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Skin

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Skin

by Brighid

Author's disclaimer: Not mine. Never were. Not making money from this. If I were, I'd never go back to work again. Would you?


Skin

by Brighid

He did not understand the compulsion that brought him, time and again, to the little cove. He knew only that he could sit there for hours, watching the play of sun and moon over the waters, the wild flight of the gulls, the hurried, huddled motions of the men and women who harvested shellfish and driftwood from the shores. He marveled at them, at the wonderful magick of their mere existence, and longed to learn their words, their ways, their sweet strangenesses. He wanted to know them.

Sometimes, he would slip his skin, roll it up tight and hide it in the nooks and crannies, then wander the beach to set his own feet along their footprints, his own hands along their handprints. He would lay in the cool, wet sand and touch his human flesh and wonder if this was what they felt, wonder if they touched themselves and trembled at the miracles of their own bodies. Over time, his seal-dark eyes shifted, drifted until they became the deep blue colour of the sea and sky he spent so long in contemplating.

And yet, for all his yearning, he never slipped his skin in their sight, never walked amongst them, never laid his hands against their hands. Never touched their human flesh, to see if they trembled at the miracle. He only watched and waited as generations passed, sure that there was something more, sure that his waiting had a purpose, even if he could not name it.

And then the stranger came amongst them.

That day, everything changed.

)0(

Jim remembered feeling half-naked, vulnerable when the dervish dressed as a doctor came into the examining room, an over-caffeinated guy with a pony tail, all earnest blue eyes and breathless patter with hands that spoke louder than his mouth ever could. He caught the rake of the kid's hot, blue gaze, felt the appraisal, felt an answering heat blossom low in his own belly, but his bullshit alarm was clanging in his ears. He ignored the gaze, the sharp, strong pull of desire it elicited, and just pocketed the card after the real McCoy had gone. He wasn't even sure why he kept it.

And he remembered, that night, dreaming of a naked man wrapped in a wolf skin, and a dark prowling cat, and then waking to a hunger in his belly that hollowed him out and left him sweating.

)0(

He found himself watching the stranger constantly. A tall man, with close-cropped hair and eyes like the sky over stormy waters, he wore dark sweaters and salt-stained pants and his feet were bare and nimble on the beaches and stones. He fished alone, fair weather or foul. He watched the water for hours when he wasn't on it. The villagers avoided the stranger, watched him with guarded eyes, whispered when he passed by. He watched them as they did so, watched the stranger pass on as though he couldn't hear them, but the tightness in his mouth and shoulders spoke the truth. He watched it all, and though he didn't understand the whispered words of the villagers, he somehow sensed they were unkind.

It made him terribly sad.

He took to following the man as best he could, sunning himself on the rocks nearest him, following his boat at a distance, peering in his windows at night. There was something in the stranger's silence and stillness that pulled at him, made him ache inside. Sometimes, lying in his human skin, he dreamed that the blue of the sky was the man's eyes, watching him. Sometimes, he dreamed the soft thrill of his own fingers was the man's caress, touching him.

It made him tremble.

One grey morning, the air heavy with the threat of thunder, he watched the man tug his boat into the water. There was something in the man this morning, a stillness, a tiredness in the set of his body as he pushed off into the deeper water, as he climbed into the bobbing boat. A slow, cold fear crept into him, like the first, chill fingers of fog. He slid into the water, followed the man out to sea.

The waters soon grew unruly as the wind whipped up, and he thought the man must surely have sense enough to turn his boat homeward, but the man simply rowed harder, his stern face set in hard, uncompromising lines. Finally the storm broke over them, an explosion of light and sound. He watched the man stiffen and freeze, motionless in the pitching boat, motionless even as the waves crashed over and knocked him into the unforgiving water.

He dove deep then, body sleek and strong in the water, but though he could find the man he could not hold him, could not force them both up to the air their bodies so desperately needed. Despair burned through him as he was forced to surge up alone, without the man. Frantically, almost without thought, he twisted and turned in the violent waters, slipping his skin, tearing it away, needing the miracle of a man's hands.

He dove back under, found the stranger again, and this time wrapped a strong, lean arm around him as he once again surged towards the surface. Seal or man, he was a swimmer. With one hand tight in the other's collar, he set a faultless course for the cove and proceeded to fight the wild, hungering sea.

At long last he reached the beach, and it took the last of his strength to drag them both up onto the cold, wet sand. He curled his naked, salt-slick body around the stranger, trembling both from the chill and the sheer terror of what he had done

What had he done?

)0(

Jim remembered cleaning up after Blair had gone to sleep, puttering around and touching small objects that had crept into his home, making it theirs. How, he wondered, had this happened? When had Sandburg switched from studying him to jumping out of planes for him? For a sentinel, he'd been a damned poor sentry in his own home, his own heart. "It's about friendship." Dear god, when had that happened? And why did it make him so goddamned glad? So glad to still have Blair underfoot, and nowhere at all near Borneo?

He remembered lingering as he picked up the beer bottle Blair had left behind, remembered lifting it to his mouth and licking the smooth brown lip of it, feeling the residual warmth of Blair's mouth, tasting the younger man on the glass and feeling that overwhelming hunger rise in him, again.

)0(

The stranger awoke slowly, like a man coming up through water, and he watched breathlessly as realization dawned, and then wonder and fear and confusion. The man said something, but the words were meaningless, a jumble of sounds. He simply shook his head and forced a bowl full of seaweed soup down his charge's throat and bundled him up against the fever that wracked his body. He had left him only once since he had pulled him from the waters, to search the shore, to ask his brothers and sisters for help.

His seal skin was gone. He was bound into this flesh, cut off from the waters that had been his home for so very long.

He knew he should have been grief-stricken. He should have been terrified. But instead he was trembling with wonder, his body singing with the promise of...

the promise of...

promise.

So instead of mourning his mother sea, his kith and kin, he nursed the strange, quiet man back to health, and pulled his nets in, fuller of fish than they had ever been, and listened with a careful ear and learned the human tongue, and named himself Carr, which meant seal flesh, in a fit of whimsy.

At first the stranger was cold, withdrawn. He would sit for hours in stony silence, refusing food and drink and word and song, but there was a loneliness in him, Carr could see that, and it reached out against the stranger's will, found its way to Carr and bound them both together.

One day, as they sat on the beach mending nets, the stranger looked at him. "My name," he said, his voice dry with disuse, "would be Hamish." He didn't say much after that, not for a long time, but it was a beginning, and Carr could live with that. He simply smiled and bent his dark head over the net between them, and let his agile fingers weave the lines back together.

The weeks passed by so quickly they became months, and the months years, and Carr was happy, and Hamish seemed happy, too, in his way. They lived side by side and pulled in heavy nets and full traps, and traded with the villagers. It came to light that Hamish had good, craftsman hands, and he took to carving for the villagers, bowls and spoons and wedding cups. Soon they spoke to him, not just about him, and if they thought Carr and Hamish were odd together, a little strange in their ways, they didn't mind it, for they could see the kindness there, and the joy between them.

Only sometimes did the sea pull at Carr's dreams, but his waking world was full of Hamish, and it was enough, more than enough. Some skins, he thought, were meant to be shed.

And then he saw the red seal on the rocks, and knew her,

That day, everything changed.

)0(

Jim remembered Gabe's words, the softness of his voice, like an adult chastising a recalcitrant child. "What good does it do for a man to have ears that can hear for a thousand miles if he cannot listen to the whispers of his own heart?" What good, indeed? What was he hearing, seeing? What was driving him to doubt Sandburg, doubt everything? He shook his head, not knowing the answers, only knowing the uneasiness that lay in his gut like a stone, weighing him down.

He remembered lying in his bed, eyes shielded against the pale, yellow light of morning, and letting his senses seek out Sandburg, sleeping below him. He fell slowly into the slow, steady rhythm of his best friend's heart, and drifted into for once dreamless sleep.

)0(

The seal watched Carr and Hamish as Carr had once watched Hamish, and her eyes were dark and deep and as relentless as the sea. It made Carr a little wild, so much so that Hamish grew wild as well, and yelled at his sudden clumsiness, his sudden, sullen silences. It grew so bad between them that Hamish stormed from their small house, and went into the village to drink at the inn.

She was at their door within the hour, nude as moonlight, her hair wild about her fey face, her eyes as dark and deep and as relentless as the sea. "You don't belong here," she said.

"I was born here," he argued, not stepping aside, not inviting her in.

"You were born here," she agreed. "I gave birth to you on the beach, nine months after laying with one of their kind, but you went to the water on your own, little one. You were born here, but not to be here." Her voice was not unkind, but it was as insistent and as relentless as the waves that lapped the shore.

"I can't go back," he said, and it was true, and it was a relief; he found himself breathing easy for the first time in days.

Until she lifted her right hand, and a dark shape fluttered down, hanging obscenely in her grasp. His skin. She had his skin.

"It won't fit," he tried again. "I've grown beyond it, I've grown out of it."

And so she lifted her left hand, and in it was blade, a bone blade, sharp enough to cut through his denials. "A little blood will ease the way back in. His blood."

He reeled back in horror. "I can't! I just..." he swallowed against the bile that rose in his throat. "I can't," he said at last.

"He's not our kind," she said, softly, moving towards him, pressing the chill seal skin into his right hand. "He'll never love you as you love him," she continued, pressing the bone knife into his left hand. "And he will die, and you will die, and it will all have been without purpose." Her dark eyes glittered in the light of the smoking oil lamp. "And my son will be dead to me." Underneath the ocean, underneath the eternity, was the voice that had sung to him as he'd nursed at her teat. He realized the glittering of her eyes were the tears their kind could never shed. She leaned in, pressed her face against his, nuzzled him as she had done when he was very young. Then she was gone, leaving him to stand in the doorway of the first home he'd ever wanted, holding a seal skin in his right hand, and a bone knife in his left hand, and a world of grief within his heart.

)0(

Jim remembered Blair's face when he'd turned on him, when he'd said those words that could never be unsaid between them, when he had accused him of betrayal. He could see it still, that flash of hurt, and rage, and despair. He could smell it still, the sour tang of sorrow and loss; it tainted him.

He remembered the taste of Blair, on the beer bottle. The taste of him, by the fountain. He found the taste in his own mouth was the taste of ashes.

)0(

Carr took the boat out to the water's edge, nudged it into the sea. He'd left his clothes, weighted by a driftwood log, in a small pile on the beach. He left the seal skin behind as well. Neither one nor the other was for him, and he knew what he must do.

"He'll never love you as you love him."

He rowed quickly, his arms strong and sure, the course true, despite the years that had intervened. He knew it like he knew the smell of rain, the taste of fog, the sound of Hamish's voice. The tears that blurred his vision did not hinder him at all.

And so, in the open sea, just beyond the mouth of the cove, he knelt over the edge of the prow and held the bone knife to his own throat, seeking to free himself from the binding of two skins he could not wear, two lives he could not lead. The cut was smooth, painless, deep enough to make him gasp. He watched blood fountain up in the moonlight, fall into the water. Soon he was gasping steadily, body fighting for air, fighting for life against the wishes of his heart. He did not hear the loud tumult in the water, didn't feel the rocking as the boat was seized and tipped, didn't hear Hamish calling his name.

Just saw the blood, turning the froth of the water pink.

And then Hamish had the knife, was using it against his own skin, was holding an open, bloody palm over the gaping wound at Carr's throat. Carr felt the lifeblood pulse between them, felt his heart steady, slow. Felt the wound closing over, despite his intentions.

"You should have left me," he cried at last, when his air-starved body could draw breath to speak, but Hamish was weeping, was pressing a hot and hungry mouth over his.

"Just you be quiet," Hamish said at last. "Just you be quiet." Carr let himself relax against Hamish, let the man keep them afloat.

"I think we've lost the boat," he said finally, when the moon had moved and the water had grown so cold their teeth were chattering.

"We'll build another boat," Hamish said roughly. He reached under his shirt, pulled out a dark shape. The seal skin. "Now put this on," he said, and there was no room for argument in his tone. Carr took the skin from Hamish, his fingers numb and nerveless and all unwilling, but there was a grim determination in the man's eyes. To his surprise it slipped on easily enough, as though he'd never lost it.

He ducked and dove into the deep water, overwhelmed by a sudden flare of joy, then surfaced, to find Hamish watching him. "You're beautiful," Hamish said at last, his voice almost lost in the soft hush of the sea, of him treading the waters. Carr butted his head against Hamish's chest, made a soft, interrogative noise. "I know," said the man. "I know. But there's a way for you to be both. There's got to be a way. And we'll find it, together. Now help me home, for I'm tired and cold." He put his arms trustingly around the seal's neck, and together they swam for the shore.

)0(

Jim cleaned up the last dregs of the graduation party, but didn't take down the sign. Doctor Blair Sandburg. God, that sounded good. Fucking incredible, even. He thought he might leave the sign up for a few days more. It had taken a hell of a lot of work, the threat of a near lawsuit, and Blair heading up to British Columbia for a few months to finish his dissertation on the structures of the law enforcement subculture, but it was done, Blair was home, and he was starting at the PD in two weeks, as a full-time, paid consultant. As Jim's partner.

Blair came out of the bathroom, toweling his hair and Jim paused mid-reflection to smile at him, to reach out to him. A moment later his fingers were threaded through Blair's wet hair, and his mouth was on Blair's and he tasted of beer and chili and cake and his breath was coming in short, sharp pants and they were tumbling backwards, over, onto the couch, and Blair was over him, his robe open and his body hard and flushed with hunger, need and love. Jim felt his body spread wide, his heart spread wide, and Blair was inside of him, everywhere at once, slipping into Jim like a second skin, and there were no words, nothing but Blair and Jim and love.

Jim remembered the hot thrill he'd felt the first time they'd met. Jim remembered the first, tentative taste of Blair, of their friendship. Jim remembered the silence, then the shadow, that had come between them, and found that in the end, none of it had any meaning except to have brought them here, to this moment, to this place where they had found a way for them to be both Sentinel and Guide, both Cop and Teacher, both Jim and Blair. And what mattered most was that they had found a way together.

And them Jim shuddered and arched up under Blair, and found his way home.

An End.