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Looking back, Jim blamed the whole damn thing on the boxes. He'd kicked Blair out, gotten him killed, repudiated him as he lay in the hospital recovering, and frenched his murderer, but somehow all of that was made a thousand times worse when they got home from Sierra Verde and Blair just sat, looking completely lost, amidst the boxes Jim had brought back up but hadn't had time to unpack. He slumped on a cardboard box, staring at his old room as though he was unsure if he was supposed to sleep down there, upstairs as usual, or somewhere far away from either, and didn't have the strength or brainpower to figure it out. He looked ... defeated. Broken.

What the hell could Jim say to fix that? Sorry? It won't happen again? How many times had Jim apologized for exploding at Blair, for not trusting him? So he did the only thing he could do: let his actions prove what his words couldn't.

Jim knelt to Sandburg's level and gently gripped his forearms. "Come to bed, baby. I'll help you unpack in the morning."

Still operating on automatic pilot, Blair let Jim lead him upstairs, stood while Jim undressed them both, didn't flinch from the soft kisses Jim planted on Blair's neck and shoulders. His face was gray and slack under the warmth of Jim's mouth, his body stiff and unresponsive, but slowly he began to yield, offering Jim better access to nip his throat and suck his earlobe, steadying himself against Jim's shoulders as Jim gently paid reverence to his furry chest, his still-delicate lungs, his slowly quickening heart. And then, finally, as Jim planted a soft, playful kiss on his nose, Blair tilted up to catch the kiss on his lips. Jim's breath caught in sudden relief and he hugged his lover tight.

Words were dangerous. Neither of them spoke through the tender lovemaking beyond soft sighs or moans until Blair lay back on the bed and spread his legs. Jim shook his head, swallowed past the nervous lump in his throat, and turned over, offering Blair his backside.

"Jim, you don't have to--"

"I want to." Jim looked back at him. "I told you I could never trust anyone that much. I trust you." His stomach churned, but all he let show in his eyes was calm surety and love. He could do this. He could do this for Blair. "I trust you," he repeated.

Blair watched Jim for a long moment, searching his face, then his expression softened. He quietly nudged a pillow under his lover's hips and reached for the lube. Jim turned away and tried to relax, but he couldn't help tensing at the fingertip that probed his anus. He felt a cool glob of lube, and then the finger worked itself inside him despite the iron grip of his ass. How the hell did Blair do this every time they had sex?

Blair's exhausted weight leaned across Jim's back as he slid his finger in and out of Jim's butt with infinite patience, and Jim felt bad suddenly, like he'd done this wrong, he should have been the one on top, fucking Blair, doing the work, instead of asking for even more care and understanding from his lover. Then Blair slid his finger as deep as he could, and Jim gave a startled, delighted yelp as his prostate enthusiastically reported in.

Oh, this was great, this was more than great, and Jim's only complaint, when Blair switched to two fingers and then three, was how freaking long it took before Blair thought he was ready for more stimulation. He was dialed up to at least an eight, ramming back as hard as he could onto Blair's fingers, when the fingers vanished and were replaced with something even better.

Blair let out a low groan as the head of his cock slid home, and Jim grinned. Seemed like Jim wasn't being as selfish as he had thought. He decided to imitate one of Blair's positions that always drove Jim nuts: he braced his knees wide on the bed and arched his back so his face was buried in the bedsheets, making the tight passage squeeze Blair's cock even tighter.

Blair screamed and his hips pistoned forward, and Jim felt a sudden, horrible popping sensation inside, like a dislocated bone snapping into place. He slammed his dial down, but the pain was over, and all he felt was a strange openness as Blair drove himself deeper and deeper. Was this normal? Had he broken something? He was afraid to tell Blair to stop and ruin the moment, the pain was fading, and oh, Blair's cock was making good friends with his prostate, it felt so good, and oh, fuck, Blair was coming, crying. Jim could feel every pulse of Blair's cock, the sperm wriggling inside him, Blair's heartbeat against his back, and they were home now, really home, because Blair had come, Blair trusted him enough to shatter inside him, and that meant Blair would stay ... that thought, more than Blair's skilled hand, sent Jim over the edge.

And despite near-drowning, jet-lag, and a hell of a hard fuck, Blair was the one to reach for the baby wipes and gently clean them both. "Some blood back here, Jim, probably be sore in the morning, but nothing to worry about." Jim mumbled his assent and pulled Blair down into a tight hug for the night.

***

"Here we are," said Dr. Collins, reaching into the folder for the x-rays.

"It's cancer, isn't it?" Jim asked, braced for the worst. "Just tell me, please." When he'd first started puking a couple months ago, he'd thought it was the flu, then he'd blamed it on Blair's press conference giving him ulcers. But the odd lump his sensitive fingers had detected in the shower was no ulcer, and the odd, persistent whooshing he heard couldn't be passed off as stomach gurgles.

But the doctor frowned at the x-ray and reached for a phone on the wall. "Radiology? Who's down there now? Barry, I think you mislabeled some x-rays ... Barry, if this is your idea of a practical joke, I'm not laughing. I hope you realize I can fire you for something like this. Hold on a second."

Dr. Collins hung up the phone and turned back to Jim. "I'm sorry, Mr. Ellison, I'm going to have to run you through the x-ray again. We're having some problems downstairs, and I want to take these negatives down personally and watch to make sure they're processed correctly."

"What's the problem?" Jim asked.

"Just lie back down, sir, this will only take a few seconds."

Jim lay down and let Dr. Collins replace the lead shields that covered his legs and chest, then snap a few pictures of his abdomen. And then he was left alone again to worry what had pissed the doctor off; the little glimpse he'd caught looked like the usual Rorschach pattern of gray blotches with stripes that were definitely ribs. It wasn't like someone had switched it with an x-ray of someone's arm or skull or anything. Maybe it is cancer. Maybe it's so bad the doctor's never seen a tumor that massive before. Oh shit, I'm not ready to die.

Dr. Collins came back in, one hand gripping a second manila folder that had joined the first, the other wheeling a little gray stand with a monitor and little paddles attached. That couldn't be good.

"Mr. Ellison?" Dr. Collins said. "I'm going to have to ask you to lie back and put your feet flat on the table. I need to do a brief examination."

"No! I'm not doing anything until you tell me what the hell is going on here," Jim snarled. "I was waiting out there for three hours before you people even got to me, and I've been stuck in this room for two hours waiting for you to get your thumb out of your ass and tell me what's wrong!"

"And I can't tell you what's wrong until I've examined you and ruled out the simplest possibilities. So, please, lie back and let me do my job."

Jim lay back, trying to murder the doctor with a glare, and withstood the embarrassment while Dr. Collins reached under Jim's skimpy hospital gown to move his penis from side to side and feel his testicles. "There's no scarring down here," said Dr. Collins.

"Should there be?" Jim asked.

"Bear with me a minute," said Dr. Collins. He parted the gown to expose Jim's stomach, poured a little cool goop on Jim's abdomen and began rolling one of the paddles across his belly and staring at the monitor. The shoom-shoom sound was louder now, magnified by the machine, and the black and white image on the monitor churned as the doctor rolled the paddle around.

"This is amazing," Dr. Collins said, transfixed by the screen. "I could go down in a medical journal for this."

And that was just about the worst thing he could possibly have said. Jim leapt off the table, grabbed the doctor by the throat and slammed him against the wall. "I have had enough of you," Jim hissed. "I have sat still while you poked and prodded me and you haven't given me a single damn answer yet! Now you're going to tell me what's going on, or, so help me, I'm going to smash your teeth in."

The doctor's eyes rolled wildly, but he babbled, "You're not a woman, not a transsexual, there's no record on your chart, no scarring from sex reassignment surgery--"

"What are you talking about?" Jim demanded.

"You're pregnant, Mr. Ellison. I've checked and rechecked; there's no mistake. I'd say you're about nine weeks along."

Jim let go, shaken, and Dr. Collins gasped for air. "That's impossible."

"I know it's impossible," said Dr. Collins, "but look." He picked up the paddle again, pushed Jim's gown out of the way with a wary hand, and pointed to the monitor. "Hear that? That's a heartbeat. One-ninety beats per minute, according to the sonagram. And there--" he paused at a new-moon curve, barely visible against the black. "That's a spine."

"You're wrong," said Jim. "There's just no way."

"I--"

"No!" Jim loomed over him. "You listen to me, Dr. Frankenstein. I am not pregnant. I don't care what your damn machine says. And if you ever mention this to anyone, I'm not going to bother with suing you for malpractice or breach of confidentiality. I'm just going to break into your bedroom one night and take you somewhere private where I can kill you. I'll take my time about it, too. You understand me?" Dr. Collins nodded frantically, and Jim picked up the two folders, popped the tape out of the monitor, and walked out.

***

It was dark by the time Blair came home, but Jim could still see the x-rays just fine, the pale blobs that meant the impossible. The doctor wasn't the one he really wanted to kill.

"Jim? You home?" Blair asked, before walking up to the couch. "Hey, man, you okay?"

"Did you know this could happen?" Jim asked, his voice dead of inflection.

Blair's heart sped up. "Know what could happen?"

Jim stood up and threw the x-rays, which bounced off Blair's chest. "I've just been a guinea pig to you this whole time, haven't I? Was this in your dissertation? Does everyone know what a freak I am?"

"Jim, man, I swear, I don't know what you're talking about!" Blair's heart was racing, but he wasn't lying; Jim could tell that much from the lack of comprehension in Blair's worried eyes. Blair reached down to grab the x-rays, watching Jim carefully as he moved. He flipped on the lamp and held the x-rays to the light. "Okay, I see ribs, some intestine, some blobs--"

"There," said Jim, pointing to the white blob near the center.

"What am I supposed to be seeing?" Blair asked.

Jim handed over the videotape and Blair frowned but obediently walked over to the TV and set it up. When the black and white image showed up, he froze, staring at the movement. "Oh..." he said softly, shocked. He turned back, met Jim's eyes, and then his gaze traveled down. "Oh."

"This can't be happening, Chief. You've gotta fix this."

"Let me think," said Blair. "How far along are you?"

"How far do you think, Einstein? Nine weeks. Since I let you fuck me."

"Okay, first, you didn't 'let me' anything. You offered. You know I've never pressured you into that, and I don't like you implying it wasn't consensual; that's pretty cold. Second, anything else about that timing strike you as odd?" When Jim just shrugged, Blair said, "Alex, man. Think about it. You were drawn to her, even after everything she did. It was like you had this compulsion, you had to mate with her, right? Alex gets taken away, no more Sentinel female, and what's the first thing you do? Offer to bottom for me, when you've never been remotely interested in it before. It makes sense, Jim. Being a Sentinel is a biological, genetic difference; maybe you have a compulsion to carry on those genes one way or another. Like those tropical fish that change sex when there's only one gender around. Or frogs, some species of frog do it too."

"I'm not a goddamn frog, Sandburg!" The whooshing sped up, and Jim reflexively rubbed his stomach to calm it. "If this mating urge is so damn strong, why hasn't it ever shown up before?"

"My guess is having another Sentinel around triggered it, and one way or another it had to complete itself."

"You're saying the only reason I rolled over for you was because some hormones told me to? I don't have any say in the choices I make?"

Blair shook his head. "I'm not saying that, man, this is just a theory I'm trying to spin out of data you dropped on me five minutes ago. We'd need to do some tests--"

"No tests! No, Sandburg, I want you to get this -- this parasite out of me! No theories, no notes, you fix this!" He stared at Blair's shocked face, and felt his voice take on a pleading edge. "Human beings can't do this; men can't just get pregnant. I know I'm human, I know I am. You have to get this thing out of me, Chief, please."

Blair stared at Jim for a long moment, then turned around and switched off the television. "Surgery at a normal hospital would raise too many questions. There are herb teas you can take, but I have no idea what they'd do to a man, even aside from your usual wonky reactions to drugs." There was a deadness in his voice Jim didn't understand, and that worried him.

Blair went to the phone and dialed. "Uncle Max? Yeah, it's me. Fine, she's great... Oh yeah? I'm glad to hear that. No, well, yeah, something is wrong. I-I'm in trouble. Yeah. Yeah, that kind of trouble. I know, I'm sorry, I didn't mean for it to happen, but I just, I need it to be someone I trust." Blair closed his eyes and blew out a breath. "Thanks, man. Say hi to Sarah and the kids for me, okay?"

He hung up the phone, but wouldn't meet Jim's gaze. "I'll call in sick from the academy tomorrow. You've got the day off, right?" He tilted his head at the stairs. "Go get some sleep."

Jim started towards the stairs, then paused. "Aren't you coming?"

Blair sat down on the couch, staring at the darkened television. "I'm just going to sit down here for a while, okay?" He forced a smile. "Don't worry, Jim, it's going to be okay. I'll take care of it. Go to sleep; we've got a long drive in the morning."

***

Jim was almost afraid to break the silence that morning, which meant letting Blair drive the truck, as Jim had no idea where they were going. Blair was never this quiet, and it worried Jim. But when Blair finally switched on the radio after an hour of driving, Jim ventured, "So who is this uncle of yours, Chief?"

Blair looked over at him and managed a reassuring smile. "He's a doctor. He worked the underground railroad back in the day, doing abortions before Roe v. Wade; he's been in jail more times than I can count. He's the best person I could think of to keep this quiet and not bat an eye."

Jim had a sudden, horrible vision of wire hangers and women bleeding out on backroom tables. "But he's a good doctor, right? I mean, this isn't something to fuck around with, Sandburg."

Blair just rolled his eyes. "Yes, Jim, of course I'm going to take my lover to a back-alley butcher, because the possibility of you getting maimed or dying is nothing compared to having someone find out your secret. Jeez, what do you take me for? I hate to sound like a broken record, man, but you really need to work on this whole trust thing."

***

The protesters outside the door were much more interested in harassing the young woman who pulled up at the same time, and Jim and Blair both leapt into action, guiding the woman to the blue-jacketed volunteers who guarded the door. Once inside, Blair took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and said to the receptionist, "We're here to see Dr. Fine?" At her hesitation, he added, "Tell him it's Blair. He's expecting me."

After a brief phone exchange, the receptionist waved them through. "Room 3."

Max Fine turned out to be a grandfatherly man with gold-rimmed glasses and a neatly-trimmed beard. His smile held more than a trace of annoyance as he hugged Blair. "I'd be lying if I said I was happy to see you under these circumstances, boychick. I thought your mother raised you better than this." He looked around Jim, down the empty hall. "Aren't we missing someone?"

Blair shook his head and pulled away to shut the door. "No, Uncle Max, that's the problem. I hate to ask, but you didn't happen to catch me on the news a couple of weeks ago, did you?"

"Naomi filled me in," said Max, shaking his head ruefully. "This seems to be your year for bad mistakes. I take it that has something to do with this?"

Two x-rays, a tape and one long explanation later, Max reached over and gave Blair a hug. "I'm sorry I gave you a hard time, boychick. I should have known you'd never be so irresponsible as to get a woman in trouble. You couldn't have anticipated this." He leaned back and whistled, eyeing Jim. "This is a doozy if I've ever heard one. I'll have to examine you, Jim, to try and figure out how this happened and what the best way to proceed is. Have you had time to think this over?"

"What's there to think over?" asked Jim. "I'm not a freak. We don't even know what that thing is, it could be horribly disfigured or something!"

Max tapped the monitor that displayed the sonogram tape. "As far as it's possible to tell so early, despite the impossibility of it happening at all, we're looking at a perfectly healthy fetus here." He must have seen the anger and frustration on Jim's face, because he added, "This is partly my fault, for giving Blair special treatment and seeing you both so soon. Patients normally have a few days to think this over, but from what you're telling me, it's barely been 24 hours since you discovered you were pregnant. You're still acting on your gut reaction. You have to understand, once we do this, there's no undoing it."

"I thought you were going to help us!" Damn Sandburg, sandbagging him like this! He wanted to get this over with now!

"And I will help you, Jim, once you've had a chance to think this through calmly and rationally. In my nearly forty years of experience, whether a patient terminates a pregnancy or proceeds with it, the experience changes them, stays with them. I want to make sure, though I know you may have regrets, that you never feel you made the wrong decision."

Jim immediately turned to Blair, waiting for his lover to pour out eloquence on his behalf as usual, but Blair just gestured for Jim to speak. Some help. "Max, you don't know me and I don't know you, so I'm going to lay it all out for you. Blair and I haven't even come out at work. They'd flip out; they'd never look us in the eye again. I trust those guys with my life, but if they found out we were playing for the other team ... When everyone found out I was a Sentinel, my buddies ragged on me, the press wouldn't leave us alone, I had no privacy, I couldn't even do my job! This will be a hundred times worse. Add my dad disowning me, a million religious nutcases sending me mailbombs and dead puppies to show me I'm some violation of God's divine plan for man and woman, and you'll have some vague idea of what this would do to my life."

Blair turned to Max. "If there's one thing Jim won't stand for, it's being seen as a freak. I know him; he's not going to change his mind. So whatever waiting period you normally go for, there's no point. He's not going to wish he'd done this differently a week from now."

"And you, Blair?" Max asked.

Blair shook his head. "It's Jim's body."

Max studied him for a moment, then nodded. "Let me explain the procedure, then. Normally I would go in vaginally, or use chemicals to induce labor, but since I have no idea of how your anatomy differs from a normal man's and I don't want to perforate your rectal walls and cause peritonitis, I'm going to perform a C-section. We can see the fetus is lodged in the abdominal wall, in the safest, most logical space for gestation. Because that area is little more than a pocket between muscle layers, and because a nine-week fetus is so small, it should be a small, easy incision, and your recovery should be fairly swift. I can even use dissolving stitches. You'll probably feel some aches when you move for a few days, but nothing too severe."

"We need to talk about anesthesia," said Blair, "Jim doesn't do well with most drugs." They went through the whole laundry list until they arrived at a compromise: Max would use a milder sedative and Jim would dial down as close as possible to zero. Then Blair stood up. "I'm, ah, I'm going to wait outside, big guy. I'll be right there; you can focus on my heartbeat if you need."

"Blair, wait! You can't just leave!" Jim yelled as Blair ducked out, but Max restrained him.

"It's all right, Jim. I would have asked him to leave in a moment anyway. Why don't you take your clothes off and get up on the table, and we'll get started."

Jim obeyed, feeling nervous now despite the reassuring heartbeat of his Guide nearby. How could Blair do this to him? Of all the times to bail on your partner, your lover, surgery was the worst Jim could think of.

Max popped the tape out of the sonogram, scrubbed up and laid out his instruments on a tray. Then he poured goo on Jim's belly and proceeded to make a careful examination of Jim's torso. The whooshing sound sounded different on the monitor than it did to Sentinel ears. Soon it would be quiet again, and this insanity would just be a bad dream. "So how does someone get started doing this kind of work, anyway?" he asked to cover his nervousness. "It's a pretty thankless job, I would think."

Max nodded, palpating Jim's belly with his thumbs before moving to scrub up again and snap on a pair of gloves. "I was fourteen when my sister killed herself," he said softly. "She thought there was no other way out. I promised myself then that I'd make sure girls like her always had another way out."

"I'm sorry," said Jim.

Max injected something into Jim's belly. "Let's give that a few minutes, then I'll give you the next round."

An uncomfortable silence settled in the wake of Max's revelation about his sister. What were you supposed to say to something like that? Blair would know. He wished Blair were here.

Max gave Jim a couple more injections, then tapped Jim's belly. "Feel that?"

"Wait, try again," Jim said, dialing down. "Now I don't."

"Just relax and lie back," said Max.

Relax. Right. Jim stared at the ceiling, trying to concentrate on the heartbeat just down the hall. "It's amazing, you know?" he said, desperate for distraction. "How whatever kind of trouble Blair gets into, he's got some friend who can help bail him out. How did you two meet, anyway? Some pro-choice protest?"

Max's heart skipped a beat. "That's a story for another time," he said, probing Jim's belly. "How are we doing here?"

"We are doing fine," said Jim, heavy on the irony. "Come on, Doc, you'll tell me about your sister but you won't tell me how you met Sandburg?"

Max paused a long moment, then said, very quietly, "I delivered him." He rolled a disinfectant sponge over Jim's belly.

"How did that happen? I mean, isn't that a little out of your jurisdiction?"

"It was a special case. Jim, I really don't think you need to hear this right now. If you want distraction, how about we talk about your job?"

"Doc..."

Max glared at him, then put down the scalpel for a moment. "Naomi Sandburg came to me for an abortion."

Jim sucked in a breath. "Does he know?"

"He knows. You have to understand, most parents in the sixties had come of age in the Depression, so high schools and colleges had accelerated programs. It was fairly common for children as young as sixteen to go off to college, and in Naomi's case, that meant waking up after a frat initiation at UC Berkeley, across the country from anyone who cared about her, more worried about the fact that her life was over than about the fact that she'd been raped by at least two boys whose faces she hadn't gotten a good look at. She was too young to take care of a baby; she couldn't even take care of herself at that age.

"She was up on the table, and all of a sudden she started crying, telling me she couldn't do it. No idea how she was going to manage, she just couldn't go through with it. We had a long talk and I ended up taking her under my wing; my wife and I have always had strays coming and going. They lived with us until she graduated, when Blair was four." He took a deep breath and visibly pulled himself back into his professional role. "This first incision is just going to go through the first epidermal layer. You shouldn't feel a thing."

Jim nodded assent, trying to wrap his brain around the concept. Blair came within a hairsbreadth of not being born. He couldn't imagine his life without Sandburg in it; he'd brought Blair back from the dead rather than face that possibility, but he'd come so close to never even meeting him. Never kissing him. Never hearing a six hour lecture about sibling rivalry among the Tamil. And all of a sudden, it wasn't a parasite inside of him, it was a part of Blair. It was a person he would never be able to replace. It was another loss that would weigh him down for the rest of his life.

The scalpel against his skin was a cold slap of reality. "Stop!" he said. "Wait. Just wait."

***

Blair looked up as Jim and Max approached, his worried eyes searching his lover. "Are you okay?"

Jim nodded, throat tight.

Blair turned to Max and gave him a quick hug. "I'll send Naomi your love." He wrapped an arm around Jim. "Let's go home."

Blair was quiet as they drove, and Jim just watched him with something akin to awe. What had it cost Blair to do this for Jim, to sacrifice his own desires and beliefs yet again for Jim without complaint or protest? He took in his lover's pinched face and suddenly realized, with a terrible shock, that Blair didn't know. "I couldn't do it, Blair. It felt like I'd be killing you all over again."

Blair looked at him, disbelieving, hopeful, and then pulled across three lanes of traffic to a shoulder where he parked and started shaking, tears pouring down his cheeks. Jim put his arms around his lover and they rocked back and forth, crying.

"We'll get through this, Chief," Jim promised. "We'll get through this like we've gotten through everything else the last four years: together."

***

"That's ridiculous, Sandburg, no one would believe it. Your 'mysterious cousin dies and leaves us a kid' story had fewer holes!"

"Okay, well, I'm fresh out of ideas. Why don't you try thinking one up?"

"Okay, I will!" Jim paused, racking his brain, but came up empty. "Bigfoot."

"What, Bigfoot got you pregnant? Jim, I'm hairy, but I'm not that hairy."

"No, like, you know, kid, snatched, camping grounds, something like that. We say we're going camping, sneak off to Max's, come back a few days later with Junior, no one claims him, boom, we're home free."

"Yeah, great idea, Jim," said Blair. "Until Social Services comes to place our kid, because they don't give babies to thrill-seeking cops and their wacky roommates without some kind of family tie or a legal will naming us guardians. What was so wrong with my cousin idea, anyway? We go off to Cairo for a few days, take in the sights, come back with my poor orphaned cousin, sorry, no birth certificate available, but we do have this handy affidavit from the local army base and a mouth swab to prove I'm related -- it happens all the time, man!"

"Sandburg, you have any idea what hospital care is like overseas, let alone what kind of diseases run rampant out there? I'm not going through major surgery hell and gone from any sort of sanitary operating room, and I'm sure as hell not exposing my newborn kid to malaria!"

"So that brings us back to Alex."

"Absolutely not," said Jim. "It's too risky. It's wrong. I won't go along with it."

Blair threw up his hands. "Then you figure out what we're going to tell Simon and the guys, man, because I'm fresh out of ideas." He switched off the light and rolled over.

Jim lay there in the dark for a while. Finally he asked, "You wouldn't mind?"

"If it'll let us raise our kid in peace, no one hassling us, then no, I don't mind. It's just a piece of paper."

"And when the kid asks us where he came from?"

"We tell her what Naomi told me. She came from Macy's; they were having a sale. What's with this 'he', stuff, man? Can you actually tell if it's a boy or a girl? What is it, hormones in the bloodstream or something?"

"Easy there, Dr. Spock, I just needed a pronoun. Better than you assuming it's gonna be a girl."

"Hey, girls I can handle. I've spent my life surrounded by women. Women are easy. But how the hell would I teach a boy how to be a man when I think all that macho posturing is crap anyway? If I have a boy, he's going to get his ass kicked! Now if you want an empowered daughter, I'm the guy."

"Don't worry, Chief, I think I can handle passing on the macho posturing." Jim leaned over and kissed his lover's hair. Blair turned and found his mouth, but Jim pulled away. "It's late, Blair, we've got an early start tomorrow."

Blair exhaled through flared nostrils and rolled over. "Right. Good night, Jim."

Relieved, Jim had breathing room to wonder if Blair was upset at getting the cold shoulder yet again, but soon enough Blair mumbled, half asleep, "Maybe echolocation? Jim, if you tap on your belly, do you think you could maybe gauge the shape to judge if it's a boy or a girl?"

"Good night, Sandburg."

***

"I can't believe you let that perp get away, Ellison," Brown had been ragging on Jim for the better part of the drive back to the PD and up the elevator, even into the bullpen.

"I told you, I'm sorry, H. He was too fast. I guess I'm just off my game, okay?"

"Ask me, you're getting a little soggy around the midsection. Better lay off those Wonderburgers for a while," said Brown, slapping Jim's belly for effect.

Jim reacted instantly, one hand swiping down to protect his belly, the other grabbing Henri by the throat and slamming him down on a desk. "Don't touch me!" he yelled.

The whole bullpen went dead silent. Simon poked his head out to see what was going on, narrowed his eyes, and said, "Ellison, let go of him this second!" When Jim obeyed, he followed that up with, "Get in here, now!"

With one hand in his pocket so he could rub his belly unobtrusively, Jim offered Brown a hand up. "Sorry," he muttered, then skulked into Simon's office.

"What the hell is going on with you, Jim? You've been wound tighter than a watch for the last month!"

"I'm sorry, Captain, I was out of line. I've just been a little on edge since Sandburg started the academy."

"Sandburg's doing fine, Jim, and it's not that different from the schedule he used to keep at Rainier. So don't give me that crap. Your senses have been off, your temper's been on a hair-trigger. If you don't tell me what's going on, I'm not even going to chain you to a desk, I'm going to suspend you until you get your act together."

Well, it's like this, Simon, I'm three months along now with Blair's love-child. God, let's see if he could get through this without flashing on Blair's rendition of this with overly helpful hand gestures. "You remember how things got ... out of hand when we went to Sierra Verde?"

"I remember you made an ass of yourself with that psycho Barnes. And after what she did to Sandburg--"

"I know!" Jim put up a hand to halt the reminder of how badly he'd screwed up there. "Look, Sandburg's got this theory that I was working off some sort of Sentinel mating instinct or something--" Could he be any more beet red? "Sandburg and I have been visiting her, off and on, in the institution. He was hoping he could bring her out of it. It's pretty much impossible, but you know Sandburg. And we found out, a couple of weeks ago, that she's -- she's pregnant."

Simon reeled back. "Pregnant? Jim--"

"Yeah. So, in about six months, I'm going to be a father."

"Jim, no offense, but are you sure it's yours? She was pretty hot and heavy with her partner, I thought, and we don't know--"

"Simon, whether it's my DNA or not, the kid will probably have the Sentinel genes. Alex isn't going to wake up, and even if she did, she's not exactly going to win any mother of the year awards from death row. So what do you think is going to happen to a kid with untrained Sentinel abilities in the foster care system? It's easier if the doctors just assume it's mine, because in the end, Sandburg and I are the best parents that kid could have."

"And Sandburg doesn't object to this?" Simon asked, incredulous.

"He suggested it," Jim said with perfect honesty.

Simon shook his head. "Too much information, Jim. How you get into these messes is beyond me." He frowned, then put a hand on Jim's shoulder. "But if you need anything, you can count on me. You know that, right?"

"I know. Thanks, Simon."

"And that's not an empty offer, Jim. I could teach you a lot in the fatherhood department!"

"I know you could, Simon," said Jim, smiling. "Thanks."

***

The sad thing was, he hadn't even tasted a Wonderburger in weeks. He couldn't get within three feet of one without feeling like his whole body was covered in stale grease. Sandburg had been reading up on sensory spikes in pregnant women, and it seemed like being a Sentinel further magnified some of the idiosyncratic reactions. He couldn't stand the smell of bananas now, and for some reason for the last week he'd insisted on ordering tandoori every night and slathering a healthy portion of marmalade and vanilla ice cream on top. Something about instantly cooling the spice in sweet cream, with a sharp citrus chaser, really hit the spot.

Sandburg was going over the top with research; he'd even gotten razzed at the academy for reading What to Expect When You're Expecting in the academy locker room. His latest obsession had been burning classical music and intricate tribal drums onto an ipod and pressing the headphones to Jim's stomach, until Jim told him in no uncertain terms that whether or not the sound might blow out a baby Sentinel's eardrums, it was certainly doing a number on Jim's nerves and was therefore more hazardous to Blair's health than the baby's. After Blair had left for class, apologizing and spinning new ideas in the same breath, Jim plugged the headphones into the stereo, lay back on the couch, and rubbed his belly soothingly to the sound of Santana's wailing guitar. His child would have good taste.

Sometimes it almost seemed normal, but sometimes the changes staggered Jim. Jim's build meant that, from the outside, the changes in his belly were hardly noticeable, but sometimes Jim listened for hours to the little heartbeat, cataloguing the subtlest movements of the little tadpole. He'd insisted on switching which side of the bed he slept on, keeping Blair between himself and the stairs, instead of the other way round. He just couldn't sleep any other way. He desperately needed to pee every ten minutes, he was constantly exhausted, his temper would flare and bottom out like he'd lost control of his mind when the damn tadpole had commandeered his body.

Why the hell had he gone with the Alex excuse, anyway? What if Simon called the institution, trying to be helpful? Jim could have made the abandoned baby thing work, but now that bitch Alex would have to be put on the damned birth certificate. Everyone would think that she was some part of the tadpole, that Jim had actually fucked her. Well, you would have fucked her if you'd had the chance, he chastened himself, And instead, you let Blair fuck YOU. Well, that's never going to happen again, that's for sure.

The phone rang, just Max checking in for the weekly stats. Rather than trek all the way down to California every week for exams, the three of them had decided to leave most of the checkups to Jim's Sentinel senses, only driving down for the necessary bloodwork.

Blair's key jangled in the lock, and Jim winced at the sharp noise. "Honey, I'm home," said Blair. He gave Jim's belly a gentle and affectionate rub as he leaned in for a kiss, but Jim turned his face at the last second, the kiss deflecting harmlessly across his cheek.

"I'll make dinner? I'm a little sick of tandoori," Blair offered, moving to the kitchen. "You know, Jim, among the Trobrianders, it's assumed that the man provides all the raw material for the baby, which is why women crave sex so much during the second trimester. In fact, it's a grave insult there to say a kid looks like the mother, and you tell guys how good they used to look before their wives tired them out having so many babies." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively before bending to hunt through the fridge.

"Will you give it a rest, Chief? I just don't feel like it, okay?"

"What exactly are you worried about, Jim? It's not like I can get you pregnant again, right?" Jim flinched at that. Blair turned to look at him, eyes cajoling. "I miss you, Jim. I miss touching you. I miss kissing you. Look, if you're worried I'll make you bottom, don't. I've got no problem with rolling over for you."

Jim shook his head. "Yeah, and then I'd owe you one," he muttered.

"Owe me one? Owe me one? Jim, since when do we keep score during sex?" He tried to joke, "Well, except for competing over who can go the longest, or how many times we can--"

Jim walked over to grab his coat. "I'm going out for a bit. Don't hold dinner."

"Ji-im! We need to talk about this, man! Do you blame me for what happened? Is that it? Are you punishing me?"

"Not everything is about you, Sandburg," Jim snapped. "I'm just not in the mood, okay? Not everyone is a walking puddle of hormones like you. Lock the damn door after I go; you never know who's out there," he added, slamming the door behind him.

As he stormed down the stairs, he caught Blair's quiet mutter, "Hey, I barely know the one who lives here."

He went to the gym, but he got dizzy trying to put himself through his usual punishing routine. It took so little to wear him out these days. Couldn't go have a drink, either. Couldn't risk getting jostled at a club. Couldn't go anywhere. He felt so damned trapped.

He ended up going to a movie, though afterwards he couldn't even remember which one. The loft was dark when he got home. Blair lay motionless on the bed, but Jim could tell he was awake. He smelled so unhappy.

"I told Simon that Alex and I are having a little junior Sentinel," he said quietly. "I feel like everyone's going to think I really cheated on you with that murdering bitch."

Blair rolled over. "Despite the fact that no one knows there's a 'me' to cheat on?"

"You really know how to find the bright side of everything, lambchop." Jim eased himself under the covers Blair held out for him, and then, against his better judgment, scooted up until his body pressed against Blair's. Blair reached for him, and Jim's jaw clenched. "Don't--"

"I won't, Jim," Blair promised, just holding Jim close.

Jim buried his face in Blair's neck, sniffing the lovely, homey scent of his hair.

"Thank you," Blair mumbled, drifting off to sleep.

"Hey, I missed you too."

***

Simon looked up as Megan tapped tentatively on his office door. "Sir? Is this a bad time or do you have a second?"

"Connor, I'm up to my eyeballs in this mad bomber case and the Chief is breathing down my neck, but since there's never a good time around here, just pull up a chair and tell me what you need."

Megan shut the door and sat down, biting her lip in an uncharacteristically subdued way. "I just had a long talk with Sandy, and what he said really worried me."

Simon froze. Blair hadn't told her about Alex having Jim's baby, had he? It would be all over the department by the end of the day, and on the news by tomorrow! "What did he say?"

"He's having a really tough time at the academy," she said. "They're teaching the weapons section now, and he's convinced, with the luck he and Ellison seem to have, that he's bound to shoot and kill someone when he's still wet behind the ears. He kept talking about this girl, Susan Frasier..."

Simon frowned. Why did that name sound so familiar? "She was one of Lash's victims."

Megan nodded. "The first dead body he ever saw. He said it took longer to get over that, and how cavalier Lash was about killing her, than it did to recover from what Lash did to him. He's worried about what it'll mean to actually kill someone himself."

Damn. Despite all Simon's protests and objections to that effect, Sandburg had handled himself so well over the years that sometimes it was hard to remember that, at his core, he wasn't a cop. "You think he's going to wash out of the academy?" Simon asked.

"No, Sandy's never let anything stop him for long, but I asked him what Jim said about all this, and you know what he told me?"

"No, what?"

"He said, 'Jim and I haven't been talking lately.' He said that Jim's got a lot on his mind, and Sandy didn't want to bother him." She leaned forward. "Simon, in all the time I've been here, those two have only gotten kicked in the teeth when they don't hang together. If I try to talk to Jim, he'll just ignore me, but you're his friend. Can't you get him to wake up before something goes wrong?"

Simon swore under his breath. Sandburg's partner and best friend was having a baby with the woman who had almost killed him, and as Simon sat there thinking about it, he realized there were only two bedrooms in the loft. Sandburg had to know he was getting the axe as soon as the baby arrived. And since the baby was a secret, there was no one he could go to for help or advice except Simon, who hadn't even called him since Ellison and Sandburg dropped the bombshell on him. What kind of a friend was he?

***

Jim couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this ... distracted. It was as though his senses had turned him into some sort of erotic tuning fork: the whisper of his soft cotton boxers, the scent of doughnuts on the cart, the baby turning inside him, the deathgrip he had on his desk, everything made his skin hum with excruciating temptation. It had been like this for days. But the worst part was, after weeks of Jim keeping Blair at arm's length, snapping at every helpful suggestion or nutritious meal, his Guide had gotten the message and was spending most of his time at the academy putting in extra practice to give Jim breathing room he suddenly didn't want. The thought of burying himself in Blair's ass was enough to make his dick try to drill a hole through the desk.

"Jim, can I talk to you for a minute?" Simon called from the doorway, quieter than usual.

Jim looked up, confused by the look Megan shot him as she left Simon's office, but hauled himself up, surreptitiously using some case files to disguise both his belly and his erection.

"Come on in, Jim, and sit down," said Simon. "How are you doing? Senses back under control?"

Jim made a 'so-so' gesture. "I can handle it, Simon. What did you want to see me about?"

"It's been a while, Jim, but I remember what I went through when Joan and I had Daryl. This whole baby thing knocks you for a loop under the best of circumstances, I know, and despite what I say about her sometimes, Joan was never psychotic. It's a lot for you to deal with."

Jim shrugged, not wanting to get tangled in more lies. "I said I'm handling it, Simon."

Simon frowned. "Have you talked about it with Sandburg?" Simon asked.

"It's pretty much all we talk about these days," said Jim. "Frankly, he's getting on my nerves about it."

"Well, you can't blame him for worrying," said Simon. "So, you've made a decision about what to do when the baby's born?"

"Decision?" Jim was drawing a blank.

"About Sandburg," Simon clarified.

"What is there to decide?" Jim asked, genuinely confused.

"What is there to decide?" Simon echoed. "Jesus, Jim, the only surprise is why he hasn't left you before now."

"Left?" Jim asked, mouth dry, just as the phone rang.

"Banks!" Simon answered, then covered the receiver. "It's Taggart. He says he's got a lead on the bomber. Go meet him at the Proctor building, Jim. We'll finish this later."

Jim stood up, scared as hell. He needed to find his partner, fast.

"Jim! Taggart! Now!"

He had no choice but to obey.

***

With Jim off at the station, it was safe to come home and get something to eat. Blair was trying his best to back off; he knew he'd been smothering Jim, but he didn't know how to help him, or get him to talk about what he was going through, and personally, he was excited and more than a bit terrified by the prospect of becoming a father. He'd never had one, just boyfriends of Naomi's now and then, teachers he'd looked up to or older boys who'd taken him under their wing. He had no clue of how to be a full-time, responsible father. And hey, what was the kid going to call him, anyway? The one time Blair had brought it up, Jim had said that calling themselves Daddy Jim and Daddy Blair sounded ridiculous, like Heather has Two Mommies. 'But Jim,' Blair had pointed out, 'our kid will have two daddies. Unless you want to be called Mommy.'

Blair had spent that night on the couch.

So if Jim was Daddy, what did that make Blair? Uncle? Friend?

There was a heavy knock at the door. "Sandburg? You there?" Blair unlocked it, and Simon smiled at him. "I do love getting to actually knock once in a while."

Blair stared at him in confusion and growing worry. "Simon? Did something happen to Jim?"

"Jim's fine," said Simon. "I just wanted to talk. Jim's going through a rough time, and I guess I've forgotten it's hard on you, too. Have you made any arrangements for after the baby's born?"

"We've thought about it some. I mean, by then I'll have graduated the academy and we'll be working the same hours, which means we can't switch off. I keep pushing for my Mom to come stay with us, but Jim seems to think that's a bad idea for some reason, so we were thinking of maybe hiring Sally to help out. As for the senses, Jim hasn't told his dad what's happening yet, so I can't ask him if they manifest in infancy and whether that's going to be a problem. But baby products are pretty mild and hypoallergenic anyway, so it shouldn't be too hard to keep things on an even keel."

Simon grimaced. "That's not what I meant, Sandburg. It's a small apartment. Where's the baby going to sleep?"

"In my room," Blair said, not understanding.

"And where does that leave you?"

Blair opened his mouth and caught himself just in time. Jim was adamant about not coming out, so how the hell was he supposed to answer such a simple, practical question?

Simon, seeing the question sink in, drew his own conclusions. "Daryl is going off to college in a few months," he said. "And I've got the spare room. If you need a place to stay, you can stay with me. Just don't go burning any weird incense or anything."

"Thank you," said Blair, deeply affected. "That means a lot to me, Simon."

"Yeah, well, I stuck my neck out to get you into the academy; I'm just looking out for my investment," he said brusquely, and turned to go. "I've got to get back before things go to hell in a handbasket. Tell me if you need anything."

"I will, thanks." Blair watched him go, then closed the door. Simon might be way off the mark, but he'd reminded Blair that there was a hell of a lot to get done in the next month or so. Blair had to clear out all his old stuff, and they had to make arrangements for baby furniture, though Blair was intending, for anthropological reasons more than anything else, to follow the Jewish superstition of not actually setting up the baby room until the baby was born alive and healthy, so as not to jinx things. Man, he'd have to call Naomi and start tracking down the crib and cradle her friend Anthony had made for Blair, which had by now made the rounds of Naomi's friends and was now being passed around between their children.

Tracking the cradle down would make a really interesting kinship diagram, Blair thought as he surveyed his room and started boxing up old books and papers. It would be interesting now to map out his kinship network, see who he was tied to and how, and what he relied on different people for and owed to them in return. It had been years since he'd indulged in the comfort of seeing just how many friends he could count on, and now, embarking on a new career with a baby on the way, it seemed all the more important.

***

With the bomber in custody, Jim raced home, desperate to find his lover before Blair did anything drastic, but realized he was too late the instant he opened the door. Half-filled cardboard boxes blocked the entry to Blair's old room, along with huge trash bags filled with the detritus of the former anthropologist's old life. A huge network of post-it notes covered the wall, each with odd symbols and lists, and, as Jim bent to get a closer look, he saw that one of the ones nearest the center said, 'Simon: Place to live, job, advice.'

Dimly, he heard a key in the lock, and marched over to yank the door out of his startled Guide's hands. "You're not leaving," he snarled, grinding the erection he'd been fighting all week into his Guide's hip. "You're mine."

He pulled Blair into the loft and slammed the door. Then, ignoring the protests of "Jim, what are you doing? Are you nuts? Jim!" he ripped off Blair's layers of shirts, tearing cloth and sending buttons skittering across the floor, and yanked down Blair's pants to tangle hopelessly in his sneakers. Blair would be too afraid of hurting the baby to fight back. He could smell his lover's fear, but the sudden surge of pheromones was stronger, and Jim chuckled as he leaned down to rub his face in Blair's chest hair, drinking in his scent. He hustled Blair over to the couch and bent him over the back of it, raising that perfect ass to just the right height. Then he dug under the couch cushions for a tube of lubricant, slicked himself up, trying not to go off at the simple sensation of his own hand, and shoved himself inside Blair's tight ass with no preparation, smiling at Blair's need-filled moan of relief.

Then a different kind of moan penetrated the lust fogging Jim's brain. "Ow, ow, Jim, bad spot, you've gotta let me up," Blair pleaded, and Jim saw the problem, yanked off the Indian blanket and shifted his Guide a couple of inches so instead of being pinned against the hard back of the couch, Blair's hard cock nestled between the two back cushions. And Blair was hard, no question of that, he needed this as badly as Jim did.

The first thrust was almost impossibly tight, and they both groaned as Jim's cock fought to stretch Blair open a little. Jim leaned over, completely covering Blair's back, and sucked that sweet spot behind Blair's ear that always did the trick. It worked perfectly, and his Guide arched on tiptoe for Jim to drive into him, alternately humming and groaning as Jim's cock drilled his prostate over and over.

"Jim, Jim, I'm gonna come, I'm gonna come on the couch! Jim! Oh ... oh fuck, fuck the couch..."

Jim pounded into him even harder and was rewarded with a piercing wail as his lover's body spasmed wonderfully, milking his cock. His own orgasm smashed through him until it was all he could do to keep standing. As he shivered through the aftershocks, he slid experimentally out and back into his lover. His erection didn't seem to be going down any time soon. That was fine by him. He started thrusting again, and Blair groaned, "Oh yeah, don't stop, Jim, please, please..."

It took longer this time, nearly ten minutes of hard pounding as Jim licked and bit his lover's throat, reveling in the taste and scent and feel of his Guide. He pumped shot after shot into Blair, but before Blair could climax, Jim pulled out, flipped him over and sank to his knees to gulp the delicious fluid his Guide shot so eagerly and so frantically into his mouth. He growled his approval, throat rumbling as he suckled the softened cock back to full hardness, rolling Blair's balls between his fingers, sliding fingers deep inside his lover until he was rewarded with another savory mouthful. Then he staggered back to his feet, flipped Blair over and drove himself into that sweet, silky passageway yet again.

When he finally, dimly came to his senses, his first thought was that his back was killing him. His second was that Blair was even worse off: hips and stomach bruised, ass tender, red, and overflowing with seed, throat clearly raw from screaming.

His third thought was that the couch was totaled.

He carefully heaved himself up and walked around to inspect it. The cushions were twisted out of shape from Blair's clawing hands and a flood of semen had soaked into the cushions, between them, there was even some on the rug. "How the hell did you get semen on the rug?" Jim demanded, amused.

Foggily, Blair lifted himself up on tiptoe to see. "Really? Cool. I must have been pretty backed up. That's gotta be worth Olympic Gold, a new record or something."

Jim chuckled fondly. "You okay, Chief?"

"Oh yeah ... I needed that. Are you okay?"

Jim nodded, then winced. "Let's get up to bed while we're still mobile," he said, then, forlorn, "Maybe we can have the couch steam-cleaned."

"Steam-cleaned? I'm having it bronzed!"

***

"Nervous?" Blair asked.

"Why should I be nervous? You're the one doing all the talking!" said Jim.

It sounded like poker night was already underway as they drove up to Simon's house. It had been Blair's idea to tell everyone here, in a friendly, controlled environment which they could leave if things got too heated. He'd even chosen the timing: less than a week before Jim's scheduled C-section. Any later and they wouldn't have time to accept the situation before the baby arrived, any sooner and they'd have too much time, start asking the wrong questions, cause complications. Once the baby was actually born, that would tap everyone's energy and no one would have time to think about Alex.

Simon eyed Jim's burgeoning belly when he answered the door. "I keep telling you, Jim," he said, sotto voce. "Gaining sympathy weight's a bad way to go; it doesn't come off so easily once the baby is born." He looked back at the living room, where Rafe was happily raking in a pile of chips. "Ready?"

"Ready as we'll ever be," said Jim. "Your show, Chief."

"What, you're going to make him explain your situation?" Simon protested.

"He always has," said Jim, smiling at Blair.

They went inside and sat down, but before Joel could deal out the next hand, Blair motioned for him to stop. "Guys? There's something Jim and I need to tell you. It's, uh, it's pretty important."

"You're not quitting the academy, are you, Sandy?" Megan fretted. "You're almost there, just a few more weeks--"

"What? No, no, I'm doing okay with it." He shot her a reassuring smile, then returned to the subject at hand. "You guys remember Alex Barnes, right?"

"What, that wacko who tried to kill you?" said Brown. "Not going to forget that bitch in a hurry."

Blair chuckled nervously. "Well, the thing is, before everything went south, literally, she and Jim kinda ... had a moment, and, well, the upshot is, she's pregnant."

"Pregnant?" asked Joel.

Brown glared at Jim.

"Oh, Sandy," Megan whispered, horrified.

"Whoa, hey," said Blair, "now remember, things were pretty crazy when she showed up, and we didn't know she was a criminal at first."

Jim studied his hands at that, listening to Blair lie for him. When he'd made love to Alex on the beach, he'd known exactly what she was. And Blair had forgiven him anyway. Jim was constantly staggered by the size of his lover's heart.

"So what's going to happen to the baby?" Megan asked. "Can she even give birth in a coma?"

"You gonna do the right thing, man?" Brown demanded.

Jim nodded. "That's why we're telling you all this. It's my kid, I'm taking full responsibility." He looked across at Blair and smiled. "Or half responsibility, anyway."

"And you're cool with that?" Brown asked in disbelief, "Helping him raise the baby of someone who nearly whacked you?"

"Man, I am the last person to cast aspersions on people for where they come from," said Blair. "I don't even know who my father is, remember?"

"When's the baby due?" Joel asked.

"Well, it was eight months ago; you do the math," said Jim.

"It could be a little earlier or later," Blair cautioned, "We don't know how Alex's catatonia will affect the pregnancy."

"Man, every time I think you two can't get any further from normal, you manage to push the envelope," Joel sighed.

"Jim, what if the kid's, um, what if it takes after its mother?" Rafe asked.

"Well, if it starts trying to drown me at bathtime, we'll know therapy is in order," Blair joked weakly. "Seriously, though, Alex was smart and creative. The only problem was how she chose to live her life. I mean, look at my mom. Look at Jim's dad. We're a lot like our parents, but their lives haven't dictated ours."

"Any time you need babysitting," said Megan.

"Count me in too," said Joel. "The rate I'm going, I'm not gonna have kids of my own any time soon."

Brown just thumbed through the cards repeatedly. Rafe was red-faced and kept looking at the exits.

"You got something to say to me, H?" Jim demanded.

"Yeah, I got something to say. You should have been more careful."

"Yeah, I should've been," said Jim. "But I wasn't, and now I'm cleaning up my mess. Would you like it better if I had my kid sent to foster care?"

"Man, there's nothing to like about this shit," said Brown. "See you tomorrow, guys, I'm beat." He picked up his money and left.

***

"Well, that didn't go off the way I planned," said Blair as they got undressed that night. "What's up with H, man? I've never seen him act like that."

Jim sighed. "When Brown was a rookie, he got a girl pregnant, then got scared and said it wasn't his."

"He told you that?" Blair asked.

"No, she came to the station and told him off in front of all his buddies. He was just a kid, wasn't ready to be a father, couldn't afford to help her, so he chickened out. She had an abortion, and she never stopped blaming him for it."

Blair sighed and opened his mouth to say something just as the baby squirmed, an elbow rippling the surface of Jim's belly for a moment. "Man! That's so weird, Jim; I never get used to it. What does it feel like? Come on, tell me!"

"It feels like the tadpole just rolled over, Sandburg, what's it supposed to feel like?" Jim said, stripping off his boxers and getting into bed. It had taken him a while to get used to the sensation, but by now, Jim liked feeling the tadpole stirring inside him, a pleasure made a little sweeter by teasing his favorite anthropologist and withholding information. Blair should have been the one to have this baby; he was so starved to hear every detail, so nervous and excited about what to do when the baby was born.

Blair had his back to Jim, kicking off his shoes and shimmying out of his jeans, and Jim reached around his big belly and started lazily stroking his erection. "Feel like a pony ride tonight, love?" he asked, and grinned at the whiff of Blair's sudden arousal.

"Oh man, I'm so down with that," said Blair, turning around and climbing on the bed. Jim expected Blair to just lube up and ride Jim's cock, but instead, Blair stretched out with his head by Jim's cock and his legs tangled in the pillows. "This could be the last time for a while," he said. "It's probably going to take time after the surgery for things to get back to normal."

"Normal being relative around here," said Jim, groaning appreciatively as Blair's tongue circled the crown of his cock. Blair delicately traced the curving path of each vein with the tip of his tongue, then swallowed Jim whole without warning, sucked briefly, and released his cock again, making Jim howl. He arched over Jim for a moment to plant a gentle kiss on Jim's belly, then bent to lick a bead of moisture from the tip of Jim's cock.

Jim's hands skimmed restlessly over Blair's side as Blair sucked first one, then the other testicle into his mouth, licking and slurping each before blowing cool air across them. Blair was rarely in a mood to take it slow, but when he was, he could draw it out and make it so very good. Now he dragged his soft curls across Jim's groin, smiling as the imprint of a tiny hand momentarily stretched the taut skin of Jim's stomach. "Not now, Junior, I'm busy with your Dad," Blair chided, and returned to his gentle worship of Jim's cock.

Feeling a little selfish, Jim reached for the lube to amend the situation. He squirted a little on his finger and circled his fingernail around the tight pucker of Blair's ass. Blair shivered and parted his legs wider to give Jim better access as he lapped up another drop of precome and wriggled his tongue down Jim's shaft. He suckled Jim for a moment, yawning to let Jim fully into his throat, his tongue dancing around Jim's balls so they wouldn't feel left out. Jim groaned as he made circles and figure eights around Blair's anus. Blair's hips were jerking in a restless tic now, needing penetration, but Jim held off a little longer. Blair's own cock was fully hard, tracing shiny patterns on Blair's stomach. Jim grinned wickedly, pulled that eager cock to his mouth and sucked hard, plunging two fingers into Blair at the same time.

Blair screamed at the sensation, then the scream melted to a groan as Jim stopped sucking and just let Blair ride his hand for a while. Torturing Blair was a good thing; if this was the last taste of Blair's seed he was going to get for a while, Jim wanted to make sure Blair came hard and gave him a good mouthful. He shifted his knee up, blocking Blair's access to his cock, and sucked Blair deep, swallowing hard to encourage him. Blair screamed again, hips jerking helplessly between Jim's fingers in his ass and Jim's mouth on his cock, and then sweet flavor burst across Jim's taste buds, flooding his mouth anew as each swallow milked another burst of flavor from his lover's balls.

Blair slipped free, almost sobbing at the intensity of his orgasm, and then crawled around to mount Jim's cock. Jim sighed with pleasure as he slipped inside the tight passage, feeling it quiver around him as Blair rode up and down with trembling legs. With Blair's taste still on his tongue and Blair shaking all around him, it didn't take long for Jim to give one urgent thrust and come hard, filling Blair with his seed.

Blair rolled to the side to avoid hurting the baby and made an uncoordinated attempt to clean them both up before succumbing to exhaustion. Jim kissed his lover's hair, but held off sleep just a little longer.

For the last few days, he kept having the same odd dream that the spotted leopard was watching him; not attacking, just watching. He'd shrugged it off as just his subconscious feeling guilty about saying the child was Alex's instead of his and Blair's; he knew if he mentioned it to Sandburg, Sandburg would insist on going to check on Alex. But that might make the doctors think Major Crime wanted a report on their patient, which they would send to Simon, and the last thing they needed was a doctor's report that made no mention of the fact that Alex was supposedly eight months along. No, if there had been any change in Alex's condition, Major Crime would have been alerted already. Jim needed to let it go.

***

Blair couldn't remember ever having been as scared as he was when Uncle Max deliberately cut into Jim's stomach. Jim had been in surgery before, but always when there was something wrong, like a gunshot. Intentional surgery seemed much scarier, somehow, but since Uncle Max was all the way in California and they couldn't take an indefinite amount of time off waiting for Jim to go into labor, they had to do this or risk Jim giving birth in the backseat of the truck as Blair tried to race down the interstate in time. So Blair let Jim grip and cut off all the circulation in his hand as he murmured meaningless reassurances, watching, dry-mouthed, as Max cut through the layers of muscle to the clear pink sac that held their child. One more slice, and Max pulled out the little, red body, covered in slime and blood, expertly clearing its mouth and nose with a bulb syringe before slapping it. A sweet, thin cry rose, and all three men started crying and laughing.

"You have a beautiful, healthy boy here, Jim," Max announced, as he cut the cord and handed the baby to Jim.

Jim stared at the baby with such a look of wonder and awe it almost hurt to watch. "Hello," he said softly. Then he turned to look at Blair, and said, "David? Want to say hello to your Daddy?"

Blair backed off a step, shaken. "I thought, I thought you should be Daddy," he said.

Jim shook his head. "I want to be Pop. It always pissed my Dad off when I was a kid, and I figure I need reminding I'm not him."

Blair cradled the baby, shaken to the core. "I'm a daddy. I'm a daddy," he repeated, looking at the impossibly small creature cupped in his hands. "Oh, God. I swear, David, I swear I won't mess up, I swear you'll always know Pop and Daddy love you. I'm never going to leave you, I promise. Oh, David, I love you so much!"

Max had carefully sewn up the layers of skin and muscle of Jim's abdomen, and now he gently pried the baby from Blair's grasp. "Jim needs his rest now, and I need to run some quick tests on the baby's health. I'm so happy for you, Blair. You have no idea what this means to me."

Blair kissed Max's cheek, bent to stroke his son's, and then turned to kiss his lover. "Thank you," he said to Jim. "I love you."

"Love you too," said Jim, eyes already closing.

***

During Jim's recovery, Jim and Blair were staying with Uncle Max, his wife Sarah, and their various adopted children at their house in San Francisco, and Blair knew the area well enough to make a quick run for formula and diapers that night. God, he couldn't get over it, kept grinning and bouncing on his heels at the checkout counter as the clerk rang up the purchases.

On the walk home, Blair's cell phone rang. "Where the hell are you two?" Simon demanded.

"I told you," said Blair. "Alex went into labor. We're at the institution."

"No, you're not," said Simon. "You know how I know that? Because I'm at the institution. Alex broke out yesterday. The loft's been trashed; we have no clue where she is. Sandburg, are you there?"

Blair couldn't speak. He just stared at Max's front door, swinging open with the lock torn out. He fumbled with the phone and whispered, "Simon, 468 Church St. in San Francisco. We need backup here now. She's in the house."

"Sandburg!"

Blair clicked off the phone and stepped through the doorway, looking for any possible threat. Aunt Sarah lay crumpled on the floor in a pool of blood that spilled from a terrible gash on her head -- still breathing, still breathing, Blair chanted silently as he found a weak pulse. God, the children! Blair forced himself to stay calm and reached on tiptoe for the high kitchen cabinet where Sarah had insisted Jim keep his gun while around her curious children.

Then, gun in hand, he crept up the stairs, bracing himself for what he might find.

"It's no good, Blair," Alex called from the guest room as Blair walked towards it. "I could hear your heartbeat a mile away. I can hear the children cowering in the next room. It doesn't matter. I'm just taking what's mine, and I'll be on my way."

Blair pushed open the door to find Alex standing over Jim with the baby tucked in the crook of her arm and a knife in one hand. Blood staining Jim's clothes warned of popped stitches; with all his stomach muscles cut open and re-sewn, Jim hadn't had a chance. He was still struggling to get up off the floor, his lack of coordination showing he'd dialed pain and touch all the way down to no good effect.

Blair raised the gun. "Put the baby down, Alex."

"You expect me to believe you'd actually pull the trigger, you little peacenik? You were still trying to talk me out of it when I held you under." She laughed and turned to climb out the window.

Blair aimed for the head and shot twice, then dashed forward to grab the baby as Alex fell.

He shook with reaction. He'd actually shot someone! God, he could have lost David and Jim! He vaguely heard sirens in the background, then became aware of Jim yelling, "Chief, Chief, focus! I need you here!"

Blair turned to him, still not all the way back. He held out the baby for Jim's Sentinel inspection. "David's okay?"

"David's fine. You did good, Sandburg. Put him down on the bed." Blair did so, and Jim said, "Chief, help me sit up. Hand me her knife."

"What are you going to do?" Blair asked, obeying anyway.

Jim leaned over Alex's body, lifted up her shirt, and cut down her belly.

"Jim! What are you doing?" Blair yelped. He flinched as Jim handed him the knife.

"Doctoring evidence, Sandburg. I need you to cut out my stitches, fast, before backup gets here." Blair frantically shook his head, but Jim grabbed his shoulders and barked, "Blair, if we don't want people asking the wrong kinds of questions, I can't have just gone through surgery. Now cut the stitches!"

Sobbing and sniffling, Blair managed to do as Jim asked, his hands shaking badly. The sirens were louder by the time Blair finished, and the opened wound started bleeding badly. Jim took the knife back and cut his shirt in a few key places, wiped the handle down with a torn piece of shirt, wrapped Alex's hand around it and offered it to Blair. "Grip the handle, Sandburg. Our story is that she came here, crazy and looking for revenge. When you arrived, Alex had gutted me and was going to finish me off. You shot her, then gave her an emergency C-section to save the baby's life." He eyed Blair worriedly. "Are you okay?"

"Am I okay?" Blair asked, waving the knife vaguely at Jim's open wound, David wailing on the bed, Alex's body cooling on the floor.

"Go check on the kids," Jim urged. "I'll finish up in here."

Blair didn't want to know what finishing up entailed. He went to the next room and called, "Ariella? Ruthie? Is everyone okay in there?"

Sobbing, Ruthie opened the door and clung to him, but it looked like all the kids were alive and unhurt. "M-mommy was bleeding," Ruthie cried. "I-is she dead?"

"Shush, it's okay. Hear those sirens pulling up? Those are the police and the paramedics. They're going to take good care of your mommy, okay?"

He gathered the kids together, and yelled, "Coming down, don't shoot!" before taking them down the stairs. "Officer down upstairs, in need of medical attention. There's -- there's a baby up there too; you need to check if the baby's okay."

The paramedics were loading Sarah onto a gurney; she was in bad shape. The cops rushed over to shunt the children out of the way, checking them for injuries. "Who are you, sir? Where's the perp?"

"Blair Sandburg," he said. "The perp's ... she's down. She's ... I killed her."

The paramedics came down the stairs with two stretchers and carrying the baby. Jim had passed out. Blair called to him frantically as they took him away, but the cops wouldn't let him go see if Jim was all right. He'd lost so much blood...

They sat him down and started asking questions, which Blair tried to keep straight with their alibi, but all he wanted was to see Jim. Camera flashes over by the door irritated his eyes, people were yelling, arguing back and forth, but it all felt strangely muffled. Blair was distantly aware that he was in shock, and he wished he could stay there, because it was really going to suck to think about all this without some nice, insulating shock to cushion the blow.

Someone knelt beside him. Simon. "Oh, hey Simon," Blair said vaguely. "Is everyone okay?"

"Everyone's going to be fine, Sandburg, but we have a problem. You're the one who took Barnes out?"

"She stabbed Jim," he said. That was important.

Simon nodded. "Sandburg, we've got a situation here. You've been trained as a police officer--"

"--Did everything by the book. Secured the scene--"

"Shush, Sandburg, listen to me. I know you did everything right. Now, cops aren't supposed to operate out of state, but exceptions are made for special circumstances. The problem is, you haven't graduated the academy yet. You're not officially a cop. And we've got a dead, pregnant woman on our hands, Sandburg. That makes for pretty bad press."

Something cool clicked against his wrists. Blair looked down to find himself chained with Simon's handcuffs. "I'm sorry as hell about this, kid. Blair Sandburg, I'm placing you under arrest for the murder of Alex Barnes."

***

Jim shooed Blair out of the room, then set about screwing with the last of the evidence. The little portable incubator was on a collapsible base, thankfully; one good kick to collapse it and it rolled under the bed; just another spare piece of equipment in a house that occasionally sheltered crack babies and had no attic space for storage. Then the hard part, the part he hadn't wanted Blair to see: smearing traces of Alex's blood on David in case anyone tested. His own blood loss was making him a little woozy, but there was one thing left to do. He fumbled for his cell phone.

"SFPD, Forensics."

"Carolyn?"

"Jim? Hi! What a nice surprise. You sound awful, though, are you okay? How's Blair?"

"That's why I'm calling," he said. "Listen, Carolyn, I need a favor. A big one."

"Jim? What's wrong?"

"Listen to me. In about an hour or so, a woman's body is going to be delivered to your coroner's office. Gunshot wound and abdominal incision. I need the coroner's report to say she was pregnant, or at least not contradict that."

"Jim, are you crazy? I could lose my job over this!"

"I know it's a lot to ask, but a baby's life depends on this, Carolyn. You know I wouldn't ask if there were any other way. Please."

There was silence on the other end of the line. Finally Carolyn said, "All right, I'll figure something out, if it's a kid's life. But you owe me an explanation for this, Jim."

"I'll owe you a lot more than that. Thank you, Carolyn."

He hung up, vision going gray. He could hear the cops coming up the stairs. He hugged David closer to his chest and surrendered to the dark.

***

Hospital. He hated hospitals. And from the feel of it, re-stitching a gut wound wasn't something he wanted to repeat in the near future.

"How're you feeling?" Simon asked. "The doctors say she gutted you pretty good."

"David? Is David okay?"

"The kid's fine, Jim. The woman you were staying with, Sarah Fine, had a bad concussion. She doesn't remember much of the attack, but the docs say she's going to be okay."

Jim nodded. "How's Blair doing? IA isn't being too hard on him, I hope."

Simon winced. "IA isn't involved in this."

"What are you talking about, Simon? IA always gets involved in officer-related shootings!"

"That's the problem, Jim. Sandburg isn't an officer, not yet. And the media is having a field day out there: pregnant psychopath gunned down by trigger-happy trainee."

Damn it! He'd thought he was so smart, doctoring evidence that could withstand a routine IA investigation, but he and Simon were so used to telling Blair he wasn't a cop that at some point they'd forgotten it was true. "Oh God, Simon. They're going to crucify him."

Simon looked away. "I'm sorry, Jim."

"Sorry doesn't help Sandburg. Get me out of here, Simon; we need to work fast."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, we need to go talk to Alex's doctors before the prosecution does. Help me up."

To his humiliated frustration, Jim's abused stomach muscles wouldn't let him walk or even stand. Simon had to push him in a wheelchair up to Maternity, where Jim stared through safety glass at the rows of newborns. He hadn't marked David yet, couldn't pick him out of the other infants without checking the placards on the cribs, and that bothered him deeply. Soon, he promised. As soon as your old man gets your daddy out of jail, we'll be a family again, and I'll learn you as deeply as I've learned him, until you're a part of me.

"Jim?"

Jim turned to find Max walking towards them. "How are you? How's Sarah?"

Max shook his head, face crumpling a little. "She's, she's taking it better than I am. She's always been the strong one. But the kids are very scared; Ben and Ariella are helping with the younger ones, but Ruthie lost both her parents in a shooting; this is bringing up a lot of bad memories for her."

Jim grimaced. "I'm sorry we put your family in the middle of this, Max."

"Not your fault. When you get the chance, though, Jim, they're not letting anyone in to see David because of the investigation. If you could get the ban lifted for Naomi, she's dying to see her -- to see David," he finished, glancing at Simon.

Jim nodded. Damn, another legal roadblock: they'd intended for Blair to adopt David when he was born to give him equal parental rights, but for the moment, just when things were hardest, Blair and his mother had no claim on David. "We'll clear her with hospital security on the way out."

"Way out? Jim, you can't possibly be thinking of leaving the hospital in your condition!"

"There are some loose ends I need to tie up," said Jim. He nodded at the infants sleeping beyond the glass. "Take care of him for me. Please."

***

The institution where Alex had spent the last eight months was a run-down concrete and brick monstrosity. It was just about the worst facility in Washington state, the place you stuck people who had no money, no family to care about mistreatment, no hope of getting better. The only mystery in Alex's escape was how she'd woken up in the first place. Making it over the crumbling walls would have been child's play for a second-story artist like her.

Jim looked back as Simon wheeled him to the front door. "Simon, I need a favor. I need you to back me in there, no matter what I say. I promise I'll tell you anything you want to know afterwards, but..."

Simon grimaced. "I'm not going to like this, am I?"

"Probably not. But this is the only way to keep them from screwing Blair to the wall."

Simon looked up at the building. "You're asking me to be an accessory."

"I'm asking you, one father to another, not to keep me from saving my family."

Finally, Simon shook his head ruefully and started pushing the wheelchair again. "Sandburg been giving you lessons in persuasion?"

"You live with him long enough, you pick up a few things."

They flashed their badges at the admissions desk. "Captain Banks and Detective Ellison. We're here to discuss the patient who escaped on Tuesday."

The guard gulped. "This way, officers." He led them to the main office and knocked on the administrator's door.

Dr. Siegler was a pudgy, whining man who kept eyeing Jim's wheelchair throughout his speech about the 'high level of care provided at this facility' as though Jim were wearing a flashing neon sign that read Lawsuit.

"What I'm trying to understand," Jim interrupted, "is how you could completely miss any sign of her recovery. Let alone the fact that your security somehow managed to let an eight-months-pregnant woman escape."

Dr. Siegler goggled at him. "P-pregnant? Well, uh..."

"I mean, routine doctor's examinations should have picked up on the fact that she was waking up..." Jim trailed off and frowned at the doctor, closing his trap. "You were giving her routine tests and therapy, right? I mean, it's part of your state charter."

"W-we have records of therapy and tests," Siegler said with some relief.

"Records that somehow missed such important details? The lawyers are going to have a field day with that one. Not to mention the press."

"The press?!" Siegler shrieked, looking like a trapped rat.

Jim nodded. "I want to see those files myself, right now."

"Y-you don't have a warrant!" Siegler crowed, delighted something was finally going his way. "I can't release c-confidential records without a warrant."

Jim put on his best 'well, darn' glower and said, "Okay, then I'll be back. And you'd better have those records waiting for me."

Simon didn't say anything all the way to the car. When they got in, Simon drove a little ways down the road, then stopped the car before his emotions could get the better of his driving. "You scared him into falsifying evidence, Jim. Why would you do that?"

Jim said nothing, just watched him with a tightened jaw.

"It's in his best interests for Alex to have woken up suddenly; it lets him off the hook for that security breach. So what the hell did you want him to change?"

Jim waited, bracing himself for the inevitable explosion.

"He ... he didn't know she was pregnant. How could he miss her being eight months ... Jim?" Simon asked, with growing horror, "Whose baby is that?"

Jim looked at him, then glanced meaningfully down at his wounded belly.

Simon edged away as far as he could in the tiny car. "No. No, that's sick, Jim; that's not possible!"

"You think I had an easier time getting a grip on this?" Jim demanded. "Trust me, Simon, I was as freaked out about it as you are now."

"How--" Simon stopped himself, mouth curling in disgust. "Never mind. I don't want to know the details."

Jim watched him for a reaction as he gave the details anyway. He needed to know if his oldest friend could get past this. "Sandburg and I have been together a few years now, but I'd never ... I like men almost as much as I like women, I just could never stand the thought of someone shoving something up my ass. Turns out I had reason not to like the idea. It's a Sentinel thing, Blair figures; there's some stuff in the records that only makes sense if you know what you're looking at. Believe me, Simon, there are still times when my skin crawls just thinking about the whole thing." He wisely didn't add that there were times when feeling the baby kick had been the most miraculous, wonderful sensation, like having a private conversation with someone he loved, right in the middle of the bullpen, or the sweet, lingering smell of the cocoa butter Blair had smoothed on his belly and thighs to prevent stretch marks (and his cock, "just in case"), turning the whole experience into a loving, sensuous massage.

"But," he continued, "David's a healthy, normal kid. And however he got here, I love him just as much as you love Daryl."

Simon eyed him up and down. "I don't know if I can get past this, Jim. I've wrapped my brain around some pretty weird stuff since this whole Sentinel thing started, but I don't think I can look at you anymore without seeing ... that."

They didn't speak for the rest of the drive back to San Francisco.

***

Blair was being questioned when they got to the station, and 'No, Detective Ellison, you can't sit in on the interrogation.' So Jim took a cab back to the hospital.

Naomi was with David when Jim wheeled into the maternity ward, the baby asleep in her arms. She looked different somehow, quieter, softer, sure of herself in a way that had nothing to do with her usual bluster.

"Hey there, Grandma," Jim said, holding out his arms for the baby.

Naomi gently transferred the baby to Jim's hands, then stood back with tears in her eyes. "Oh!"

"What?" Jim asked.

"I just wish Blair were here. He's missing this, and you never get it back!"

"He'll be here soon," Jim promised.

"He could go to jail," Naomi said. "My friend Amy said that if he pleads guilty to manslaughter, he could get as little as five years. Five years! They're practically grown by then! He's going to miss David's first words, and teaching him to read -- did you know Blair crawled backwards when he first started out? He's going to miss it, Jim."

"Naomi, listen to me. He's not going to prison. I won't let that happen." He felt the baby stir in his arms. "It's okay, Naomi. It's going to be okay. Why don't you get yourself something to eat and go check on Sarah? She could probably use a good friend to help calm the children down."

Naomi bent to kiss the baby, then kissed Jim on the cheek and turned to leave.

"Naomi?" Jim called, and she stopped and looked back. "I never thanked you. For him. Thinking about everything I can screw up over the next eighteen years, I'm suddenly realizing how many things you did right."

Naomi smiled at him. "You'll do fine, Jim. Just pay attention, and don't let your fear of screwing up get in the way of loving him."

Then she left, and Jim was alone with his baby for the first time.

He could hear the tiny heartbeat, light and quick as a bird's, long familiar from pregnancy. David's skin was so soft, and when a tiny hand gripped his thumb, Jim was awestruck and terrified by the tiny, perfect nails that crowned each finger. He'd somehow expected the baby to be cute but vague, like those kitschy figurines they advertised in TV Guide. Fingernails made him real.

David had Blair's nose and rosebud mouth, but he seemed to have inherited the Ellison dark, straight hair. Hopefully he wouldn't inherit the Ellison hairline, though.

Jim held the baby closer, trying to catch the odd, elusive 'new baby' scent. David's scent. Something was missing, though, and with a quick look around to make sure no one could see, Jim blushed and surreptitiously licked David's throat, feeling something click into place inside him as he marked and recognized his son.

David stirred, and the baby's eyes seemed impossibly huge as they drank him in. The baby breathed in through his nose and yawned, smacking his lips. Jim debated; was David even online, this young? But he tried anyway, brushing his pinky finger across lips that parted and began to suck, tasting him, cataloguing him, Jim imagined.

"That's right, Tadpole, I'm your old man," Jim said. "Welcome to the world."

***

Blair fidgeted in his tweed jacket and four-point manacles, wishing he could reach high enough to tuck back the curl that had slipped out of his hair tie. He wasn't sure he could survive prison. He'd heard the other prisoners could be brutal to cops, especially cops they felt deserved it. And while Blair knew he'd done what he had to to save his lover and child from a knife-wielding maniac who could put him through a wall, to the outside world he was a man who had shot and killed a pregnant woman. It would be open season on his cellblock.

Stop that! he ordered himself. Jim will get you out of this, like always. He had to hold on to that.

Mom's friend Amy had volunteered to act as his lawyer, and she leaned forward now. "I need you to remember two things, Blair. The first is that you have to stay calm, but not cold. Juries don't like a remorseless killer, but losing your temper isn't going to win you any friends either. And remember, lawyers hate surprises. If they ask you a question, they already know the answer, so for Vishnu's sake, don't lie in there."

Stay calm and don't lie. Blair bit back hysterical laughter.

The bailiff entered the detention room. "They're ready for you now."

The manacles were too short for Blair to walk normally; he was forced to shuffle, staring straight ahead to avoid the humiliation of watching his closest friends see him like this. Face burning, he took his seat, and only then did he twist his head to see, behind the low barrier, Joel and Megan, Uncle Max and Aunt Sarah, his mother, Simon, and off to the side, in a wheelchair, Jim.

Blair's breath caught in his throat. Jim was okay. Amy had said so, but it was different to see it for himself. With a pang, he wished he was the one with Sentinel hearing so Jim could whisper inaudibly that he was fine, the baby was fine, it was all going to be all right. But Sentinel or not, Blair could read Jim's expression, and Jim wasn't worried for Blair, he was just pissed that his Guide was being messed with. That meant it would be okay.

The judge had banned the press from the courtroom, and aside from his friends, the jury, and the prosecutor, Doug Talbot, the room was empty. Amy saw him looking at the empty side of the room and murmured, "Just like we're trying to send a message by showing how many people love and support you, Talbot's trying to send a message that Alex has no one to speak for her. He could have had the whole prosecution team there if he wanted, but he wants to be the lone crusader for the unmourned mother. That's the image he's selling them."

"Please rise," the bailiff announced. The judge walked in, and they were off and running.

After opening remarks and a brief outline of the previous police record and Alex's history at the institution (which Blair was amazed to find included records of a healthy pregnancy but no signs of recovery), both sides moved on to testimony. They started with the children's statements, which both sides had agreed should be delivered by videotape instead of in open court; the kids had been through enough without a grueling trip through the press camped outside the courthouse, or a painful cross-examination. Blair cringed as the kids each related in turn hearing their mother scream for them to hide, the excruciating wait, and Blair coming for them. They were probably going to have nightmares for years over this. But they'd only caught a brief glimpse of "the crazy lady," and the prosecutor merely pointed out that, as young children who had spent the attack hiding in another room, anything they might say about the rest of the event would be hearsay.

Aunt Sarah was next, and she shot Blair a sympathetic look before weaving fact and fiction into a seamless whole: she'd been cleaning up the dinner dishes when a (pregnant) woman broke down the door. Sarah had yelled for her children to run, but with Alex blocking the door, there was nowhere to go but deeper into the house. Alex had been unarmed at this point; she'd asked, "Where is he?" and when Sarah didn't answer, she'd smashed the older woman's head into a cabinet and let her fall, kicking her for good measure. The last thing Aunt Sarah remembered was seeing Alex pull a butcher knife from the set on the kitchen counter.

"And where was Detective Ellison when all this screaming and running around was going on?" Talbot asked.

"Asleep," said Sarah. "He'd taken some flu medication earlier and had a bad reaction, so he was pretty out of it."

Next, Simon was called to the stand. Blair heard Jim suck in a breath, but didn't know why Jim was so worried. Simon wouldn't leave them in the lurch. After having Simon outline the call he'd made to Blair, as well as the condition of the loft, to illustrate Alex's apparent rage and strength, Amy asked, "How long have you known Blair Sandburg, Captain Banks?"

"More than four years now."

"And you recommended him for the academy?"

Simon nodded. "He's been an asset to my team. I wanted to make that official."

"He's been dragged into some pretty hairy situations since he started working with Major Crime: kidnapped by serial killers, taken hostage, used as bait for terrorists, drugged ... Has he ever taken down a criminal?"

"More than once," Simon said with a hint of pride.

"How? Has he ever killed anyone?"

Simon shook his head. "I've seen him use a fire hose, a laser pointer, a candy machine, and his own inability to keep his mouth shut for two seconds, but he's never killed anyone. He's a creative little hippie pain in the neck; he'd only kill someone if there were no other way, and lives were at stake."

"Thank you," said Amy, and motioned for Talbot to cross-examine.

"So let me just be clear on this one point," said Talbot, "Mr. Sandburg is so creative that in all the time you've known him, he's never come across a situation he couldn't overcome with nonviolence? He must be pretty resourceful."

"He is," Simon agreed.

Talbot let that point sit a moment. "How would you characterize the defendant's relationship with Detective Ellison?"

Simon's dark skin blushed even darker, and Blair realized why Jim had been nervous. Oh Jim, you didn't.

"What do you mean?" Simon temporized.

"They live together, correct?"

"They're roommates," Simon allowed, "Ever since Sandburg's old place blew up."

"Just roommates?" Talbot pressed.

"Objection! Relevancy?" said Amy.

"Sustained," said the judge. "Watch it, Doug."

"I apologize, Your Honor. Captain Banks, in the four years they've been ... roommates, has Mr. Sandburg ever moved out?"

Simon shifted, uncomfortable. "Once."

"When was that?"

"Last year."

"Eight months ago?"

"I guess."

"Don't guess, Captain Banks. Did Mr. Sandburg call several members of your department to help him move his belongings to a hotel the day before Alex Barnes drowned him?"

"Yes."

"And what were the circumstances that led to this sudden move?"

"The two of them needed a little breathing room. They work together, they live together, we all take vacations together; sometimes you need a break."

"Wouldn't it be more accurate to say Detective Ellison threw the defendant out, with no warning, after a fight about Alex Barnes?"

"Jim apologized--"

Talbot cut him off. "So, to the best of your recollection, Detective Ellison started sleeping with the victim, got her pregnant, at which point he and Mr. Sandburg had a fight that resulted in Detective Ellison kicking Mr. Sandburg out of their home, followed by Alex Barnes holding Mr. Sandburg underwater until he drowned. Is that correct?"

"Objection!" said Amy.

Simon ground his jaw. "It wasn't like that. Jim didn't know what he was doing with that psycho."

"Your Honor, I'm trying to establish prior relationship and motive."

"Overruled. Please answer the question, yes or no, Captain Banks."

"...Yes."

"Thank you, you may step down."

Megan's testimony went smoother; she talked about the doubts Blair had expressed about carrying a gun, knowing he would probably have to use it. She talked about how supportive he'd been of Jim during the pregnancy, volunteering his childhood crib and buying childrearing manuals, even working to help the other cops adjust to the unconventional situation.

"Blair sounds like a real saint," said Talbot.

"No one cares for Jim as much as Sandy does," she said. "But ask half the guys at the precinct, and they'll tell you Blair did something like that for them once. He's got a bigger heart than anyone I know."

Blair felt warmed by her words, the way she'd stomped right through the prosecutor's hint of a romantic relationship and proven herself a great character witness and a better friend all at once.

Blair was up next. He shuffled awkwardly up to the witness stand and was sworn in. Amy walked up and reassured him with a gentle smile before saying, "Blair? I'd like you to take us, step by step, through the events the night Alex Barnes was killed."

"Well, Jim and I were staying with the Fines, they're old family friends of mine, practically raised me. Jim had the flu. He'd taken some stuff that screwed up his system, so I went to get an all-natural remedy from the store. I was walking home, and that's when Simon called. He said Alex had woken up, that she'd trashed the loft and gone missing, and that's when I saw someone had broken into the Fines'." He tried to swallow despite a suddenly tight throat. "Aunt Sarah was on the floor, she was bleeding ... I secured the scene and checked to make sure she'd be okay until the paramedics got there. I got Jim's gun out of the cabinet, and then I proceeded upstairs." Amazing how using the police terminology helped him get control of his feelings. He might have a hope of getting through this.

"Did you know there were children in the house?" Amy asked.

"Yes, but I couldn't check to see if they were okay. Alex heard me coming up the stairs and called out to me, and I didn't want to attract attention to them. I just followed the sound of her voice to the back bedroom."

"And what did you find there?" Amy asked.

This was the hard part, not letting his memories of that bitch holding David tangle in his mouth. "Jim was on the floor, bleeding. Alex was standing over him, holding a knife, taunting him. He was bleeding pretty badly, and she turned and bent to stab him again. That's when I fired. I knew she was pregnant, so I fired high to make sure I didn't hit the baby."

"Blair? If you hadn't fired, and she killed Jim, what would have happened to you and the children?"

"She probably would have killed me," said Blair. "It wouldn't have been the first time. I honestly don't know if she would have let the kids go. She made it clear she knew they were hiding in the next room. She seemed to think it was funny. I didn't want to find out if she had plans for them too."

"And what happened after you shot her?"

"I realized the baby would die too, because it wasn't getting any oxygen, and if I waited for the paramedics, it would be too late. So I -- I cut her," he choked on the lie, remembering all too clearly how the knife had jerked as he popped Jim's stitches. "I cut her open to save the baby."

"So, throughout this ordeal, the only thing you cared about was saving as many lives as possible," said Amy, "Jim, Sarah Fine, the Fine children, even Alex's baby."

"That's right."

"One more question, Blair. Looking back, do you see any way you could have resolved the situation without loss of life?"

"No, I don't," he said.

Amy took her seat, and Talbot walked over to the witness stand. "That's quite a story, Mr. Sandburg! What a harrowing ordeal!"

"Yes, it was," Blair agreed warily.

"On a scale of one to ten, how did it compare to being held hostage in a police station on your first day with the Cascade PD?"

"Worse," said Blair. God, so much worse to see her knife so close to his newborn son.

"Worse than having your own mother held at gunpoint?"

"It was really freaking bad, okay? What do you want me to say, man?" Blair snapped.

"I want you to explain why, after four years of finding nonviolent solutions to violent problems, you decided your only course of action was to shoot a pregnant woman in the head?"

"What was I supposed to do, let her kill him? How could I have done it any other way?"

Talbot waved off the question. "I'm not the genius police observer, you are," he said. "But considering you knew police and paramedics were on their way, why not wait for backup? She would have surrendered if faced with a dozen armed cops."

Blair shook his head. "You don't know Alex. She would have killed Jim, then me, and surrendering wouldn't help. She'd already broken out of prison more than once. And I couldn't just wound her, she was moving too much. I couldn't shoot her shoulder or her knee without risking k-killing the baby." Just the thought of it was enough to give him the shakes. But looking past Talbot, he saw something shift in Simon's eyes, from distance to growing support. And he saw the unwavering love in Jim's eyes, and his mother's. His friends were behind him. He tried to pull himself together.

"But those are the obvious solutions, Mr. Sandburg, and as your record shows, you have a talent for finding unconventional ways to solve problems. So why couldn't you think your way out of this one?"

Talbot smiled and stepped back to invite the jury into his line of reasoning. "Let me see if I have this straight: your lover cheats on you, even gets the woman pregnant, sides with her over you and kicks you out of your own home! Even after she tries to kill you, the police report says that in South America Detective Ellison was more interested in her safety than yours or that of his fellow officers. He even kissed her while you and Inspector Conner were tied up and helpless. That's a pretty terrible betrayal, Mr. Sandburg. Tell me, how angry did that make you?"

"It didn't," Blair said.

"You expect us to believe that?"

"It was upsetting, yeah," said Blair. "But I'd just died, for God's sake. Take my word for it, that makes you realize just how little time you have. I didn't want to waste the time I had left being angry at people I cared about." He saw how deeply that remark hit Jim, and his mother. Yeah, you finally get it, he thought at them. I'm really not mad at you.

"That's a beautiful sentiment, Mr. Sandburg, and it would look great on a greeting card. Once Alex was safely in a coma, you managed to mend some bridges, even earn some brownie points by offering to help raise the child Jim fathered on her as your own. But which is more likely, Mr. Sandburg: that you couldn't find a way to overcome a woman who was eight months pregnant, or that you took the opportunity that was presented to get revenge and rid yourself of your rival once and for all?"

Blair froze, caught between the lies that couldn't help him and the truths he couldn't say. Then he took the only path left to him.

He laughed.

"Rid myself of my rival? Do I get to twirl my evil mustache while I do that? It doesn't sound like you've got a good grasp of reality, not to mention some respect for the dead, man."

"Are you trying to tell me you respect her?" Talbot floundered, trying to backpedal from this new, uncertain territory.

"Honestly? I feel sorry for her, man. I mean, she scared the shit out of me, but mostly I just keep thinking, 'What a waste.' She could have been so much more than she chose to be, and I feel bad that I couldn't help her see that, and I feel totally shitty that I killed her. I can't stop seeing it, and I hate taking on that karma. I mean, I'm going to be carrying around what I did for the rest of my life."

"And you think that's enough? If you feel sorry for what you did, we should just forget that you murdered a pregnant woman and not punish you for your crime?"

Blair winced and looked past Talbot at the jury. "I don't want to go to prison," he said. "I thought I was doing the right thing, and if there was some better path I should have taken, I still don't see it. I want to go home, and help raise David, and be with Jim, and try to make peace with being a cop. But if I have to go to prison," his voice cracked a little at the thought, "Then it was still worth it, if it means Jim and David are safe and the Fines can get past this."

"Such a martyr," Talbot mocked. "You may step down, Mr. Sandburg."

The final witness was Jim, his wheelchair necessitating that he sit next to the witness stand instead of within it. He was sworn in, and since the prosecution had already opened that can of worms, Amy began by asking, "Tell me about your relationship with Blair Sandburg."

"He's the best friend I ever had," said Jim.

"Please, Jim, this is important. How long have you two been a couple?"

Jim reddened and stared at his hands, studiously avoiding looking at his friends. "A few years now. After he moved in."

"Are the two of you sexually involved?"

Jim glared at her, beet red. "I love him, okay? Everyone who spends five minutes with him either falls in love with him or wants to kill him, usually both." He met Blair's gaze finally, and his expression softened. "I love his heart, I'm in awe of his mind, and I still get a rush every time I h-see him unexpectedly across a crowded room."

"Oh, Jim," Blair whispered, awestruck.

"And do you blame him for Alex's death?"

Jim shook his head. "He made the right call. I just wish I'd been strong enough to do it for him. Someone like him shouldn't have to know what it's like to kill. I should have protected him better." He shook his head. "Story of my life."

Amy sat down, and Talbot smiled. "That was just beautiful, Detective Ellison; I didn't think cops could spout poetry like that. Just one question, though: if Mr. Sandburg fulfills your every need and desire, what were you doing with Alex Barnes?"

"Alex was the biggest mistake I ever made," said Jim. "I lost Sandburg because of her."

"And yet you continued to pursue her after what she did to the man you supposedly love?"

Blair could see the muscles flutter in Jim's jaw. "We'd had a big fight about trust right around that time; he hurt me by accident, and I guess a part of me wanted to hurt him on purpose."

"So it was revenge?"

"I guess. I can be a vindictive son of a bitch. I'm just lucky Blair doesn't feel the same way, or we'd just keep going around in circles."

"But from the looks of it, that's exactly what happened," said Talbot. "The prosecution rests."

The judge nodded. "Closing statements?"

Amy stood up and faced the jury. "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you have a difficult task ahead. I don't envy you. Ordinarily, a murder trial is to determine whether the defendant is guilty or innocent, whether they were falsely accused or whether they lied about their alibi. That isn't the case here." She paused briefly. "A woman is dead. Blair Sandburg freely admitted to killing her at the scene, and he has never changed one detail of his story. He came home to the Fines, his godparents who had helped raise him. His godmother was unconscious on the floor in a pool of blood. He knew there were small children in the house, and that Alex Barnes, who was in the process of murdering his lover and partner of several years, knew where they were. He also knew this woman had killed before, and had previously stolen enough nerve gas to poison several cities-worth of innocent people. He couldn't expect her to act with any human decency.

"He felt his training as a police officer, unfinished though it was, gave him the responsibility to act quickly to save as many lives as he could. And saving lives was his first priority; when he fired at his family's attacker, he not only aimed to avoid hurting Alex's unborn child, he then acted quickly to save the infant's life, knowing help wouldn't arrive in time. This is not a vicious or vengeful killer, ladies and gentlemen; this is a man who acted because he had no other choice. Ask yourselves, if it were you in that house, forced to make that decision, could you have found any better solution? I ask you to consider this case with your hearts and with your consciences, and I trust you to make a just and fair decision."

She sat down again, and Talbot stood, waiting a moment to give the jury a breather. "My colleague is right about one thing: a woman is dead." He made eye contact with each of them before admitting, "Alex Barnes was not a nice person. The fact is, if she hadn't been committed to a mental hospital, she would probably be in jail right now. But the justice system only works if it works for everyone, good and bad. It wasn't up to Mr. Sandburg to decide whether Alex Barnes lived or died for her past crimes; that should have been the job of a fair and impartial jury, like the one you sit on here today. Mr. Sandburg was anything but fair or impartial that night.

"Alex Barnes had injured two people that night, but she hadn't killed anyone. She had just woken, confused and disoriented, from a coma, and Mr. Sandburg knew she had been having vivid hallucinations before slipping into that coma; he had reason to believe she wasn't in control of herself that night. But instead of trying to reason with her and calm her down, or waiting for backup like the police officer he was training to be, he shot her. That's not justice. That's vigilantism.

"I want you to consider one more thing as you think over your verdict, ladies and gentlemen: the fate of Alex's child. David's one remaining parent is Jim Ellison, Mr. Sandburg's lover. If you bring back a verdict of not guilty, you are in effect saying that you feel perfectly comfortable with David being raised by his mother's killer. I trust you to do the right thing."

Blair's anger flared at Talbot's last remark; it was a dirty trick, and from the looks on their faces, a couple of the jurors were equally annoyed at the blatant manipulation, but others had thoughtful expressions that worried him. The jury left to deliberate, and Blair felt comforting hands at his back. "It'll be okay, Sandy," Megan promised.

"What you said was beautiful, sweetheart," said Naomi, enveloping him in a hug. The manacles bit his wrists when he tried to hug her back.

"Looks like all that Laughing Buddha training about remaining present and seeing the humor of the universe paid off," Blair replied, settling for giving her a kiss before accepting another comforting hug from Joel.

"Look away, guys," said Jim, and he tugged Blair down into an urgent kiss.

Any other time, the anthropologist in Blair would have been interested to see who broke taboo by watching two men in love, but right now he was overcome by the urgent need to reconnect with his lover. "I missed you too, Jim. God, you have no idea. I don't know what I'm going to do if--"

Jim covered Blair's mouth before he could voice the possibility. When he let Blair speak again, Blair asked, "How's the tadpole?"

"He misses you too," said Jim. "I wish I could have brought him, but you'll see him soon."

"I hope so."

***

The jury took several hours to decide, and Blair's stomach was in knots when they finally came back in.

"Have you reached a decision?" the judge asked.

"We have, Your Honor. We find the defendant, Blair Jacob Sandburg, not guilty of the charge of second degree murder, and hereby dismiss all charges against him."

Blair slumped in shock, barely feeling the bailiff unlocking his chains or his friends and family slapping him on the back and cheering. He just grabbed on to Jim and started shaking and crying, letting go of all the emotion he'd kept bottled up since this whole thing began. He was free. He was going home.

***

If it had been safe to drive without a car seat, Blair wouldn't have let go of David the whole trip home. As it was, he ran to the back seat for his son the moment the caravan of cars stopped in front of 852 Prospect. "God, he's doubled in size, I can't believe it," he said for the fiftieth time as they entered the building.

"Wait," Joel halted them at the door of the loft. "Before you go in, you know Alex trashed the place."

Jim nodded, bracing himself for the worst.

"Well, we cleaned up a little," said Megan. "We figured you had enough on your minds with the baby and all."

"And I made a surprise for you," said Naomi, looking nervous.

Jim gritted his teeth in a polite smile, prepared for pyramid lamps or incense burners, or whatever else he'd have to bite his tongue politely over. But instead, they opened the door to find the loft restored to normal, with one major exception. On one wall stood a huge mosaic, formed from the artifacts Alex had smashed. "I thought it made a good symbol," said Naomi, "That we can't go back and pretend our lives are the same as before. But we pick up the pieces and move on, hopefully creating something new and beautiful in the process." She smiled down at her grandson resting in her son's arms.

Blair stared at it, awestruck. "Thank you, Mom. It's incredible."

"Look in your old room, Sandy," Megan urged. "Simon did that."

"I just shared some of my fatherly expertise," said Simon. "Joel, Rafe and Brown helped."

The little room had been cleared out and now held the crib and cradle, as well as a cedar chest which, when opened, proved to hold diapers, wipes, and other essentials. But most amazing were the walls: cheerful blue, with white elephant stencils spray painted tail to trunk, marching around the room. "Thank you," said Blair, touched.

Jim caught Simon's eye. "Thank you, Simon," he said hoarsely.

"Well, we should let you three get settled," Simon said gruffly. "Come on, guys, first round's on me."

The gang said their goodbyes, and Jim and Blair relaxed in the sudden quiet. "Man, I can't get over all this," said Blair. "Such good friends."

"The best," Jim agreed quietly. "Come to bed, Sandburg."

Blair paused, stricken. "Jim? I know this seems silly, but ... I'm not ready to put him down. I came so close to losing him, I don't want to let go."

Jim smiled. "That's not silly, Chief. Come on, let's take the tadpole upstairs for tonight."

Gently, reverently, he stripped Blair down to his boxers and tucked Blair and David into bed, pausing to remove his own clothing before joining them. He let his arms and his senses enfold them both. Tomorrow the world might go crazy again, but tonight, his family was safe and all was right with the world.

***

Epilogue:

Daddy's book was bleeding again, the one on the high shelf that he wasn't supposed to touch. David peeked over at Grandma, but she didn't seem to have noticed it. David was glad she didn't. Daddy's book only bled when Daddy got hurt, or when Daddy and Poppy got mad at each other. He hoped Daddy wasn't hurt.

For comfort, David pulled his favorite book off the shelf, the Burton book. He was starting to understand that the squiggles on the pages said something different to him than they did to other people, because Daddy always said the Burton book was about why David and Poppy were special. But David knew the book said, "Once upon a time, Daddy loved Poppy before they'd even met. And Poppy said, 'How could you love me if you didn't know who I was?' And Daddy said, 'Because I never would have found you if I didn't know what to look for.'"

David loved Daddy's books. There was the one that said, "Once upon a time, Daddy lived with Grandma in a big old barn, and Timothy Leary made him read out loud like a big boy instead of being read to, and that was how Daddy first grew up." And there was the one that said, "Daddy was a teacher once, and the magic in his words made people see things differently, and even healed them when they hurt." And there was the one that said, "Daddy read this book over and over until he knew its secrets and Eli Stoddard loved Daddy for it and called him smart and wise and good." David always tried to shut that one before the book said, "And the last time Daddy saw him, Eli said he was ashamed of Daddy, and Daddy cried." But he never shut it in time. Stories had to be followed to the end.

Poppy's books were different. He'd tried reading On the Road, but all he got was, "Once Poppy slept on bunk beds, and it was hot and dusty, with angry men outside and anger in Poppy's heart." Daddy's books were like Daddy's words, big and complicated and running everywhere on the surface, but simple, strong magic underneath. Poppy's books were like Poppy: little words on top, and underneath all the things Poppy felt and saw and tasted that there weren't words for, because no one had words to understand Poppy, not even Daddy.

Daddy's book was bleeding worse now. "Hey, Davy, how about peanut butter and banana for lunch? Does that sound good?" Grandma asked.

David nodded, but the second her back was turned, he asked the wolf, "Is Daddy hurt?"

"Wounds of spirit are harder to heal," said the wolf.

"Show me?"

The wolf trotted off, and David became his crow-self and followed until he found himself circling his school.

"My son is not retarded!" Poppy yelled.

"No one is saying he is, Mr. Ellison, but David's reading and comprehension skills are far below what they should be. He'll pull a book off the shelf at recess and recite it from memory, but he can't identify the same words in his workbook. He has trouble focusing on things right in front of him, or following simple instructions, but he's a savant at musical instruments and arts and crafts, more than most seven-year-olds. We think he might be dyslexic, or hearing impaired, or even autistic."

"David's not autistic," said Daddy. "He's very loving and perceptive about people."

"And his hearing is normal," Poppy said, glaring at Daddy.

David knew what they were talking about. They were talking about the T-E-S-T that Daddy and Poppy always got into fights over. Daddy got worried because the tests said normal, and Poppy got mad and said Daddy was making his son a lab rat.

But the teacher was wrong about the books. They didn't say the same things. The ones on the shelf said, "Mrs. Cunningham sits on the rug and tells children stories, and this is the story she tells, and this is where she smiles, and that's the picture she never likes." But the workbooks were too new to say anything at all.

Bear walked into the classroom, and Poppy's phone went off. "I need my warriors to guard the east," said Bear. "A fox's leg is caught in a trap, and he bites those who come near."

"Understood, Simon. I'm sorry, Mrs. Cunningham, but we've got to go," said Poppy.

They hurried downstairs as the crow circled overhead. "This is exactly what I didn't want David to go through," said Poppy as they got in the truck and drove. "You said you could teach him to use his abilities, you promised me he wouldn't have to suffer what I went through!"

"And I'm telling you, David's not a Sentinel," said Daddy. "Every objective test I can give him says all of his senses are normal for a kid his age."

"Then how do you explain how he hears conversations two blocks away and knows when we've written important messages by touching the pad we tore them from?"

"I don't know. Maybe he's dialing up and down instinctively without knowing he's doing it. Maybe I'm missing something."

Fox had hostages. Poppy stood ready, twitching his tail like a panther ready to strike, but Daddy stepped into Wolf and wove word-magic, calling up words as little seedlings that grew so silently that Fox didn't realize they had trapped him in cool green until it was too late. Then Daddy saw something, and instead of closing the trap, he wove more words and crushed the cool green leaves of his trap into strong medicine to clear the black rot out of the fox's heart and let it bleed clean so it could heal. Fox stopped baring its teeth and let the hostages go, and let the hunters take it to the zoo. David-crow cawed with pride and glee.

Daddy thought he had no magic because he only saw the wolf when Poppy made him see it. But the wolf said it hid itself away because it didn't want to distract Daddy from his word-magic. Daddy didn't see how rare it was to see pain, however well-hidden, to know when it needed tasty medicine and when it needed surgery that hurt. Wolf said words were easy for Daddy, and he thought magic should be hard, so Wolf made sure Daddy couldn't go after hard magic, so he wouldn't get lost. David didn't understand that. Why should magic be hard? Poppy's senses weren't hard, they were part of him, the part he couldn't pretend away, just like Daddy's words.

When the wolf and panther called in the distance, David-crow flew back to his body and ran to open the door. "Daddy! Poppy!"

Poppy picked him up and kissed him and smelled his hair. "Just like your old man," said Poppy, "You never let anyone knock either."

"It's a few minutes until dinner," said Grandma, and David reached out from Poppy's arms for Daddy. "Read, read!" he begged.

Daddy took David to the bookshelf and said, "Can you read to Daddy this time? Pick a book we've never read before and read to Daddy."

David wrinkled his nose. "Is this a test?"

"Maybe. Just a little one. Your teacher says you're having trouble reading."

Daddy's tests were usually to see if he was like Poppy, but if this test was books and words, it must be to see if he had Daddy's magic to heal. David was a little scared, but he could be a big boy. He gulped and pointed up at the top shelf, at the book that bled. "That one. I wanna know what it says."

The book bled worse, Daddy's blood, and Daddy hugged David tight to try and stop the bleeding. "Wouldn't you like to read a different one?"

"No. I wanna read that one."

Daddy sighed and reached up to pull it off the shelf. He carried David over to the couch, and David sat in Daddy's lap and opened the book that bled. "Once upon a time," David started, because stories always started 'once upon a time,' and he was scared. He twisted closer to Daddy and peered at the squiggles that bled. "Once upon a time, Daddy put his word-magic into a book to prove he could do magic so people would listen. And to give the book power, he gave it Poppy's secret name."

Poppy dropped a glass on the other side of the room, but once you started a story, you had to follow it to the end. "But when people read the book, they knew Poppy's secret name, and every time they said it out loud, it hurt Poppy because some magic has to stay secret. And Daddy knew he needed powerful magic to save Poppy, so he cut out his heart and smeared it on the book so the blood covered up the name. And now every time they remember what Daddy did, the book bleeds Daddy's blood."

Daddy was crying now, and David was so scared. He'd messed up the test and hurt Daddy! "I'm sorry Daddy, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it..."

And Poppy's arms came around them both and hugged them, rocked them back and forth. "It's all right, Tadpole, shhh. I love you, Chief, I love you so much. God, Sandburg, don't cry, please..."

After a long time, Poppy asked, "How could he know all that?"

Daddy turned to Poppy. "When Alex came for David, she said, 'mine'. Not 'my child'. She didn't want a child; she wanted a Guide. Don't you get it? He's not a Sentinel. He's a Shaman."

And David shivered as Daddy said his secret name, because Daddy had the word he needed to work his magic on David and teach him what he needed to know. "That's what Daddy needs, to teach," said the book. And the flow of blood slowed, then stopped, until all that was left were the smears that hid the pages. And David hugged Poppy and Daddy and smiled, because now David had found his magic too.

End.