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Hell of a Situation

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Eight Years Ago.

Jamiel was begging him now, sobbing in between the words. "Dad! Daddy! Please! Why won't you take me to the hospital? Call an ambulance? Please!" He writhed on the blanket on the floor of the old Chevy van.

Jefferson wanted to call a doctor, deep down. Deep down he was sobbing and howling just as loudly as his boy. But deep down wasn't what was in control right now. The thing that was in control chittered softly at him, its spike-furred fingers brushing at his forehead. His skin tingled hotly where it touched, like a sunburn. Jamiel was crying now, his body curled around itself, before he started writhing again, screaming, "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy! Help me! It hurts!"

"It's o-k-kay," Jefferson stuttered. "It'll be okay, baby boy. Just hang on, please, it'll be over soon." The thing perched above Jamiel crooned, the black fur covering its body rippling in pleasure, as it burrowed in Jefferson's mind and told him what to say. It was true; it would be over soon for Jamiel, and over for the thing leaning over the back of the passenger seat . A new cycle of life would begin. A child, and its new protector. Jamiel screamed twice, hooting shrieks of shocked denial that he hurt this much, that his life was over when he was only twenty years old and guilty of nothing. On the dying note of the last shriek, blood spread out over his skin and pants, as a tiny, spindly, black-furred arm poked out of the flesh of his abdomen. The thing on the seat leapt over the edge to crouch next to Jamiel to stare avidly at the movement under his skin with the four of its eyes that faced forward.

The thing had a tight hold on Jefferson's mind, but even that couldn't quite suppress the revolted moan that wound its way out of a throat constricted with terror. Something the size and approximate dimensions of a Barbie doll climbed out of Jamiel's body as he shuddered in his dying spasms. It was covered in dark fur over a piebald body, just like its mother, who chittered encouragingly. Six dark, glistening eyes blinked away the blood, and the baby, its fur matted with Jamiel's blood, leapt for its mother, who spread her arms wide in welcome. The offspring landed on the soft part of its mother's torso, its tiny mouth, filled with teeth like razors, chewing immediately. The mother shrieked, far higher pitched than Jamiel, at a level which made Jefferson's eardrums ring; but unlike Jamiel's, this was a triumphant noise. Birth, and rebirth, as her baby rooted for nourishment in her body and absorbed everything that she was, everything that the mothers before them had offered, generations of knowledge and power.

It took a while for the baby to eat its fill, while its progenitor's body jerked and twitched on the floor of the van. Jefferson had plenty of time to dig Jamiel's grave in the California desert dirt. The empty shell of the adult thing he simply dragged out and left by the side of the dirt track.

The baby had grown, even in that time, and it crooned at Jefferson, who willingly let it break his mind. He picked it up and cradled its spindly little piebald body against his breast with his own brown, human hand, as its tiny furry head tucked under his chin. His mind was quite at ease, even as his body rebelled and sweated out a dirty stink of fear. "I guess this makes me your grand-daddy, doesn't it?" he muttered. His little girl chittered her approval, and asked for a puppy. Or maybe a kitten. Through all her incarnations, she'd never been a fussy eater.

***


Now

"It's been a bad year for spiders," Jim observed. Blair lifted his head just enough to follow Jim's gaze to the long strands of silk which violated the loft's ceiling. They drifted in the diagonal corner which lay the length of the loft from where they lay, looking out through the railings to Jim's domain, above and below.

Blair dropped his head and curled closer against Jim, who was sprawled on his front and propped on his elbows, and pressed his forehead against a solid arm. "Spiders! Spiders I can live with. That roach that crawled across the dashboard last week? That was gross. Took years off me."

Jim's body shook in a chuckle. "Didn't know that your voice could go that high, Chief. Ow!"

"There's more where that came from, smart guy," Blair said, but he rubbed gently across Jim's ass, soothing the sting of the pinch. His hand could feel the very slightest change in skin texture where scar tissue had healed. "And your voice went pretty high just then in case you didn't notice. It happens when people are surprised."

"Or terrified." Jim shifted his weight so that Blair was forced to straighten, all the better for Jim to lay himself all over him with a pleased noise.

"Or grossed out," Blair sighed, when Jim's lips grazed across his neck.

"Grossed out? I'm insulted."

"No you're not," Blair said, smiling. "Because I'm only grossed out by roaches, not you."

"Well, that's a relief." Jim's expression took a mischievous turn. "You know. I have an idea."

"Uh-huh." Blair was wary.

"How would you feel about some high dusting?"

Blair's eyes and mouth both opened wide in mock-outrage. "You get yourself a ladder and a telescoping broom handle like the rest of the world, pal."

Jim pouted. "But you'd be so cute. And I'd have a great view of your ass."

"You can have a great view of my ass any time you want; me playing French maid is not required."

"You in that little frilly apron. That'd be a sight to see." Jim leered as much as a man could who was trying not to break into giggles. Blair cupped his hand against Jim's cheek, tenderness surfacing out of the silly mood like a plant spike breaking the soil.

"It's lucky that you're cute when you're being a dork."

Jim didn't respond to this, unless a long, firm stroke down Blair's side from his ribs to halfway down his thigh counted. "Do you want this dork to fuck you?" Concentration and hunger started to overlay the good humour in Jim's face. He touched the tip of his tongue to Blair's nipple with sensuous precision. Blair's eyes closed involuntarily before they opened to an entirely different smile on Jim's face. "Yeah, I think that you do."

Blair smiled and lifted his head to seek Jim's mouth. He'd grown used to this over the weeks, grown used to finding Jim there right beside him. Whatever his misgivings about the future (and he still had plenty of those) he'd missed Jim so badly in those weeks of separation. He wouldn't think about the future, about the way that he'd bound Jim to him. He simply wouldn't. He'd enjoy the now, instead, and the well-being flowing through his body, and this beautiful man who wanted to please him. Anything else could wait while time passed with Jim's mouth and hands and gorgeous cock. Blair wanted to please Jim, too, and there were party tricks that relied on what was unusual but not actually supernatural flexibility. He loved that first slow stroke of joining, and shut his eyes for it.

"You okay?"

Blair dragged his lids back up again and looked at Jim's face hovering over his. "I'm fine."

Jim frowned, in curiosity rather than displeasure, momentarily distracted. "I can never get over how you bend yourself around like that."

Blair didn't have much breath for laughter. "Flexibility. And strength." He shifted slightly under Jim, reminding him about the strength that lay at his core. "You don't have to be careful with me."

"I like being careful with you," Jim said, and that wasn't about the sex at all, and Blair shifted again, dragging the side of his foot against Jim's skin to encourage him back to business.

"I like watching you come. I like getting off for my own sake, too." Blair made his voice lazy, but he watched Jim with careful impatience. He wanted to be fucked, damn it, fucked in an awkward, entirely human, good way, and he caressed Jim restively. "Come on, fuck me, Jim." He repeated the command, enunciated it with imperious care. "Fuck me."

Jim thrust once, his gaze intent, his arms tight with the burden of his own weight, and Blair smiled and turned his head to the side, showing throat as much as he could like this. He shut his eyes. "Yeah. Again. Come on. I can take it. I want to take it." Jim made a noise at that, a shuddering grunt, and gave Blair everything that he'd asked for, while Blair held on barely to his self-control and called out in a simple human climax before the haze of Jim's pleasure descended over his skin like sunlight.

They lay entwined for a time afterwards, as Jim's breathing slowed and Blair basked in a sensation of satiety that was almost overwhelming, it was so all encompassing.

"Good?" Jim asked, the hand around Blair's waist pressing tighter just for a moment.

"You need to ask?" Blair said dreamily.

"Sometimes, yes," Jim said.

Blair turned his head and caught the moment where uncertainty was masked by macho humour. He rolled over and caught Jim's jaw in his palm, lying nose to nose, close enough to feel the flutter of Jim's lashes. "It's great, Jim. You're great, you know?"

"Okay," Jim said. "I wonder sometimes. You don't use the hoodoo on me, as far as I can tell, and I know that it's not just sex for you...." They were close enough to merge, if they only could, melt into each other's skin and heart and mind, and close enough that they were blind to each other.

Blair swallowed. "I like not using the hoodoo." Worried, he leaned up on an elbow and looked down at Jim's face. "Do you want me to use it?" Sudden insecurity overcame him. He'd wanted to keep things as human as possible between them, and now he worried that Jim had been expecting the demon lover.

Jim looked irritated, although only mildly so. "No. Or at least not unless you want to, so get that look off your face. I want to know that you're getting what you need, that's all." He put his hand on Blair's shoulder. "We can save the hoodoo for when I'm ninety and need a little help."

Blair grinned at that, and Jim smiled back. "I love you, man," Blair said. Like jumping off a cliff, those words; there was no chance to ever take them back once they were said.

Jim didn't move a muscle, or bat an eyelid. "I love you, too." They stayed there a moment, and then Jim fidgeted, his shoulders and arm in brief action as he let go of Blair. "Enough mush, huh?" But there was a gentle look in his face that not even Blair saw very often. "Time to get down to business, even. Simon told me that the interview is Friday."

Shadow cast itself over the sunshine. "Jim.... "

"We give it a try, okay?"

Blair sighed, his eyes looking across the bedroom to the brick wall, not at Jim's hopeful face.

"We can try." But Blair knew that Jim was doing more than his fair share of the hoping for them.

***


Jim's shouted rage surged through the partitions at PD, causing all eyes to turn towards Simon's office. Ellison explosions weren't unknown, but this was volcanic.

"That is fucking bullshit, Simon. Fuck that shit!" came out clearly. Simon's voice rumbled out, also raised but not so loud or so clear to some of the interested listeners, a threatening, fundamental ground tremor underlying Jim's pyrotechnics.

Blair stared along with everyone else, his heart racing. It was ridiculous of him, given that he'd been bracing himself for this for the best part of a week. Yes, it was avoidance - but Blair got up front and personal with a lot of crap in his life, and he sometimes felt entitled to a little delay and defer. It wasn't like Jim would have been less pissed off if he'd found out earlier. "Hey. Rhonda. You don't know if anyone from HR has been talking to Jim, do you?"

Rhonda shook her head, and Blair was disappointed. He knew why Jim was exploding like Pinatubo but it would have been worthwhile knowing exactly who he should daydream about cursing.

Jim's background rage clarified into "...familiars protocols, my ass! You betcha that I'll be laying a formal complaint." Too late, man, Blair thought tiredly. I've already done that, for all the good it will do. "...outrage!" Blair winced at that last. He recognised the tone of a Jim Ellison who was distressed as well as angry, and he bent to check that his backpack was properly zipped and ready to go. There was going to be one hell of a fight when Jim emerged, and he really didn't want to have it in the bullpen.

"Running, hairboy?" Henri lifted an eyebrow. "You wouldn't know why Ellison is flipping his shit?"

"Let's just say I can guess. And it's none of your damn business." Blair's voice was curt. Henri's eyes widened, and he took a thoughtful sip of his hot chocolate.

"Serious stuff. HR stuff. Huh. Guess I know where to start my invest-i-gay-shun."

Blair was out of his chair and grabbing his jacket. "You do that, H." He set off for the elevator with a long, quick stride. He'd known that it was only a matter of time, and he'd accepted that he was going to be in trouble deep. Jim had been enough of a handful when he'd thought that his request that Blair be given some sort of official recognition within the PD had been simply denied. Couldn't leave well enough alone, could you, Jim? 'Would you want him to?' a little voice whispered inside Blair. 'Do you really want him to turn a blind eye?'

Blair stabbed at elevator buttons with a shaking finger. He felt sick. The door closed behind him just in time to block out the bellow of, "Where the hell is Sandburg?"

Blair didn't quite run through the lobby when he hit street level, but it was close. Just so long as he was off PD territory. Ideally, he'd be back at the loft before he had to face Jim, and he broke into a real run outside on the pavement. The single strand of a spider sailing on its silk through the air brushed across Blair's face and he rubbed at it with infuriated irritation. He was three-quarters of the way to the bus-stop when he heard the honk of the truck's horn. There was no parking available and Jim was kerb-crawling, staring out the side window with a face frowning in anger. Someone tooted at Jim, and he hit the horn hard, whether for Blair's benefit or for the driver behind him, Blair didn't know.

"Get in, god damn it!" Jim yelled.

Blair considered his options, and made a dash for the truck and scrambled in, to more honks behind them. Jim's left hand flew out the side window, middle finger extended, before he matched speed with the traffic flow.

"Did you really think that I wouldn't find out?" Jim rasped.

"No. But I wanted to do my own processing first before I dealt with what passes for yours," Blair retorted.

It was a wonder that Jim wasn't buckling the steering wheel, Blair thought. His grip was just that white-knuckled.

"I don't know who I want to kill more," Jim muttered.

"So long as you don't do it now. Yellow light, Jim, red fucking light, Jim!"

They sailed through the intersection to a symphony of yet more horns.

"Don't tell me how to drive!"

"Then shut up and do some driving! I'm not having this conversation until we get home, so just concentrate on getting us there in one piece, okay?"

"I can't believe... you stole my fucking mail, Sandburg."

"So? It was all about me anyway."

"I.... Screw this. Just screw it." It was quieter, and venomously bitter, and Blair ignored it and bent his head, his fingers hooked into the fabric of his backpack like claws. Yeah, he thought. You have your claws in Jim Ellison, for sure. Till death do us part, no vows required.

Jim braked hard and swerved into a parking space down the street from the loft and shoved the truck door open like he wanted to kick it down. "Coming?" he enquired sardonically across the cab.

Blair stared out ahead of him for a moment, and then followed Jim, up the street, up the stairwell, down the hall. The door into 307 was opened barely less forcefully than the truck's door, and Jim swung around, his expression turned from fire to ice.

"Explain," he said shortly.

"I stole your mail. I lied by omission. You've already figured that out."

"Yeah. But I don't know why. I don't know why, Sandburg."

"I told you!" Blair shouted it. "I told you that there was no way, no fucking way that they'd put me on payroll, no fucking way. But no, you had to put us through the hoops and circus of it all, and when they sent out the letters I - I wanted to see just what sort of weasel words they were going to use to turn us down." He tried to lower his voice. "I expected that. I just didn't expect the other thing."

"And you couldn't have, I don't know, brought it to my attention? Given that I was going to embarrass myself and Simon by looking like a complete moron when I was asked about whether I wanted to accept the PD's offer?"

"I wanted to process."

Jim scrubbed a palm hard over his face. "I... I just don't get it, Chief. I just don't. What the hell was going through your head?"

"I wanted to see if they told you why they turned us down."

"And it was bullshit and a bunch of words that said blah, blah, blah, reputation of the PD bullshit and it was fucking embarrassing that Simon had to hand his copy over to me - for a whole shitload of reasons. Christ, I can remember a time when you used to fantasise about a gig with the PD. Community outreach. Anthropology. And then you fought me all the way on this." Jim's face darkened. "Did you deliberately sabotage that interview? Is that why you wanted to see what the hell the letter said before I did?" His chin was lifted and jutting, and the angry flush of his skin showed the tracery of scarring across his throat.

"No!" Blair protested. "No. I did every fucking thing I could in that interview except hoodoo them. But I walked out and I knew it was a bust, man, because there's one very important thing that I can't promise them. I can't promise them that if they put me on the payroll, however lowly on the auxiliaries pay grade, that I'm not going to end up embarrassing PD with my past activities. And you know that. You know that, Jim."

"Who you fucked in your own time is no business of PD."

"What about how I fucked them, man? What happens if someone comes along and tells them that I hoodooed them against their will? Because we all know what my kind are like."

Oh, that was interesting - watching Jim adjust his footing as the emotional ground shifted under him

"You've always been careful. You've made a point of it since you were a kid."

"Yeah, sure. I've tried. But I can't guarantee that maybe sometimes I didn't try hard enough. I've used glamour on my 'friends', Jim. I looked out for people who wanted sex, who wanted me. But maybe they were nervous. Maybe I just pushed them that little bit towards certainty, y'know? Made them feel something that wasn't actually there."

"That's bullshit, Sandburg." It was bluster on Jim's part; all the true force was turned inwards to brace himself. Blair could see it happening but was merciless anyway.

"No, it's not bullshit. It's exactly what you thought once upon a time, and even then you knew me a hell of a lot better than the suits at PD."

Jim's face was white as bleached bone.

"Nothing to say, huh?" Blair swallowed. "Look. I'm sorry. I don't want to throw that in your face. But the offer they ended up making. I... God, I'm already attached to you like a dog on a leash, they want to make it official? I've read the regs, man, you can't play with rules if you don't know what they are, and I know exactly what they copy and pasted to make you that offer, and I knew you were going to go fucking ballistic over this, and ...."

Jim took three long strides forward and pulled Blair into a hug rough enough to bruise even a half-breed incubus.

"Shut up," Jim muttered fiercely. "Just shut up." They stood there. Blair was shaking, and Jim's breath hissed in his ear. "You should have told me. You should have."

"God..." Blair lifted his head. "Ellison's fucking dog. Ellison's fucking familiar. But hey, at least they'd pay my medical bills if I was injured in the line of duty, huh?"

Jim's arms were still tight around him. "The lone wolf shtick is getting old, Sandburg. It's two of us now, capisce? Two of us."

"Jim. I know that. I do. But PD - I was okay with it as a temporary thing, but come on.... You managed fine that time when I was gone. You can't stand in front of the big bosses and claim that you need me around anymore."

"I could. I work better with you around..."

"Jim. They don't want me there. Simon's been fighting rearguard actions for weeks now. And I can fight it too, sure, but it's going to be a long, hard war for something that I don't want. I'm not pursuivant material."

Jim let go of him and walked to the kitchen area to lean on the counter, his hands in fists and the knuckles pressed hard against the surface.

"Don't look so shattered," Blair said. "It's not like I'm going anywhere."

Jim turned his head. His eyes were haunted, and a sharp pang of guilt arrowed through Blair's gut. "Do you wish you could?" Jim asked. He turned his face away, head low, to hear the answer.

Blair spoke the best truth he could find for the moment. "Only if you go with me."

A rough chuckle greeted that. "Okay." Jim straightened, and took a long breath. "Okay. I guess - some lunch?"

"Who for, Jim. You or me?" Blair cocked his eyebrow.

"I'll make some coffee for you, and we can talk." Jim rubbed his hand over his face again. "Instead of screaming at each other." He sighed. "And then I'd better go back to work."

***

Jefferson liked his Sunday paper, even when it was weeks out of date. He read it cover to cover, every single word. The headlines, the opinion pieces, the classifieds, the sports. He did the puzzles and crosswords. He doodled cross-hatches and funny faces up the margins. He could make a paper last a long, long time, and then he read the colour supplements that were tucked in them as well.

The aborted Wild Hunt in Cascade was big news for a while. Journalists wrote plenty of words about the heartrending fates of the possessed teens and the heroism of the PD officers, but one picture became iconic. Jefferson might wonder at the mindset of people facing danger and death who nonetheless picked up their cameras, but even he had to admit that the image was striking.

It had been taken by a teacher who'd brought his camera to the school. It showed a long-haired man in a knee-length coat that fluttered back in a breeze. His back was three-quarters turned to the camera so you didn't see his face. He held someone in his arms, whose body was blocked from view but whose legs dangled loosely like broken sticks. They were framed against a background of spring green bushes and grass and a grey cement block wall, and were clearly some twelve feet above the ground, which was dark with a mass of animals. A straining dog leaped high above its fellows, suspended forever in empty air just like the people, always snarlingly short of reaching its prey.

Jefferson's little girl passed by and then stopped. She lifted the paper out of Jefferson's hands and stared at the picture. Her eyes were always unblinking but there was a quality of intensity in her expression that made Jefferson hold his breath. She made a chirping noise, which Jefferson, well attuned to her moods now, recognised as considerable interest. Then she carefully ripped the picture from the magazine and handed the remainder back to Jefferson, pressing her hand against the back of his and cooing in pleasure.

Jefferson nearly smiled. His little girl had a crush.

***

Talking didn't change anything, although Jim successfully extracted very specific assurances about Blair not pulling stunts like that again. "You should have been a lawyer," Blair told him, tight-lipped and with his arms crossed hard against his chest.

Jim's stare was hard, but there was a satisfied glint shining through. "There is no need to be insulting about this, Sandburg."

So. Okay. Blair acknowledged that maybe he could have handled that better - but how did you handle shit like that anyway? He wanted to help Jim. He did find the work interesting, but everything about Paranormal Defense was beginning to rub him the wrong way. He knew the whispers and the comments, almost as well as a sentinel with hyper-sensitive hearing. He felt guilty about the heat that Simon and Jim were taking, and guilty about the resentful pleasure that someone else was getting a taste of what he got all the time; and then he'd feel especially guilty about resenting Simon. Some of humanity's nastier qualities had happily turned to expressing themselves against magic users and the power-infused, but that didn't mean that older bigotries were gone; they were merely more distracted these days.

It made Blair's head and throat hurt, and not all the tea and intensely focused meditation that Blair could summon could settle him. It was a relief when Elisabeta, who owned the building that housed Blair's old apartment in the magic quarter, and who also ran the botanica below it, approached him with an offer of a day's work.

"I'm cursed," she said, her deep, rich voice tinny over the phone. "Quite literally, you understand, and I need someone who doesn't scare easily to help me. You are that man, for sure."

"I'll help if I can. What do you need?"

"I have a power man to clean out the botanica, but he says that my stock is too distracting. It needs to go, it is too powerful, it warps the spirit paths. You know what priests are like. Full of words." Her voice turned teasing. "Like students. This isn't book work, just housekeeping, but it needs someone with steady nerves"

Blair ignored that gentle poke at wordy students. "Who's cursed you?"

"I don't know. It could be Hernandez, but I never would have thought that he had the stones for it. And nobody else hates me enough. I think."

"Nobody hates you, Elisabeta," Blair said. "You're beloved."

"Except by Hernandez, perhaps. But still something screams in my shop, and scratches filth on my windows and walls, and throws my stock over the floor."

"If your stock's all over the floor then I guess that'll be less to pack."

"This is true," Elisabeta sighed. "This is costing me money, Blair, and I don't have so much of that." Blair avoided making a sceptical noise. Elisabeta wasn't rich, true, but he suspected that she'd done surprisingly well out of her botanica. He wondered if a business rival was behind the haunting. "All you have to do," Elisabeta continued, "is be willing to enter the shop and pack things in boxes and take it upstairs out of Incacha's way. I will help, but I could do with some company. Between the screaming and the fantasma, the... the poltergeist, that throws everything around.... I do not want to ask my family. You'll see why. You're strong, and when we're done I will give you some of that money that I have so little of, and let you have anything in the stock that interests you. Within reason."

"I suppose that you want me right away."

"I suppose that I do. Thank you." Elisabeta's voice dropped some of her affectations. There was the tiniest hint of a tremble in it. "Come soon, Blair. The sooner this is done, the sooner my shop will be clean." She placed fervent emphasis on the word 'clean'.

"I'll be there as fast as the bus service can get me there."

"In that case I will be waiting a week. Fly, hermoso. You are very pretty when you fly. The whole world has seen the picture, after all."

"And I'm grateful that the whole world doesn't know me well enough to draw conclusions without seeing my face," Blair said wryly. "I'll be there soon, okay?"

The Cascade bus service was considerably less dire than Elisabeta's fears made it, and he found himself in the familiar old neighbourhood by about ten o'clock that morning. Elisabeta was standing in front of her store, and dashed forward to greet him in a swirl and tinkle of scarves, jewellery and perfume that was like Naomi times three.

"You are here," she cooed. "And looking well, I see." Her smile was openly flirtatious. Blair had gently turned down her approaches before, feeling that he didn't need to complicate matters with his landlord.

"Fit and ready to pack boxes. How bad is it?"

She shivered, leaning against him. "It is like nails down a blackboard, and that is with Incacha there already. Before, I could not bear to go in, but now I will be brave with the support of two handsome men."

Blair laughed. "I hope that this power man's looks aren't what you chose him for."

Elisabeta pouted. "He shines like the moon. I am not stupid. If you and he are handsome then that is a fringe benefit." They were nearly at the door of the botanica, and Blair felt the arm that Elisabeta had slung around his waist tighten. The frown lines between her eyes deepened, and she looked at him. "It is unpleasant. I'm sorry."

"Hey, we should never let a little unpleasantness stop us. I'll go first, okay?" With that, Blair opened the door, and his ears were nearly blasted by an unearthly shriek, high-pitched, and suggestive of weary misery, like a crying baby that had nearly given up hope.

The scene inside was a shambles. Elisabeta barely left room in the tiny aisles for customers to move and five sets of shelves leaned together buttressing each other like drunks on a spree. The veil around the shrine was torn and tattered and the statue of the Virgin was in three pieces on the floor. Against the far wall was a man, South or Central American by the looks of his features. He wore jeans and a blue button down. His smooth, dark hair was caught in a long pony tail. There was red paint in a line down the centre of his face, crossing his eyes and chin, and he wore multiple strings of bright beaded necklaces.

"We have a spiteful child here, and it's hiding well," he said conversationally. He didn't move from his cross-legged sit. "I am Incacha, and you are Blair."

"Hey. Pleased to meet you."

Elisabeta had entered behind Blair, making a small, moaning noise. "Oh. It is worse."

Incacha nodded at Blair's greeting, before he said to Elisabeta, "It's better. What do you not see?"

Elisabeta looked about and then blushed. "Ah." She smiled, a little shakily. "Thank you."

Blair looked about him. The screaming had stopped, but there was something ominous about the small space, like waiting for the rumble of thunder. "What's gone?"

"'Puta' was scrawled all over the walls and glass, and spelled out in anything small enough over the counter and the floor - seeds, beads, herbs and spices. Tangles of embroidery cottons." She smiled at Incacha, sitting in his corner. "Thank you," she said again.

"Do you want this done in any order?" Blair asked her.

"I just want it done. There are boxes in the back." Elisabeta moved past him. As she walked into the small back room there was another scream, and Elisabeta flinched.

Blair looked around at the damage. "Someone really doesn't like Elisabeta, do they?"

Incacha smiled. Blair wondered if he practised being enigmatic or if it came naturally to him. Power men, sorcerors, shamans - Blair had met all sorts, from the humble to the megalomaniacal.

"When we find the spirit's lair, we'll find out who."

Elisabeta returned with the boxes. Incacha sat in his corner, apparently doing nothing, but it must have been something if the grateful glances that Elisabeta cast at him were anything to go by. It took perhaps two hours, with Blair carrying boxes up the stairs to his old apartment. He looked around it, but it hardly roused old memories, bare and untidy as it was.

"I guess the tenants don't like the screaming," he said, as Elisabeta and he walked down the stairs.

"You guess right," she said bitterly.

Eventually, the botanica was cleared of everything except the empty shelves. The stock was stored upstairs, the rubbish was swept away. Blair even plied his broom into the high corners of the ceiling to shift some spiders. Incacha nodded, and declared himself ready.

"You wait outside," he told Elisabeta. "But you," he said to Blair, "stay."

"Me?" Blair asked, his hands out in surprise. "Why do I have to stay?"

"Because I say so." But there was wry humour in Incacha's voice, so Blair decided not to take offense. To be honest, he was becoming intrigued with the man. If he wasn't bound to Jim, if he was still seeking sexual partners, he would definitely have tried his luck with Incacha.

Blair saw Elisabeta safely out the door. When he turned, there was a wolf sitting on its haunches in front of Incacha. Incacha stroked it like it was someone's pet Alsatian.

"Whoa!" Blair said, startled, and a little pissed off. Was that his wolf? Because if it was, it looked indecently happy at the petting.

Incacha looked up at him, one eyebrow lifted. "He follows you, but you don't follow him. How is this?"

"Oh, I've followed him," Blair retorted. It was something that he still struggled with: the appearance of a daemon, and the mad rush back to Cascade via bus and hitch-hiking; and the final exhausting trek by foot and power across Cascade's suburbs to find Jim buried under feral dogs which Blair had frantically and quite literally thrown aside. It was nightmare territory, and Blair traversed it now and again.

"You should follow him some more. He says beware the spider queen."

Blair's mouth dropped open. "What the hell does that even mean?"

Incacha shrugged. "I don't know."

"It's - uh - it's a little melodramatic, don't you think?"

There was a hint of amusement behind Incacha's impassive expression. "Perhaps he is a melodramatic spirit." The spirit in question looked at Blair from its position in front of Incacha. It didn't look so much melodramatic as it looked goofy, with its tongue hanging out in idiot bliss as Incacha rubbed its back.

"He says he will help me." There was a bag beside Incacha, a shabby dark brown leather hold all. He drew a small skin drum out of it. "Can you keep a rhythm?" He tapped out a simple tattoo on the drum, and Blair nodded. "Then do it, until I say that you should stop."

"Oh-kay," Blair said doubtfully, before he grinned. "Will I have to ask Elisabeta for danger money?"

"Why do you think I wanted the room as empty as possible?" Incacha asked mildly. "Angry children throw things." Then he smiled back at Blair, an expression which left his face surprisingly boyish. "Begin."

Blair began the beat; the rhythm quickly became second nature, his breath and the movement of his fingers woven together in an endless tapestry. Incacha was silent at first, then he began to chant. Blair watched and listened, fascinated, making comparisons between this and what he'd seen of Jim at his work. Blair speculated whether Incacha was using voice, or that he simply didn't know the language that he spoke. It certainly didn't have the cadences of Spanish or Portuguese. Quechua, Blair wondered, or some other language? Then he gave up thinking and simply drummed.

There was a pressure and a pain growing in Blair's ears, like descending in a plane, before the room was filled with that wretched, high-pitched screaming. Unlike the other times, it went on and on in bursts, as if the spirit had to take breaths like a human. Besides the noise, the room was vibrating, and the shelves swayed gently. Blair eyed them worriedly. He healed quickly, but pain was pain. Incacha's chanting grew louder, and moved into a strange harmony with the pitch of the scream. Then suddenly, there was silence and stillness. It was so shocking that Blair almost stopped his drumming, but managed not to break the rhythm. Incacha was swaying now, silent also, and there was sweat on his face, beading on his naked skin and making the red paint oily-looking. Suddenly he cried out, his head thrown back, before he made a slicing gesture with his hand, his eyes on Blair.

Blair lifted his hand from the drum, and Incacha nodded. "You did well. Thanks."

"Thank you," Blair said, with a distinct feeling that Elisabeta hadn't laid out the entire terms of his work 'contract' beforehand. "You were expecting me to do this all along, weren't you?"

Incacha took a bandanna out of his bag and gently blotted his face. "Yes."

"Elisabeta owes me, then."

Incacha grinned again. "Yes. But not as much as she owes me. And now I must explain to her." He stood and walked outside. Blair looked at the drum he held. It was hard to put it down, but he did that, placing it gently on the floor beside Incacha's shabby bag. He looked around the room. It was just a dingy space lit with afternoon sunlight. Late afternoon sunlight. Blair poked his head out of the door to see Incacha and Elisabeta in earnest conversation.

"Just how much time did I lose track of in there?" he demanded.

Elisabeta turned to him, looking slightly sheepish. "It's past five, Blair."

"Past five! Oh, man." He marched to Elisabeta, and cupped his hands gently over her face. "You... Housework my ass."

"Incacha said he needed someone strong."

"You could have just told me. I still would have done it. Working with someone like Incacha? I'd have done this for free!"

"You would, would you?" she purred.

"Oh, no, no, no. We had a deal." Blair looked at Incacha before asking Elisabeta, "So. Who cursed you?"

"Not someone I expected. Perhaps I will tell you tomorrow, when you come back to help me put everything back."

"This had better be at least minimum wage, Elisabeta," Blair growled.

She laughed. "I think I will do better than that for you, hermoso. But now, I have another matter to attend to." There was an edge to her voice. She headed back to her building, and Blair turned to Incacha, planning to make a polite goodbye. The wolf was sitting next to Incacha. It yawned, and then it growled.

"Oh for..." Blair said. "Why is it so pissed at me all the time?"

"You know why," Incacha said.

"No, I don't!"

"And that is why he growls," Incacha said.

A deep frustration welled up in Blair. "Come on. That's just circular to a ridiculous point. I didn't ask for him to follow me around."

"Does anyone ask for everything that happens to them?" Incacha said. There was a disapproving glint in his eyes.

"Look. It's been great, I'm glad I could help out, but Elisabeta is the one who was asking for assistance here. I'll just head on home and leave you to your next exorcism, okay?"

Incacha lowered his eyes, not in embarrassment so much as contemplation. "You do not believe that you are powerful."

"Oh, I know exactly how powerful I am. What about you?" Blair's hand indicated Incacha's plain work clothes. "How much of a full-time gig is your shamanism or exorcising or whatever you call it?" He stopped, aghast, as Incacha took a long, breath inwards, clearly angry.

"Very well. I will not tell you how to walk your path, even if I think it is the wrong path."

"You don't even know me!" Blair shouted.

"But I see the spirit that walks with you, and the spirits I do know." Incacha's face became less angry, but Blair could still feel the indignation in him. "I wander. But if it is this city that binds you, there are teachers here. Find them. For your sake, as well as his." His hand indicated the wolf that still sat beside him. "You have power, and if you don't use it, others will."

Blair swallowed. "Yeah. Sure. Thanks." He tried not to make it sound grudging. 'He shines like the moon,' Elisabeta had said. The man had his own power; Blair had seen it and he granted the possibility that maybe Incacha knew what he was talking about. "I'm sorry, man. For losing my temper."

Incacha became a little less stern, but he still stood uncomfortably, just as embarrassed as Blair. "Yes." He smiled, but it was uncertain. "Perhaps, when I come back here, I will see you then."

"Hey. Anything's possible. It was impressive to see you in action. Thanks for that."

Blair turned away. He'd have to contact Elisabeta and find out when she expected him tomorrow, and at least he'd have some cash, however small an amount it was. He caught the bus home, leaning his head tiredly against the window as he watched Cascade go by. They passed under the Evenside Bridge, with its wards that always made Blair feel odd, and he pushed the buzzer for his stop, and got off and looked up the slope towards Prospect. There was a retaining wall on the corner, supporting a small garden, and the wolf looked down at him.

"Beware the spider queen. Thanks for the warning. I guess." The wolf growled at him again, and was gone.

Jim was home when he reached the loft. "Where have you been?" he asked. It was curious rather than irritated but Blair, his nerves still strained by the conversation with Incacha, snapped, "Out earning some money so that I can feel a little less like your rent boy."

Jim's mouth dropped open in shock. "Hey, Sandburg. There's no need for that crap."

Blair felt his face scrunching up in humiliation. He raised his hands in surrender. "I know, I know, I'm sorry. I just had a weird day." He sat down at the table and stared at his hands rather than at Jim. There was silence. Jim simply returned to making his pasta. A surreptitious glance suggested that he was no more looking at Blair than Blair was looking at him.

"So, what was your job?" Jim asked.

"It was actually pretty cool," Blair said, trying to regain some of the interest he'd felt. "It was curse lifting - someone had a serious poltergeist set on them."

"And why wasn't PD called in?" Jim said sharply.

"It was the magic quarter, Jim. You know how a lot of people down there feel about the PD."

"We're there for everybody." Jim stirred his pasta sauce and knocked the spoon against the side of the pot.

"Yeah, well not everybody feels that way. People should be allowed to choose how they do things, Jim. The guy, the power man, he was competent. He was more than competent, when you get down to it."

Jim did look at him then. "Sounds like it was an interesting day."

"Yeah." Blair looked at the grain of the table, while Jim reached for the strainer and emptied the pasta pan into it over the sink. Then the plate rattled quietly on the table and there was the sound of a chair drawing back, before Jim sat down.

"Looks good," Blair said. And it did - the mix of colour was beautiful, and the scent on the air was pleasingly subtle. Jim could probably have made his fortune as a chef, if he hadn't gone into Paranormal Defence.

"You want any?" Jim gestured.

Blair reached and gently dabbed his finger in the sauce and licked it off. Yes, Jim was good at a lot of things. "That's enough for me," he said.

Jim nodded and ate his meal. Then he pushed his plate back and said, "You're not my rent boy."

Blair's hand covered his face. "Crap, Jim. I know that, okay?"

"Yeah, I know, and I know that our - situation - bothers you." The tendons on Jim's neck stood out with just a little more definition than usual. "Why do you think I tried to get you recognised at the PD? You've done a lot of unpaid stuff, Sandburg. That's not right, that you get taken for granted."

"Jim, I know."

"Is it the money or the sex that bothers you the most?" Jim's face was calm, even mask-like, and Blair's heart sank. If there was one thing he'd figured out it was that the more effort Jim made to conceal his feelings, the stronger those feelings were.

"It's a lot of things, and none of them are you. Can you trust me on this?"

Jim looked at him then. "It's not my mail, I suppose." Blair winced. "But if it's not us, then what is it?"

Blair sighed. "I'm still trying to figure things out. Figure out what's going to work. Since I can't be a professor, and I don't want to be a pursuivant, very important as your work is." Jim's mouth had opened, and Blair lifted a finger. Then feeling very foolish he said, "Jim. You guys are taught to recognise power. Have I.... Do I give off vibes?"

"How do you mean?" Jim said, which Blair took to mean 'no'.

"It's okay. It's stupid."

"No, it's not stupid. What are we talking about here? Blair, you live on sex. And I don't care how much ambient magic was flying around during the Hunt, I should be dead and gone, and I'm not because of you. By definition, you have power." Blair listened to this with the back of his hand pressed against his lips. Thinking about the Hunt and its consequences disturbed him deep in his gut, every time. "So what's this about?"

Blair's head drooped. "It was something that Incacha said. I don't know how much Elisabeta told him...."

"Elisabeta? That kook?"

Blair's head shot back up. "Hey!"

Jim shrugged in apology. "You want to try out something? A divination? Is it your daemon?" Jim's expression turned shrewd. "That guy. He saw it, didn't he?"

Blair's head tilted in 'Yes, but I don't want to admit it.'

"Sandburg..."

"Yeah, Incacha saw it. And he petted it like a great big puppy and it growled at me, as per usual, I might add, and I came home and I sulked."

"Is that what it's called?" Jim looked troubled. "Chief, if your daemon's not happy, then it pretty much follows that you're not happy. You get me?"

"I know, but I think it's just the crap going on right now. I'm drifting, and I don't like it, but I don't know what to do about it, y'know?"

Jim leaned back in his chair, and tilted his head back while he rolled his shoulders. It was, Blair admitted, a nice view. Then Jim took Blair's hand and held it, their hands resting against the smooth, solid wood of the table.

"I do know. But once you figure out what the right direction is, I can be right behind you to give you a push. Okay?"

Blair nodded, his eyes shut. Jim stood and placed his hands on Blair's shoulders and leaned down to speak quietly in his ear. "Things will work out."

"Are you promising, are you?" Blair said, trying to make it a joke.

"If you want me to." It was grave, and assured. Jim had no right to be that assured, and Blair nearly choked on the mix of irritation and hurtful love that filled his chest.

What had Incacha said? 'Does anyone ask for everything that happens to them?' Blair lifted his hands to place them over Jim's. He felt every inch of skin, every tiny protrusion of bone and knuckle under his palms.

"Nah," Blair said, trying to chuckle through a tight throat. "Don't tempt fate, man."

Wrong thing, wrong thing to say, he knew it even though Jim didn't say a word; but he straightened and took his plate to the sink. Jim's voice was neutral when he turned around, and he was smiling. "Since you ended up sharing my dinner, you can help out with the dishes."

"No fair. That was one tiny little slurp."

Jim threw a dish-towel at him. "Yeah? Slurp on this."

"That's disgusting."

Jim said nothing. He simply jerked his head in the direction of the counter, and they cleaned up together.

They didn't have sex that night. But Jim twined himself around Blair, like maybe he thought that he needed an anchor.

 

***

Blair packed the proofs carefully into his bag. "Thanks, Eli."

The light reflected off the lenses of Eli's glasses, and hid his eyes for a moment. "You don't have to thank me, Blair." He sighed.

"Maybe I don't. But in my vision of a balanced universe, you offer thanks when people are good to you."

Eli stood and looked out his window. "I can understand that. We're always thankful for things that are rare."

"Hey. Eli. This isn't like you."

Eli smoothed a hand against the back of his head, where the hair was close-trimmed, but at least present. "Sorry. I shouldn't... And it's not even about you, except insofar as your situation is a prime exemplar of stupid waste."

Blair came closer. "So what? More stupid waste?"

"A student of mine. She's manifested - nothing fancy, just some minor power. Certainly nothing threatening." His voice twisted in disgusted irony. "But her family is railroading her into joining one of the guilds. She's talented. Damn it."

Blair swallowed. "Sometimes life isn't fair."

"I spoke to her. She's nineteen, she doesn't have to join and throw her education away. But she's young and some of her family members are putting on a lot of pressure."

There was a tiny spider at the corner of the windowsill, Blair noticed. Easier to look there than at Eli's angry profile. Blair had more than a little anger of his own, sometimes. "Rallied the academic troops together, Eli? For whatever good that will do." Bitterness sat in his mouth, and he couldn't spit it out.

Eli turned, surprised. "And that's not like you, Blair."

"Life is full of disappointments for a lot of people, Eli. At least your student has the option to stay put." Blair shrugged. "I know that you tried. With me and with your student."

"It's all right. So, what's on the horizon for you?"

"Same old, same old."

"Small stuff." Eli sounded angry again. "I hoped that PD might do something for you after you saved the life of one of their people."

"Strangely enough, I didn't save Jim so that PD would do something for me." Blair hoisted his bag over one shoulder.

"That's because you're a decent human being," Eli said wryly.

"Yeah, that's me," Blair said brightly. "All-round good guy." He patted the strap of his bag. "I'll let you know if this looks like it's going to take longer than usual, right?"

Eli politely accepted Blair's strategic retreat. "I wouldn't expect any less from you. I'll see you later, Blair."

Blair waved in good-bye. "Yeah, later, Eli."

Blair shut the door behind him and walked down the tiled floor of Hargrove. He always had liked this building, from his earliest days at Rainier, liked the proportions and the polished wood and the sense of solidity. His heels echoed slightly - at six o'clock in the evening, there were only a few people left in the building. He clattered down the staircase with its curved wooden pillars and banister and then halted on the landing. At the foot of the stairs was the wolf.

"Oh for... Look. Just go! Shoo! I'm not the magic user you're looking for, okay? I'm grateful, but come on. There has to be someone more appropriate than me for you to be hanging out with. Why don't you try Incacha? You liked him." The beast looked at him with considerable disdain before it disappeared, which left Blair offended despite himself. He shook the feeling off and pushed open the inner swing door. Outside, it was growing cooler under a grey sky, and Blair lifted up the collar of his jacket. Late summer ought to be warmer even in Cascade. He slewed around the corner, heading for the route across the back parking lot that came out by the bus-stop, when a man approached him, a tall, thin man with pepper and salt hair. He looked nervous; distraught even.

Blair slowed. Maybe this guy was harmless, and maybe he wasn't. Nobody looked that tense in a good situation.

"Please," the guy said, reaching out one narrow, raw-knuckled hand. "Do you know anything about first aid? It's my grand-daughter." He gestured back to a van across the other side of the carpark."

"Not really. What's wrong? Have you called an ambulance?" The guy shook his head, eyes wide and gestured again. "Please."

He turned back and Blair ran at a jog-trot next to him. They rounded the side of the van, and Blair saw a small figure on the ground, a child of eight perhaps, dressed in jeans and a candy-pink hoodie top. He dumped his backpack and knelt down to gently turn the figure, thinking that she was terribly thin, and then flinched backwards with a yell as the child rose up and twisted around and he caught one shocking glimpse of a black-furred inhuman face.

The creature lunged forward, her long, skinny arms hooking around Blair with a strength to match his own as Blair fell on his back, her mouth with its protruding fangs unerringly attaching itself to Blair's neck. There was the sharp, burning tear of a bite, and even as Blair flailed, trying to push the little monster latched onto him off! off!, the burning spread through the tracery of veins and arteries, through every little channel under his skin, with the driving force of a river bore, bringing darkness with it, and he was gone.

***

Blair came back to himself in a small, dim room that smelled of damp rot, where daylight filtered through a window that was covered with a threadbare curtain. There was a pain like a nail above one eye that made him feel sick. He was lying on the floor on top of a mattress that was covered with a worn blue fitted sheet. His hands were tied with thin, cheap rope, as were his feet, and his whole body ached, albeit not as badly as his head. He felt weak, weak in a way that he remembered from that terrible time not so very long ago when he'd thought he was going to die. He writhed, testing first the cords around his wrists and then his ankles, frustrated and terrified, because he should be able to break them. As he twisted, something caught across his neck and thumped gently on his chest and he craned his neck downwards to see what it was.

Resting just above his sternum was a self-bored stone, with a crude mark on it. A sun? No, Blair realised, a spider. The thread that held it on was plain household cotton string. Blair laid his head back on the lumpy mattress and tried to calm his breathing and his thoughts. This was not good, this was, in fact, very bad, but it wasn't the worst it could get. He was alive, and he was able to think, and depending on how much time had passed, Jim would be looking for him, because Jim knew that Blair would quite literally never willingly leave him.

He took a long choking breath. Gee, Sandburg, he thought. I think there's still some processing needed there. It sounded in his head in Jim's dry tones, and that was oddly comforting. Blair lifted his wrists and took a look at the binding and the knots. They were completely mundane, but between the stone ward and whatever had been pumped into him earlier, they were also regrettably effective. He stared at the ceiling, which needed a broom taken to it. It was lightly festooned with spider webs; not heavily like some cheap ghost ride at a fair, simply like any neglected room in a neglected house. The webs moved lightly in a draught, and Blair thought of the stone pressed against his chest and shuddered.

He jerked his head as the door opened, and the man from the parking lot entered the room.

"I got you some water, and a sandwich."

"The sandwich is no good to me, but I'll take the water. You'll have to undo my hands though."

The man crouched down beside Blair. "No I don't. I'll help you with it." He stared at Blair. "You have to eat. She needs you strong."

"I don't eat, not sandwiches. I'm just as weird as your little 'grand-daughter'."

The man's eyes dropped. "She's just doin' what she has to, that's all," he muttered.

"My name's Blair."

The man's hands trembled slightly as he undid the seal on the water bottle. "Jefferson," he offered, and held the bottle to Blair's mouth.

Blair took a couple of swallows and drew back. "That's enough. You know," he said as conversationally, as confidentially as he could, "people are looking for me." The water had cleared some of the fog in his head, and Blair tried to gather some strength, some warmth, a little power. "Better to let me go, hey Jefferson? Before this gets out of hand." The spider stone sat heavy on his chest, choking down Blair's efforts to cast glamour. All the times he'd tried to hold that back, and now, when he needed it, he couldn't bring it forth.

Jefferson smiled, oddly pleasant and terribly weary. "Son, things have been out of hand for a long while now. You want any more water?"

"No."

"Fine then. I'll leave you be." Jefferson stood and left the room.

Blair struggled up to lean against the wall and then he shouted at the top of voice. "Hey! Help me! Anybody out there!" There was silence, and his chest heaved in a panic given free rein by the effort of shouting. "Help!" he screamed again, but there was no answer, no sound at all. Jefferson didn't come back in, or shout in his turn or bang on the wall. Blair might as well have been alone. He stayed alone through all the long hours of the day, and it was growing dark when the door opened again.

Instead of Jefferson, the little spider girl sidled through, no longer dressed in her children's clothes. Naked, and more monkey-like than anything, except for her face, she walked the perimeter of the room. her hands lifting in a sweeping salute to the webs on the ceiling before she turned to crouch at the foot of the mattress where Blair lay. She chirped inquiringly.

Blair couldn't stop himself from drawing up his knees and making himself as small as possible. "I don't speak spider-monkey," he said, trying to control the tremble in his voice. She came closer, extending a hand which was tipped with talons, before she flicked her nails under the ropes around Blair's ankle. They fell away, and she gently placed her hand on Blair's ankle, lifting the leg of his jeans just enough that skin touched skin. Revulsion ran through Blair and he would have kicked, wanted desperately to kick, but he couldn't move a muscle. Spider-monkey crooned and gently ran her hand over his shin. A scattering of fur flew from her arm like tiny darts, spiking into Blair's skin with a hot prickle.

"What?" It was all he could say, all that he wanted to know. What was she doing? The skin reddened, and Blair felt another rush of sensation through his body, not a burn like before; instead it was more like a restless itch, a desperate urge to move, except that he couldn't. Spider-monkey came close and stared into his face, her round, protuberant eyes bright and curious. She chittered in apparent satisfaction and ran her little claw of a hand across his cheek. It left a sensation like sunburn in its path. There was no ward or control strong enough to stop Blair flinching, but she showed no sign of displeasure and simply crooned again. The fangs at the front of her mouth clicked together, and then she left, shutting the door softly behind her.

The room grew dark. The window behind the curtain must have been open because Blair saw the curtain flutter infinitesimally. 'Get up!' he screamed in his head. 'Get up and look, find out where you are. You can do that, you can get this cord off your wrists, you can do this!' But there was nothing, no stir of power or movement, only that dreadful crawling restlessness shivering over his skin. He couldn't imagine sleeping through it, but he shut his eyes and slept sometimes. He dreamed sometimes too. He dreamed of Jim, saw him question Eli, saw Jim's long, loping stride take him across the parking lot where Jefferson had tricked him. Once there he picked up Blair's abandoned backpack and hugged it to his chest like a baby, his head lowered. 'Yeah, man' Blair thought, 'sniff me out. Hurry.'

Blair dreamed that his hands were all caught in spider web, clinging and sticky and strong, that it was in his eyes and in his mouth, and he woke up choking. Nightmares were awful, but not as bad as the restlessness in him, an itch that made him wish that he could split his skin like a snake and just get away. He writhed on his mattress, trying to ease himself, and just like that dropped away into sleep again. The restless tension needed breaking, and he dreamed of the pretty piebald girl who'd taken his apartment when he left Cascade, Denise. She'd understood exactly what he was, and he'd used some of his best tricks on her, made her coo and sigh, fucked her. He dreamed of that, until the jingle of the rings in her piercings turned to a rippling chirp, and the black on her piebald skin became a uniform dark fur, and he looked into her face and saw the monster face of the little spider girl, and he still came, crying out in mingled pleasure and horror.

He rolled over on his thin mattress with a moan of disgust. "No way," he said aloud. "No fucking way."

The room was gray with dawn light, and Blair looked down at his bound hands, at the ward around his neck. "No," he said again, a bare whisper. But yes. One thing he was sure of; every single thing that he'd dreamed of was true in its way. He hooked his bound hands into the string of the ward and yanked. It bit into the back of his neck, but nowhere near strongly enough. He stared at the cords. He wanted them off, but somehow he just couldn't do it. Somehow there was no will and no strength, and with a quiet moan he turned his face into the mattress as if he could hide there. 'There are eyes in those webs,' he thought, and returned to his back to stare up the ceiling, which was barely visible, the webs there lost in the gray. 'I see you,' sing-songed in his head.

He lay like that until the room was fully bright. Then he heard the door open, and the tread and weight on the floor that told him that it was Jefferson. He rolled around, his hair caught over his eyes for a moment, before he heaved himself up into a sit and irritably and awkwardly brushed the hair away from his face.

"Let me go."

Jefferson shook his head like someone saddened by the stupidity he found in the world. "Can't do that. You want some more water?"

"No, I don't want your fucking water." That was a lie. Blair wanted it badly, but he also didn't want to accept anything from this blank-eyed proxy for the eerie little creature that Blair knew was nearby.

"Ain't no call to swear, son."

"You think so? I think that when I've been abducted and drugged and generally fucked around with that swearing is great fucking call." He saw the tiny wince in Jefferson's face, and pushed a little more. "I had some really weird fucking dreams last night."

Jefferson's eyes looked elsewhere. "She's just doing what she's gotta do."

"I thought it was only bitches that went into heat," Blair jeered. That was more panic and fury than strategy, but it pricked some of Jefferson's uncanny calm. His mouth tightened.

"She needs her baby, and she needs a daddy for it. Don't worry. I'll take good care of her." Somehow, Blair didn't think that this offer was only to relieve him of the responsibility of unwanted parenthood. There was a gravity weighting Jefferson that convinced Blair that he wouldn't be around to dispute custody.

"Don't go out and buy a crib. It's not going to happen."

A white flash of fear, like sheet lightning, cracked in Jefferson's blank eyes, before he said, "You won't have a choice, so don't talk bullshit about what you don't understand." Jefferson's hand rubbed at his jaw, which was unshaven with bristles as pepper and salt as the hair on his head. "She's little but she's grownup, and she'll have what she wants. Might as well resign yourself."

"No! No, I'm not going to resign myself."

But Jefferson twitched, and looked behind him, and Blair saw the spider girl peer around the door. She capered forward, taking Jefferson's hand in hers and stroking it, turning her hand over so that the spiky fur brushed against his skin. Jefferson stared at the touch, before he stood and turned to leave. At the door he halted briefly, saying, "You call if you want water." Then he was gone, leaving Blair alone with his - what? His captor? His suitor? She crouched in front of him and opened the front of his shirt.

"Back off!" he growled, as the first button popped out of its buttonhole, but she ignored him, and Blair sat tense and queasy, bracing himself into the wall behind him. Her skinny little animal hands rubbed gently across his chest. Again, he felt that sunburn feeling, followed by the prickling rush of something washing through his body like a polluted tide. This time the restlessness was overtly sexual, and Blair involuntarily leaned his head back at the sensation. Spider girl crooned gently. One of her hands stayed on Blair's chest; the other reached down to rub gently at her crotch.

"No," Blair said. He even sounded like he meant it, and he pushed her hand off his body with his own bound hands. She hissed at him, but then she cooed, and with one sharp claw she cut the cord around his wrists.

"Thanks but no thanks. This isn't going to convince me." His voice shook with anger and disgust, but when she cupped her hands around his face he jerked at the sudden pleasure. The revulsion at that made it easier to lift his hands and slap hers away, even though the stone on his chest burned his skin when he did.

"I said no!"

She withdrew then, and clicked her fangs angrily. Then her face changed. Blair couldn't see anything that he'd recognise as a smile, but somehow the body language spoke as clearly as words: 'You're saying no now, but wait. Just you wait'. Then she left him. He bowed his head, tears prickling unexpectedly in his eyes, as his memory drove back over more than ten years. No-one had ever tried to slap his hands away; not that he recalled. Please, let memory not lie to him.

Okay. His hands and his feet were free, and there was nothing stopping him from standing and walking around. Blair stood, sweating as another wave of feeling rolled through him - a mix of formless tension, of sex. He took a step towards the door, reached it even, but the hand that reached for the knob jerked back like he was a badly operated marionette. He gritted his teeth, and tried again, but with no more success than before.

He turned away and walked with exquisite care to the window and pulled the curtain back. He saw trees - a forest overshadowing wherever they were. There was a dirt road winding down a shallow slope and around the side of the building he was in. He tried to lift the window sash. He really tried. He clenched his fingers into a fist and wound his arm back to break the glass, but he couldn't punch forward.

'Take it off,' he told himself. 'Take off that damn ward.' But he couldn't.

He stumbled back to the mattress and threw himself down. He was shaking, he realised. The feel of his clothes, the smooth rub of the sheet, everything was impossible. He wondered if this was how Jim felt when things had been bad for him - everything raw and too much. Perhaps he slept for a while. When he rolled over, he saw Naomi sitting cross-legged on the floor beside him.

"You should just do it, sweetie." She smiled. Her hair was like a torch flame in the room, and one hand gently cupped her breast. "If you let her in, this will be all over." Her face grew tender. "It would be all over for Jim, too, you know. He'd be free. You'd both be free. Detach with love, Blair."

He covered his eyes. "No," he muttered. His voice rose to a shout. "No! Go away. And stop using my mother's face!"

Perhaps a door slammed somewhere. Blair rolled into a tight ball, and whimpered. He was hungry. He wanted touch, he wanted pleasure, and her small, furred body could give it to him. She was powerful - if he pleased her, it would feel so good, so amazing, even when the spike of the ovipositor rolled out from under her spine and jabbed into his gut. Even that would feel so fine because she'd be delighted; she'd be ecstatic. He would give her the baby that would guarantee her future life. He'd have a purpose, a role, and it wouldn't matter that he'd die with web around his hands and over his eyes and stuffed into mouth....

He woke with a cry, his hands grabbing at his face until he realised that he could breathe. He sucked in his breath, in and out, in and out, and watched his fingers flex in front of him. "Oh god." He shut his eyes against the shabby room, but there was still the smell of damp in his nostrils, along with the smell of his body and the musk of his own arousal. "Jim...."

He could hear a howling wolf somewhere. It might be in the woods outside, it might be in his own head. He didn't know anymore. "It would be okay, Chief. I'd understand." The words came with a gentle touch to Blair's face, but he turned his head away.

"Shut up," Blair snarled. "You're not him. You're not him!" He stood up and took a walk in the forest. At least, he thought it was the forest, because he couldn't see anything. There was something around his eyes, and something around his hands so that he couldn't get his balance properly, and he kept on falling and hurting himself. His knees hurt, everything hurt, and if he just went back to that little room with the mattress, everything would be okay. He kept walking in the woods instead, until he fell on something furry. For a moment he thought this was the end, that he'd walked in a circle right back to that room, until he realised that this fur was thick and soft and the body underneath him was solid with muscle. And for once a daemon wasn't growling at him.

A rough tongue rasped at his face, pulling and dragging at the web on his eyes, and Blair could see again. "Hi," he said wearily. The black panther made no sound, but its muzzle pulled back in feline disgust, and it rubbed one big paw around its mouth.

"Yeah, sorry about that. But thanks." Blair leaned against the warmth of the big cat. The rub of its fur on his skin made him shiver with arousal, and the creature looked at him. "Sorry. Things are kind of weird right now." The panther made a noise deep in its throat. "Yeah, I know." The fur was deep and silky against his face. "You belong to Jim." A small growl sounded. "Sorry. Sorry. God." Blair shut his eyes. "I'm good at offending you guys, huh." Silence appeared to give consent to this. "So, if you're here, where's Jim? Because it's not like he wouldn't be looking."

The panther shifted itself, and rose to turn around and look at Blair with enigmatic, unblinking eyes. "You guys? Really, totally unnecessarily cryptic." He lifted his hands, still tightly wound in the grey mass of web. "Any ideas?" The panther sniffed at his hands and sneezed, before it started walking away from him.

"Hey! Come on! What am I supposed to do now?"

The panther swung its broad head, as if to say, "Follow." The forest had to be better than the room, so Blair did, until they came to a clearing by a river. The wolf sat curled there.

"Guess I should have known. So what now?"

The wolf straightened out and rose to its feet and leaned against the panther's side. And then it growled at Blair.

"Oh, for fuck's sake. Look, I'm sorry. But I'm not used to this shit. This is serious stuff."

The wolf gazed into the panther's face, and then, as Blair watched, it rose on its hind legs and morphed with blurry speed into someone who looked just like Blair. "I'm going to make this fast, because this is fucking uncomfortable," his doppelganger said.

Blair's eyes bugged, in lieu of being able to shift his hands in astonishment.

"I know, I know, not very spiritual of me. But I want to make sure that I'm talking in a way that you'll understand, man."

"Okay," Blair said tightly. "So talk."

"When you take off the bindings."

"What do you think I've been trying to do?" Blair protested.

"So do you want me to do it then?"

"That would be nice."

"You really, really want me to free your hands?"

"You are really fucking annoying, you know that?"

Daemon-Blair put his hands on Blair's shoulders and smiled. "I am, yeah. But you owe me."

Blair's breath hitched. "I know that."

"He would have died."

"I know that! I know that you saved his life!" Blair shouted, trying to pull back, and in panic as to where any conversation about Jim's near death might be heading.

Daemon-Blair shook his head. "I just brought you to him in time. You saved his life. You were all tangled up together anyway, you simply made it explicit. Are you listening to me?"

Blair felt like his chest was going to explode. "I'm trying," he said.

"It's a start, and it's about time. If you promise me that you will keep listening, then I'll help you. How does that sound?"

"You'd both be free," something murmured in his head. "You'd both be free..."

"Or if you'd rather listen to her spidery majesty instead," Blair's counterpart sneered.

"Shut up." Blair held his hands against his head, trying not to hear any voices except for his own thoughts. Then he lifted his head to look into his own face on someone else. Unless he was truly willing to die, what choice did he have? "I.... Okay. I promise to listen. Or to try. I do not promise to scratch you behind the ears."

"I can live with that." And with that, daemon-Blair was a wolf again, a wolf opening its jaws around Blair's hands and tearing at the web until Blair's hands were free. The wolf was not particularly careful with his teeth and left marks behind him although nothing that broke the skin. Blair pulled at the sticky mess himself, kneeling to scrape his hands against the dirt of the forest floor. He looked up to see the wolf gather itself to leap, and he nearly threw himself back, the way he had when the spider girl had jumped him, but he braced himself just in time. Breaking promises some thirty seconds after you'd made them in a spirit realm? Probably about as unwise as you could get. The wolf flew at him, and Blair felt jolted, as if by electricity, and then it was simply him alone, with his body free of its sticky constraints. He rubbed at a sore place on his chest.

"So how come Jim got the nice daemon?" he complained.

"What makes you think that?" his own voice whispered from within. The panther, still a panther, winked at him, and was gone.

***


The forest was gone too. Instead, there was the room, musty with the smell of rot. Blair shivered as a draught from the window passed cool over his skin like a ghost's caress. It was dark.

Blair sat up, and fumbled at his chest. The stone was still there, and his hand closed around it. There was sharp pain in his palm, like a bee sting or a spider's bite, but he ignored that and with harsh triumph he pulled the ward up and over his head, the string dragging at his skin and hair as he did so. He hauled himself to his feet, one hand leaning against the wall, his feet unsteady on the thin cushion of the mattress. He'd never been high, except on the aftermath of his own power. His body had burnt out the effects of the alcohol and pot that he'd tried in his teens, and he wondered if they made people feel the way he did now. The spider girl's toxins were still burning in his blood, but he no longer felt weak, even though there was something empty inside him. His skin flushed hot and chilled cold, and he felt filled with a jittery energy, lit up with power - and hungry.

"Time to go," he said aloud, and then clapped his hand over his mouth. Door or window, he wondered. Door or window. Curiosity insisted on the door - there might be a phone, or car keys out there. Jefferson and his charge too, of course, but Blair found that he didn't care, any more than he'd have cared that he was fucking a monster. He opened the door, and passed into another room. It was dark and Blair couldn't see a thing, so he fumbled in the darkness until the light went on. Jefferson stood there.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

Blair smiled. He was getting out of here and he could feel almost sorry for Jefferson, who'd never feel like this, like he could do anything, who'd only ever felt a touch that soothed and dampened rather than aroused.

"I'm leaving, man," Blair said, and giggled. There'd been a van hadn't there. In what might have looked like the blink of an eye to Jefferson, Blair was at the door, and looking out. Yes, there the van was in the moonlight, and Blair turned, and with the beautiful inhuman speed that he tried not to use too often (Why not? he wondered. It was fun.) Blair gripped Jefferson's shirt in his fists. "Keys?" he said politely. Jefferson's hands dragged at his, to no avail. "I'm getting pissed here," Blair hissed. "I want your goddamn keys." He pushed into Jefferson's mind, but he couldn't get any further than the shell, the round, grey, sticky shell that surrounded his thoughts, and with a grunt Blair held Jefferson still and felt around his pockets. No keys.

He turned to look elsewhere around the room, and then danced back as the spider girl dropped in front of him, her fangs clacking together in distress.

"I wondered where you'd gotten to," Blair said, his hands closing around her skinny little wrists. She glared at him, poor, horny, thwarted creature. Spikes of hair darted from her skin and lifted red welts on Blair's, but only temporarily. He felt - great. He was filled with a vigour and obsession that she would have used to have him fertilise her, to please her, but he didn't have time for that any longer. He needed to leave here. He needed to get back to Jim. She lifted her hind legs with their taloned feet to rip at Blair's belly, and filled with power, filled with the vigour she'd gifted him, he casually smashed her small body into the wall. The minute crack of broken bones was lost in the thump and Jefferson's roar of rage. She still struggled, and Blair swung her back again, like a swing ball on a string, to leave a dent in the ancient drywall where she hit, before he dropped her. Jefferson he calmly shoved aside because - there. On a nail. Keys. Great. Just what he needed for now, to get him to what he really needed. Jim.

***

It was a good thing, Blair reflected, that his current manic state included hyper-alertness, because he suspected that maybe he wasn't driving that safely. Once he hit the black-top at the end of the dirt road he had to guess the right way back to Cascade, and his choice was justified when he hit the interstate, all the way back to the city, and the city exits, his foot hard on the pedal. This had been a deeply interesting, fascinating experience, he thought. Between the spider girl, and the spirits - hell, somebody would buy an article about all this. It had mythology, it had magic, it had suspense, it definitely had sex. He couldn't be the only precocious teenager who'd ever jerked off to the sex references in the Naked Ape. Definitely a selling point....

He arrived at Prospect from the harbour end of the city, and abandoned the van just at the end of the block because he knew there was no parking further on, and he'd lost his keys so he'd have to access the apartment via the balcony doors anyway. It was shortly after three in the morning by Blair's watch, and Jim would be home, wouldn't he? He didn't have any leads, and Simon would send him home, and Jim would be waiting. That black hole of want in Blair sucked just that little bit harder, and he stumbled on the sidewalk as he climbed out of the van, before he rose into the air. "Jim," he said softly. He didn't need to say it loudly. If Jim was awake then he'd hear him, and if he was sleeping then Blair would wake him. He didn't need to be loud, but Jim's name was a pleasure in itself, and Blair murmured it several times in anticipation.

Jim was waiting on the balcony. He looked rough and worn and tired. He was dressed in an old T-shirt and jeans, and his face was happily disbelieving.

"Blair?" he asked, and opened his arms; Blair swooped to him, a slightly drunken bird of prey.

"Where the hell have you been?" Jim demanded. He was warm, and he smelled like he hadn't showered for a while, which didn't bother Blair at all. Instead, he inhaled rapturously, just to tantalise himself for a few moments longer. "Where have you been?" Jim repeated, taking Blair's face between his hands. And Blair could see where this was going. Jim was going to investigate Blair's well-being with his senses, Jim was going to pointlessly demand that Blair prove that he was okay, and look, there. That was Jim's face already clouding over with concern, and Blair couldn't have that. He pushed Jim against the concrete wall and he kissed him.

There was a welcome there, of course there was, but he could feel Jim's emotions. In this state, Blair couldn't fail to, and what he needed right now was Jim's arousal, Jim's lust, Jim's orgasm. Jim needed to be distracted from futile worry, and Blair knew just how to do that, and let loose power without a moment's qualm. It was like flicking a switch that let him into every portion of Jim's mind and body. One moment Jim was confusedly joyful about Blair's return but anxious for him, and that spike of surprise when he realised that he wasn't going anywhere because Blair had him pinned was truly delicious; but it wasn't as delicious as that next moment when Jim simply felt Blair's touch, melting into breath-held moments of anticipation for the next touch, and oh, Jim felt absolutely delectable under Blair's hands.

"Beautiful," Blair muttered, and Jim's face lit as if Blair had written him a sonnet or a symphony and his hand clasped Blair's head as he sighed and came with his cock held in Blair's fist. It was like a sunburst, and Blair pressed his face to Jim's and luxuriated in it, even as he realised that it was nowhere near enough. It filled that empty part of Blair, absolutely. But still Blair felt that restless energy, that need to fuck - and in his arms he held a beautiful, beautiful man who wanted him, and who would want whatever Blair would do to him.

Blair drew back and admired the view, which was Jim Ellison with his T-shirt rucked up and his jeans and underwear pretty much down, and knelt to help Jim out of them. Jim stared down at him in unfocused admiration, while Blair ran his hands up the columns of Jim's legs - the right, the left, and felt the twitch of skin and flesh that moved under his palms. "You like that?" he asked. "You feel that?" Jim's wordless answer was to lean his head back against the wall, panting for breath. "I want you to feel it," Blair crooned, power engaged to open all a sentinel's senses and especially the receptivity of his skin. He stood, his hands shifting to cup and drag over the heavy balls, the cock that was already half-hard again, before he ran his hands over Jim's torso and lifted the shirt over his head and off.

Jim turned his head and took Blair's hand to sniff delicately at it, and then slowly he licked over the heel of the palm, once, twice, three times. Blair shivered in his turn and Jim smiled, the initial dazedness becoming something far more aware and purely animal. Blair was utterly charmed, but then he'd always known that Jim was strong. Or was this level of control yet another thing that Blair had done without realising when he'd saved Jim at the Hunt? Curiosity could wait; for now there were other hungers, shared hungers. "Come on," Blair whispered. Their eyes were on a level as he whirled them inside to their bed, Jim's hands pulling his shirt away, and Jim's legs twined with all his considerable strength around the body of his demon lover.

***

It was daylight when Blair awoke, into a loft where the light streamed golden with the sun coming through the side windows. The air was fresh and a little cool, and for a moment Blair stretched, before he sat bolt upright in the bed. "Oh my god," he said aloud and turned to look at Jim beside him.

Jim lay curled on his side, utterly peaceful, and panic made Blair freeze almost literally. All the dim golden warmth and light of the room turned to frigidity - and then he saw Jim very gently but indisputably breathe.

"Oh. Oh, thank you," Blair murmured, to fate, to any listening gods, to the daemons that lurked somewhere. He was being stupid, he knew that. Even the greediest of incubi and succubi couldn't kill in a single night. But last night was imprinted in his mind, with no haze or blurring, and the frightened cold was replaced with a scalding flash of memory. Blair lay down on his side and watched Jim sleep. He'd need more sleep than Blair, who always slept lightly, and never for long.

Jim breathed, in and out, his arms curled up against his chest, and Blair put out one hand and laid it on Jim's shoulder. It was sweet, the feel of skin against his hand, and purely and totally human. Last night.... Blair carefully stroked his hand down the line of Jim's arm and then rolled away to stare at the ceiling. Last night, the frantic sex lit by the dimness of a single lamp from downstairs, in retrospect bore uncomfortable similarities to the afternoon of the Wild Hunt months before. There'd been the same level of obsession, the same sense of untrammelled energy - except that last night, instead of being an empty space that Blair was terrified that he'd never fill, Jim had returned the energy with a wild obsession of his own. It had been a loop, a near eternity of feedback that had, barely, run down instead of exploding. And this morning Jim was sleeping like a baby, completely unaware of Blair's voice or Blair's touch.

He pulled the sheet a little higher over Jim's shoulders and cautiously got out of the bed, and found his old robe and walked carefully down the stairs, watching his bare feet on the wooden treads. He was thirsty, so he went to the sink, passing the lamp which was still on and pale in the daylight and turning it off. One of his sneakers lay on the floor, where it must have fallen from the loft space above. Blair filled a glass and drank it slowly, surveying the loft as he did so. The room was marked with other small disorders, such as the open door at the balcony. He could see Jim's T-shirt lying on the floor in front of the door, creased and abandoned. The other clothes would lie in the corner out of sight.

There were candles on the coffee table, placed east and west, north and south, and a scatter of playing cards inside them. Two cards lay on the floor. Blair smiled and shook his head. Jim must have been desperate if he'd tried cartomancy. He bent and gathered the cards up and then shuffled them. Three card draw he thought. Past, present, future. Seven of spades. Five of spades. King of hearts. That one he liked.

He scrubbed his hands over his face; he needed to shave and shower. He wondered what Jim had seen in him last night - clearly it hadn't been the dirty, manic predator Blair's jaundiced memory overlaid over the startling memory of the sex. He put the cards away and picked up the phone and called Cascade PD.

"I want to talk to Simon Banks. Tell him it's about Pursuivant Ellison." He didn't have to wait long for Simon's familiar bark.

"Jim?"

"It's me. It's Blair."

There was a pause on the other end of the line, a pause that meant that Simon was drawing patience and strength to deal with a troublesome issue. "Sandburg," he said with tremendous calm. "Do I want to know what's going on?"

"I'm okay. Jim's okay. But I had a run-in with some sort of spider avatar, something really strong, she has a protector and they're holed up somewhere out in the woods."

"Where?" Blair liked that about Simon - he was a man who knew how to get to the point.

"I - uh. I don't know. I got away kind of on auto-pilot. Definitely south of the city, about an hour's drive. There's a grey Chevy van parked at the bottom of East Raines, off Prospect, assuming no-one's stolen it. I'm sure that someone can get an impression off it, but I think they'd better be properly supported. There will be some very weird vibes coming off that van, very weird."

"You're at Prospect? There will be someone there to see you in thirty minutes, no more. Don't go anywhere, Sandburg, you understand me?"

"No, Simon. I won't go anywhere," Blair parroted, and hung up. He turned, to see Jim.

"Good morning," Jim said gravely.

"Is it?" Blair asked.

"You're home safe. I'd certainly include that in a definition of a good morning."

"I was talking to Simon. He's sending someone here in no more than thirty minutes."

"I know. I heard," Jim said. He pulled Blair close against him. "An arachne? That's - that's not good."

Blair had a completely inappropriate urge to giggle. Trust Jim to know the proper word for his monster. "Yeah. Tell me about it."

"You're okay?" Jim rasped, as Blair buried his nose in the terry cloth of Jim's grey robe.

"Last night didn't prove that? What about you? I thought that you'd sleep a lot longer."

"I'm fine. As a matter of fact, I'm great." Jim's hand grabbed at Blair's hair and gently forced his face away from its hiding place. He looked young against the backlight from the windows. "How much of last night was you?" Blair didn't think that was what he'd intended to ask.

"The part of me that wouldn't have taken no for an answer was all hers. Isn't lucky I have ways around that situation?" Jim frowned. "What, man? Are you wondering if I can offer you an encore some time? No more saving up the hoodoo for your old age?"

"Stop it." Jim's grip on his hair tightened but Blair endured it. He could free himself any time, if that was what he wanted. Jim shut his eyes and then Blair sighed as Jim's lips touched the side of his throat in a barely there kiss. He could hear Jim's inhalation, and resigned himself to the fact that a sentinel scented a different world to his. Then Jim lifted his head and he looked into Blair's face with a determined glare. "Nothing happened that I didn't want."

Blair bit his lip - the sort of biting that someone did when keeping words back was a matter of striving and travail. Jim would say that, wouldn't he, and it was something that Blair desperately wanted to believe right now. But how would Jim know, and how would Blair know? "The thing is, there's all these people in the world, right? And most of them, they never know what it's like, they're watching the fireworks from a distance and they never have to get in there with the gunpowder, you know?"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"I was thinking that you were just the fuse but me, I was the fucking gunpowder - but now I'm not so sure."

"You're making no sense, is what you are."

Blair laughed, a quick, nervous explosion of sound.. "You never do make sense when you listen to the daemons. Oh, god, man. I think our lives are even more complicated than we thought."

"I've never doubted it. Does this mean we have things to discuss?" Jim's tone was resigned.

"Yes. Again. But not now." Blair held Jim's face between his hands. "Let me go. I'm not talking to whoever Simon sends looking and smelling like this."

Jim let go, of Blair's hair at least. "You're alive to talk to them. That's what counts. It's the only damn thing."

"I'm sorry," Blair said.

"You don't have to be sorry for anything." Jim sounded unsteady. "Damn it. You don't."

"Okay." Blair shut his eyes and took a slow breath. "Jim, I'm not kidding about needing a shower."

"Yeah. I know. I need one too. And we have what, twenty minutes?"

"Something like that."

"Then I guess we'd better get going."

***

In the city of Cascade, there were myriad ways of dealing with debris.

That saddest human debris, the remains of the dead, was in general cremated. Only the very sternest religious preference for burial had been proof against the occasional sight of the dead alive, and the interment of an intact corpse with its necessary protections had become an expensive business. Anyone buried on the city dollar made their final journey via the crematorium. Jefferson Richmond, age fifty-two, African-American, cause of death - severe abdominal trauma, was carried in a whole corpse and was carried out ashes and shards to be buried in a shared paupers grave.

The homunculus that killed him despite the best efforts of the staff of Cascade PD and Cascade General Hospital ended as a small, bleached figure in a bottle of formaldehyde despite strong protests from Paranormal Defence, who pointed out the danger of the item and the temptation it presented to both genuine magic practitioners and demented wannabes. PD wanted it burned, along with the remains of its 'mother', in the furnace complex nicknamed Gehenna, at the eastern end of Cascade. However, Dr Albert West, whose hobby was comparative anatomy, smuggled the homunculus out of the building. Gehenna, more properly known as Washington State Hazardous Waste Disposal Center, sat at the end of a service road that went nowhere else, and was expensive to run, despite substantial federal government subsidies. Its safety record was a matter of considerable pride in the industry, and small comfort to the householders who couldn't afford to live in more affluent areas west of Shayhap Creek.

Some debris was not quite acknowledged as such - files, records, information. Nobody wanted it around now, but they thought they might want it around some day. The archives of Cascade Paranormal Defence were substantial. The physical files related to Pursuivant James Ellison were formidable, and the computer cross references? As tangled as a spider web...