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This Round's On Me

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Juliet and Susan had weathered their share of troubles in the past, but this time it seemed they might actually be done for good. The word came to me from Pen who heard it from Sue, and though I suspect it gained a profanity or nine in the translation to Pen-speak, the original message came through loud and clear: find Juliet, and quickly.

Anyone who hunted down Juliet had better be on his or her best game, or else they were only asking for profound regret, or, more probably, intense but extremely brief pleasure followed by swift cessation of their vital signs. But I located her almost immediately, which told me that she wanted to be found.

It was freezing out on the street by the church. I turned the collar of my coat up and shoved my numbed hands into my pockets, clearing my throat to announce my presence.

She turned her head and seemed to stare right through me. In jeans and a jacket as usual, heedless of the cold, Juliet appeared about as human as she ever did. At least, until you looked into her eyes - then she seemed as remote and devastating as a sheer cliff face or a deep dark river, something that could reduce you and the vessel you came in to splinters (or splatters) in moments without effort, or even noticing you existed at all. Even her usual sexual magnetism, as irresistible as gravity, seemed relatively muted.

Not that she didn't still turn my mouth dry or set my pulse to racing. Her voice, husky and deep, made me want to drop to my knees. I resisted the urge.

"You brought your little whistle, Castor," she said, immaculate mouth curling with derision. "Is that why she sent you? To bring me back to heel in case I ran mad?"

I patted my coat, where my tin whistle rested in its specially sewn pocket. "Just a tool of the trade. You know me, Juliet, I never leave home without it."

"Because I don't need a keeper," Juliet said harshly. "I don't need-" She bit off the sentence abruptly. She looked away, and it was like a weight being lifted; I could breathe again.

"Sure you don't," I said easily. "That's why we're moping outside the scene of your first date in the middle of the night while I freeze my fucking balls off." While it wasn't exactly accurate that Susan and Juliet's first date had happened in church, dates and exorcisms were pretty much interchangeable in our line of work. Trudie and I had met under not dissimilar circumstances, come to think of it.

She sighed with unconcealed impatience. "What do you want from me?" she said, in a tone that implied she couldn't care less about the content of my reply.

"Walk with me a while," I suggested. "That's all."

I stepped back from the church fence and back towards the street. I started walking, more or less crossing my fingers that she would follow. After a few moments, I heard the click of her heels and I slowed down just enough for her to catch up without looking as though I had changed my pace.

We went to a real dive of a bar, one that I'd discovered - or more accurately, sunk down towards - in the days of my massive drunk following Asmodeus' escape. As we entered, sure enough all heads swivelled in Juliet's direction and as usual she ignored them, following my lead when I sat at the end of the bar and signalled the all-too-eager bartender.

"Why are we here?" she said, her posture wary and back ramrod straight.

"Whiskey first," I said. After the bartender had poured (never even looking at me, poor sod), I pushed a glass towards her and raised my own. "You pick it up," I said helpfully, "and clink it against mine." I was never entirely sure if she found my attempts at humour at all amusing, but since she only narrowed her eyes a little and did as I suggested, I counted it as a win. "Cheers," I said, and knocked it back. She followed, a little more slowly.

"Another?" I suggested. She nodded. The bartender was by now ignoring me completely - of course, all she had to do was raise one slim, white finger and he came running. But who could blame him? I'd have done the same. Had done.

"Well, Castor?" she said after we'd toasted and downed the second. "Answer the question."

Ah yes. Why were we here. I shrugged broadly, hands wide. "Can't a guy just want to hang out sometimes?" I suggested. She gave me another stare, even more laser intense than the first - I coughed and ran a finger around my collar. "Well, this is kind of a human thing, but it's traditional to get completely smashed if you're going through a hard time. And if it's on a friend's tab, even better. I thought it might help with," I waved vaguely, "you know. I thought you might want the company."

"Hmmm." She waved absently and the bartender worshipfully poured us a third round. She turned the glass around in her hands slowly. "So this is what your human friends would do for you, if you were," and she too paused, just for a microsecond, "in similar circumstances?"

"I'd certainly hope so." I raised my glass hopefully.

She raised her glass too, but not quite close enough to touch mine. Juliet smiled then, a predatory baring of her teeth. "So you're saying, Castor, that friendship is the only reason you came looking for me tonight?" And her eyes flicked down to the bulge in my coat where the tin whistle rested against my chest.

"No," I admitted after a few moments. "No, it's one of the reasons, but it's not the only one. It did cross my mind," I said, shrugging, "that I might've had to play your song tonight."

That had been the second, unspoken part of Susan's message, reinforced by Pen, not that I'd needed the warning. We'd all seen what Juliet had been like the last time she'd been on the outs with Susan, mitigating circumstances or not. So I'd headed in tonight hoping for the best, but expecting the worst. That was just the bare truth, no more than I owed her.

"I told you I didn't need a keeper, Castor." Juliet leaned closer. It struck me then that I'd been wrong when I'd thought her magnetism blunted, for her scent was all around me, rich and heady and sending the blood straight to my groin. She murmured in my ear, "Besides, do you really think your little tune would be enough to hold me, if I didn't want to be held?" Her hand was on my knee, nails digging in like claws. "Or maybe that's exactly what I want tonight, Castor, maybe I'm finally hungry enough to take what you so desperately want to give."

If she'd breathed on me then I'd have come. It was like I'd never known desire before, never known true need - that's what it's like when Juliet turns her full attention upon you. Finally, finally, my brain chanted ecstatically, and simultaneously in absolute terror, oh god, I'm going to die.

Abruptly she released me. I had to hold on to the bar with both hands to stop myself from falling face-first into my drink. My vision was blurry. "Fuck," I said. I shook my head. Well, at least I wasn't dead.

When I could finally sit up straight, Juliet pushed the glass of whiskey back under my nose. "Come on, Castor. Drink up." When she looked at me again she was still the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen, the woman I'd wanted more than any other, but she was also just Juliet, weary and heartsore and lonely. "To friendship, did you say?" she said, half sarcastic and half sincere.

"To friendship," I said, raising my glass to chink firmly against hers, "and to keeping one another honest."

She tossed it back, the white column of her throat showing, before setting the glass down heavily. "I'm glad you're here, Castor," she said quietly.

"Nowhere else I'd rather be," I said, and meant every word.