeve, the midwife, explained that since she'd forced Blair to change within an hour of his birth his seal skin didn't hold the connection to his body it would when he was older. Anybody could be in possession of it and Blair wouldn't have to go to them, to be their pawn and captive. God, Jim. I should have told him, should have warned him not to ever, ever touch it back to his own skin and go into the ocean and change form. You see, as a newborn, his seal skin was neutral, but now it's not. Not since he took it back. I wrote down what had happened and kept my journal, with his skin, in a secret place. But not secret enough, since he found it."

She worried at her lip and I could see her eyes glisten with tears.

"Oh Jim, the day of Blair's birth I promised Maeve that I would keep my child and love him. She put him back in my arms to nurse at my breast, and I swore I would never lose him to the sea."

Naomi began to cry softly. "But I have. Maeve said that once a selkie child born to a human woman goes into the sea, they never choose willingly to stay for long on land. And it's been a month since he left this beach. He won't come back, Jim. Not for me and not for you."

I held her as she grieved for her lost son. But I wasn't ready to give up hope.

I'm going to do everything I can to call you back to me, my Child of the Open Sea.

** ** ** ** ** **

Naomi had one more revelation for me, which I didn't learn from her until she had packed to leave the loft and Cascade on Tuesday morning. We'd spent most of the last two days at Cascade Beach - me walking up and down the shoreline, trying to send out mental messages to Blair to come home, and Naomi meditating, sending out her own invitation for her son to return. We each dripped blood into the sea, and I for one felt like an idiot doing it. But Blair didn't come back and Naomi was convinced that our actions were futile. She opted to leave.

I came downstairs from getting dressed and found that Naomi was up, her bags by the door; she was sitting at the kitchen table with Blair's laptop.

She was frowning at it. "Jim, Blair's usual passwords aren't working, and I want to read his goodbye letter one more time."

I reached down and turned the laptop towards me, typed in the correct wording and brought up the file for her again.

Then I went down to the bakery to give her some privacy. When I returned, bearing whole-wheat bagels and carrot juice, she had closed the computer and was standing looking out through the balcony windows.

I placed my booty on the table and went to her, laying my hands on her shoulders, my thumbs touching her neck.

"I'm not giving up, Naomi."

"I hear you, Jim."

Translation: she didn't agree with me, but she acknowledged my right to feel that way. Blair had provided an interpretation on Naomi lingo during her first visit after he moved in with me.

"You don't know how many times I've wished I hadn't sent his dissertation to Sid."

"You sent it? Why?" After he'd disappeared it seemed unimportant to keep picking at that whole mess with his thesis.

She turned around to face me, surprise in her eyes. "Blair didn't tell you? Why didn't he tell you?"

"Uh... probably because I never gave him the chance to talk to me. I was too furious, and by the time I wanted to hear his explanation, he was gone. So what do you mean, you sent it to this Sid?"

"Blair said he was finished writing his dissertation, and I wanted to see it. But he said it was just a rough draft and not good enough yet. He had printed out a copy, locked it in a box, and made me promise not to read it while he was gone. I just wanted to help him; he's always been his own worst critic, and I was sure his thesis was wonderful. I thought if Sid would look it over and tell him he'd done a great job, it would give him a real boost. Sid is an old boyfriend of mine, and a senior editor at Berkshire Publishing."

I remembered she'd said she'd tried Blair's passwords this morning. Oh, surely she didn't...

"You knew Blair's password for his computer?"

"Well, yes, I figured it out. I'm his mother, Jim. I know my son. I just typed in words important to him until I found the password. And I kept my promise to him; I didn't read a word of it. I located his file by doing a search for a document with the word thesis in the title. He told me later that he'd made a copy of his thesis, then removed your name. He changed the working title from 'Thesis' to 'The Sentinel', and then dumped the old document into the trash bin file. And that was the one I emailed to Sid."

I groaned. Blair had taken every reasonable precaution for security and had taken my name out of his dissertation. But why had Berkshire been so pushy about releasing parts of Blair's work?

"Naomi, is there more to explain?"

"I wanted to surprise him. I never dreamed that he wouldn't want his thesis - his book - to be published. All authors want to be published. That's when Sid contacted the media, after I sent back the release form that I signed for my son. I'm so sorry, Jim. I brought such chaos to your lives. I also sent a copy to another friend, a massage therapist, because of his connection to one of the men on the Nobel Prize committee. He agreed to show Blair's work to his client. Blair was absolutely dumbfounded when he'd found out what I'd done."

She started to cry again. "I hate to think that he decided to go into the sea because of what I did."

I pulled her to me and hugged her. And thought hard about the nature of butterflies.

"No, no, Blair loves you; I'm sure it wasn't what you did that pushed him into disappearing. It was me. Blair's the most forgiving person I've ever met and he would not have held your trying to help him against you. I rejected him; it's my fault he left."

She regained her composure and walked into the bathroom. And I had my own turn at staring out at the bay.

Blair hadn't betrayed me at all, not out of greed, as I'd first assumed, and not out of carelessness, either. He'd done as I'd asked and made his work secure. It wasn't his fault that Naomi had been so relentless in her desire to help her son.

Blair had evidently inherited from her his curiosity and resourcefulness.

And, I reminded myself again, as Blair's mother returned to the living room, the tears splashed from her face, you don't pull the wings off of butterflies.

** ** ** ** ** **

After a week of practically living on Cascade Beach, except for the minimal hours I put in at work, I was getting discouraged. I traversed the beach over and over and called up my memories of Blair, asking him in my mind to once again forgive me for being such an asshole to him and to come home.

I tried to imagine my thoughts as being arrows and that I was shooting them out into the ocean But I felt and heard nothing in response until the Sunday after Naomi had flown away to a retreat in Sedona, Arizona -- something about the ley lines converging out there in the desert. She truly didn't believe Blair would ever come back.

But that Sunday evening, as I let the cold water wash over my ankles, I felt a response in my mind, a few seconds of surprise and then sadness.

I shouted out his name. With real words, not just in my mind. And I cranked up my vision and scanned the Pacific. I saw nothing at first; then, far out past the breakers, I saw a seal surface. Once again, there was a fleeting moment of sorrow and despondancy, and then the seal dove and I had no more contact that night.

I was elated. Sandburg was alive. He was alive and out there, and he'd recognized my thoughts. The world was full of mysteries and my lover was one of them.

I waited all night for him to come out of the sea to me.

But he didn't return.

And for the next week, I would catch glimpses of my selkie lover, as he patrolled the stretch of ocean that bordered Cascade Beach. He was always alone. And gradually, he increased the length of time he would return my thoughts. He never spoke in words in my head, but I could understand what he was communicating.

He was amazed that I had realized he was a selkie. He was lonely. And he thought I should move on; find somebody else to be my guide. He loved me and missed me - he couldn't disguise his emotions - but he still thought he'd made the right decision. He was sad and in despair that his actions had caused such damage.

I finally was able to make him understand that Simon and Megan were all right, and had returned to work. That Bartley hadn't died and had won his vote. That his mother loved him and wanted to see him again.

I sent apology after apology to him and promises of everything working out and being okay. I begged him to leave the sea and return home with me.

But he never got close to shore, and would only communicate with me for short bursts of time; I could tell that it tired him out, for one thing. But my being there every evening on the shore was keeping him anchored to this area. I got a clear sense that he felt tied to his old life, but unable to resume it. He thought he'd crossed a line and couldn't go back.

This stalemate had to end. I remembered the stories my granny had told of the selkie women who'd escaped back to the sea. Their children and human husbands would wander the shore, calling to the selkie wife and mother to return to them. And she would swim near them to glimpse her loved ones, but would never return to the land.

I didn't want our fairytale story to end like that. And if Blair wouldn't come to me, then I would go to him.

** ** ** ** ** **

I considered renting a boat, but in the end I decided it was too impersonal, too far away from the water. No, I knew what would get me closest to Sandburg. It made me break out in a cold sweat when I thought about taking my surfboard out into the ocean again, but it also felt right. This whole chapter of my life had started with surfing, after all.

I made sure my wet suit was still in excellent shape and I spent some time applying Sex Wax to my board. It was still early in the season for there to be much activity on the shore - for the most part I'd had the beach to myself during the last week - and the shore was deserted when I returned in the late afternoon after working on one of my current cases.

I doubted that anything else but my intense desire to be closer to Blair would have gotten me over the hurdle of paddling out on my board. I sweated with reaction, and sternly told my body to shut up. I was doing this. No going back; no second thoughts. My heart was beating fast, but I hadn't lost my skill at surfing.

Once past the breakers, I cleared my mind of my anxiety, and focused on sending out image after image of Blair and me from our life on land. I remembered the taste of his skin, the touch of his hands on my body, the joking around with each other, the fear I'd felt when his life was in danger, the sound of his voice bringing me out of a zone.

As my board rose and fell on the swells, I unclipped a knife from my suit and pricked my finger. I let each of the seven drops of blood fall into the sea, and I wished with all my soul for Blair to be my lover again. To come and lie with me on the sand; to let me taste and touch him again.

To stay with me.

I tried to make him realize how much I loved him. He was out there, I could sense it; maybe our bond had adjusted to him being in selkie form -- I didn't know, really, but he was nearby.

And swimming closer.

I felt his incredulity that I had come out so far from the shore. He knew I'd become phobic about surfing and here I was coming to find him. I felt a scolding from him, a sense that I was a dumb shit for dumping even a tiny bit of blood in the ocean - something about sharks and prey. And joy, that I was close enough for him to see.

He surfaced a few feet from my board and I looked into those blue, blue eyes of his and I spoke to him and told him I loved him. I loved him and wanted him and I would do whatever he said to make things right with him. That I was a jerk but that the day he'd disappeared, I'd been ready to listen to him. That the sacrifice of his career had been the most potent expression of love anybody had ever made for me, and that I was so, so sorry he'd had to make that decision.

He swam closer, until I could reach out and touch him. His skin felt dense, the fur smooth. Panic resonated from him, that I would find him deformed, strange, and be put off by his seal form.

I shook my head and said, "I love you, Blair, no matter what your shape is. I'll love you when you grow a potbelly and have only three strands of hair left on your head. I'll love you when you're eighty years old and your face is wrinkled and your ass is sagging. Please, Blair. Come to the beach with me. I want to make love to you. I've missed you so much the weeks you've been out here."

He looked searchingly at me and I could feel his desire, his great longing to have again what he'd given up.

"Please?"

A tidal wave of affection and love and agreement flooded me, and he turned to swim slowly toward the shore, staying near me. I maneuvered my board back to where the swells were pumping. After a few minutes I had a good prospect and I paddled hard to match the speed of the wave.

The billow surged toward the beach and I did a pop-up, balancing on the deck, riding ahead of the white water as I surfed to the beach. Blair'd been near me, but before the tube had formed and I'd entered it he'd disappeared from my sight, diving under, I thought, where he wouldn't be tumbled.

Surfing was like flying, and I laughed, pleased that I'd faced down my fears. I felt ecstatic; Blair was coming back to me.

I rode the lip up to the beach and jumped off, grabbing my leash and dragging the board out of the reach of the soup. I took the leash off and scanned the surface. I saw a dark shape streaking under the water and then after another wave crashed on the shore, Blair stood up and waded through the swash and the backwash to stand naked on the sand. He waited, his usually busy hands silent and still, and whispered my name.

My love. My lover. My selkie lover.

I swept the beach for prying eyes, but we were alone.

I started stripping off my wet suit, dropping the gloves and the cap on the sand as I advanced toward him.

The sun wasn't ready to set but it was riding low in the sky, and the clouds were a brilliant pink and red color. Blair stood so still when I reached him, almost like a statue except for the deep shuddering breaths he was releasing.

I touched his face, his beautiful face. I stroked the choker around his neck, and he moaned. I kissed him then and tried to put into it everything I felt. And he responded eagerly, as if some permission had been granted, and I felt his body relaxing.

We kissed and kissed, until if I didn't get that fucking wet suit the rest of the way off it was never going to get past the pole in my pants. I broke away from him and grunted out something about a blanket I had on the beach.

He smiled at me, his face flushed with joy, and we careened together back up the beach to where I'd laid out my blanket and a cooler and other supplies.

He dropped to the blanket and leaned back on his elbows, legs spread, and grinned at my clumsy attempts to unzip my suit. Finally the damn thing was off and I pushed down my long Speedo. I'd checked again and we were alone. But hell, I don't think I would have cared if there had been other people near us.

"Want me to wax your board, Jim?" He quit looking up at me and dropped his eyes to my erection.

"Sandburg..." I mock-growled at him, but I was grinning. My Sandburg was here. The funny, sexy, sweet man who could make a stupid joke one moment and save my life the next. The dorky, brilliant, walking encyclopedia who didn't get fazed when I lost my temper and who bullied me into eating things I never intended to try and fixed me smelly medicinal brews when I was sick.

I dropped to my knees and settled myself heavily on top of him. He gave a slight oof, but he was sturdy. He could take it. I circled his lips with my finger, his mouth opening and his eyes growing black with arousal -- I'd discovered that hotspot of Blair's the first time we'd made love, back in La Push. I wanted to kick my younger self's ass, for thinking back then that anonymous sex was the only pleasure I could ever have with a man. This man was mine. This man completed me. If he chose to go back to the sea after lying with me, here on this beach, it would break me.

We touched and licked and sucked and thrust until we both had reached completion. Dazed, I rolled off of him and stared up at the clouds -- to be able to touch him like this, to make him shudder from pleasure - God, I wanted this for the rest of my life.

The sweat we'd generated was chilling on our bodies from the breeze and Sandburg started shivering a little as he lay splayed out on the blanket.

I stroked his flank. "You don't have a nice undercoat of blubber to keep you from the cold, Child of the Open Sea. Come here and let me warm you." He rolled compliantly against me and I wrapped my arms and legs around him.

"Why does that sound familiar, calling me Child of the Open Sea?"

"It's from a story my granny read to me as a kid. Kipling wrote it. I think it was called, uh... The White --"

"The White Seal. Yeah, I read it, too. I remember the story now; the White Seal saved the other seals from being slaughtered by the hunters. It influenced me a lot, made me want to join Greenpeace when I was older. Naomi didn't read it to me, though. Thinking back, she pretty much avoided the topic of seals in general. And she didn't like my interest in the ocean at all. After I found her diary and read about how I was born, it all made more sense to me." His teeth worried at his lip. "Is she okay?"

"No, Chief. She's not. She's convinced that you'll never stay on land again, that you'll chose to live your life out in the ocean."

I hesitated. But I had to know. "Blair, I love you and I can't join you in the water. Will you stay on land and live with me, and love me? I can't tell you how sorry I am that I was too mad to listen to you when Naomi sent your thesis to her old boyfriend." He jerked a little in my arms. "Yeah, she told me. She's quite the hacker, isn't she? But I swear to you, I was getting over blowing up, and I was even going to ask you, if I left the PD, if you would go with me to somewhere else. Maybe find a place more out in the wilderness. I dunno, I was thinking maybe about joining Search and Rescue or checking into being a forest ranger. Doing something where it wouldn't matter if it was known about me being a sentinel."

I buried my face against the back of his neck, tasted the salt from his sweat and the salt from the ocean. "Please, Blair."

He was silent. I waited, too afraid, really, to say anything else.

"I love you, Jim. I've never really loved anybody like I love you. Part of me wants to stay with you. Part of me is scared about what happens the next time you're sure I fucked you over. Part of me wants to stay in the sea, where life is so much simpler. And it's so incredibly beautiful. But it's lonely being there -- I've looked and I haven't found anybody like me. No selkies, I mean. I'm not really a seal when I'm wearing my seal coat. I'm still me, still think like me. The seals I've seen are animals to me, not family, not potential mates."

"I'm your family, Blair. I'm your mate. We married each other, remember? I know I can be dense sometimes -- but I give you my word that I've learned I've got to listen to you before making assumptions. And you made some assumptions, too, you know. Like at the hospital when I had Joel stop you from giving blood. That wasn't because I thought you weren't good enough to contribute, you dolt. It was because you were recovering from surgery and your own blood loss."

There was a small 'oh' from him.

"Do you realize everybody but Naomi and me thinks you've committed suicide? Your friends have been devastated. And you do have friends, Blair Sandburg."

"I've got trouble, too. The FBI is going to arrest me. Jim, if it's a choice between being in prison and being in the ocean, then I pick the ocean. I could still come ashore and visit with you, if I was careful."

"No, Blair. They aren't going to arrest you. They made you think that so you'd cave and tell them what you've held back. They said I could be with you while they interview you again. If it's too hard for you to verbalize what Barnes did, I'll say it for you and you can just say 'yes' when they ask you to confirm the statement. I swear, if you tell them the truth they'll close the case and clear you. Even Nickols hasn't been that much of a prick lately, and Harriman let me know they believe you're innocent."

Blair made a disbelieving sound. "Yeah, I know. They did push you hard. From what I was told that's because they're mostly worried about getting a poor rating if the case is audited, if they don't fill in the gaps of your story."

Blair said incredulously, "They're worrying about the fucking paperwork! They make me think I'll be going to prison, and raped again, and it's all over the fucking paperwork?" He untangled himself from me, climbed to his feet, and ran his hands through his wildly curling hair. Then he paced around the blanket, muttering uncomplimentary things about Nickols and Harriman. "They took my choker away, you know, when they tossed me in the holding cell for the night. And all I could think about was that I was going to be a slave again to whoever held it. I'd have to go to them. I'd have to have sex with them if they told me they wanted it. I can't say no. I don't know why I can't, but that's a common theme in all the selkie folklore. I went a little crazy on them, until the choker was out of my sight. Then it was as if I'd been hit with a shitload of Valium. Jim, I'm scared of being so vulnerable."

I got up and enfolded him in my arms. "I don't have answers for you, buddy. But I love you and I know you love me. I'm asking you to trust in our love and we'll work through the problems."

"I don't know what I'm going to do for a job. And I can't get my Ph.D. now. But I'd give it all up again in a heartbeat, Jim, if it would keep you safe."

I kissed him. "I know. You're so brave, Blair. You... you gave up everything for me. Jesus, when I watched that newcast..." I kissed him again. "You know, it made me feel about two inches tall when I realized I had misjudged you. I'm sorry -"

Blair hushed me by placing his hand over my mouth. "Ultimately, it was my responsibility - and my decision. Quit beating yourself up, okay?" He dropped his hand and I picked it up and kissed his palm.

"Trust me, please? I don't have all the answers, but I'm asking you to be my partner and we'll give it a shot together."

He looked up at me again. "Jim... okay. I'll come back with you. But I'll need freedom to return to the ocean, because I really love it, too. I won't stay for long -- just day trips. Because I love you more."

Taking several steps backwards, he pointed a finger at me. "And I want it in writing that I have a week -- a week, man -- before you decide I've fucked up about something, and you damn well better listen to me during that week. I deserved better than being shunned by you, even if it was totally my fault that the diss was released. I don't deny you had the right to be angry, Jim. But it really hurt me that you wouldn't talk to me about it."

"I'm sorry. If you think it will help you can have 'one week' tattooed on my ass so I don't forget it."

He started to laugh then, mirth that was cleansing for the soul. "Your ass? You planning on admiring it in the mirror to see the words?"

I turned him around and lightly smacked his own ass. "Speaking of butts, we've got to rustle you up some clothing. I've got a pair of jeans and another shirt with me... you can wear the Speedo and my t-shirt. Are you ready to go home, Chief?"

He picked up my blue swim Speedo, and shook the sand out of it. "You broke through your fear of the ocean and came after me, Jim. That means a lot to me. Yes, I'm ready. Let's go home, and tomorrow or the next day, we'll tackle the FBI, and just take it one day at a time." I rummaged in my bag and threw him a t-shirt. After he was dressed, he opened the cooler and fished out two water bottles; he gulped his while I changed into clothes, and then tossed one to me. Afterwards, he folded the blanket and carried it and the cooler to the parking lot. I managed my board and we stowed everything away in the back of the truck.

We got in and I started the truck. I pulled out of the parking lot and Blair stared out the window at the ocean as I turned toward the city. A flash of longing crossed his face, heat lightning that flared silently and was gone. I reached over and laid my hand on his thigh, anchoring him to the land.

And while I rejoiced that he was choosing me, choosing to live his life on land, there was a small, worrying voice in my head that asked, "How long will he stay?"

** ** ** ** ** **

On the drive home, with Blair's permission, I called the place where Naomi was staying and left her the good news that her son was home again. Simon was next, and when I stumbled through explaining that Blair was alive and sitting next to me, he let loose with a heartfelt 'Thank you, Jesus' before he demanded to talk to Blair.

Blair was a little tentative sounding when took the phone and said hello. I listened in without any self-recriminations. My lover knew very well what I could do with my hearing and if he didn't want me to know what was being said, he'd have motioned for me to turn it down.

"Son, are you okay?"

"Yes. And I'm sorry; I didn't think anybody would really care if I left."

I don't know why you took off like that - everybody but Ellison was sure you'd killed yourself - but if you ever, ever feel like disappearing again, you come and see me instead. I'm your friend, too, Sandburg. You talk to me about whatever's got you wanting to run, understand? I suppose Ellison is listening, so Jim, pay attention here, too. God knows, I'm no expert on marriages, and my own fell apart for a variety of reasons, but maybe Joan and I would have made it if either one of us had had the guts to talk with somebody who could have given us some perspective about our problems. My door is open to both of you. That means you, too, Sandburg. And don't bother to protest that you and Jim are just friends. Jim's already let me know the truth. And actually, I think you two are good together.

"Now, just where the hell were you?"

Blair said simply, "At sea."

"Well, you've got some apologizing to do around here. You made Conner cry, you know. I'll let you two have tomorrow to get reacquainted, and then I expect to see you both back at the PD."

Pulling down Blair's hand that was clutching the phone for a moment, I hit the speaker button, then let go of him. "Sir, Blair and I will be down in Seattle the day after tomorrow; he's got to finish up with the FBI and get them off his back."

"Count it as a work day, then -- and if I were you, Blair, I'd be giving Conner a call right after we hang up. Our inspector is one tough lady, but believing you had drowned yourself really hurt her. She just hasn't been herself at all. You call her, and while you're doing that I'll let the rest of the bullpen know you're back."

Simon paused before continuing in a gentler tone of voice. "Remember what I said to you, kid, okay? I meant it."

Blair dropped the phone down on the seat and scrubbed his hands over his face. "God, Jim. I feel like such a shit. I guess I thought everybody would figure I'd just left town. My backpack was discovered, I suppose?"

I nodded. "Kids."

"When I went into the sea, I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do. And once I was in seal form, time felt different. It's one of the things that's always appealed to me about changing into a seal's shape. You live in the present, mostly." He shot me a glance. "Your thoughts about our past were the only thing that kept me near that beach, I think. And I never thought it through that other people would be worried about me not being around."

I took my right hand off the steering wheel and tugged at him to slide closer to me, which he did, after moving the phone and undoing his seatbelt.

"You've made mistakes. I've made mistakes. It's not going to help anything for you to keep beating yourself over the head about them. Let's acknowledge that we're a pair of dumb fuckers, apologize to the people we've hurt, and try to fix what we screwed up."

He sighed, and laid his head on my shoulder. I asked him, "Do you want privacy for calling Conner?"

He nodded, and I spotted a grocery store coming up. I pulled into the parking lot a few minutes later and parked.

"We're out of just about everything. I'll get the groceries; you call Megan and make things right with her. Tell her I'm sorry, too, for being the catalyst in your decision to leave like that. Are you sticking with just telling people you were at sea?"

"Yeah. It's the truth. They'll think I was working on a fishing boat or something, and I'll be vague about the details. It'll be a bit of a subterfuge, but not an outright lie."

"Another Blair Sandburg special. But I agree. If you tell them you're a selkie and would be taken for a seal if they see you, you'd be at the funny farm in no time." I changed my tone to a more serious one. "Blair, you are okay with coming home, aren't you? I love you so much, and I would like to tell you I'll never hurt you again, but I know myself too well. I'm sure I'll say or do something that makes you feel like shit, but what I can promise is to listen to you and put your needs first. The weeks when you were gone... Well, I've had a lot of time to think about making changes in how I treat you. I don't want to be a selfish bastard. You make me want to be a better man than that."

Blair stopped me then by kissing me; so completely, so trustingly, so lovingly, that when he moved away I felt warmed. The fear that he'd change his mind and go back to the sea eased. I slid out of the truck and then stopped and looked back at him when he whispered my name.

"Get some tofu, will you?" And then he laughed, the little shit.

I went back to the truck, opened the door, and kissed him one more time.

"For you, babe, I'll gladly eat tofu. But promise me you'll disguise it, okay?"

"Better get soy sauce, too. I'm going to cook something that isn't fish for supper. I've kind of had my fill of seafood lately, you know."

I walked away, whistling to myself. Blair was back and my world had righted itself. For him, I'd learn to tolerate tofu; I felt that relieved and that happy.

That old midwife probably didn't know what she was talking about.

** ** ** ** ** **

There was tear-scent in the truck when I reopened the door after loading the groceries in the truck bed; I guessed that Blair had gotten hold of Conner. His eyes were rimmed in red, and there was still a slight hitch to his breath. I opened my arm to him as I started the truck, and he nestled himself snug against me.

"Hey, Chief. Look, it's been a long day for both of us. We've been up and down the escalator with our emotions and I'm thinking you're exhausted. I know I am. If you want to wait and eat tofu tomorrow, I will gladly buy you a pizza tonight."

He gave a small, tired chuckle. "Okay, Wimpy. 'Gladly,' eh? At least you didn't try to get me to actually eat at Wonderburger. Can we call the pizza in now, and pick it up? 'Cause now that you've mentioned pizza -- man, I really want a slice of pie."

"Sure. Hit the speed dial, Junior." I waited till he called in a black olive, mushroom, and sausage order, then added, "We'll take it easy tonight and tomorrow. Get reacquainted; catch you up on the PD news. Your mother will probably call. And I want to know about your other life, Child of the Open Sea. I've got a lot questions. Like... when Alex - she's still in a coma, by the way - shot you, you crawled to the ocean. Did you forget you didn't have your choker and couldn't transform to get away from her? And if you had changed to seal form, would your wound have been healed right away?"

Blair made a contemplative noise; I'd just pushed his academic curiosity button. "None of the folklore I've read has suggested that shape shifting would cure any kind of injury. A lot of the ballads and stories include a selkie being injured and even dying; I don't imagine changing shape could fix a bullet hole. And I'm afraid I wasn't able to reason very well at all when I was shot. I... yeah... my overwhelming urge was to get to the water, but I believe I was just going on instinct. I can't remember thinking anything about my choker being lost. I just hurt so bad and I don't guess I really knew what I was doing."

I squeezed his shoulder and took a right turn onto Harbor Street. "Yeah, bullet wounds hurt like a son-of-a-bitch, don't they? When Zeller shot me--"

"What! Jim, why didn't you tell me? You managed to make me understand that Simon and Conner were okay, when I was swimming around. Didn't you think I would want to know that -- You. Were. Shot!"

"Honestly, Chief, I didn't think about it. But now I'm glad I didn't tell you because I wouldn't have wanted to guilt you into coming home. But after we're back at the loft and have eaten, I'll show you where he got me; I guess you didn't see my scar when we were on the beach. My leg was hit; maybe you could kiss it and make it better?"

He muttered something about closemouthed sentinels; I pulled into the parking lot and untangled myself from him. Before I went inside I kissed him again, ignoring the teenagers hanging around in the parking lot, but Blair sputtered and I laughed when one of the girls yelled at us for me to kiss him again.

And I realized I didn't care who saw me being affectionate with my lover. I just didn't care.

Being out was going to be okay.

** ** ** ** ** **

Blair was nervous as we drove to Seattle. He rubbed his hands on his jeans a lot and chattered on about nothing much at all. Finally, I called him on it.

"Buddy, I know doing this is hard. How can I make it easier for you?"

He shrugged. And went back to rubbing holes in the denim fabric.

"Do you want to practice? Talk to me about what happened?"

"No... not really. I think I just want to say it once. I guess I'm mostly worried that they're not going to believe me. There's still a stereotype that guys can't actually be raped by other guys, and saying a woman's raped a man... What if they think me admitting there was sexual contact between Barnes and me really means that we were partners? God, if they arrest me... Jim. If they arrest me, I want you to take my sealskin. You wear it and keep me safe, okay? Because I never again want to feel compelled to follow someone and agree to have sex with that person when I don't want to. In the temple, before you got there, she made me have sex with her again. I wasn't even tied up and she made me go down on her. She didn't have to threaten me with releasing the sentinel information. She just told me what to do and I did it. I felt so hopeless." He shook his head and snorted. "Looks like maybe I did need to talk about it with you."

I was disturbed by the implications of what he'd said. And I had to know if I'd... "Chief, did you ever feel compelled to have sex with me when you didn't want it? Because if I did that to you, I am so, so very sorry."

His eyes widened. "No... oh, no, Jim. It was always, always consensual with you! Remember the night I came back after I left, the night you told me you were going to marry Carolyn? You wanted to kiss me there on the beach, and I told you no. If you'd wanted to override my will, you could have. I would have done it, done anything you asked me to do - kissed you, let you fuck me, fucked you - but you didn't attempt to make me do anything I said I didn't want to do. You didn't rape me, Jim."

I let out a sigh of relief. "I'm so glad to hear that, Chief. Listen. Tell the FBI everything. Tell them you were blackmailed into coming along because of trying to keep me safe from exposure as a 'sentinel.' You don't have to lie to them if they ask if your research was true. After Oliver and Brackett, I must already be known at some level as a guy with enhanced senses. But I don't think they'll bring attention to it because that's not their focus for this interview. And they sure don't want to add anymore headaches to this case." I glanced over at him and smiled. "I'll be right there with you, and if it gets too hard, I'll state what happened and you can just confirm it, okay?"

He took my hand off of the steering wheel and held it tightly.

"Okay." And the worry scent pouring off of him lightened.

** ** ** ** ** **

The interview was grueling, but Nickols and Harriman didn't make any attempts this time to browbeat my partner. And true to their word, they allowed me to be present. I flatly told them that Blair was my domestic partner, and I sat next to him and held his hand. Nickols rolled his eyes, but didn't insult us.

They went back over his earlier testimony, and Blair confirmed that what was read to him was a truthful statement. Then he answered their questions regarding his interactions with Barnes and Hettinger. He explained about being blackmailed, as well as reiterating that they'd held weapons on him. They ignored the part about me being a sentinel, just accepted that it was information that at the time of Blair's kidnapping was not appropriate to be released. Frankly, I didn't think they cared anything about me supposedly having enhanced senses, except for how it related to Blair's actions.

He quietly told them about having to perform oral sex on Barnes and I confirmed his statement about the temple, where I'd witnessed her cutting him and rubbing herself against him in order to orgasm. He kept his eyes averted from their faces, and held my hand in a death grip, but when they didn't badger him or scoff at his story, I could feel him start to relax a little. Harriman asked Blair if he wanted something to drink, and Nickols made small talk with us while his partner got Blair a bottle of water. I was glad they had ditched the hard line approach now that Blair was co-operating.

After that small break, Harriman took over the questioning. The really tough question was why had he followed her to the temple? Blair did one of his subterfuges as an answer. He told them that she'd stolen a priceless - to him - keepsake from his father's family, the only thing he had ever been given that had come from his father. When they asked what it was, he described his choker. Harriman asked if it was the same piece of leather jewelry he'd made such a fuss about giving up when he'd been placed in the holding cell. He admitted it was, and told them that he'd been able to take it back after I'd subdued Barnes at the temple.

And that was it. We waited while his statement was typed up, and after he signed it Nickols told him he was free to go, that he was no longer a person of interest to the FBI and that there would not be any charges brought up against him.

While we were waiting for Harriman to bring the statement for signing, Nickols and I had talked when Blair had excused himself to the restroom. Nickols said he personally didn't give two flips if I had good eyesight or not, or if I could smell a fart two blocks away, but he also figured it was my business, not the FBI's. So there was no need to make this interview about me, it was about Sandburg's connection to Barnes. And he and Harriman were satisfied that Sandburg had been coerced into going with her.

I shamelessly listened in to the two agents' conversation as we walked away, and was gratified to hear that they did believe him, and even Nickols considered him to be a victim. Harriman was sorry that Sandburg hadn't felt able to talk about the abuse before now. They'd done an extensive investigation into Barnes' past and had heard talk about her sexual activities from other informants, so Blair's story fit into Barnes' profile.

And Nickols sneered that he was one stubborn kid, and that I'd have my hands full with him as a boyfriend. And vice-versa. Harriman laughed and agreed that we were quite a pair. Harriman sounded okay about it; Nickols was his usual obnoxious self.

After we left the building, I told him the Feebs believed we deserved each other. He snorted a little but didn't react otherwise. He seemed very tired. The whole experience had been draining for him, I was sure. We were expecting Naomi this evening; she had called and begged Blair not to go back to the sea until she could see him. He'd agreed, but now he asked me if we could stop at Cascade Beach on the way home.

"Are you going to visit your other world, Child of the Open Sea?"

He shook his head. "I promised Naomi I wouldn't do that right now. I just want to walk along the beach, and smell the ocean. I miss it, you know.

His words brought a chill to my heart. "Blair. Are you regretting coming away from the sea?"

"No. No, I want to be with you. But I can't deny that I feel a craving to be around the ocean. I think just seeing it again will help me feel more settled."

But if anything he seemed more restless after we left the shore and went on home. He apparently realized he was jitterbugging around more than usual, and set out his candles and meditated till I heard Naomi entering the building. I grabbed my keys and told Blair I'd be back in an hour. I felt he and his mother deserved to have some privacy for this reunion.

There were traces of tears on both of their faces when I came back laden with take-out from Blair's favorite Indian restaurant. But after Blair and I had demolished the Chicken Vindaloo and Naomi had pecked at her Vegetarian Korma, and he had made us all some chai tea, she brought up her fear that Blair would eventually chose the sea over land. He assured her that, while he would visit the ocean, he would live on land. With me. And that he and Naomi of course would see each other often.

She didn't argue with him, but her scent told me she didn't believe him. A few private, quiet words with her explained why she told us she had to leave so soon after coming. It was too painful for her to stay and watch Blair succumb to the sea. She was grateful that she had been able to say a real goodbye to him, but she didn't expect to see him again.

She did urge him to keep on meditating, since he'd told her it had helped calm him tonight when he'd felt restless and had wanted to drive back to the ocean. They said their farewells - with Naomi fiercely hugging him before she stepped back and gave me a goodbye hug as well.

After she left, Blair relit his candles and meditated again before we went up together to bed.

It seemed to help. He was calmer and an attentive lover with me that night, entering me so tenderly, and I used my mouth and hands to convey my care for him. My love for him, as I licked his nipples and kissed my way down to his cock.

But the old midwife's words to Naomi played their own tune in my head. A selkie will never choose to stay willingly on land for long.

And I hoped with all my heart that Naomi was wrong and that Blair's love of the ocean wouldn't turn into an unbreakable compulsion to return to it.

** ** ** ** ** **

Summer became a time for damage control for both of us. Blair decided to appeal being kicked out of the doctorate program, and since he hadn't actually turned in his thesis, the academic advisors whose opinions he sought thought there was a good chance he could be reinstated.

He was busy for a week or so, in case his grievance was granted, lining up his ducks so they would all quack the same note when he met with his dissertation committee. He wanted to divide his dissertation into two parts, Part A being the folklore, the history, the sensory testing of individuals with some enhanced senses, and the discovery of the Temple of the Sentinels. Part B would be sealed after he proved the truth of his research to the committee members. Part B would be his documentation regarding his research subject, a full five senses sentinel.

Part B would be about me.

I would do some parlor tricks for the men and women who had the power to give Blair his Ph.D., and they would sign confidentiality agreements not to release any information regarding my name or my abilities until I was retired - or maybe even dead. Thirty years seemed like it would cover both contingencies.

Blair also did damage control with the other guys in Major Crime with some earnest apologizing for causing people to worry about him. And he had a serious talk with Simon about working as a consultant to the PD. He'd been passed off as one for so long, albeit an unpaid one, that Simon thought he could back up a request for a part-time consultant with the stats showing the increase in solved cases since Sandburg's brainpower had been added to the departmental resources. Blair's calling himself a fraud was going to be explained as a ruse, to keep the nosy reporters from interfering with the Iceman case, and that his mother had sent documents he'd trashed to her old boyfriend, who made a big deal out of them to make her happy. He truthfully could tell them that what was sent wasn't the thesis he had planned to turn in to Rainier.

As for me, I worked hard to show Blair the depth of my commitment to him. We went places as a couple. And I would take his hand while we were out, grab him for a quick kiss if we were clowning around at the grocery store, and introduce him as my domestic partner when I ran into people I knew. Sure, sometimes we'd get hateful looks or comments thrown our way by stupid fuckers - I heard much more of that than Blair did - but we didn't let the bigots spoil our enjoyment of each other.

I called my father and let him know that Blair, who he'd known as my roommate, was now my significant other. There was a long silence on the other end, and I struggled not to just hang up the phone. My reconciliation with my old man still had its rough spots, and if Dad couldn't accept Blair then he'd be seeing very little of me in the future.

But he managed to do the polite thing and congratulated me. And invited us both over for Sunday dinner.

The day after I called dad, I swung by Steven's office and broke the news to him. My brother asked a few more pointed questions than my father had, mostly about why the hell hadn't I ever mentioned I was gay, or bi or whatever, before now? But he had liked Blair when he'd met him before and told me he wanted to take us out to dinner and give Blair his condolences on landing me as a boyfriend. We'd tussled around after that, and I gave him a noogie. After he was finished calling me a dick, he hugged me and wished me happiness. He said he'd call his girlfriend and see when we could all get together. Maybe go to the racetrack first, and afterwards head for O'Sullivans, a nice pub and restaurant in walking distance. I left feeling that it had been a good day when Steven and I had put aside our childhood resentments and gotten close again. Of course, Blair had been the one to talk me into giving Steven, and my dad, another chance.

For the next few months, we suffered through Sunday dinners with Dad and gradually we all relaxed. I even overheard my father referring to Blair as his son-in-law to Sally, when he would consult her about something in the kitchen. My brother and Susan were accepting, and it tickled Blair that Steven treated him like a little brother.

And for the first summer since he'd started the doctorate program, Blair wasn't tied down with teaching responsibilities. He also didn't have a job, and while I wasn't concerned a bit about that, he was.

But in typical Sandburg fashion, he came up with a plan that would let him research myths in his first interest, folklore, and would keep him close to the ocean so he could swim and continue to search for any others like him. He'd been doing a small study on legends involving sea creatures, funded by the Blue Ocean Institute, when I'd met him in La Push, and he managed to finagle the institute into a promise of more grant money for another study this summer. He wouldn't actually receive any of the funding till the fiscal year rolled over in July, but he was excited to be back out in the field.

Because we were worried that he might slip back into the 'living in the present' mode, and be seduced into staying in selkie form, he promised me he wouldn't go into the ocean unless I was there with him. I would surf, if the beach conditions were good, or just stay on the shore and send out my love and thoughts to him.

The six weeks he'd spent in his seal coat were the longest he'd ever stayed out in the ocean. Before that, he'd only spent hours at a time swimming and experiencing ocean life and looking for any other selkies. I was afraid that the increased time he'd spent as a selkie had cemented his 'addiction' to his other life.

And I could see the need build up in him, when he'd been deprived of his ocean fix for too long; going down to the beach to walk or wade in the water didn't stop the craving. But at least he was open with me, admitting to how he was feeling.

For his study, he would drive to coastal communities and speak to the old people - retired sailors and fisherman, and Native Americans from coastal tribes -- about the stories that'd been handed down regarding the sea. And I would join him sometimes in the late afternoons or during the weekends; we would find a secluded place and my selkie lover would undress, trusting me to watch over his clothes, and with my kiss on his lips, he would walk naked into the ocean and disappear from my sight.

Of course, I worried about the dangers the ocean contained, but Blair had countered any dangers I listed, such as sharks, with dangers he'd experienced on land, such as serial killers.

He had a point.

And it was his choice. I wasn't going to try and control him. He'd had enough of that to last him for a lifetime.

Lots of times we would make love on the beach, when it was dark and deserted and he had returned to me, wet, with his hair dripping down his back. I'd wrap him in a large towel and warm up his cold human limbs, and we would eat - sometimes fresh fish, if I had done a little surf fishing while Blair was in the ocean - and Blair would tell me what he'd seen and felt while living his other life.

His voice would become dreamy as he described the colors of the marine life he'd seen, and how he loved exploring and diving down into the water. But I'd hear the disappointment in his voice when he would tell me that he had no sense of any others of his kind.

Blair hypothesized that the telepathic trait he possessed had evolved to foster communication between selkies. After all, in seal form they couldn't speak to each other in words. He also thought it probably helped selkies who came to land to quickly learn human language.

Normally, he couldn't use it much to communicate with me, unless he was in seal form. And he thought that the potion Alex had forced down him had enhanced that telepathic empathic part of his brain while he was in the temple. He was sure that enhancement had disappeared as the potion worked its way out of his body. I didn't agree; I thought he'd shown an increase in his empathic skills since then. Blair always had been strong that way, but now he excelled at getting people to really warm up to him and spill their guts. I noticed it when I observed him doing his research study and also when we met up with the guys for poker night or if he stopped by the bullpen.

After we'd had our supper and the talk between us had quieted into staring at the campfire, then we'd move to a blanket and touch each other. Sometimes he'd fuck me or take me in his mouth. And I would do the same. There was never any keeping track, of counting who had topped and who had bottomed this week. We just made love according to our moods and our needs.

The sound of the waves was always there, on those nights. And sometimes, after we'd finished and I'd dozed off, I'd wake to find him walking on the beach, looking out at the wide expanse of water. I'd go to him then, wrap my arms around him.

Anchoring him to me.

Because the sea is treacherous and, as my granny used to say, many a man has been lost to its dark waters.

And I didn't want Blair to be one of them.

** ** ** ** ** **

It was the middle of August when Blair wrapped up his study. And I had a gift I wanted to give to him; I told him that I was finally ready to take him out on that big date I'd been teasing him about since I'd kissed him at the Temple of the Sentinels.

I knew he was expecting to find some really good seats for the upcoming basketball season in the envelope I handed to him, but what he pulled out was tickets of another kind.

"Jim?"

"Yes, my little guppy?" And I gently lifted his chin back up to where it belonged.

"We're going to Ireland? Wow, but shoot, I can't afford it right now. I mean, I've always wanted to go; I was saving up to travel there before starting my doctorate, but then I met you and I decided to enroll right away at Rainier and so I didn't, you know, go check out my birth country. But I've wanted to explore it and the ocean there for a long time." Blair's hands were excitedly waving around, and I watched him with amusement. "I used to be kind of scared, too. Because of what I'd read in Mom's journal when I'd found my seal skin. She was really convinced that if I came near my father he would keep me. But man, this is expensive and I can't accept such a generous gift." He had gone from surprised to excited to disappointed.

"'For better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health,' remember? I have the money, Blair, and more importantly -- I was able to get approval for three weeks vacation time. And Simon thinks that sometime after October he can swing the part-time consultant's position for you. And you told me that the grievance committee meets in September about your case, and once your dismissal is overthrown, then you'll defend your thesis. So now is a great time for us to go."

I pulled him to me and kissed him.

He started another token protest, but I could see the longing on his face. I kissed him again to shut him up. The art of managing Blair Sandburg relied heavily on kissing.

Not that it always worked.

"Jim, man, I've never let anybody do something like this for me before."

"That's because nobody has ever loved you like I do, Chief. We agreed to not keep scorecards, right? Not to nitpick about who paid for groceries last or who was on the receiving end of the last blowjob, correct?" He nodded. "You want to go to Ireland. I want to go to Ireland. My granny made me promise that I'd go someday, and you wouldn't want me to break my word to my old Irish granny, would you? So we don't have a problem anymore, except that we need to get ready to go. The plane leaves the day after tomorrow. So are you with me, Sandburg? Or do I need to thumb wrestle you into submission?"

"Ha, you wish you could beat me. All the typing I do, I'm better than you on thumb strength. But... Okay. I see your point, and wow, I'm going to Ireland... Hey, let me express some gratitude." He grabbed me around the neck and pulled me down to do some serious smooching.

When we stopped, his lips were swollen and pouty-looking. He smelled so good, so right. I started tugging us towards the stairs, and once we were naked and in bed, Blair removed his choker from his ankle and held it in his hand, smiling impishly at me

"What have you got in mind, Child of the Open Sea?"

But I knew. I'd told him what I'd used his choker for, those nights years ago, before he came to Cascade.

Blair didn't disappoint me. He wrapped my cock in his sealskin and proceeded to bring me to heaven. He was so good; it was almost unbearably erotic the way he touched me. But I managed to stand it.

And then it was my turn, when I could move again, to tease and torment him by dialing up my sense of touch so that I could find every spot on his body that would make him quiver with arousal. When he become unable to speak coherently, I pulled him to me, lifting his ass onto my thighs, and played even more with loosening him up. Finally, when he was begging me with his eyes to make him come, because all his mouth was saying was gibberish, I bent him nearly double and fucked him till he exploded. And I had a brief moment of savage pride that I had done that to him, because after my cock entered him I hadn't directly touched his dick, and then my own orgasm took away my thought processes.

And afterwards, I took his choker from where it lay on the bed, and slid it around his neck. "Beautiful selkie boy," I murmured to him, and then I collapsed next to him and held him as we both eased into dreams.

** ** ** ** ** **

Shortly after midnight I woke up, and saw that Blair wasn't in bed with me. I listened for a moment for the sound of him in the bathroom or the kitchen, but I only heard silence. Except for his heartbeat. Alarmed, I hoped he wasn't doing what I'd found him doing more and more often the last three weeks after we'd gone to sleep.

Quickly, I moved downstairs and went to where he was standing out on the balcony, facing the bay.

His eyes were open but nobody was home. "Blair?"

He didn't answer but continued to stare unseeingly towards the ocean.

He was naked, and cold - God, how long had he been out here this time -- and I opened the robe I'd hastily put on before leaving the bedroom and pulled him to me, bundling him in it, so that my body could warm his.

"Blair?"

He didn't answer me. He never answered me when I found him like this, and after a few moments I freed him and took him by the arm and led him back into the loft, and back into our bed.

I pulled him protectively to me and wrapped my arms and legs around him, both to warm him and to keep him secure so that he didn't sleepwalk again.

He would pass into normal sleep and would wake up with no memory of what had happened. Of course he'd researched sleepwalking when I'd told him what he was doing, and he'd decided that he'd try more meditation and getting to bed earlier. But I felt more and more that the pull of staying a selkie and his battling against it were the underlying causes; his body was being kept in a state of stress.

Blair thought that spending more time in the ocean would appease the craving he was experiencing.

I was afraid that it was just like feeding an addiction. And my worst nightmare was that he would succumb and leave me. Blair swore he wouldn't, that he wanted to stay with me. He was determined, he said, to achieve a balance between his land and sea lives.

I hoped going to Ireland, where we knew selkies had existed twenty-six years ago, would resolve some of Blair's turmoil. He wanted so badly to meet another selkie. And I had to trust him, not lash out in fear that meeting beings of his own kind would result in his deciding to stay with them, and not me. It was hard, very hard for me not to want to clutch him to me, and take back his choker, ensuring that he had to stay with me. But I couldn't do that to him. I wouldn't do that to my lover.

But when we returned from Ireland, if he was still sleepwalking, then I was putting an alarm on the balcony doors. At least that was something I could do to keep him safe.

** ** ** ** ** **

We flew from Cascade to L.A., and from there to Dublin. We had debated taking a bus or a train across the middle of Ireland to Clare, the county where Blair had been born, but in the end we decided to rent a small, cheap car instead, as it would give us more flexibility for traveling.

Blair was determined to take advantage of our trip and do a comparison study between the legends about sea-folk from the Northwest coastal communities and the stories of selkies and mer-people told on the West Coast of Ireland. He planned to split his time between interviewing informants, sightseeing with me, and going into the ocean and searching for his own people.

I intended to tag along with him and do some fishing or surfing - if possible - while he was in the ocean. I hoped for his sake he would find other selkies, maybe even his father or other relatives. I hoped for my sake that he wouldn't be seduced into staying a selkie with them. But I tried my best not to let my fears poison this trip with Blair. I needed to show him I trusted him when at night, after making love, he would whisper to me that he would always stay with me.

Ireland is a beautiful place, with its tall, imposing, rocky cliffs, and green fields lined with stone fences, the lovely ocean coastline and the traces of a much older culture left in stone buildings and structures. And after traveling around sightseeing near the West coast for the last two weeks, I could better understand Granny's songs about sad emigrants lamenting the need to leave their homeland.

And the pubs we visited in the afternoons and evenings were fun. We enjoyed trying out different Irish beers: stout and porter, red ales - my favorite was Smithwick's -- Harp Lager and Kilkenny Cream Ale. They were even better when I dialed up my sense of taste a bit. And we listened to sessions played by musicians who would drop by later in the day and stay till late. Blair never wanted to leave before the barkeep called last orders.

Blair. Blair worried me even as he laughed and clapped his hands to the beat of the jigs and reels. He seemed almost frenzied in his quest to enjoy all things Irish. And he talked the ear off of anybody who was willing to tell old stories of the sea. He also begged introductions to some of the older folks, the ones who weren't up to coming out to pubs anymore. He was very professional and explained his background in folklore and anthropology, but it was his enthusiasm for hearing the old stories that endeared him to the people he talked to. I knew, because I could hear them talking about him after we'd leave to head back to our own little stone cottage on Aughinish Bay.

And I only forgot and drove on the wrong side of the road the one time, not that Blair was going to let me ever forget it, as every time I got behind the wheel he reminded me to pay attention.

He mostly divided his mornings and afternoons between doing his research and spending time in the ocean while I stayed on the shore or rode the waves. It was no hardship; there were some great surfing beaches located in Clare. One of them, Fanore, was fairly close to our thatched roof cottage in the Burren, and pretty isolated. Blair and I liked that one the best. But the beaches at Lahinch and Spanish Point were nice, too. The waves I caught were, for the most part, tamer than the ones I'd ridden on the Pacific Northwest beaches. That was okay. It allowed me to concentrate on my partner while I was paddling out on my newly bought board - cheaper than renting one every day - in my wet suit. And the water was cold, but I was used to surfing in chilly water.

I'd keep in sporadic contact with Blair after he would alter himself, our minds finding each other, and I would concentrate on sending him feelings of love and desire and safety. He'd sometimes swim next to me while I was bobbing up and down, waiting for a wave. I liked that. I wanted him to be thinking of me when he was in his seal form.

But he was unsuccessful at locating any other selkies. And as our vacation came to the halfway point, and he'd spent so many hours trying to contact selkies, he became more and more discouraged. He confided that, even though he was in the ocean every day, his craving to plunge back into the salt water as soon as he transformed back to human was becoming more and more intense. But he insisted he could handle it. However, unless he was focused on things like music, or typing up the story of how the Conneely family had descended from a selkie, or telling me how an old midwife had repeated Naomi's midwife's explanation that the way to check for a selkie babe was to place the newborn in cold seawater - not that this midwife ever had to do it, but that was what she'd been told - he was restless, and would gravitate, I noticed, to the window or door closest to the ocean.

He would make love with me frantically, urgently. Slow, sweet touches didn't interest him. He wanted me to fuck him fast and hard. Or he would put his own hand over mine when I was fisting his cock, speeding up the tempo. And he was sleepwalking most nights. I made sure the doors were locked, and I purchased several small door alarms to go off if he tried to leave in the night. We were only a half-mile from the sea, and the beach access was only a quarter of a mile further down a steep path. I didn't know what would happen if he went into the bay in his sleep. Probably he would just wake up, but I had a fear that if he transformed in that state, he wouldn't remember his life on land.

So far, I'd woken up shortly after he'd gotten out of bed, or the alarm had brought me out of sleep.

And I thought to myself that something had to change. He enjoyed his life on land. He loved me; he wanted a future as my guide and mate. He relished researching things like the selkie legends and sentinel myths. He wanted to work at the PD as a consultant, and teach classes. Damn it, he did. But I was afraid he wouldn't achieve the balance he sought for his life. He denied it, but I could see it happening. He was being pulled towards the sea. Maybe when we returned to Cascade, I'd talk to him about moving away from the coast. If he couldn't see it or smell it, maybe the ocean would lose its hold on him. But he would hate that, too.

And if he chose to go into the sea for the rest of his days, it would shatter me. But I hoped I would have the strength to let him go, if that would make him the happiest. I'd told him I would put his needs first, over my own. I meant it, no matter what the cost to me.

** ** ** ** ** *

"Chief, before we leave for Dublin tomorrow afternoon, is there anything in particular you'd like to do?"

Blair looked up, tousled and tired, from where he was pushing his eggs around on his plate, and I poured him another cup of coffee without asking him if he wanted a refill. Then I joined him at the kitchen table, sipping from my own mug.

"Let's go to Black Head tomorrow morning and climb up to see the old stone fort. I hear the view of Galway Bay is awesome. We could also check out Corcomroe Abbey since it's not far from there and, well, could we stop on the way back to Dublin and see the house where I was born? I've asked around and some folks remember when the hippies lived there. It was sold a long time ago, over twenty years by now. Anyway, I'd like to see it, even if it's just the outside of the place. But we can ask the owners and maybe they'd let us take a look inside."

"Sure, partner. Did you ever find out if the midwife who delivered you is still living?"

"She passed away fifteen years ago." He drank down his coffee in two gulps.

"Do you need to talk to any more folks for your study?"

"It's wrapped up. I've interviewed fishermen, old midwives, musicians, grannies and grandpas. I've got a ton of data to sort through." He got up from the table and started towards the door, talking as he walked. "And I think we've checked out every beach up and down this coast where the stories said selkies were taken or called from the sea. There are no recent sightings. Oh, people named families that were said to have selkie blood - the O'Conners, the O'Shaughnessys, the Macafees - but it's all in the ancient past." He opened the door and stared out towards the ocean. "Lets go to Fanore this morning and then come back here for lunch. And since this is our last day, let's walk down to the beach here for the afternoon and evening."

He darted outside, and I washed up our dishes and packed up water and snacks and my surfing supplies. Blair had sleepwalked again last night. And for the past week, he would go from being lethargic to being jumpy, like he had this morning. Right now, he was pacing up and down the driveway waiting for me. And the stress he refused to acknowledge was taking its toll; I could tell that he was exhausted.

As I tied my surfboard to the roof of the car, I asked Blair a question, trying to sound casual about it. "Hey, those families, the ones with a selkie ancestor? Did any of the selkies stay willingly on land?"

Blair shook his head and scuffed impatiently at the gravel driveway. "The families named to me were all descended from captive female selkies. Their skins were stolen, each and every one, and they married the men who'd taken them. But if they recovered their seal coats - sometimes their children found their skins for them - they kissed their children goodbye and swam away. In some cases, as the years went by, the children and husband would go every day to the shore and see a seal out in the water, watching them, and knew it was the selkie. I'm thinking that if the family didn't come to the water and send out their longing for their mother and wife to return, the selkie would eventually drift away from them. It's hard to remember your land life when you've been out in the water for a long time. Jim, if you hadn't come to the beach and looked for me, I'm not sure I would have come back on my own. But maybe our bond as sentinel and guide allowed us to be more connected."

I motioned for him to get in the car and opened the driver's door. I didn't trust Blair to drive anymore; he was too restless. He plunked himself in his seat and turned to me.

"Jim, you know I'll always come back to you, don't you?"

"I know." But how long can you stay tormented like this, Chief? How can you teach or consult or guide me when all you can think about is when you'll return to the ocean? I love you so much... and I'm afraid you won't be able to keep fighting your desire for the sea. I'm afraid I'm going to lose you.

** ** ** ** ** **

Blair tried to act upbeat, telling me over lunch of the beautiful pink jellyfish he'd seen this morning, and jewel-colored anemones that swayed in the currents as he swam past them. He'd met a dolphin, who'd seemed very curious and had swum in circles around him. He wondered aloud if that intelligent creature had been able to sense he was a selkie, not a true seal.

But I could tell he was forcing himself to act lighthearted. I decided to call him on it.

"Chief, song and dance time is over. I know you haven't been sleeping well, and your energy is low, isn't it? You're tired, but you still keep jumping around like a squirrel on speed. Why don't you meditate for a while or try to take a nap before we walk down to the beach? I worry about you not being as alert as you should be when you're out there in the ocean without any backup from me."

Blair sighed and deflated like an old inner tube. "I can't find them. Where did they go, Jim? Where are all the other selkies? And... okay, I'm beat. I'll try meditating, and if that doesn't put me to rights, I'll try and sleep. But on the beach -- I want to listen to the waves; they make a good lullaby."

Three hours later, after falling asleep with his head on my thigh, he stirred and pushed himself upright. He scrubbed at his face and then stood up, dropping the light blanket he'd wrapped around himself, and looked around the shore. I put down the book I'd brought and once again cast my senses out to see if we were alone. There were people far down the strand, but they wouldn't be able to see him.

"You're cleared for take off. Just be careful out there, okay?"

He dropped to his knees and kissed me. "I'll be back after dark. Make a campfire, would you? I'd like you to light my way back tonight."

And then he stood and stripped off his shirt and shorts and walked naked into the sea, his choker around his ankle. He turned and waved at me, and then dove into a breaker. I sharpened my sight and watched him surface far away from the beach, a seal with blue eyes.

I sent a burst of love towards him and then walked the beach, looking for dry driftwood to build my lover a beacon so he would return safely to me.

** ** ** ** ** **

The moon was a pale sliver in the sky, edging towards the sea, before Blair finally trudged out of the surf. He came straight to me and I wrapped him in a towel, before pushing him down to sit on the blanket near the modest campfire I'd built.

I sat down beside him and offered him a sandwich. He shook his head. "I had sushi." His brief attempt at humor fell flat, though, dragged down by his utter exhaustion.

"Did you...?"

"No." He started rocking back and forth on the blanket and I pulled him to me, to quiet his body. His hands shoved under my shirt, demanding that I respond to him with similar urgency. I laid him down but instead of giving in to his driving need to be hastily fucked, I instead slowed down my touches, sucking him unhurriedly, tenderly playing with his skin, his balls, his nipples. I gave him comfort, and when he had reached his climax I moved his legs apart and slicked us both with lube, keeping to the leisurely pace I'd started.

When I entered him I went very slowly; I chose to move languidly because Blair had been burning himself out for weeks now, and needed a counter-balance so badly. And every time he tried to fuck me instead, to move upon my cock, I would hold him still, until he subsided. We used the language of touch alone, and when he'd come again, so very powerfully, I allowed myself to also climax, and to collapse on top of him. Holding him to me. Anchoring him.

He slept then, muscles loose and his face relaxed. And I shifted myself so that I nestled against him, my arms and legs holding him close.

I had awakened and was watching the stars when Blair stirred. He wiggled under my limbs till he was facing me and kissed me.

"Jim. I need to spend some time alone. I've got a decision to make and I need to meditate, and really ask myself some hard questions. I'm going to stay here on the beach. You should go on up to the cottage and get some rest."

"Chief, why don't you let me stay. You might drop off and sleepwalk your way back into the ocean, and that worries me. I won't interfere with your vigil."

But in the end I ceded to his wishes and walked back up the narrow, steep, winding path to the cottage. However, I wasn't going to bed; I was a sentinel, a watchman, and I would use my senses to guard Blair against himself. If he fell asleep, I would return to his side.

I sat outside the whitewashed walls of our cozy cottage and trained my sight on him. He was staring out at the water. Then he built up the fire and settled himself on the blanket in his meditation pose, his back to the ocean.

He'd said he had a decision to make. And I had to stifle the small voice inside me that whispered to me of my strongest fear. He wasn't going to abandon me and choose the life of a selkie instead of life with me. He wasn't. He couldn't.

Time passed. The stars wheeled their way through the heavens and the moon was lost to the sea. Blair stretched and did some Yoga positions for a while. Then he got up, threw more wood on the dying fire, and stood for a long time watching it as it blazed up, sending sparks shooting into the sky.

He looked like he was in his own version of a zone, and I wondered if I should go down and check on him. Then he sank back down to the sand and became still again.

The meditation - and sex -- must have done him some good, since he wasn't moving in that over stimulated manner anymore.

The sky was lightening in a pre-dawn glow, and I decided Blair would appreciate some coffee. He'd had the rest of the night to be alone and it was time to check on him. I went inside and brewed a strong pot of java and poured it into a thermos. I grabbed two mugs and carried it all outside.

And dropped everything when I felt a profound shock go through me. I almost fell to my knees, before I was able to straighten back up. And I knew, somehow, that there was nothing wrong with me.

Something was wrong with Blair.

I looked towards the strand and a horrible sense of deja vu flooded me as I saw Blair crawling slowly towards the ocean.

I ran. I ran like I'd never run before. And I opened my senses looking for whatever had hurt Blair. He was moving more feebly and then I saw him go into a seizure when he reached the water's edge.

The beach was three-fourths of a mile away. My fastest time for running that distance was five and a half minutes. But that was on flat ground with no twists and turns. Even with fear driving me, I wouldn't get there in under six or seven minutes. A lifetime away. And if Blair, who was partially in the water so that waves were rocking his convulsing body, were to be swept out into deeper water, he'd drown again before I could reach him.

I flew down the path, losing precious time with every curve. I was closer now to the beach and a noxious stink was in the air, originating from the campfire. I could barely make out a twisted shriveled scrap of something burning, but the odorous smoke wafting into the air was coming from it.

And like a hammer smashing into my brain, I knew what he'd done.

Oh, God. He'd burned his seal skin. And a long-ago memory was compelled forth under panic. I flashed on Stevie asking Granny why the fisherman who'd captured a selkie bride didn't destroy her seal skin with fire, instead of leaving it hidden where she might find it. My Granny had replied, "Ah, no, Stevie lad, you must hide a selkie's skin, not burn it, or you'll kill the poor dear."

I burned my hand flinging the sealskin out of the fire and I cursed myself as I reached the waves and took back my lover from the sea. Why hadn't I remembered that before? Why hadn't I told Blair about it?

I was panting as I positioned him on the sand. God, no pulse, not breathing. Not again. Not again. I started CPR.

But he hadn't drowned this time. He'd been face up in the water, his body bobbing, and the white-crested waves were crashing over and around him, but he had been in a position to breathe if he was able.

He'd died from another reason. Because he'd destroyed his seal skin. The shock of burning away the other half of himself must have been too much.

No pulse, no breathing. I left him and ran back to the campfire. I picked up the remains of his choker and sped back to the ocean and swished it through the water, then plastered it against his neck.

Nothing. No change in him at all. He wasn't a selkie any longer. The connection between his natures was gone.

I was losing him. I needed power; I needed help. Blair's soul would be leaving his body, if it hadn't already gone. Souls - death - power - shamans? Incacha, help me! My guide, my shield - use the power of your animal spirit!

Blair had willed to me to use the power of my animal guide when he was trapped in the Temple of the Sentinels.

I placed both of my hands on the sides of his face and I called on my panther for aid. I stared down at Blair's open, unanimated eyes and felt myself shift into a different body, all muscled and sleek, saw the beach change into the blue jungle.

I roared out my urgency to find my mate and there, a distance away on a sandy beach bordering the jungle, I could see the wolf - Blair's spirit guide - nosing at an unmoving tan-spotted seal on the shore. He gave a mournful howl, a death dirge, as I was dashing to him, then he turned away from the dead body and started loping towards the jungle.

But not towards me.

I ran faster, leaping over logs, hurtling towards the wolf, but he seemed oblivious to my roars. And I mentally launched my love, my desire, my delight in his being my mate towards him.

God, would he be able to feel my emotions and stop moving away from me? I'd kept him from drifting away from his land life all those times when he'd been in the ocean; would I be able to anchor him now?

The wolf stopped and paused, then slowly turned around, and I, in my spirit guide form, kept sprinting towards him. He started to walk carefully towards me, then began to trot, and finally he was running as fast as I was.

We met in a blinding crash as our bodies collided, and merged with each other; I knew Blair and he knew me. Our souls, which had been tied together before by our bond, blended.

Soul mates, guide and sentinel, lovers, partners - I could see the future ahead of us and we would be all of these things.

And the jungle was gone now, and there was only my human body kneeling beside Blair's lax form on this sandy beach as the sun broke over the hills behind us and sunlight flooded his face.

And I saw the breath rise and fall in his chest; I felt tears stream down my face.

I checked his pulse; I counted his breathing - all good.

I pulled him to me so that he was cradled against me, his back to my chest. I rocked him and told him I loved him and to please, please, open his eyes and talk to me.

Because how long had he been without oxygen? What if he was brain-damaged? My brilliant lover, unable to think for himself ever again? I would cherish him and he'd never want for anything, but please, Blair, be all right.

Blair opened his eyes. "Jim?" he whispered.

He turned so he was facing me, sitting up on his own steam. He touched the tears on my cheeks, and I grabbed his wet hand and kissed his palm, tasting the salt from my body.

"Blair, you were dead. You were dead, God dammit! Would you cut this shit out! I mean it, Blair. I'm going to keel over with a heart attack if you pull this stunt ever again!"

And then I kissed him. I needed to taste him, to feel him breathe into my mouth, so different from when I'd given him the kiss of life.

When I could drag my mouth away from his, I made him do some quick neurological tests. He passed. He was orientated to time, place, person. He knew his birth date - and mine, and his mother's.

His choker - what was left of it -- had fallen into the sand, and I picked it up and passed it to him. Then he grasped my other hand. "This is a burn. Shit, it looks bad. Jim, how did... Oh. You grabbed my skin from the fire. I'm sorry, Jim. I never meant to scare you or hurt you. I, I thought all night about choices and paths and decisions."

He stood up then, and I did, too. He looked out at the ocean, sighing. "I couldn't keep on being the way I was, Jim. I think I hid it from you, mostly at least, but it was becoming almost impossible to not stay in the sea. I thought about it constantly. If you hadn't been here with me... Well, Naomi's old midwife would have been proved right. All this time, I've wanted so badly to find another selkie. I wanted to meet my father. But I realized I might never find him -- and did I want to turn my life into a quest that might never be fulfilled? If I couldn't find selkies here, then where?"

He took my unburned hand and squeezed it hard. "I have a family. I have you, and my mother. And since it had become painfully clear to me that I couldn't have any balance between my sea life and my land life, I chose you. You, Jim. I gave up the sea for you. But I still had to deal with the craving to transform and stay a selkie. God, the sea was singing to me in my very blood."

He stopped then and kissed me. I felt humbled by his choice. And so glad that I'd taken him for my lover again and asked him to be my mate. If he hadn't felt bound to me, I would have lost him forever.

"I thought about giving you my seal skin and telling you to hide it from me. I would belong to you then, and I'd have to stay with you. But... what if I found it later? Would the craving come over me then? Would I surrender to it? And I gathered from the folklore that a selkie whose skin was hidden was never truly happy on land."

He bit his lip. "When you held my seal skin before, I wasn't unhappy but I was fascinated by the sea; I loved living near it and spending time on the beach. But I understand now that I hadn't spent enough time in the sea to be truly a selkie at that point. And thinking it over by the campfire last night, I decided that you and I couldn't be real partners if you were my keeper. Besides, what if somebody else took my choker from you? Or found it? I'd have to go to them. I'd have to fuck them or open my mouth or legs for them, if they wanted sex from me. And after Alex, I didn't want to leave myself so vulnerable ever again."

I drew him closer against me, my arms around him, and felt his body release some of its tension as he leaned against me.

"So I burned my choker - my seal skin. I thought it would free me. Some sources I'd read stated that if you burned a selkie's skin then they had to stay on land because they couldn't ever transform again. Huh. They stayed on land all right, because they were buried there. Oh, mannnn... I almost died again." He shook a little as the shock finally hit him about what he'd done.

I tightened my hold on him and let him have some time to process another near miss - no, not near, he'd been dead, all the way dead. And for a while neither of us spoke.

"Ah, Blair. I'm sorry. I didn't remember it until after I'd realized what you'd done, but my granny told Stevie once that burning a selkie's seal coat would bring death to the selkie. I wish that memory had come back to me earlier."

"Not your fault, Jim. And maybe if I'd told you what I was thinking about doing, you would have remembered her words."

Then Blair said, his voice rough with emotion, "At first nothing happened when I tossed my choker on the fire. And I started to walk down to the water, to say goodbye to my other life. And then - oh God, Jim, the pain was excruciating. I... I don't really remember much after that, except I had a kind of dream, where I was a wolf but I was dead, too, in my seal body, and I was lying on a beach and then, then... I was going to go on a journey, go somewhere else, and you came and called to me, only you were a big black jaguar -- your spirit animal, I suppose -- and hey, I guess I was mine, too, because I was the wolf. Anyway, you made me remember that I loved you, and so I came back and we crashed together and I was you and you were me, just for a moment, and then there was nothing until you woke me up and were giving me a lecture about not dying anymore. Which I am totally down with, by the way."

I turned him around in order to look him in the eyes. "It wasn't a dream, Blair. I used the power of my animal guide, and came after you. I'll always come after you, Chief, until we're ready to take that journey together."

I pulled him back to me, hugging him. "I'm so sorry that you had to choose, Child of the Open Sea."

And when he heard me call him that, something broke in him. I held him tightly while he grieved; he mourned for his lost sea-life, for his lost chance at finding other selkies or knowing his father.

Keeping him safe against me, I looked at the sea, at the waves surging onto the beach, and thought about how my life had changed since my selkie boy had saved me from drowning years ago. I wasn't the same guy anymore, wasn't that sarcastic asshole who kept to himself and kept his sexuality secret. I was happy now with who I was, proud of who I loved. Not afraid to master the waves, not scared anymore of being found out as a sentinel, either. I wouldn't announce it, but I would make Blair's dissertation committee understand that he had told the truth about me. And if being a sentinel interfered with being a cop, well, then my guide and I would find another way to protect the tribe.

Blair grew quieter, with only occasional sobs shaking his body.

"Hey, buddy, are you going to be okay?"

"Jim, I... I think we should leave now." And he pushed away from me and looked at what was left of his seal skin clutched in his fist. Then he walked to the water's edge and waded into the surf until he was waist high in the water. He held out that poor, twisted, burnt piece of himself and plunged it into the ocean, and when he raised his hand again, it was empty.

He turned his back on the ocean and stumbled onto the strand, his eyes fixed on me. I moved to meet him and he took my hand; together, we exhaustedly trekked back to the campfire. We dumped sand on the flames, gathered up our things, and slowly climbed the path back to the cottage.

And it didn't occur to me until we were leaving Ireland, flying over the Atlantic Ocean, that he had never answered my last question to him before he'd given his burned, dead seal skin back to the sea.

The End.

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Acknowledgements: Thank you to T.Verano, for the beta and to Patt for the cover and ending art.