Actions

Work Header

Hell of a Town

Work Text:

In the beginning, there was a time and place very like ours. There was a lonely, blue world wheeling its path around a bright, yellow sun. The people were familiar. The histories were familiar. You would have recognised the same names of the famous and the infamous. The inhabitants dreamed of monsters and heroes, while they lived and died and suffered and celebrated and built.

Then one day it all changed. Those familiar, curious people wanted a power source, but instead they found a source of power, creatures of power; and the powers burst upon the skies and seas of that blue planet, they infused the shell and fires of its earth, they played dice (and Monopoly) with the genetic code of the people. The monsters and demons became more than just the time-honoured ones: hate and fear and illness and war and death. The powers lived in and amongst that familiar people, shaped by the place and the minds; in turn they shaped some of the people; they let others wield their energies. A different time and place, now, but still oddly recognisable, like seeing your reflection in a fun-house mirror...

***

Jim could be patient. He'd camped out in the woods that bordered the farmland for nearly a week now, waiting for the genus loci to take the bait, to smell the new blood. But the spirit was a canny one, and it knew the scent of a hunter. Blood was blood, body and bone to give back to the earth, but not this man, no matter how hungry the inhabiting spirit might be. So now, Jim sat cross-legged in front of his fire, carefully stoked with wood, the sharp tang of the smoke smouldering now with the scent of the dead rabbit laid across it. The sickly reek of singeing fur made Jim's nose wrinkle and his eyes water, and he swiped his hands across his face. His patience didn't extend to accepting the strange new irritability of his senses. He waited, trying to ignore his tearing eyes, and threw a pinch of ochre into the fire, blew gently on the flames and then spat, before he hacked out a few dry coughs. Fire and water, air and earth, flesh and blood, and why the hell didn't the genus loci just manifest already?

He stared at the fire, watching the flames leap like a living thing. He'd seen flames that were truly alive, seeking and knowing, and he preferred the simple chemical transfer of energy. It was beautiful in its randomness; the light and the heat, the crackle as moisture made its own transformations and escaped from fibres that that had taken years to grow. So loud...Jim shook his head. He'd done it again, and his fists clenched. This bullshit was a great way to get himself killed. Trance out like that when you were facing a power, and dead was the very best thing you could expect.

There was tiny tremor in the ground, and Jim's fingers dug into the earth. Here it came, and he leaned back his head and waited for the words as his amulet, his authority, grew heavier around his neck. There was a rush of wind and more than a tremor, a shudder, in the earth, and the words were unleashed. Jim had heard a recording of his voice in this state once. He had barely recognised himself, certainly hadn't recognised his words. They'd hardly even been words, just burbling sounds. They never were words to anyone else. Simon's voice was a low, nasal rumble, Rafe shouted like an incoherent drunk, Connor wailed. But they each heard the words they said, just as he heard his own words now.

"By the authority given to me, by the people and the powers, you have no rights here. I adjure you; I deny you. This is no longer your place." He gasped. What he saw he couldn't understand. He'd sent malignant spirits on their way a dozen times, dissipated their force, and it was never like this. Sounds that he'd never before heard, piercing his ears; colours he'd never seen, that couldn't exist; and he shut his eyes and heaved his chest for breath. "Deny..." he gasped, as the spirit, genus loci no longer, escaped his grasp and fled into the sky. It should have been broken, spent like water spilled from a broken glass, but it was still whole. Finally, Jim fell back, and locked the place against its return, before he shut his eyes, and lay still on the ground, dizzy and confused, while the earth creaked and resettled under him. Finally he sat up. His cap had been torn from his head, and he grabbed it and jammed it back on. It was his favourite Jags cap, talisman of a different sort, but it hadn't done any good and now it felt prickly and uncomfortable across his scalp.

"Fuck," he muttered, and held his aching head in his hands, the cap brim rough against his fingers as Jim tried to rub the frown off his face. Yes, he'd sent the spirit on its way. It wasn't going to haunt and harm this farmland and its workers any longer, but all he'd done was make it someone else's problem. "Fuck," he said again, and dragged his weary body upright. It was a long walk back to his truck, and the anxious men and women waiting huddled in front of the house.

"It's gone," Jim said, trying to sound official and reassuring as a successful pursuivant of Cascade Paranormal Defence should. He waved off the sincere and relieved thanks and the offers of a drink and a meal, and climbed into his truck and drove away. Nothing felt right, hadn't felt right for a while now, and had definitely become downright weird and scary in the last week. His truck smelled all wrong and he hit the steering wheel in frustration. Doctors, medicine men, seers. He hated them all, but he didn't need a seeing to know that they were in his future until he sorted this mess out.

Cascade's towers and homes still stood; people still went about their lives, and most of them never saw anything scarier than a hex or a poltergeist their whole lives through. Jim pulled in to his usual spot in the Cascade PD garage, and climbed out and tried to relax under the wards. If he was cursed, then the wards should note it, stop him in his tracks, but no, he made his way upstairs, and walked into the bullpen.

"Hi, Jimbo," Megan said brightly. Her long legs were propped on her desk, the silver studs in her leather boots shining brightly; her pale hands curled around a cup of vanilla scented coffee. Jim made a vague acknowledgement with his hand.

"Rough one, was it?" Henri asked. "Whooo-eee, my man, do us a favour and hit the showers."

"Simon in?"

Megan and Henri exchanged a look. "Yeah," Henri said, "and roaring like a bull moose. Surprised you didn't hear him from the elevator." Jim's head ducked in irritation. First he heard too much and now he didn't hear enough. He stared at his desk - tidy enough except for the new folders in his inbox - before he turned away and knocked on Simon's door.

"Yes?"

It wasn't quite the tone of 'abandon all hope ye who enter', but Jim braced himself anyway.

Simon clearly shook off the irritation riding him, to be the responsible boss. "Jim. Glad you're back." Simon looked more carefully, and frowned. "You look like shit."

Jim flopped into a chair, uninvited, and saw Simon's eyebrows rise. "Yeah." He stared out the window. "I lost it, Simon. It's gone, but it's not dissipated."

"Damn. How did that happen?"

"That's just it, I don't know. It's not drugs, or a curse..."

"Whoa, back up there. Drugs, curses?"

"I don't know!" Jim snarled, the flatness of exhaustion rising into frustrated anger. "I shouldn't have let it get away but it did." He took a breath. "I need a leave."

Simon rose, to perch himself on the edge of his desk in front of Jim. It was informal. It also placed Simon higher than Jim. The mix of messages wasn't lost on either of them.

"Jim, it's coming up end of October. I'm going to need every man and woman I've got, especially my best. All Hell's going to break loose in this city, you know that. I'm not giving you leave so that you can brood on how for once you screwed up. We all do that, and we deal." Simon's arms were crossed defensively against his chest. The Captain of Seventh Division, Cascade Paranormal Defence, detested the magic sprees of the fall. Jim felt a small twinge of sympathy, but he didn't have energy to spare for it for long.

"I need to see some doctors."

"Medical or juju?"

Fear and frustration rose up and were barely pushed back. "I - don't - know. Both. Give me leave, or I'm taking it anyway." It came out between gritted teeth.

Simon shook his head. "This had better be more than misplaced guilt screwing with your head, Ellison. Three days. End of that, I have a job for you. And take a shower."

"Sir."

***

One long round of visits to practitioners of every stamp, and Jim was losing whatever patience he had. It was unravelling into a tangle of fear. The meals that he could find bearable had steadily dwindled; too much tasted odd or too strong. His bed was lumpy; the sheets were scratchy and they stank. If he left them, they stank of sweat and the detritus that he carried on his skin. If he washed them, the chemical reek of detergent nearly choked him. No-one saw anything useful, although one woman promised him the lover of his dreams, at which point he stomped out without paying. He doubted she could curse him any worse than he was already.

And now, he'd endured the noise and lights of an MRI and his head hurt and his shoulders itched as he pulled on his shirt, and who the hell was this big-eyed boy walking in the door, waving his clipboard in front of him like a warning sign: danger - annoying enthusiasm.

"Pursuivant Ellison." The boy flashed a blinding smile. "I'm Doctor McCay."

Only if you started medical school in diapers, Jim thought sourly. "Your name tag says McCoy."

McCay took a startled look at his chest, before he smiled again, just as blindingly. "Yes, but the correct Gaelic pronunciation is McCay."

"Look, are you an intern? Go get the doctor, will you?"

"No, wait up. You've reported heightened senses, seeing, hearing, smell, food tastes weird." The doctor, intern, whatever he was, laid a hand on Jim's shoulder. It was warm and more comforting than a stranger's touch should be, and Jim edged away. "Bet I can add another one. Touch off the scale? Extra sensitive, touchy-feely?"

Jim could still feel the shape of the man's hand on his shoulder. "That's none of your business."

McCay prised a card from under the clip on his board. "You're too far ahead of the curve for this techno-trash. This is the guy you need to see."

"The juju boys and girls can't help me."

McCay rolled his eyes, bonhomie turned to exasperation. "Just go see the man. You're a hunter, but he won't be running. You'll find him." And with that he was gone. Jim stared at the card in his hand. 'Blair Sandburg, Rainier University'. But the university address was scratched out, and a street address, on the edges of ghetto territory, had been scribbled in pen. Jim stuffed the card into his pocket. Life was a screwed up mess when you started hoping for something simple like a brain tumour.

He was very nearly dressed when the door opened again and another doctor stepped in, a white-haired man with a broad, gentle face. "Pursuivant Ellison, I'm Doctor McCoy. We've looked very carefully at your results, but we can't find a medical basis for your complaints."

Somehow, Jim couldn't find it in him to be surprised.

***

Like turned to like. The rich lived among the rich, and the poor lived among the poor. The rich saw their magic users inducted into the appropriate leagues, or wearing the appropriate wards so that nobody would be frightened, or paid them off to live somewhere they couldn't be an embarrassment. The poor, the minor magicians, powers, shifters, all the motley half-breeds and changed, lived in the same neighbourhood, mainly because no-one else wanted them nearby. The ones who might be wanted, the seers, the minor magic workers who couldn't or wouldn't sit the tests that would see them accepted into more formal hierarchies, lived on the fringes of the area. It was safe enough. Usually. Plenty of normal folks went there, lived on the wild side for an hour or two and got out safely with nothing more lost than their money. The inner ghetto was a different story. Paranormal Defence and cops alike went there in teams, wearing flak jackets and helmets and enough wards painted on and shaped into talismans to make the providers of those services flourishing business people. A bullet or a curse - both had their power.

Jim found himself outside a small shop, a botanica, but the address he wanted was above it. There was music blaring out of the window, something with a driving beat. He climbed the stairs, his ears increasingly hurting with the volume, and pounded on the door. There was no answer and he opened the door, wincing at the blast of sound that came to meet him. There was a young man, swirling in dance like a leaf at the centre of the whirlwind, long hair flying about, and as he turned he came face to face with Jim. His face lit up, and he danced his way to the stereo, and turned it off.

His voice filled the sudden silence with a mellow tone. "Sorry about that, man. I didn't expect to see you so soon. You struck me as the stubborn sort."

Try the desperate sort, Jim thought. Not to mention stupid. This Blair Sandburg was the Doctor 'McCay' of the hospital.

"Didn't your mom teach you that it's illegal to impersonate a doctor?"

There was another of those damn grins. The display of teeth annoyed Jim. "My mom taught me a lot of things, but I don't think she specifically mentioned that one."

"She should have," Jim snapped, and turned on his heel to go. Somehow, with eel-like agility, the young man was in front of him, all earnest eyes and hands on his shoulders. Jim backed off, which unfortunately just led him back towards the apartment.

"Hey, hey, I'm sorry about the Shakespeare stuff I pulled, but a hospital is a bad vibes place, and I'm not even that much of a sensitive. I just thought this would be better, we can talk in privacy."

"What do we have to talk about?"

"Oh, we have a mountain of talking ahead of us. Come on, sit down, please." Sandburg indicated an ancient settee, covered in patterned blankets. Reluctantly, Jim sat, poised uncomfortably on the edge of the seat.

"Okay, so I'm Blair Sandburg, and a nurse at the hospital, a 'friend' of mine," Sandburg's fingers curled in groping, vaguely obscene air-quotes at 'friend', "she saw your file and she contacted me, because she knew I'd been waiting for something like this for years." The hands waved like Jim's niece singing the rainbow song she'd learned at nursery school. "Years, man." Jim added suing the hospital for breach of patient confidentiality to the list of things to do once this loony tune shut up.

"Keep talking, but try saying something."

"I'm," there was a pause, "I'm an anthropologist, and you might just be the living embodiment of my field of study. A genetic throwback to pre-powers humanity, pre-civilised too, of course..."

Whatever else Sandburg said was cut off with a squawk, as Jim surged off the sagging couch in simple rage. He'd had enough; he hadn't slept, he'd barely eaten, and this idiot could only jabber on as if Jim were some sort of caveman. Fine, he'd show this moron how a caveman behaved.

"Listen, you hippie con man..." His hands were caught in the white shirt that Sandburg wore, and Sandburg was up against the wall, his head pressed against the edge of some hippy-dippy poster, his feet barely touching the floor. Jim opened his mouth to tell this little creep exactly what he thought of him, when he realised he wasn't pressing Sandburg against the wall anymore. Sandburg was pushing back until Jim stood in the middle of the room. Sandburg's hands firmly gripped Jim's jacket, and Jim watched bug-eyed as the angle of Sandburg's body changed, as his feet lifted from the ground, his body rising into the air even while Sandburg's face stayed up close to Jim's. Very, very blue eyes stared into his as Sandburg hung upside down, supported by nothing, a daring young man on a non-existent trapeze. Jim's spine stretched and his jacket rode tight under his armpits as Sandburg lifted him, just enough to put them nose to nose.

An amused voice enquired, "Surprised?"

Then Jim's feet touched the ground again, and with Jim's shoulders become a spring board, Sandburg somersaulted over his head and landed lightly on his feet behind him. Wouldn't want to try that in a low-ceilinged room, Jim thought dazedly, as he turned ready to face the unexpected.

"What the hell are you?"

"Out of breath after that little parlour trick, but I got your attention and that's all that matters." Sandburg was indeed a little breathless, a touch red-faced, and his long hair was all the wilder for defying gravity.

"No more bullshit. I want some answers."

"Then I'm your man. Hell, I'm your guide. Now sit down and let me talk."

Jim had assumed this man was an academic with a bee in his bonnet. Now he was adding third rate street magician to the categorisation. Those boys all loved their telekinesis. But he sat down, and listened, while Sandburg babbled a mile a minute about sentinels, and hyper-senses and how Sandburg could help him. There was a lot of talk about exactly what Sandburg could do for him, while Sandburg paced the floor. Jim wondered just exactly what he could do for Sandburg.

"So what's in this for you?"

"I work with you; I prove a theory. We all like being right, right?" Hands gestured to assert the unassailable pleasure of being proved right.

Jim thought of the University of Rainier card. "You're going to write a paper and set a fire under some fuddy-duddy professor's ass, is that it?"

A small, surprisingly bitter smile smudged that over-frank countenance. "Oh, no papers, man. Just my field notes. This is sort of a private study."

Jim eyed this young man in his ripped and frayed jeans and loose white shirt. "You know, Chief, I get the feeling that there's something that you're not telling me. When someone flaps their mouth as much as you and still talks around the issues, that worries me."

"So, what I'm saying makes sense? You agree I'm on to something here?"

"Maybe."

"Which means yes but you're not admitting it. Great, I've got some ideas on how we proceed from here, but I need to..."

"Slow down. What about that thing that you're not telling me?"

Sandburg stood still, and then crouched down. He looked up at Jim from under ridiculously long lashes. Jim sighed. He couldn't quite imagine what this kid's secret might be, but it was a doozy. Nobody put on this level of song and dance to tell a PD pursuivant that they stacked groceries for a living.

"Okay, remember that I know what's going on with you, I can help you, and just keep your hair on." An impudent waggle of eyebrows punctuated the next sentence. "You don't want to lose any more of it."

Jim had been hazed by tougher men than this fresh-faced kid. He kept his face still, attentive, implacable. "Get on with it, Sandburg."

"It's like this. I'm - uh, I'm an incubus, which I fully appreciate could be a problem given your line of work..."

Jim stood. Sandburg still crouched on the floor, and there was a thrill in that. The little time-waster was at just the right level for the kicking he deserved, but Jim refrained - just. "I'm out of here. If you wait around, you can watch my good friends at Municipal Enforcement take this place apart looking for illegal drugs. You must be using some good shit to make that type of claim, I'll give you that." Jim wished that he could use some good shit. His head was killing him.

"I'm hurt, Ellison." Sandburg stood, and Jim felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. Sandburg's voice had been pleasant enough, but now there was a tone in it that made Jim stand still, desperate to hear the next gorgeous note. Those bright blue eyes stared into his, and the pupils expanded, all soft darkness, the better to see Jim because he was everything that Sandburg could ever want. He had to be, he'd die if Sandburg didn't come closer, if he didn't touch him right now... And then the spell was broken, and there was Blair Sandburg, handsome but entirely resistible, leaning against the wall of his shabby apartment with a smug grin on his face.

"Believe me now?"

"I was right the first time. If you think I'm going to let a fucking sex vampire," Jim spat the words out of his mouth, "watch my back, hinky senses or no hinky senses, then you're on the best drugs going. This conversation is over."

He strode to the door, Sandburg's words following him. "You'll be back, man. Wait and see."

Not in a million years. Back to ask help from an incubus? A man who didn't simply channel magical power, but had it twisted into his being? Someone who lived on sex, on the life energy of another human being? Even the law-abiding creatures of that ilk sat low in status, and high in suspicion, however the world might have changed in the last couple of generations. James Ellison, pursuivant, former soldier, might be desperate, but he was not that desperate. No way.

***

Jim's halting reintroduction of himself at Sandburg's door four days later counted as one of the more humiliating moments of recent memory. Jim was glad to see that Sandburg had some sense of discretion about him. The display of smugness never quite tipped from annoying but understandable, to downright obnoxious. Jim had spent three days at PD seriously fearing for his sanity. Looking down at his supposed saviour, he still feared for it. He'd never wanted to fuck someone less in his life, but he still wondered if there was magical influence here. He had a wardstone in his pocket, his amulet about his neck. He didn't feel beguiled, but here he was anyway.

"Sit down, Jim. I'll make some tea."

"I'd rather have coffee." Jim could hear the tension in his voice, and he hoped that it wasn't communicating itself to the man in front of him. He took a good look around the apartment, not being surreptitious about it. It hardly mattered if Sandburg knew that Jim was sizing him up. The apartment didn't reveal much, except that Sandburg had eclectic tastes and little money.

Sandburg didn't seem bothered by the assessing looks. Instead, he babbled on as if they were old acquaintances. "Oh, yeah, there are times when coffee's the nectar of the gods, I reckon some powers came here just for that, but I think you need something gentler on your stomach. Ginger, a little bit of manuka honey, and you should be grateful, man, because that stuff is nearly worth its weight in gold, and then you'll be a lot more settled. Trust me on this."

Sandburg handed Jim a steaming cup. "Okay, let's start. What do you see?"

"I see tea. Ginger tea." Jim's voice clearly suggested his disgust. "The glaze on your cup is cracked."

"No it's not."

Jim glared. "You asked what I can see. I'm telling you."

"Okay. What else."

Jim took a small breath. The tea did smell good. The scent of honey was enough to be rich but not cloying, and he could see the steam lifting in tiny whorls up into the air. Fascinated, he watched them rise.

"And that, man, is why you need me."

"What?"

"You've been staring at something I can't see, never looked or spoke until I got your attention again. Zoning. Losing yourself in sensory stimulation."

"Great. Dandy, even."

The megawatt smile was gentler this time. "Hey, we can deal. Drink the tea, instead of looking at it, and we'll move on from there." Sandburg was seated cross-legged on the floor, a very unlikely looking guru. Jim sipped his tea. He'd learn, he'd get this thing under control, and then it'd be business as usual. That was the plan.

***

It was still the plan two weeks later.

"You have the attention span of a gerbil!"

Jim had been commended before by tutors and instructors for the strength of his focus and the power of his concentration. His attention span was fine, but he wanted to have a say in what his mind was attending to.

"And you just don't want to answer the question. Jeez, Chief, I'd have thought it was pretty innocuous."

"We're supposed to be working out a level of control for you, so that you don't spike at unexpected stimulus."

"And all I asked was exactly how old you were."

The boyish face frowned in annoyance. "Come on, man, that bullet crease knocked you for a loop."

"Yes it did, and you helped, and the dial thing worked, and I expect it to keep on working without imagining the dials for the one zillionth time."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Twenty-five."

Numbers didn't confuse Jim. "And I bet you get carded all the time. I asked how old you were, not how old you thought you looked."

"I'm twenty-five."

"You're twenty-five." Cynical scepticism was turning to stunned disbelief.

"See, I knew that I shouldn't have told you. I knew it!"

"Sandburg, human incubi are elemental fusions. I just assumed that you would have been at least - well, sixty. Probably more." Jim couldn't believe it. He'd been putting his life in the hands of some wet behind the ears kid who must be delighted with his sexual abilities, given that he was barely out of the jerk-off three times a day stage. He'd assumed that Sandburg had been around when the powers changed everything. And if he hadn't..."How the hell do you get to be a twenty-five year old incubus?"

Blair said nothing, instead edged away towards the kitchenette. "It's a long story."

Jim lunged forward and caught his arm. "And I need to know. If you're cursed there's no way you're going to be able to set foot inside PD, let alone work with me. You know that." He paused, caught for a moment by blue eyes staring into his. He let go of Blair's arm, and snapped, "Turn it down, Sandburg."

"It is turned down, it's fucking turned off, man. And I'm not cursed. The lawful awfuls won't have any problems with me. I'm just second generation, that's all."

"Incubi don't beget children."

Blair grabbed at the opportunity for distraction. "Yeah, which is kind of ironic when you consider that the idea probably arose in human consciousness as an explanation for pregnant young women who shouldn't have been. My little girl wouldn't break societal taboos; my husband wouldn't rape his step-daughter. And then the powers came along and embodied an idea."

"My daughter's demon lover drove her to her death?" Jim said quietly. It wasn't common, but it wasn't unknown, either. Most incubi had an uncertain hold on ideas held dear by less magically imbued humanity . But then, Blair Sandburg was disconcertingly human almost all the time.

Now, perfectly human anger flashed across Blair's face like summer lightning. "I told you, I don't do repeat business. Cities are great places for incubi. Yeah, we can be dangerous in isolated communities, but come on, man, I have ethics, and I'm not stupid."

Jim leaned his face into one hand. "I can't believe that you're only twenty-five." Twenty-five, young and beautiful, sustaining himself on all the other young and beautiful people in the clubs and bars of Cascade. There were probably lining up for blocks for a chance at him. Jim didn't know exactly what he thought about that, but he knew he didn't like it.

"Just deal with it. I've been helping. You've already got better control than you had before."

"Still not good enough."

"Which is because you're still learning. This is a whole new area of physical skill for you."

"More like physical disability."

"Cut the pity party, Jim." Blair's voice went from stern to coaxing. "How about I make some coffee, and we'll work out the grand strategy for getting me that ride along."

"Fuck. Simon's going to have enough trouble with you being an incubus, let alone anything else. Do you even have any degrees, or was that Rainier card part of playtime too?"

Blair's back was to Jim now. He bent to get out coffee fixings, and his voice was muffled as he spoke into an opened cupboard. "I have my Masters. It's a real degree, I've got qualifications." He stood, still facing the counter. "Of course, not too many people are happy about employing your average sex vampire."

"You worked at Rainier and they fired you, didn't they?" It was entirely understandable. Jim didn't know how Blair had got away with it at all, but he felt a sharp pang of sympathy. Jim liked what he did at Paranormal Defence. The potential loss of his work had been one of his worst fears, and it was taking time to subside.

Blair turned, his hands filled with the glass container of a French press and a scoop; they hung motionless, unattended to.

"Well, not working precisely. I was going for my doctorate, doing a few lectures and labs. I turned it off at Rainier. Right off, Jim, I swear, right from the start, even when I was just a student. It was hard, young guys being a walking hormone storm anyway." His shoulders shrugged in a question, in resignation. "Cascade is big, but eventually somebody figured out that it was weird how that nice dorky Mr Sandburg turned into man-whore Blair when you saw him out on a Saturday night. And the next thing I knew I'd been constructively dismissed from employment and the doctorate programme. With a token payment in light of my 'service' to the university." There was that smile that Jim only saw sometimes, resigned and cynical. "I got the clear message that I ought to be grateful that they didn't sue me for not mentioning a personal condition that could have been 'detrimental to the reputation of Rainier and its standing as a trustworthy and creditable institution of learning'. At least there were no pitchforks and flaming torches."

"Still no union for the monsters these days," Jim said dryly.

Blair made what would have been a rude gesture if his hands hadn't been full. "You're a funny guy, Ellison." He went back to making coffee. "Fortunately, my meals are free, even if I won't give up coffee, and I've been managing on odd jobs and some unofficial tutoring that's been thrown my way." He carefully poured water on to the ground coffee, and then turned back to Jim, leaning his back against the counter.

"So. You can tell your boss that I'm disciplined, intelligent, and qualified, as well as cute as all get out. And given the way that the powers have been shaped by our own myths and social structures, I'd have thought that the time was ripe to suggest that an anthropologist is an entirely appropriate departmental consultant." Blair's face lit up. "Maybe I could get a real consultancy job in the PD out of this. I did some psychology papers too. The Jungians are so in the ascendant right now. Some of my lecturers nearly cried tears of joy when they discussed aspects of the coming."

Jim smiled, although he thought that they were going to have to do some serious brown-nosing to even get Blair a ride-along. As for the idea of a paid job - not even Paranormal Defence was that laid back about incubi. But Sandburg full of optimistic enthusiasm was hard to resist sometimes, even if Jim wasn't as convinced as the kid that Blair had his incubus side so securely tucked away. It wasn't until later, driving back to his own place, that he realised that Blair never did get around to explaining that second generation thing.

***

Simon glared out between the slats of his office blinds. "He's not exactly what you led me to expect, Jim."

"That was miscommunication, not Blair's fault." And maybe some misdirection, too, but Jim had needed the time he'd spent working with Blair, and emphasising his academic qualifications had just seemed the best way.

Simon indicated Blair, sitting on a desk and flirting with Megan who looked entertained, but not serious about it. "I don't care what sort of miscommunication went on, he's not going to integrate easily into things around here. Talk about poacher turned gamekeeper."

Jim shrugged, trying to keep the irritation he felt out of his voice. "Come on, Simon. Anyone who's been in PD as long as you have knows that the lines between accepted use of power and the people on the fringes like Sandburg are pretty damn artificial."

"He's good, Jim. Especially if he can get you spouting what sounds like his arguments. But you know it's not that easy. Riding with you - that's your problem. Admin arrangements, different story."

"And you know that PD work doesn't fit into anybody's admin arrangements."

"That's right, and the positions I have to twist myself into for this division's sake, I need a chiropractor at the best of times. We take this guy on, I'm going to look like a goddamned pretzel."

"Simon, he's helping me, a hell of a lot. The fact that I'm functional and having this discussion right now is proof of it." Functional, talking and also eavesdropping on the conversation out in the bullpen.

Megan's smile was teasing and speculative. "So Sandy, what exactly is it about Paranormal Defence that you think would make such a great paper?"

Jim noted the tiny hunch of shoulders that suggested that Blair wasn't completely happy with the nickname. Too bad. If Jim hadn't broken Megan of calling him 'Jimbo' he doubted that Blair would have any luck shaking off 'Sandy'. But Blair was off into a spiel about the way that the Paranormal Defence, one of society's protections against the unbridled effects of power, used the very powers that they were defending the mundane world against. It was hardly a new concept, but Jim was relieved that Blair was expressing his ideas in the middle of Seventh rather than some more hard-line division. Others had argued that PD staff's use of magic made them at base just the same as what they fought. The concept had produced some notably ferocious reactions of a 'quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck, tears out your throat like a Rottweiler' variety.

Simon cleared his throat. "Am I boring you, Pursuivant?" Simon had his Rottweiler side too, if it came to that.

"No, sir."

"Jim, he's an incubus. And he's getting a lot of your attention. Are you positive that everything's on the up and up, here?" Simon's eyes were sternly kind, asking the silent question, 'Are you sure you're not making a fool of yourself, Jim?'

"Does Connor look like she's about to drag Sandburg into a closet?"

Simon winced. "Do not give me those sorts of images of my people, Ellison. Besides, maybe Sandburg doesn't want Connor. Maybe he wants something else. Someone else."

Jim refused to notice the implication that Blair might have a specific target in mind. "He's promised me that he's got it all turned down. He wants something alright. He wants the chance to play anthropologist again, and maybe wrangle himself a paying job. That's what Sandburg wants. He can get all the sex he needs without trolling here, Captain."

"Maybe."

"Wasn't the Pursuivant-General talking not so long ago about how important it was to start building good working relationships with the law-abiding paranormals? You could pitch this as a grass-roots initiative." Jim was grateful that Simon didn't have any special sensory abilities, because to his own nose Jim smelled like a skunk. He was abnormally aware that he was sweating more than normal. He wanted to stay in PD. He wanted to work on the streets, and he needed the guidance that Blair could give him about using the damn senses. And he certainly didn't want to announce a potential vulnerability like the senses either in PD or out on the streets. It had been hard enough explaining it all to Simon.

Megan had turned back to her desk, and Blair was sitting at Jim's desk, handling the coffee cup, and futzing around with the computer, before he drew his hand back with a startled expression. Jim smiled. Time to introduce Blair to the cybermancers soon. Just so long as he could convince Simon.

"Are you sure about this?"

"Yeah, Simon, I'm sure." And he was sure; for all of Blair's weirdnesses, Jim had picked up on an earnest desire to help, and a reassuring ability that Blair could do just that - help.

"I'll do what I can. Get back to work, get him identified as an accepted visitor for now, tell the warders, and be very, very nice to me for the foreseeable future." Jim nodded and left. Simon muttered behind him, not meaning to be heard, "I need to take up fucking yoga, and at my age. Damn."

Blair looked up, a nervous smile on his face. "So, am I in? Officially?"

"Simon's going in to bat for us. In the meantime, I need to introduce you to our lovely human resources people." Jim had a purely evil thought. "Vera's going to love you."

***

Jim got used to having a shadow, a talkative, perpetually moving shadow, surprisingly quickly. The rest of Seventh Division shrugged their collective shoulders, even if they took some hazing from other divisions for working with an incubus. Seventh had a reputation for seeing Paranormal Defence as going both ways - in defence of the law-abiding weirdoes, as much as they were about the protection of the broader city against the maleficent and mindlessly dangerous. Most of Seventh just shrugged their shoulders about that, too. As Henri had smugly put it, 'you get a higher quality of snitch when they know that you'll watch their backs too, baby'. It was as much explanation as any of Seventh could be bothered to offer.

But there were mutterings. Porn movies featuring supposed incubi turned up in the break-room one day. Vanderburgh was so damn surprised when Jim tracked him down and explained with quiet menace why this was not a good idea. There was another day when Jim heard some of Third's more ass-holish guys (and Third had a bad reputation for being badge heavy) hazing Blair in the restrooms. He picked it up a long way down the hall, and he didn't bother to wonder when he'd starting paying that much attention to Blair's wanderings in the building. Instead, he stalked his way down the hallway in a thunderous bad mood, which turned to uncomfortable arousal as he heard what Blair was saying. No, not what he was saying, which was threatening and probably actionable in another situation; it was how he said it, a sultry, provocative voice promising a humiliating and frustrating future to anyone who even joked about laying a finger on him. Three angry, chagrined men spilled out into the hallway. Jim smirked at them.

"You guys are brave." He drawled out the 'brave', made it sound like it ought to be 'stupid'. "I sure as hell don't rile him like that. I've got more respect for my health. And my dick." Let them wonder how he knew that Blair was angry, when his voice had fallen to intimate whispers for much of the exchange.

They marched off down the hall with a failed swagger, pretending they didn't know what the hell anyone could have been talking about. Blair poked his head out the door and watched the good and true men of Third retreat in good order into the stairwell. No angry fey leaning out of the door, just an irritable, tired-looking man. "Give me a fucking break," he said. "I need a shower. Badly. And I am so not taking it here. The vibes are not propitious."

"Sure, Chief. It was nearly time to call it a day, anyway."

Blair looked up, eyes big, scent nervous. "Don't stop on my account, man. I have to go out tonight, know what I mean?"

Jim wondered if the scare he'd put into the assholes from Third had brought on the need, or if it was just that it was time. He could smell something unfamiliar on Blair, sweet but rapidly turning bitter and rancid. He wasn't sure he wanted to be around Blair when he smelled like that, but he didn't like Blair's plan either.

No hanging out at Blair's place, or Jim's. No watching sports, or wondering about how Blair could give such good advice on where to buy the best meat, the best vegetables, the best bread, when he hadn't needed to eat actual food in years. No Jim sitting in comfortable silence while Blair nattered on about everything and nothing.

"Sure. Fine."

Except that it wasn't.

Blair had turned back on his way out the door. "Hey, Jim, thanks. For not charging in to defend my virtue."

Jim put on a smile. "Can't defend what's not there, Sandburg."

Blair grinned, and waved dismissively. "Oh, that's clever, Jim. Find that comeback in a book, huh?"

***

Simon called Jim into his office one morning with a vaguely apologetic look on his face.

"Sit down, Pursuivant. You've been deputised by IA as a neutral staff member of another division to take the primary-stage notes concerning a complaint from the public against some members of Third Division."

"As if we don't have enough to do. Why me?"

Simon flashed his 'do not test me' smile. "Ms Irwin has noted your recent moves to work with the paranormal community in your day to day work. And the last time you two were in the same division together you had far less winning ways about you. Maybe she thinks you have the chance to be acceptable to both sides of the argument."

"And what is the argument?"

"You know that Witchel took medical leave?"

Jim nodded. Witchel was a scryer, edging over into seer abilities sometimes.

"He tapped into something, dreams, vision. It was unclear, but he saw dogs or wolves, or something, and some members of Third took on the job of interpretation of the coming trouble." The sarcasm in Simon's voice became glass-shard sharp. "Their highly tuned intuition led them to the wolf commune out at Anderson's Section, and following their investigations, Mr Murphy has laid a complaint of harassment."

"Would Meyer be involved in this?

Simon took a sip of his coffee. "I believe so, although of course, Captain Delacourt is standing by his man. Innocent until proven guilty. But IA still wants someone, namely you, to go out there and make nice."

Delacourt was Third's Captain. It was an open, and unpleasant, secret in PD that Joey Meyer was Third's actual leader.

"I get to go out there? IA's got Meyer tried and convicted already by the sound of it."

Simon's smile was ferocious. "Go forth and fight the good fight, Pursuivant," he said sourly. Jim reckoned that Third's collective ass was already in a defensive position if PD was spending its officers' precious mileage allowances on a trip out to Anderson's Section rather than expecting the complainants to come to them.

Blair had said that he would be available if Jim needed him that day. Jim didn't think that he'd need him precisely, but it was going to be a boring drive. He called in at Blair's apartment on his way out of the city.

Blair's smile was sunny. "Hey, there you are."

"Here I am. How do you feel about a drive in the country?"

"Where to?"

"Wolf country."

Blair rose from his chair. "Anderson's Section? What's wrong out there?"

"Nothing serious. At least, nothing dangerous. They've laid a complaint of harassment against some PD officers, and I'm the lucky guy who's going out to make preliminary enquiries."

"So, what, did Meyer and his cronies feel like a country drive too?"

Jim shrugged. "And why would you assume that, Sandburg?"

"Because PD might be pretty hard-assed about 'my kind' but Meyer and his boys are a whole different bunch of shit-stirrers. Even by your standards."

That stung, but Jim kept the smart to himself. Or at least, that was what he told himself.

"So what happened to your enthusiasm for that chance of a paid gig at PD?"

Blair had gathered up his things - jacket, backpack.

"Oh, I'd still like a crack at something like that. It's why I've been paying attention to more than just you and those fascinating sentinel senses of yours. But knowing that consciousness needs to be raised, and tripping over the feet that people stick out in front of you are two different things." Blair walked down the stairs ahead of Jim, the backpack jouncing as he went.

"Sandburg, you know that you don't have a hope of getting anything more in PD than what you've got now, don't you?" Jim hated to admit it. Simon Banks had worked hard to make Seventh a division that avoided the worst excesses of the 'protection' that the mundane world tried to demand, but the nature of the work meant that too often the magical, the magic users, became the enemy; were objects of suspicion at best.

They were out in the cool air of the street. Blair turned to Jim, a gallant smile on his face. "It all starts small, man." He looked across the street.

"You're a one-man consciousness raising group, Chief."

Blair laughed outright at that. "My mother taught me well."

"I know. But I'm willing to break a few of those legs that get stuck out in your way." Blair was one of Jim's kind now. He hadn't been when they first met, for all the fairness that Seventh tried to subscribe to.

Blair smiled again; this one was less practiced and more surprised. "Good to know, man. But you don't have to. You've got the big career in PD, and I'm just the token sex vampire. I know that."

"So you're keeping your head down for my sake?" Jim felt embarrassed. It sounded all too likely and the thought had never occurred to him before now.

"I can do a little shit-stirring of my own once you've got proper control over the senses."

"Because your mother taught you well," Jim said dryly

Blair smiled broadly. "Wondered how long it would take you to figure out that my mother is that Naomi Sandburg." 'That' Naomi Sandburg; a well-known advocate for increased rights and lesser controls in the lives of humans directly touched by the powers. There were plenty who preferred the word 'agitator' over 'advocate'.

The traffic on highway 4 was ridiculous, but not so ridiculous that Jim needed all his concentration for it. "Why not shit-stir over your dismissal from Rainier?" he asked.

"Because I did lie - by omission. And because it was like the PD. I could have taken down people who'd trusted me and that I cared about. The ride along is going to end one of these days, and then I'll be looking at a whole new ball game."

"We seem to be dragging it out pretty well," Jim said.

"Yeah." Blair drew it out with a deeply satisfied tone in his voice. "Yeah, it's good. I'm learning, you're learning. It's good."

"Gotta love that continuing education, huh?"

At Jim's tone, Blair turned toward him. "I don't mean it like that, Jim. You know I don't."

Jim paused a moment before he answered. "Yeah, I know that. I know." But sooner or later, neither of them would be able to even pretend that Jim's senses weren't under control; the ride along would be over, Blair's whole new ball-game would begin.

"How are you going financially?"

"I'm cool. It's tight, but I'm getting by."

"Because, I could give you a hand if you needed it. Since you're helping me out. You know..."

Blair's voice was firm. "I'm cool." He readjusted his position in his seat, fiddled with the window controls. "Harry Murphy's an interesting man. Meyer was such a dumb fuck for messing with his people. If there's a big noise in the international therianthrope community, then Murphy is it. What the hell was Meyer thinking?"

Jim shrugged as he slid the car into the exit lane. "I'll give Meyer marks for animal cunning, but I don't think that he actually thinks that much." He grinned. "As you'd understand the concept."

"I'll presume that was a compliment - to me, not Meyer." Blair slouched down in his seat. "I've never met Murphy, but Mom thinks pretty well of him."

"I'm surprised she never introduced you."

Blair slouched even more. "A lot of the magical community tends to keep its distance from the vampires and the incubi. We're a difficult proposition. Not good for the PR." Jim didn't often hear bitterness in Blair's voice but he heard it now. "There's probably a paper in there somewhere. I couldn't hawk it to any of the academic journals, but I might manage something more in the Popular Science mode. Hell, even Fortean Times."

Jim made some non-committal grunting noise, as the bitterness in Blair's voice eased in rumination.

"I mean, therianthropes have finally started to live down Jeffrey Dahmer, and Murphy and his back to nature philosophy are part of that. Plus, if you look at the cultural interpretations of these things, shape changers have always stood as symbols of the fear of untamed, violent nature, and that's just easier to deal with in American society than vampires and incubi as symbols of untamed, sexual nature. It's one of the dichotomies of modern culture. And it helps that your average shape changer eats something you can find at the Ma and Pa Diner rather than the local pick-up joint..."

Jim let Blair's voice wash over him. He knew an agenda when he heard it. He and Blair, they kept reminding each other in their own ways that the ride-along couldn't last forever. Sitting in the cab of his truck, listening to Blair's voice, couldn't last forever. But for now, he could listen, and he did.

***

Time wore on. Jim took statements from Harry Murphy and his people and passed them on up the chain. Seventh put together a divisional operation to clear gremlins out of an industrial park. Jim and Blair worked with Municipal to track down a conman selling fake wards. Time wore on, and Jim knew that Simon was fielding the occasional query from upstairs as to when Seventh's peculiar consultant would be done with his work.

Seventh's consultant hadn't been seen for several days. Blair had editing work, courtesy of some former contact at Rainier, and was head down at home, 'keeping a roof over my head'.

There was a bar down Tenth and Fremantle. It wasn't one of the official PD hangouts, but it was close enough to Central that you had a good chance of seeing PD staff in there. With the senses' advent, Jim found bars harder work than he used to. They were noisier, smellier, and it was tricky sometimes not to accidentally eavesdrop on conversations. Tonight, though, he felt like a beer, just one, and he knew that his fridge at home was empty. One beer, and then he'd go home, and maybe call Blair and tease him about his work ensuring that the textbooks of America were kept safe from spelling and grammar errors.

He entered the bar and heard trouble before he saw it. Joey Meyer's voice hit his ears like fingernails on a blackboard, and he looked across to a quiet corner of the room and saw Meyer, along with some blond, lanky looking guy that Jim didn't know - and Blair.

"This is a respectable place of business," Meyer said. "The owners would probably be grateful that I'm moving somebody like you along."

"We're not doing anything wrong. We're just sitting here enjoying a quiet drink. Why don't you do the same, Pursuivant Meyer, and leave us alone?"

Jim could smell it, something sweet, but wrong. Blair was trying to use glamour on Meyer, to get him to move on. It wouldn't work. Meyer was too angry, too stubborn, too prepared. Jim could smell it as clearly as he could smell Blair using power to try and defuse the situation.

"Don't try your dirty little tricks with me, honeybunch."

Blair's lanky blond companion saw Jim coming across the room and watched his approach apprehensively. Probably thinks I'm one of Meyer's cronies come to help him out, Jim thought. Blair didn't see him. One of his hands rested on the forearm of the guy with him, and his eyes were locked with Meyer's.

"Hey, Joey," Jim said, and watched in satisfaction as Meyer stiffened in surprise before he drew himself up and turned to face Jim.

"Ellison. Looking out for your bitch, are you?"

"Joey, Joey." Jim shook his head as if in sorrow. "Giving your badge one last drive around the block before IA chucks you out for the bigoted asshole you are, huh?" He took a step closer to Meyer, and heard the undignified scramble behind him as blond guy made a break for it, with Blair close behind. But as Blair passed Jim, there was a fleeting touch, a quick pressure of palm to the small of Jim's back.

Meyer's face was turning red. "Oh, I bet you liked being IA's stooge. You fucking Irwin as well as your sweet boy pussy? Banks had better watch himself and his precious Seventh. Maybe somebody will wonder what sort of favours little boy Blair is handing out to be allowed inside PD. Whaddaya think, Ellison? You'd better be good in the sack, or maybe that bitch Irwin'll be investigating you next. Or do you bring your vamp along with you to spice up the action?"

Jim had turned his back and was walking away. But he looked back, and said pleasantly, "I'll be sure to pass on your regards to Ms Irwin." A heavy glass mug narrowly missed his head and shattered on a table, but he ignored it and kept on walking. So much for having a quiet beer.

He didn't expect to see Blair outside. He zipped up to Jim almost as soon as Jim was out the door.

"I didn't hear the noise of a demolished bar."

"Fuckwit's not worth the effort." Jim looked down the sidewalk. Sure enough, there was blond and lanky. "Shouldn't you be worried that your dinner might bolt?"

Blair's face changed, shut down. "He'll keep for a minute or two. My whammy's good enough for that."

"Go on, Sandburg. You don't need to give me a speech and a plaque. I'd have done the same for anyone."

"Yeah, I know. But thanks." Then Blair spoiled it by saying, "I don't need the word of mouth getting around potential 'friends' that I'm bad news with PD."

"Sure. Get." Jim jerked his head in the direction of the other man, who was standing about ten feet down the street and looking like a fish jerking on the line of Blair's 'whammy'. "Don't want to lose him."

Blair's face was briefly resentful before he shrugged and smiled and headed back to his 'friend'. Jim watched as Blair ran a hand up the man's upper arm. Blondie noticeably relaxed, and they walked off down the street together, arms and shoulders brushing against each other occasionally. Jim followed the two men for a while until they reached Blondie's car, and got in. The last thing Blair needed was for Meyer to extricate himself from making his explanations to the barman and decide to take out some temper on Blair. That's what he'd tell Blair, if Blair asked. He caught Jim's eye as he was getting into Blondie's car, and shook his head, as if to say 'sorry'. Then they were gone.

***

Another day, another operation which had nearly gone pear-shaped. Blair yawned. He'd half dozed as Jim drove him home, worn out with reaction and adrenalin. "I could sleep for a week."

So long as you don't fuck for a week, Jim thought. But all that he said was, "Yeah." He dabbed at the blistered skin on his chest. Lucky it wasn't worse. Simon was going to be pissed at having to replace another amulet. Seventh had a tendency to run through them, and Jim was worse than all the rest.

"Use that aloe gel when you get home," Blair said. "Jose promised it was the best. All natural, organic, nothing but good thoughts ever breezed around it." He paused, but only for a moment. "I've got a plant upstairs. You should smear some of it on your blisters before you go home."

"Whatever, Sandburg." It didn't hurt that much. He'd had worst sunburn. Damn ignis had been high as a kite and just got in a lucky hit. But the idea of sitting on Blair's couch and maybe bullshitting him into making Jim some tea had appeal. Blair wasn't the only one who could sleep for a week. So what if the couch was just that bit too small. Blair had plenty of cushions. Yeah, Jim was already planning on crashing there.

Blair was unlocking his door when Jim put a hand out to stay him. "Somebody's been in here." He stepped through the door in front of Blair, gun drawn. It couldn't take down everything, but it was still a useful first line of defence. The choking sneeze that exploded out of him made Blair start, and then laugh.

"Chill, Jim." He squirmed around Jim from behind the door frame. "Ma?" There was a small note of hope in his voice that died when there was no answer. Jim couldn't take a trace of any more scent because he started sneezing again.

Blair patted Jim's shoulder in amused concern. "Sorry. Sorry, man. Naomi never did have much of an opinion of my spiritual housekeeping. She's been burning sage in here. Hang on, and I'll open a window."

Blair hauled up the old-fashioned sash window, and Jim took a breath of what passed for fresh air.

"Naomi's your mother, huh?"

"Yeah. She calls in now and again, leaves me notes..." Blair's gaze skittered around the apartment, before he pounced on a shallow woven basket, no larger than a cupped palm. It contained a few pieces of fruit - grapes, blueberries, tiny cherry tomatoes, one lusciously red strawberry. Blair took it in one hand, his other shaking open a piece of pale blue notepaper. "Yeah, told you it was Naomi." He handed the note over to Jim, whose sinuses were settling now.

'Sweetheart,' Jim read. 'These aren't local of course, but they travelled well and they're absolutely delicious. Take a walk on the wild side and enjoy!'

He watched as Blair's free hand hovered over the basket, but Jim knew what his choice would be. Sure enough, Blair picked up the strawberry, which disappeared between lips very nearly as red and as full as the fruit. "Here," Blair said, offering the tiny fruit basket. "Have some."

"I don't know, Chief. It's a present from your mom."

"I don't need to actually eat, Jim. Shouldn't eat too much, not real food. Come on, how often do you and I actually break bread together, share salt? In the symbolic sense?"

"So what, coffee doesn't count?" Jim picked up a couple of the blueberries, felt the tiny give of the skin before the pulp burst in his mouth. They were good. Looked like Blair got his instinct for good food from his mother. Naomi. Jim had seen a couple of pictures of her, this woman who had done the totally unexpected and birthed an incubus who was so completely unexpected in his own way. She was no longer young, but still very beautiful. Jim looked at her son. Figured.

"Does she do this a lot? Call in when you're out?"

Blair looked wary. Jim had stopped pushing at Blair's boundaries. They were friends now, not allies of convenience, but he still wondered about the things that Blair kept separate from their work and the easy companionship.

"Yeah, it's simplest. We talk on the phone sometimes. We have a few friends who're comfortable with both of us, and we catch up at their places now and again."

So Blair and Naomi had a difficult relationship. Except that didn't gel with the simple gift and affectionate note. Jim tried to imagine his father, stern and somehow diffident for all his confidence on the home-ground of his office or his immaculate house, leaving him something as low-key as that tiny basket of perfect fruit. He put out his hand, and Blair smilingly extended the basket. A cherry tomato this time, tart and sweet together.

"Oh, yeah, you're enjoying that."

Jim looked up, felt his face stiffen.

"Hell, Jim, you're allowed to enjoy yourself in between protecting the citizenry."

"I know that."

"You say you know that, but you don't always act like you believe it."

Jim shrugged. "You probably enjoy yourself enough for ten men, Sandburg. Somebody has to balance you out."

Blair smiled, but there was something rueful in it. "You are so damn dual, man. Life is not about either/or. Holistic. Integrated." His eyebrows waggled in that way that always annoyed and amused Jim together. "I think you've heard me use these words before."

Jim made a 'too much talking' gesture with his hand. "Maybe. Now that you mention it." He refrained from commenting on the irony of discussing integration with a man who by his own admission kept his life more tightly compartmentalised than a locker-room. But it sure makes things easier for everybody else, doesn't it, Ellison?

Blair took a single grape into his hand, and Jim took a chance. "She must be pretty special. Your mom."

"Yeah. My mom is a special lady." It was entirely sincere, but pain deepened Blair's voice into a noise like a rusty hinge. Jim could be patient. He sat back and watched Blair with all the friendly sympathy at his command.

"She's like you in one way. Not magical herself, but so grounded, so fucking strong. A focus, a channel." He laughed. "Maybe she should have gone into Paranormal Defence. But she'd never join anything like that. Jack-booted oppressors of the fringe peoples, that's what most of you are." Jim looked pointedly at his feet in their casual lace-up leather shoes. "Go with the metaphor, Jim." Blair took a breath, and put the grape back into its basket. "When Naomi was sixteen, her parents died. Car wreck, nothing magic, just sheer bad luck of the old sort. And she was lost and grieving, and sixteen and strong and a virgin, and man...that vibe carries. Trust me on that. There is one shit of a lot of power in that, if you're looking for that sort of power."

Jim felt suddenly uncomfortable. "No virgins in Seventh. I guess that those good men and women are safe from you," he joked.

"You guys have your own power. All those focuses, all those channels together. But no problems, man, no problems." Blair patted Jim's knee reassuringly. Unreasonable anger stirred in Jim at the touch, as if Blair were some elderly uncle patronising him.

"So all those vibes of your mother's called an incubus?"

"Yeah. Real thing, seriously powerful, couldn't even remember when he was human, just a sex machine, putting on a mask to get what it needed. But what Mom needed, needed so bad, was a family, somebody who belonged to her."

"And then there was you."

Blair smiled. "You got it. Incubus had its sex, and Mom had her baby. It would have kept coming back, but some old family friends did an... intervention. Too late then, of course. And it marked Mom. Naomi - she's always looking for that one perfect partner, man or woman, who can make her feel the way that she remembers. Not that she's going to find anyone like that."

Blair had sat down on the floor, sitting at Jim's feet with his back against the seat of the couch. Jim couldn't see his face anymore.

"Mom and I, we had a great time. I had a good childhood, Jim, fairly normal, if by that you mean it was magic-lite. And then I hit puberty. Oh man, I didn't even need to feed directly for a while. You sit in a class of adolescents and..." Blair shook his head. "There is one hell of a lot of energy there. And I had a lot of energy of my own. There were wet dreams, all the usual puberty stuff." Blair stopped, and there was a long silence. Jim waited.

"One night, one night I dreamed I was kissing this gorgeous, beautiful woman, strong, shining like the fucking sun, best feeling of my life. It was real, I had a boner that you could have used as a drill, and I was kissing Naomi and she was kissing me back." Jim sat in frozen silence. "I came about that close to nailing my mother, Jim. That close."

"But you didn't."

"No, I didn't, we both stopped, and it was - it wasn't easy, but we stopped. And we figured out there was enough of my father in me that maybe it wasn't safe for us to be around each other anymore. So she leaves me notes and cleans my house, one way or another, and we call each other, and we make sure that when we meet, we're around other people, keeping us focused and safe." Blair sighed.

"That must be pretty tough." Banal, useless, but it was all that Jim could find to say.

"Yeah. But Oedipus I am not. Plenty of other ways to get a buzz in life without getting weird with my mom."

Blair's voice was quiet, and depressed. Jim put out one hand and gently ruffled Blair's hair. With a tired sigh, as if he'd been fighting for too long and was finally giving in, Blair leaned sideways and rested his head against Jim's thigh. It felt heavy, but right, somehow. Jim said softly, "You must have been just a kid."

"Still in school, but I was bright, got some accelerated learning credits." Another pause. "I might have flashed a little glamour around, but only a little, Jim. It wasn't that I couldn't cope with the university, or independent living. Just had to convince other people, and I was pretty baby-faced back then."

"Not much has changed." Jim couldn't have stopped himself if he'd wanted to. He leaned forward to put gentle fingers on Blair's cheek. Blair shifted on his knees, and turned to look up at Jim. He looked grieving and lost himself, and Jim couldn't resist the call to comfort that grief any more than that long ago incubus had resisted the call of Naomi's pain and power. It was remarkably easy for Jim to lean down and put his arms around Blair, and he sighed as Blair eased into the hold and rested against him. "Hey," Jim said, no purpose to it, just a soft, consoling sound. Blair rubbed his forehead against Jim's collarbone, before he looked up again. He looked very beautiful. One small hesitation, and he kissed Jim. One small hesitation, and Jim kissed him back, gathered Blair's sturdy, angular body up close and held on tight.

He hadn't kissed anyone since the senses made themselves known. He wondered why he hadn't done it before, but that was a fool's question. He'd been waiting for this, Blair's warm mouth and warm skin, the way that his hands scrabbled to hook up across Jim's back. Blair pulled away, and Jim made a small protesting noise. Blair just grinned, earthy and anticipatory, and urged Jim to move and lie down on the couch, before he scrambled up to sit astride him.

He fingered the scorched holes marking the shirt that Jim wore, and bent for one sweet, sweet kiss, before he said, "How about I anoint you with some of that aloe juice? Before we get down to business here." He swung himself off, looking a tad ungainly and unbalanced for a moment, before he righted himself, and broke a spear off the aloe plant with gentle care. But the break was all that Jim needed to come back to sanity.

"Whoa, Chief." He put his hands out. Blair's face fell.

"I didn't have you tagged as a prick tease, Jim. But no, that's not fair, one minute we're just talking and the next we're swapping spit, change in the whole dynamics. But hey, no biggie, you want to just enjoy a little making out, no problem..."

"Will you shut the hell up?" More kisses, more of that sweetness? Jim backed up the couch, leaned into one corner of it and put his feet down. Putting your foot down, now, Ellison, he thought nonsensically.

"Sandburg, no offence here, but you're..."

"I'm what? Too hairy? Not your type? Okay, fine, momentary madness following unexpected emotional intimacy. That happens, I can deal."

"Damn it, you're an incubus!"

Anger twisted Blair's face into something ugly. "And I really hoped that wasn't what you were going to say."

"Look. I know you'd never consciously think about it; I know you've been really good about maintaining control, but hell, you nearly fucked your own mother. There comes a point where you don't control these sorts of things."

"What you mean, Captain Control, is that there comes a point where you don't control these sorts of things, because it's totally impossible that you'd want to fuck me if I wasn't working my hoodoo. Is that what you're saying, Jim?" Blair came close, really close, and slapped the aloe spike into Jim's lap. "Use that on your burns. It'll help."

Blair plunked into a disconsolate sit on the floor, knees drawn up to his chest and cradled by his arms. Jim felt like a complete shit, and he was foolishly grateful for the distraction of crushing up the aloe spike, and smearing the watery sap across his reddened, peeling skin under the scorched edges of his t-shirt. Blair watched it all, his face set like one of the more implacable renaissance angels.

"I think, Jim, that I made a mistake." Something twisted in Jim's gut at that, a relief that was grounded in too much regret to be wholehearted. "I've spent way too much effort trying to be non-threatening, shutting off power. Even if you don't agree with a viewpoint, you still need to understand the underpinnings of it, or how can you refute the argument?" Jim stared. Blair's tone was even, almost gracious, but unease was stirring in the deepest, most reptilian parts of Jim's brain. Unease, and a strange excitement.

"There you were, all the usual human physical and emotional messes, hormones stuttering away, and you thought that was me?" Blair rose, with inhumanly fluid, stunning grace. "Trust me, if I wanted to work my deal on you, you wouldn't know what hit you." Blair's arms spread wide, angelic, promising benisons, not the least of which was down and dirty sex, before he leaned lovingly over Jim. "This is me, working my deal. Notice the difference? Think you have a basis for comparison now?"

Jim stared up, caught, entranced. Blair's face was alight, vibrant in a way Jim hadn't seen before, and he lifted his hand to touch. Beautiful, beautiful; and this wonderful creature wanted Jim. He could smell it, sweet and strong. He could see it, and feel the physical responses of desire as Blair settled across him; darkening pupils, flushing skin, the heavy cock that pressed against Jim's groin. Blair's hands were strong, touching Jim, and Jim tried to touch back, but Blair hushed him, settled him into passive delight. If Blair wanted to touch him then Jim could think of nothing better or more necessary. He arched his back when Blair licked at his nipples, gentle, persistent, more so than most other lovers ever had the patience for. Blair lifted his head, and he kissed Jim. Jim moaned. He waited for more, for more glorious touch. He could wait forever, if that was what Blair wanted, and he sighed in pleasure as Blair's hand gently cupped the line of Jim's cheek and jaw.

"Yeah, I knew you'd be like this. Knew it. Everybody is."

Something was terribly wrong. "Didn't want you to be just another fucking meal, Jim. And here you are, way too out of it to appreciate my very best bad jokes." That wasn't brightness in Blair's eyes, that was tears. Jim made a confused noise, and Blair was gone. "Fucking meal. Get it, man?" Jim struggled up to lean on his elbows, still dazed. He watched in incomprehension as Blair sped across his apartment, grabbing his jacket, keys; inhuman grace turned to inhuman, clumsy speed. The door slammed, and Jim gradually worked out that he was lying on Blair's couch, with his shirt rucked up his chest and his pants down around his knees, and a hard-on that wilted faster and faster as Jim replayed everything through his head. The delirious moments with Blair were already growing foggy, but yes, they certainly provided a basis for comparison. Jim's heart sank. And to top it all off, Blair had abandoned his own home, leaving that paranoid moron Jim Ellison in pyrrhic possession of the field.

Jim struggled off the couch and hastily pulled his clothes together. He'd spent way too much time pulling his thoughts together already, but he was a throwback to a pre-civilised breed of man. He could track and follow Blair. He charged down the stairs to the street, and stared about him. The night people were out - the ones who needed the night and the thrill-seekers who just wanted the frisson that came with living in the shadows. No sign of Blair. No sign of Blair at all, except maybe for a touch of rancid sweetness and a fading whiff of salt tears. It was gone. Completely. As if Blair had stepped off the face of the earth. Maybe that was exactly what he'd done, for the time needed to break his trail. Jim considered a compass rose of directions, and headed down the street to a nearby bar. It was busy enough, but not so busy that he couldn't see that Blair wasn't there. He walked out, and stared, up and down the street, across rooftops, as far as he could see, and that was a good long way, but nothing.

He could spend all night searching, knowing that Blair would flay him with words if he found him and then probably run again, or he could consider his many failings from his own place. He trudged back to Blair's apartment, and checked the locks. It would be the final insult if Blair's home was trashed because Jim had left doors open behind him. Then he drove back home, his eyes burning with tiredness and his stomach clenched with disgust at his folly.

***

He tried calling Blair the next day. He tried calling Blair that evening and the day after that too. He muttered in the bullpen about Blair following up some casual work, which kept most questions and jokes at bay. Simon called him into his office not long after the external mail made the rounds of the building. He dropped a flat, heavy envelope filled with paper and folders into Jim's lap.

"Care to explain this, Jim?"

There was a neat, professional looking letter on the top of the pile. 'Thank you for your consideration', 'new opportunity', 'everything you and Pursuivant Ellison should require', 'sincerely, Blair Sandburg'.

"That little shit," Jim said.

"This would be another one of those miscommunication things, would it?" Simon's eyes were wary, and not surprised.

Jim shuffled through the papers. There were plenty of them, base measures of his abilities, instructions on where to find useful, non-irritating products, general remarks on the 'prevention and alleviation of zoning'. The pompous academic words gouged a deeper groove of sheer fury into Jim. "That little shit!" he repeated.

He stood up from his chair, throwing the papers back on to Simon's desk. "Lucky it's a slow day at the store. I'll go deal with this crap straight away."

Simon lifted a forbidding hand. "By which you mean you'll drag Sandburg back here by his hair? I don't think that's the best course of action."

Sudden suspicion tightened Jim's throat. "Has he been speaking to you?"

"No." Simon's eyes were flinty behind the rims of his glasses. "Should he have?"

"Sir, this - this closure of Sandburg's professional relationship with PD...it's completely unexpected on my part. I think that I'm due an explanation. From Sandburg." Stiffly formal words, to contrast with the weak, hollow feeling in Jim's legs and spine.

Simon sat sideways on the edge of his desk. "I suppose that in the interests of you learning appropriate behaviour with future consultants that it's okay that you seek some feedback from Sandburg. If he's willing to give it."

Jim stared at the ungainly fan of paper that splayed across Simon's desk. That evening had been awkward, it had hurt, he could have dealt with the situation better, and hell, Blair certainly could have. But it was something to be embarrassed about and deal with once you'd cooled off, not use as an excuse to run for the hills.

"Jim." He realised that Simon wasn't finished yet. "Don't think that we haven't noticed that you and Sandburg got close. But he doesn't fit here."

"I'm surprised to hear you say that, sir."

Simon looked uncomfortable. "He's a nice guy, and bright. But hell, Jim..."

"His kind is fine on the street but they don't belong in this department?"

"You are putting words in my mouth, Pursuivant, although unfortunately they might have come out of the mouths of some other people." Simon adjusted his glasses. "You know the same as I do that the world sees a difference between using power and carrying it around inside you written into your damn genes. Sandburg was here to help you with your control, Jim, and you've got it now. I'm not saying the kid wasn't useful, but the super senses aren't what make you valuable to this division. We want sniffer dogs, we can find them attached to Municipal."

"This isn't about the senses, Simon!"

Simon shook his head. "Oh, I know that, Jim. I'm just wondering when you figured that out. You want to go find Sandburg, go find him. And when you've found him, try to keep discussions that are supposed to be on the city dollar seemly, huh?" Simon's tone was warning, but there was a hint of sympathy in his expression.

"So no time off in lieu of overtime then?"

A small spark of amused primness overlaid Simon's professional concern. "I'm not responsible for your workaholic tendencies, Ellison. And tell Sandburg that I'm sorry to see him go."

"What if he comes back?"

"Then you're paying my chiropractor's invoices. Now get." Simon's hand indicated the envelope and its contents. "I'll delay processing all this, for a while, anyway."

***

Jim didn't know what he was going to say to Blair. Aside from 'sorry', that was. Classy, Ellison, to take Blair's explanation and confession - to encourage it, even - and throw it back in his face about five minutes later to justify your own fears. He sighed, and found a parking space that was close enough. He walked up the street, hands hunched into his pockets, and his jacket collar up. The spring hadn't come yet, even if a pale sun occasionally promised it.

He should have come back and pounded on Blair's door, instead of mistakenly giving the man his space. Blair must have come back from wherever he went to and sat down in front of his keyboard and gone for broke with the typing. Unless he'd always had those documents ready and to hand.

Jim shook his head in irritation. Enough. He hoped that Blair wasn't out now; out working, out finding someone to fuck, out organising a truck rental to carry his meagre possessions somewhere else. Jim stood by the botanica window and looked up. Yes, Blair was home. Jim could hear him, even as unwontedly quiet as Blair was right now. He walked up the stairs and knocked on the door.

"It's open. Come on in, Jim."

The place looked just the same as it always did. The same eclectic pictures and items decorated the walls; the same blankets draped the couch. Blair was folding a pile of clean laundry. He smiled at Jim, as if he'd never sent those papers to PD. "Hey. I should have folded this at the laundromat before the creases set, but I was in a hurry." He smoothed uselessly at a line in a checked flannel shirt. "Hanger in the bathroom time it is, then." He snagged a wire hanger from a tangle of them next to the clothing, placed the shirt on it and hooked it on the back of the rickety wooden straight-back chair that stood before his small table. "So who starts first?"

Jim was satisfied with taking the offer of initiative. "Look, Chief, about the other night. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said what I said - not the way I said it, anyway."

Blair said nothing. He nodded and kept about his utterly mundane business, smoothing out and folding some ancient, ratty boxers. Jim wondered if he had something more - obvious - to wear when he went out in search of sex. Not that it would matter, if his brief, bitter taste of Blair projecting power was anything to go by. Blair could wear a plastic garbage sack then, and it wouldn't matter. Jim couldn't stand the suspense any longer. His hand closed over Blair's wrist.

"Will you stop that?"

Blair looked at him, blandly calm, and quietly sad. Jim would have preferred anger, a fight, not this terrible, impregnable surrender.

"Laundry needs to be done, man." But he stopped, and rose to turn the chair at the table around to face the couch, before he sank down once more on the sagging, noisy springs. "Okay. You got anything else to say?"

Jim sat on the chair and leaned forward. "Why'd you send those papers to Simon? Some hissy fit because you didn't get laid?"

Blair grinned knowingly. "I was wondering about what you were going to say when you came here, and variations of that were in the top five of things that'd get said in the first five minutes."

"Fuck, Blair, I said I was sorry, and I meant it. But why the hell was practically the first thing you did after I screwed up, to go and bust up the partnership?"

"Are you sorry about turning down sex with me? Or for thinking that I'd used power on you, when I did not, man, whatever your insecure little heart came up with. Or for throwing my near-run with incest at me? Or for thinking that I'm not going to ride with you anymore because I can't get into your exceedingly well-filled pants?" Blair grinned without humour. "Or all of the above, but some more than others?"

"Can I go with the last option?" Jim asked, hoping for some sign of softening. He could half imagine Blair sitting opposite some student like this, and asking hard questions in that same, even voice.

"If you want. Sounds likely. Jim, at the risk of sounding like the worst psychobabble cliche ever, it's not you, it's me."

"Oh, shit," Jim said in exasperation. "Break-up cliches even."

"Listen up. No, I did not use power on you to make you want me, and I'm still pissed off that you entertained the idea. But you know something? I don't even know if I can have sex without feeding. I don't do repeat business, Jim, and that's not a rule I intend breaking with you, of all people. So, no sex. I made a mistake responding to you, and I'm sorry for that."

"Okay, no sex." The thought crossed Jim's mind that it felt like a surprisingly expensive price to pay, but there was too much else he valued not to assent. "But why...it's not just this sentinel thing, we have a good partnership going, a good friendship."

Blair's calm slipped somewhere during Jim's words. He stood and started pacing. "Okay, analysis time. Are you listening to the words you've been using? 'Break-up cliche', 'partnership', 'friendship'? Blair's hands couldn't keep still. "What the hell do I know about relationships? My entire existence is predicated on using people, and that's exactly what I was doing with you, using you to pretend that my life hadn't changed, and that I'm not what I am. Which is really dumb of me, Jim, dumb, dumb, dumb."

"You weren't using me."

"Not what you thought a coupla nights ago." But the brief show of real feeling was gone again. This was just point scoring.

"Come off it, Sandburg. Who was always telling me to throw away my invitation to the pity party?" Jim stood up and put himself four-square in front of Blair.

"This is not about my hurt feelings, Jim. It's more like the circumstances...I had an epiphany, okay? Conceptual breakthrough. Me trailing at your heels is not going to work, for a heap of reasons, which boil down to what you so succinctly said - I'm a fucking incubus. Betwixt and between isn't going to work. Time to embrace my nature."

"You have crap conceptual breakthroughs, Sandburg."

Blair grinned - real amusement or else an excellent imitation of it. "Ad hominem attacks indicate bankrupt arguments. I have excellent conceptual breakthroughs. If I didn't you might be dead or in a nice white room somewhere, and that's - that's something that I'm proud of, that I could help you. But you have control, I've given you and Simon the tools to keep you ticking away, I did the job, man."

Jim stood there, frustration prickling across his skin, increasing fear hollowing out his gut. He'd been so sure that he could acknowledge the fuck-up and just get things back to normal. Normal, with a young man who needed sex to live following a pursuivant who could smell a werewolf at five hundred feet about his daily rounds. Normal. Sure. Jim had loved normal, fucking loved it. Jim loved Blair, but he didn't know how to say those words to the teflon man walking around Blair's apartment. Jim couldn't get a grip, but he was determined to try.

"Fine, you did the job. But where do you get off blowing off people who care what happens to you?" He put his hands on Blair's shoulders, noted another crack in the infuriating calm.

"What, like my mom? Or you? Think about what I do to people. Where do I get off walking around the halls of Paranormal Defence? I was there because you were desperate and because Simon stands by his people, but I don't fit there."

Jim's hands tightened their hold, and there was an answering tension in Blair.

"Don't even think about it, Jim. I might have to remind you that when push comes to shove that I can shove harder than you. And then I'd get all tired out, and have to go find some nice boy or girl to refresh myself, and don't think I haven't noticed how much that bothers you."

"Hooray for observation." Jim was defeated. Not by the words, or Blair's cynical supposed truths, but by that inexorable, stubborn calm.

Blair smiled. Affectionate, placid, really not there at all. "You were worth observing. But go home. Better yet, go back to PD and actually read the stuff I sent to Simon. Think about who you'd be best working with."

"I'll call you. Catch up. There'll be things in your notes I'll want to clarify."

Blair had gone back to sorting his laundry. Jim was dismissed from his attention, and that was a very strange feeling, as if the sky had just turned green instead of blue.

"Yeah, sure. I'll be around a while longer."

"You should come round for coffee sometime."

Blair smiled again. "Always with the 'should'. Maybe, but don't hold your breath."

Things limped on after that. Jim discovered he could use the senses well enough on his own, could cut back on the risk of zoning by limiting what he tried to do. He still didn't get used to not seeing Blair. There were a couple of awkward phone calls, and then one day Jim got no answer, no matter how many times he called. He went around after his shift, and found a new tenant in the little apartment above the botanica, a young woman with piebald black and white skin that was naturally hers, a mohawk mane that was artificially encouraged, and at least ten piercings in her face alone.

"Blair? Yeah, I know him, not well though." A dreamy smile spread across her face, a hint of lust infused her scent, and Jim clenched his hands into fists. She'd known him well enough. "Couldn't say where he went, sorry. He didn't leave any contact number if that's what you want."

Jim had marched off into the morning-busy streets. He'd known this was coming, but it still came as some unexpected shock, the way he known that Ben Sarris would die of his injuries after the 'copter crash. He'd known the end was coming, but he'd still stared in dull surprise when the rasping, laboured breathing had finally ended.

***

Spring came in fits and starts. There were days of sun, and the tulips in the city displays would blaze in colour. There were days of wet and wind, which felt like winter flipping the bird. 'Ha! Thought I'd gone, hadn't you?'

Jim was troubled by bad dreams. Like all pursuivants, he kept a log. In the light of morning it was easy enough to figure out which dreams were just dreams and which were more than that. The occasional dreams about Blair were just dreams. Sad dreams, not bad dreams; where Blair was around, and then just wasn't. Overheated sex dreams, which featured Blair swooping in the sky, his body locked with an incredible selection of partners, but never Jim.

But as spring became a more confirmed season in Cascade, Jim's logs began to monotonously feature a different sort of dream. These ones he handed in, for analysis by the psychs and the scryers. He wished that somebody would figure how to make them stop, because he usually woke up from them shaking and sweating, choking as if something had him by the throat, and convinced he was surely about to die. They weren't dreams of vision. They were dreams of sensation, of coldly prickling terror, of blood-heat and wetness, and weight and tearing pain. There was the sound of beasts snarling with feral rabidity, and a wolf's howl set apart from the rest of the noise, rising on a note that pierced Jim's ears.

Jim wasn't the only one having dreams, but he was one of the few that had any dreams that offered form and concept. All that most could say was that something scary was coming. Harry Murphy was approached. He and some of his people were even brought in for questioning, stiff with fury and promising lawsuits. PD pursuivants suited up and heavily armed themselves to knock at the doors of city wolves in the magic quarter, Jim among them. But there were no answers. The shape changers began approaching PD themselves as other sensitives in the magic quarter got antsy over dreams and visions, and started their own forms of harassment. It got to the point that Jim couldn't see a stray dog without flinching.

Jim was wading through paperwork when Simon came out of his office. Jim could see the grey of pallor under the dark of his skin.

"Everyone, the conference room on three, for a briefing. Now, people!"

"What is it, Captain?" Brown's enquiry.

"You'll find out soon enough."

The third floor conference room was more of a mini-auditorium and most of PD's available people who weren't on the street were crammed into it by the time that Seventh joined the crowd. Divisional captains and lieutenants milled together at the front of the room. The sour reek of anxiety and adrenalin rose from all of them.

Susan Finkelman, the captain of Second, stepped forward.

"I'll keep this short, as all of you will be heading directly to Rosemont Mall very soon. Men and women of my Division answered a call to what we originally thought was rogue therianthrope activity. We've lost contact with my people, and have since sent in people from Municipal and anyone PD who was in the vicinity. From their reports and emergency calls from the public, it looks like we have a wild hunt developing up there."

A murmur of dismay ran across the crowd of pursuivants. Jim's skin went prickly with cold. Brown bowed his head into his hands and said, "Oh, baby, fuck me hard."

Finkelman went on. "We hope we're wrong. But if we're not, the protection of the city is our first concern. This situation will be confused and dangerous. Do your best; protect the public. If this is a hunt, there will be a rider. You've all read the scenarios as part of your training. Take that person down, no matter who they are. God be with you all."

Finkelman stepped down and Simon moved to address the crowd.

"The armoury staff are ready for you. Collect whatever you think you'll need. We're going ahead for recon and assessment and co-ordination with other city services, and we expect you hard on our heels. Watch your own backs and each other's."

Simon stepped down and the crowd of men and women stood and waited briefly for senior staff to get out the door, before heading in a purposeful mob for the armoury. Some people were grimly silent, but others were running off at the mouth in shock. Disjointed bits of speech whirled around Jim, as he itemised what he should requisition. Men and women wondered, speculated; some of them openly looked forward to the trial ahead. Jim was filled with urgency, but not for the challenge. A wild hunt was the sort of thing that cities prepared for, just as they prepared for any other major disaster; but you couldn't prepare for a magic storm the size of a wild hunt any more than you could truly prepare for a major earthquake.

There was a cluster of five men about ten feet from Jim. "They say that the fifty-three hunt, there wasn't anyone left alive in a ten mile radius," one doomsayer pronounced. The 1953 hunt, the first of only a few, had left behind it a devastated rural township. Survivors were those who'd got out early and fast. That meant that they weren't in a position to be informative.

"Why don't you just shut the fuck up, Espinoza?" someone else snarled. There was a moment of jostling before a cooler head separated the two men. Jim noted it, and ignored it. He considered full body armour, but it was heavy and would take too long to get on. He settled for the kevlar puttees and wrist-protectors, tucking them awkwardly under one arm, before he grabbed heavy weapons and ammunition, and had what was practically a mayoral chain of wards dropped over his head by a pale-faced young woman.

Megan was close behind Jim. He heard her murmur to the young woman, "I'm sure everything will be fine." Then she caught up to Jim. "Her mother works at a shoe shop in Rosemont Mall." Megan wasn't yet wearing whatever armour she'd chosen - it was too crowded in the room. "In a hurry, Ellison?"

Jim grunted.

"You had dreams, didn't you?"

"For what they were worth."

Megan grinned. It was ferocious; the woman always did enjoy a fight, a good stoush as she put it.

"Here's to us all coming back to add footnotes to the emergency scenarios, eh?"

"Yeah. Luck, Connor."

Jim's dreams had been dreams of the hunt, it seemed; dreams of beast noise and the smell of his own blood, the sensation of his flesh tearing and choking jaws closing around his throat. He put the memory aside. He had a job to do.

Jim squeezed into the back of one of the first PD vans away. It rumbled its way through Cascade's streets, its siren screaming, until it drew to a halt and men and women leapt out, heavy with wards and arms and looked around to see what they could see. What they could see was roadblocks and the flashing lights of any number of emergency vehicles, blocking a street flanked by the blank walls of smaller shops and a retail monolith, an advertising hording for the consumer treasures within blazoned on the wall closest the crowd of city officials. One thing that Jim didn't hear, until he pushed his hearing, was the sound of animals. There were no sounds of howls and barking, until suddenly, noise did break out, together with the sounds of human fear. The dog noise sounded almost - planned; used with intent to suggest the maximum amount of threat.

Jim spotted Simon and headed his way.

"You're a little lightly dressed, Pursuivant."

"I'd rather keep agility, sir."

Simon gave him a hard look. The Division knew that Jim had suffered dreams; Simon knew the precise content of the dreams. "Don't turn into a fatalist on me, now, Jim."

"I don't plan to."

Simon shook his head. "It's a hunt, alright. Someone did the rounds of shelters and pounds last night, letting dogs free. There are civilians trapped in the mall, we have no idea how many, or how many dogs for that matter. Go in with that squad." Simon jerked his head towards a group of mixed Municipal SWAT and PD people.

Jim nodded and headed for the group. "Ellison, Seventh Division, PD." A man, not tall, perhaps Blair's height, nodded. "Loaded for bear, and we're going after dog."

"Any sign of the rider?"

"Not yet."

Any electric doors in the mall were wide open - perhaps the work of panicked security staff when they'd realised that something was wrong. It meant that the dogs had free run of the building, more or less, in and out of the mall itself and the attached parking.

A woman he didn't know grinned at Jim. "Wanna bet on the ratio of Chihuahuas to Rottweilers?" she joked.

"Don't underestimate the Chihuahuas. The little bastards are tougher than they look."

The woman laughed, deep and slightly over-excited. Jim shrugged off annoyance. There were different ways and means of dealing with stress. He hoped she'd shut the hell up once they were in the building.

There was blood on the tiled floor in front of the entrance. The SWAT guy muttered, "We don't even have a map of the building yet. Civilians near exits got the hell out, but who knows how many are holed up in restrooms and other places?"

Jim pointed about twenty feet, down an access way. "Somebody's down there." He strode on, listening for the pant of animal breath or the click of claws on flooring. There was nothing, only panicked and entirely human noise coming from what was marked as a parents' room. At least three people. Jim banged on the door. There was no sound, except for the heartbeats that picked up their rhythm. "Is everybody safe in there? He tried the door. Locked.

"Yes. Are they gone?" a female voice quavered.

The SWAT woman was close behind him. "Hoodoo that you do, huh? No offence, but you PD guys are creepy sometimes."

Jim smiled, a baring of teeth. Why would he be offended?

Turning back to the door, Jim called, "Ma'am, there are city officers here to escort you to safety."

"Heads up!" somebody in the main concourse called, and then there was the echoing report of gunfire, yelps and the sound of fleeing animals.

"We have civilians. Can we get them out?" SWAT woman yelled.

A PD guy, Bailey if Jim recalled his name, appeared at the top of the hall and gestured. "Hurry it up." Two women, a baby and a teenage boy were promptly hustled out of the parents' room and out past the roadblocks to comparative safety. That was how it went the whole afternoon - the animals almost taunting their hunters, holding civilians at terrified bay, but not confronting the armed men and women who went after them. Which was downright strange. Jim's party found what was left of one of Finkelman's people in a backroom on the second level of the mall. His gun was empty and he lay on top of a heap of dog carcasses, like a fallen hunter with his trophies. Why had the dogs been prepared to sacrifice themselves to get him, but not the new groups entering the building?

A command post had been set up in a nearby donut shop; members of each of the teams going in were co-opted for a review meeting, Jim among them.

"It's hinky. Any sign of the rider yet?" Jim asked.

Finkelman shook her head. Simon said, "No, and hardly any sign of the damn dogs. Reports had a flood of them here, but now...I know the cunning bastards are playing with us, but you're right, something's going on, and I don't like it."

"There ought to be a rider," Finkelman insisted.

One of her people said hopefully, "Maybe it's over, maybe it couldn't reach whatever critical mass it needed."

Jim ran a hand across his forehead, tried to think. "Sir, how many teams are out in the broader Rosemont area?"

"Not many. Civilians are advised to keep indoors, kids are being kept in the schools until we have an all clear, all public facilities are on lockdown and high alert. But we're focused on the mall." Simon looked up the street at the mall building. "And maybe we shouldn't be."

"The scryers are insisting that the mall is pivotal," Finkelman said.

"But there's nothing happening here - nothing important," one woman insisted. "We're all wearing wards up the wazoo and I don't know about anybody else, but I'm not getting so much as a tingle of warning. It's not quite a magic dead zone, but it's close enough. Animal control could be about as useful as we're being."

There was a murmur of agreement from the men and women gathered round.

Jim watched Simon bow his head in thought. A lot of wild hunt background was reconstructed from forensic clairvoyance, but a hunt didn't die stillborn. It burned itself out after it created a psychic storm. The dogs were a tool of terror, spreading panic and fear which then infected people nearby. The end result was a killing spree, animals and humans both on a berserk rampage. But someone, something, was needed to stoke it, to control it; a rider. Whether the rider channelled unfocused magic or was possessed by a malignant power simply wasn't known.

"We've had various reports from the public of dog sightings, but nothing that suggests a gathering. But they have to be out there somewhere."

"Chopper surveillance?"

"Occasional sightings again, but nothing significant."

Finkelman laid out maps of the area.

"It's logical that the hunt will target an area with people together. If not the mall, then where?"

The group urgently crowded around the maps, suggestions and ideas flowing.

"There's a small business complex there. Little offices that are hired out to all sorts of starter businesses."

"Schools," said one man. Jim could feel the collective chill run through everybody.

"Elementary school there, middle school there, high school here." Simon stabbed markers into the sites.

"There's a childcare centre over here," a woman said, pointing. "My own kids went there, before my divorce."

"But we've had no emergency calls from any of those places."

Jim shrugged. "Power warps mundane natural laws. If there's any sort of strategy behind this, disrupting phones would be possible. Scryer seeing could be tricked too, even if it's not that common."

"There are too many options. And we still need to clean out the mall. People are going to be spread thin." Finkelman frowned. "And if comms are disrupted even more than they are now..."

Simon sighed. "We don't have a choice. We'll get teams together stat, and people will just have to take their chances."

***

The team bound for Beyer Elementary was thrown together mainly from Seventh and Fourth, and found itself on the drive from Rosemont Mall to the school in short order. It was, ironically, not much after three o'clock, but there were no children on the streets, no yellow school buses to be seen, not much traffic of any sort. Municipal had driven through the streets on this beautiful spring day, broadcasting the request for people to stay in their homes.

There were a surprising number of cars parked around the school, and Jim gestured as they got out of the truck. "There are people waiting in the cars."

"Parents?" queried Henri. "But why not go inside, get their kids? That's what they would have come for."

"Shit!" That was Lee, one of Fourth's people, a worn-looking Asian man with greying hair.

"What is it?" asked another woman, Lipinski by name.

"Dogs," said Jim. "This is the place." He could see them, more than his colleagues. Smaller ones hid under the cars. They crowded under trees and bushes, in the bus shelter, in the entrance porch of the school. No wonder the chopper patrols had seen nothing. They stared with a calm that was more feline than dog-like, and the massed panting of their breath rasped over Jim's ears with a sensation like sandpaper against skin.

"What are they waiting for?" Megan asked in hushed tones.

"Doesn't matter," said Lee. "They're easy targets like this."

"There's twelve of us, and who knows how many of them. We start firing, we'll see who's the easy target." Henri's comment.

"Call back to the command post." But there was only crackle on the channels.

"I do not like this," said Lipinski.

Jim took a good look around. He wished that Blair was here; a comforting hand on his back, the no-nonsense soothing tone of Blair's voice - they would be good things right now. The wards around his neck were heavy, and he adjusted the chain, even as he watched a haze of power rise into the air like heat off asphalt on a hot day, distorting the school building and its surrounds.

"We need some recon." A flash of movement in one of the cars caught Jim's eye. "And I think that someone is trying to get our attention." He stepped away from the bunched group of pursuivants and approached a car where a frantically gesturing woman cracked her window by about half an inch.

"It's still under my car, isn't it?" was the first thing she said, in a tight, shrill voice.

Jim nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

"It growls whenever I try to get out. And I don't want to leave. I have two children inside." Her voice grew in frustration. "Are you people going to do anything?"

"It would be better if you left the area."

"I don't think so."

"Then stay in your vehicle."

Jim turned back to the group of men and women waiting by the truck.

"If any of you can farspeak, now would be a great time. We'll need support up here. I'm going to look around."

"Glory hound," called Megan. She wore a wide grin. Jim waved his hand dismissively, as the others cautiously approached the people waiting in their cars, trying to convince them to clear the area. Most refused, and Jim couldn't be surprised by that.

A slow check of what counted as the perimeter revealed yet more dogs, waiting in unnatural silence and patience. Dogs under trees, dogs under bike shelters. Jim listened. There were more of them nearby, but there were no human sounds except those that came from the school, the nervous buzz of children and adults trying to keep busy.

A flicker of movement made Jim bring up his gun, and his first startled thought was that he was facing one huge damn dog, until observation registered. Not a dog. A black panther or jaguar. The creature blinked at him and lazily licked its lips, before it stalked up to Jim and rubbed its head against his thigh. He stood still, surprised but unafraid. There was threat about the beast, yes, but it wasn't aimed at him. Jim stooped and let his fingers rest in warm, harsh fur for just a second.

"Discovering that I rate a daemon is not reassuring me here." The jaguar made a rumbling 'mraaawp' noise and turned, swinging its broad head, as if to say, 'come on.' Jim followed it, walking in the brisk afternoon air past the ranks of waiting, silent dogs. If they broke, attacked him, he wouldn't have a prayer, but he took the chance that they were still waiting on a sign. On their rider to give the command.

Behind the school yard was the track and field. The jaguar climbed onto a metal framed bleacher and climbed its way to the top. "If you say so," Jim said, and climbed up beside his companion. "What am I looking for?"

The jaguar jerked its head, and then growled, its ears laid back in anger. Jim looked out, past the field, past the fences and trees, beyond to a rise where a road led down to the school.

"Oh, shit."

He could hear it now, a normal enough noise for a suburban street - an engine, the throaty purr of one sweet motorcycle. But motorcycles didn't normally come surrounded by an entourage of at least fifty dogs, a seething mat of them flanking the bike. There was a passenger on the pillion behind the rider, and another human figure, running with the crowd of animals. Three humans, and they brandished crowbars, maybe a demolition hammer or two. Jim looked back at the school building, and leapt down from the bleacher, the jaguar running in front of him as they both sprinted their way to the front of the building. The dogs on his way sat in their unnatural quiet, but lips drew back from muzzles in anticipation.

Jim skidded around to the front of the school to find the dogs that had been gathered under the porch scattered around the street. There were a couple of PD people standing in the doorway.

"Are the others inside?" Jim snapped.

"Yeah, Brown managed to compel the dogs away from the..." one of the men said.

Jim shouldered past him, interrupting his explanation. "Shut and lock these doors. The rider's coming, along with two other people and at least another fifty dogs. They want into this building, and we don't have enough people to stop them for long. Lee! Brown!"

There was an unearthly noise outside, the dogs finally giving tongue. Jim could hear both adults and children cry out in fear and surprise. Pursuivants gathered, along with a man Jim assumed was the principal.

"Rider's coming, along with company. They have the tools to force doors and windows. We need everyone upstairs."

The principal looked nearly paralysed with fear. Jim wasn't surprised. He could feel the miasma of power descending on the building; the monster riding that damned motorcycle wanted people frightened out of their minds, and it was succeeding. He could feel one of his wards practically sizzling against his skin, and the civilians here didn't have that sort of protection. "But, the children," the man stammered.

"She's nearly halfway across your fucking field!" Jim snarled. "Lee, use a compulsion. Get everyone upstairs now!"

Brown was fingering the wards around his own neck. "If they're coming across the field, think they'll go for the yard entrances?"

"Maybe," Jim snapped. He moved to the side of the hall, shouting in voice against the growing, deafening noise of the animals outside, to the increasingly unnerved principal. "Are there any other stairwells, or elevators?"

"There's a service elevator." The principal pointed with a shaking hand.

"I'll take it out," Lipinski mouthed, and went off at a run. Jim shoved his informant towards the stairs and briefly watched him trotting with terrified energy before he gathered a touch of composure and stood at the foot of the stairwell shooing fleeing children in front of him.

Some of the dogs threw themselves against the glass-paned doors of the front entrance, cracking but not breaking the glass, as the flood of children from the first floor classrooms flowed up the stairs. A building this size - there must be at least three hundred children, maybe more. Three hundred children and the teachers and administration staff, the parents waiting outside and the inhabitants of surrounding houses, who might well try to flee. That number of people, slaughtered in the middle of the power that Jim and all the others could feel - the magically null as far as Seattle would feel it.

The bike engine noise shuddered in Jim's ears. Megan was shrieking like a banshee somewhere, using voice and compulsion in what might be a command to 'leave that fucking door alone!' There was the harsh scream of the jaguar, counterpoint to the short shriek of breaking glass at the west end of the building, before a dark mass of dogs bounded up from a far end of a corridor.

"Stairs, man, we gotta hold them there!" Henri bellowed in his ears. Lee was already firing, but the dogs ran abreast of a line of power that vaporised and misdirected bullets. Lipinski was nowhere to be seen, and Jim gave her and Megan up for lost until Megan, at least, joined the stampede to hold the stairwells. There were two, built in an open-framed design, and the pathetic defensive groups stared briefly at each other across the space before turning their attention to the area below, churning with animals that literally slavered and howled for blood. The jaguar sat at the bottom of Jim's stairwell, hackles raised, spitting and raking a paw at all comers.

"Compulsion?" Megan muttered. "On the dogs? Make 'em turn on the handlers?"

"Try it," Lee suggested. He was still methodically shooting at the animals, as was Jim now, looking for weaknesses in the field of power and occasionally taking some down, with yelps and howls. But there were more coming. Jim could hear them, bounding in full cry across the middle class suburban streets outside, called by the howling of the thing on the motorcycle. Jim's physical ears heard a baying cry, deeper and louder than any dog's, but his mind heard a command. "Come. Come. Prey and blood. Come."

The mass of animals quietened and backed off, as one of the humans appeared. He was a young man, barely more than a boy, naked, his feet bleeding from his wild careen down the streets with the pack. He held a hammer with a three foot handle.

"You can't win. Bare your throats for me, and I may let your bodies live."

Someone in the next stairwell fired. There was a hazed shimmer of power and the bullets whined into non-existence.

"Bare your throats for me," commanded another voice. It came from a girl, barely more than sixteen, also naked except for a torn t-shirt. She carried a little roll of tummy fat, which likely grieved her once, although she was beyond such considerations now.

Megan went into voice, an exorcism chant. It was one of her strengths. One question was answered now. Nearly all of them had met malignant powers before. The signature was unmistakable. But before Megan could get any further, before the others could join her, she screamed, not with voice, with simple pain, and collapsed against the stair railings.

The boy grinned. "Only with hands on flesh, and my dogs are my hands. You won't touch me. You will not willingly offer throat?" He and the girl spoke together, two beings, one voice. "So be it."

The dogs leapt forward once more, and everything was confusion, spitting bullets, the club of weapons and fists against leaping animals when they got too close. Wards gave focus as well as protection, strength and energy for mere men and women to fight magic, but no-one and nothing could stand this pace for long. They might hold out long enough for support to arrive. What was happening now would spiral into the air like smoke from a five alarm fire.

Jim didn't realise that the jaguar was no longer fighting with them until its cry pierced his ears again. It stood behind them now, at the top of the stairs. It jerked its head once more, making urgent growling noises. Jim was torn. If he followed it, as it plainly wanted, he would leave a gap in their defences - but those defences couldn't last long now.

He made a choice. There was no good moment to move, but he tried to choose one anyway, and pelted up the remainder of the stairs. The jaguar didn't wait for him but led him to a room - an office by the look of it, with a wide window. The jaguar leaned against the sill. Looking out, Jim couldn't see anything; but then he realised that there were motorcycle tire marks on the ground. The rider was circling the building, widdershins of course, funnelling power and fear into its minions and intended victims. If it was sheltering its creatures from bullets, then it would have made itself impregnable. The memory of the boy's words sounded in Jim's head. 'Only with hands on flesh.'

Jim could hear the roar of the bike as the rider made another circuit. It would be in sight again soon, and unless he wasted precious time, the only way down to meet it was to jump nearly twenty feet. He crouched on the sill; this was what the wards were for, after all. Then he jumped, feeling almost as if he might fly for one moment, before he hit the ground with jarring impact, and rolled to find himself nearly face to face with the enemy.

The rider was a young woman, likely still in her teens like the others. She was naked, except for the remains of pink nail polish on her ragged, bloody finger and toe nails, and an ugly spiked crown made of twisted wire, some of it barbed. Pieces of it pointed outwards, in imitation of antlers perhaps, and from the protrusions of wire there hung everything from plastic beads and costume jewellery to the occasional flash of real gold and stones.

She bayed like a pit-bull, trailing a comet's tail of dogs behind her. Jim staggered to his feet and leapt, relying on wards and sheer blind luck to carry them both free of the potentially crushing weight of the motorcycle. Hands on flesh it was, his hands gripped around her, fingers cramped and white, and he let voice pour out him, an exorcism chant bubbling from his lips. She howled and scrabbled with desperate strength, her nails clawing at his face. Jim was buffeted by the weight of dogs. This was close to his dream, he knew it. He threw himself down on her, his face buried in her neck, in some terrible parody of lover's embrace - anything to give the dogs less of a chance at him. They ripped at him. He could feel their teeth in him; his scalp and shoulders and back, his buttocks, his legs. There was the snarl of the jaguar underlying the uproar, but it could do pitifully little in the maelstrom.

Jim poured all the power he could into the exorcism - willpower was all, here, and he hated this creature with everything he had. There were wards almost literally exploding between his skin and the rider's. He felt the crack in its defences, and grabbed at the rider's own power to sever connections, to send it out, out, to leave it exhausted and formless, and unable to slaughter children. There was an ear-splitting noise, before the rider dug its human teeth into Jim's throat, its jaws spread inhumanly wide until they joined and clenched, tearing skin, crushing flesh and cartilage. And here was the dream at last, but there was exultation in Jim as well as the pain and terror, because he was taking this creature with him. He could feel the exorcism scraping the last moorings of the monster free from its haven, gone like rotten, abraded flesh from a wound, sliced out like a scalpel might take a cancer.

There were more howls. The dogs were no longer directed, but they were still confused and maddened, rabid with power. Jim felt something strike him hard enough to roll him over, and he stared past the milling storm of animals up at the blue afternoon sky. He couldn't breathe, and the sky was turning grey, and something bulled its way through the dark clouds to lift Jim like a whale surfacing under a boat. Jim took a last grab at life to open his eyes - and saw Blair.

Blair looked hardly human. The gorgeous, sexual creature was nowhere to be seen. The man who cradled Jim against the burning heat of his body was wild-haired; the harsh broad lines of the skull beneath his skin stood prominent, the white face more like a lich's than a living being. The only colour to Blair's face was the blue of his eyes, and red smears of blood. Jim hoped that it was his blood, rather than Blair's, and tried to smile. Won't be long now, Sandburg, he thought vaguely. Nice to see you again, babe.

Jim shut his eyes, but hearing was still left to him. Blair spoke his name, in a cracked, furious voice. Jim should have been gone, unconscious and on the slide into death. Instead, the few remaining wards against his chest warmed into uncertain life, sensing power but not its nature. Jim was aware of a jerking sensation and then the noise of the dogs drifted into the distance, although Blair and his imprecations remained clear. Jim was a fool, and idiot and so was Blair for that matter if the tenor of his remarks meant anything.

Jim still couldn't breathe, and he could feel his blood spooling away from his wounds to soak into Blair's clothes. He should be dead, why wasn't he dead? He opened his eyes, to watch trees rise beside them. No, the trees weren't rising; he and Blair were falling, dropping out of the sky. Blair had carried him away from the chaos around the school. They landed on the ground, their bodies in an ungainly heap. Jim could feel grass under his lax fingers and Blair's arms around his shoulders as his friend partly lifted him, and the warmth of power flowing into him. It brought piercing pain with it; the gape of the bites; the renewed drowning sensation of blood dropping into his lungs. Blair looked even worse than Jim's first glimpse, drained, his skull seemingly stretching the skin of his face; but when he bent his head to kiss Jim, Jim welcomed the touch. Let him go with Blair holding him. It was better than he'd thought he'd get.

***

Jim had no particular beliefs in an after-life. When he opened his eyes to the glare of light, he felt no disappointment that what he saw was the white ceiling of a hospital room, although he was considerably surprised. He took a long, deep, astonished breath, through a clear, unobstructed throat. He remembered the crunch of his larynx. He should have been dead, would have been dead, except that Blair had very obviously done something.

Jim turned his head. He was in a small, private room, stuck through with an annoying number of tubes and needles, and he was sore. There were flare-ups of pain all along his body, but nothing unbearable. With considerable caution, he lifted an arm, mainly bare to the short sleeve of the hospital gown he wore. The biceps muscle had been bitten through; there had probably been a great chunk torn out of it, although at the time he couldn't have made a clear assessment. But now, Jim reviewed his memories, as if he were in the office of PD, ready to write a report. There was a scar, red and ugly, but the flesh was essentially whole. It hurt, but he could move the arm. He experimented with movement, waving his arm around, flexing the elbow, clenching his hand into a fist. There was the sort of weakness you might expect after however long he'd been lying in bed, but he knew the feel of both injuries and health. There was no pain here that wouldn't be repaired by time and exercise.

Cautiously, Jim sat up and winced as the catheter irritated him anew. That was coming out right now, and he carefully turned to look for the buzzer, but before he could press it, Simon walked through the door.

"They said it was only a matter of time, but I still don't believe it. How are you, Jim?" Simon's face was lit with relief, but Jim could see the weight of strain underneath.

Jim was fine. Simon could see that for himself. "How long? How long since the hunt?"

Simon sat on the plastic covered bench by the bed. "Just over a week. Hell of a week."

"I've got a catheter jammed up my dick, Simon, and I want it out. I'm getting a nurse in here, but you keep talking, okay?" Jim jammed his thumb on the buzzer, gave whoever might be waiting on the other end a good blast.

Simon nodded gravely, but there was a touch of humour in his face. "I understand my instructions, Pursuivant."

"How's Sandburg?"

"That's an excellent question, but I can't answer it for you. I haven't seen him since he left you at the command post. I thought he was bringing us your corpse at first. You were a mess." Simon paused. "You did a good job, Jim. There'll probably be some official commendation come out of this for you."

A nurse entered the room then. "Mr Ellison. It's good to see you awake." She walked over, took his wrist in her hand.

"If my heart rate's up, it's with impatience to get this catheter out. Can we confirm I'm alive after you do that?"

She smiled. "I'm sure we can help the hero of Cascade with the plumbing issues. I'll be back shortly, and we'll get it done for you." She was gone, with a quiet patter of rubber-soled shoes.

"Hero of Cascade?"

Simon shrugged. "It was a big story, and you know what reporters are like."

"Sandburg? You haven't heard from him? Has he been here?"

"No and no, Jim. And don't think that I haven't made enquiries, but he's not the only thing I've had to worry about."

"Are those kids alive? The teenagers?"

Simon shook his head.

"Melissa, known as Missy, Metcalfe, her brother Corey and his girlfriend Tanya Saywell. They were all pretty much soul-gone. The Metcalfe kids' parents are dead. Killed by the family dog, looks like." Simon's face drew into a look of particular distaste. "Although some of the bites on them were human bites. Their aunt let the kids go quietly, but Tanya Saywell's mother has her hooked up to life support somewhere in this building."

There was a silence. Simon broke it eventually. "You couldn't have done it any other way, Jim. They were gone as soon as that power got a hold of them."

Jim nodded. "I know."

The nurse returned with a trolley of torture implements disguised as medical equipment. The catheter was removed, while Jim focused on a memory of Blair's voice, talking about dials, and any number of other things.

"The drip stays in, but if you can process a few jugs of water in the meantime, we'll take it out tomorrow. Assuming you stay as chipper looking as you are now, there could be solid food in your future this evening."

Jim wished for a nurse with a less perky bedside manner. "Yeah, great, thanks." With Nurse Perky on her other rounds, he turned back to Simon.

"And the rest of it? The clean up?"

Simon sighed. "Messy. Lot of confusion. Lots of dog attacks. Some fatalities, and the plastic surgeons are going to be busy with the rest. Even without a rider, that was one hell of a lot of enraged, terrified animals. We lost several PD people."

"Lipinski?"

"By the elevator. There'll be a posthumous commendation for her. There were riots in the magic quarter, too. Part of it was overflow from the hunt - sensitives getting a dose of aggression."

"And the other part was the vengeful citizenry with flaming torches and pitchforks, huh?

"You've got it, Pursuivant. We have lived in this town too long." Simon swiped a hand over his face. "Like I said, hell of a week, and the work's not finished yet." He stood and put his hand on Jim's shoulder. "I'm glad that we didn't lose you too. Fill me in when they're ready to let you out. Shouldn't be long by the looks of it."

"Yeah. Thanks, Simon."

There was a bathroom, with a mirror. Jim dragged his tired self and his stand of plastic bags of fluid in front of the mirror, and took a good look. He was going to scar, but he could live with that. He could live with standing in a hospital bathroom assessing his scars, when he ought to be dead and sharing a posthumous commendation with his colleagues.

The throat wound was healed the most. The marks were clear, but white, as if that filthy mouth had closed around it years ago rather than only a week. Most of the other scars were angry reds and purples, some of them still scabbed. He ran his hands over himself, twisted to try and see better, almost zoned as he tried to analyse the changes in his body. His skin was marked, but whole. There should have been gaps in his flesh, muscle and nerves torn away and spat out. Instead, he'd be fit for duty again, fit for a full and active life.

Jim was left with two questions. What the hell had Blair done? And where the hell was he?

***

Jim's questions were still unanswered nearly two weeks later. Like Simon, he made enquiries, chased around the wreck of magic quarter neighbourhoods, made phone calls, approached the Rainier people he knew were sympathetic to Blair, followed up on known contacts of one Naomi Sandburg. Nothing. He returned to desk duty at PD. Not much longer now and he'd be back on the streets. The scabs were all new skin, shiny and a little tight, but nothing that wouldn't improve.

Jim was staring out the balcony doors at the Cascade lights, not quite zoning, but losing himself in the pattern of flash and shadow all the same. One moment it seemed that everything was silence, the next he turned in startled reflex when he realised that somebody was banging on the door.

"I'm coming," he yelled, taking a quick look at his watch. Who the hell came calling at this time of the evening? It wasn't Simon. If he was pounding on the door like that, there'd be accompanying bellows of Jim's name to go with it. Then he wondered if maybe it was Blair, and increased the length of his stride to the door, sending his senses out ahead of him, only to meet disappointment. A woman; he couldn't think of any woman he knew who might be outside his door and reflexively confirmed the wards at the door before he cautiously opened it.

"About time!" she snapped. Jim looked her up and down, not seeing this display of temper as a fine first impression. She was about middle height, and of very well-preserved middle years, slim and redheaded. "You're Pursuivant James Ellison?" she demanded.

"Who wants to know?" he shot back, although he recognised her now.

"I'm Naomi Sandburg, and you....ohhh!" It was a noise of sheer exasperation, but Jim could see and smell signs of fear running under it. "I have Blair in my car downstairs."

Jim stared at her, all his thoughts confounded. "Blair's in your car? Where?" He put his hand under her elbow and started to hustle her down the hall, before she yanked her arm free. "I don't need any help, thank you."

"Come on, then."

They entered the elevator and she raked him with an angry gaze while it cranked and creaked its way down. "You're a handsome son of a bitch, I'll give you that. Although I always taught Blair that the soul was what mattered."

Jim ignored this to ask another question. "Why didn't Blair come up with you?"

"Because he can't and that's your fault."

Jim knew that the sudden burn that marked his healing scars was emotional in its origin, like the cold that pushed his heart up into his throat.

"What's wrong with him?"

The manic irritation melted away, leaving behind a woman who looked tired and frail. "He's dying, that's what's wrong with him." She looked Jim in the face. "You, on the other hand, seem to be the picture of health."

"Dying! Why?" But Jim could guess. He could remember choking; remembered the numb cold of shock, the vague detachment of inevitability even as he'd fought for breath and life. He'd been the one who was dying.

"Oh, please." They stepped out on to the street, distracting Naomi Sandburg from whatever more she'd been about to say. "I couldn't get a parking space that was close enough. You wait here and I'll run back and bring the car to the door."

"I'm coming with you," Jim said and suited actions to words, expecting a hike of a block. Instead, Naomi was only parked about three buildings down, and Jim leaned down into the back of her car with his heart thumping in his chest like he'd run a marathon.

Blair was crumpled on the back seat with a woollen blanket thrown over him. Jim crouched to lay a gentle hand on Blair's hair. "Hey, Sandburg? Chief?" There was no answer. "Why the hell haven't you taken him to a hospital?"

"Because a hospital can't help him," Naomi said tightly.

"What's wrong with him?"

"There's no direct comparison, but essentially he's starving to death." She eyed Jim up and down. "We might be able to get him to your apartment between the two of us." She ran around to the street side and climbed along the seat. "Sweetie, it's Mom. Sit up for me, can you?" She gestured to Jim who hauled Blair upright so that he sat between the two other adults.

"Mom?" It was a confused mumble.

"Blair, can you move along the seat for us? Pursuivant, you help him."

With some careful pushing and pulling, Blair was positioned with his feet dangling out the curb side of the car, his arms looped around Jim's neck.

Starving, Naomi had said. Blair looked thinner and terribly ill, but Jim could still feel the solidity of muscle beneath his hands. "Hey, Chief. Think you can stand if I give you a boost?"

Blair stirred, seeming to recognise Jim's voice for the first time. His head lifted from its droop on Jim's shoulder and he muttered, "Jim... oh, man, Jim, I think I did something stupid."

"Join the club, buddy," Jim said, and hoisted the two of them into something resembling standing. Naomi hustled herself to stand on Blair's other side and they made a shambling progress back to Jim's building. Blair dragged his feet and said nothing more.

Naomi, however, had plenty to say. "Pursuivant. God, I feel like I should wash my mouth out just for saying that." She fixed Jim with a gimlet stare, even as she took a firmer hold on her son. "You do know the derivation of that title, don't you? How any women in PD can use it is completely beyond me. How any woman could be in PD is beyond me."

"Ms Sandburg," Jim began, but she wasn't finished.

"Barely one step up from your witch-finder origins."

"Well, lady, the witch-finders that I work with saved the asses of a lot of people in this city not so long ago. How about you save the noise."

The rest of the journey to Jim's apartment was made in sullen and anxious silence, until Blair was laid down upon the couch and covered over with a blanket once more. Naomi positioned herself with her son's head resting on her lap and stroked his hair back from his face.

"I haven't spent this much time with Blair, been this physically close to him in something like ten years. All thanks to you. There's irony for you. Or karma."

Jim sat on the floor on his heels, watching Blair's pale face. "What's wrong with him?"

"He spent so much effort pushing life force into you that he crippled himself, that's what happened. He tried to have sex, but he couldn't take any energy from it. But he's still what he is, not human enough to eat food and get nourishment that way."

Jim put out a hand to touch Blair's shoulder, heard the gentle, barely there sound of breathing. "I didn't ask him to do that," he said, and then stopped, aware of how ungrateful it sounded. But it was true. He hadn't wanted Blair to do what he did, not at this cost.

Naomi still sounded angry, but her hand stroked Blair's hair with obsessive gentleness, so that both of them touched and held Blair.

"Oh, I know you didn't ask him. He just gave it out of his own needs and wants. Need and want combined with power - you never do get what you expect out of the combination." Her voice was bitter

Naomi's guilt wasn't first in Jim's concerns. "Why bring him here to me?"

"Because I wanted you to know what's happened to him. And because I'm hoping that maybe you can help him."

"How?" But even as he asked the question, Jim was running over contacts in his head - medicine men and women, shamans, magicians. Magicians were just people who pushed energy - surely there'd be somebody, someone who could be a conduit, a donor, something.... And surely, a rueful voice said in his head, this woman will have already thought of that, sought that kind of help. Jim knew desperation when he saw it, when he smelled it.

Naomi's gaze went to the silver web of scars on Jim's throat. "You and Blair are bound. You're taught to channel, to use energy. Maybe you can succeed where nobody else could. He healed you, you can heal him."

"I don't know how to do that!"

"Try anyway." Naomi eased herself out from under her son. "Please." She handed Jim a scrap of paper from the pocket of her pants. "Cell phone number. If he gets worse, contact me. If he gets better, call me then as well. Just try."

She left Jim still kneeling next to the couch, and walked out the door. Jim watched her leave, wondered if she'd hold the same straight posture in dignified grief at a funeral. His hand strayed to cup Blair's face. There wasn't going to be a funeral. He'd think of something. He just wished he knew what, exactly, and he bowed his head to rest his forehead against Blair's. "Here goes nothing, Chief."

He stayed there for a time, long enough that when he raised his head again he felt dizzy at the sudden change in position. It was the only thing that he felt. He knew how power flowed, and all he felt was emptiness and a terrible impotence. The word itself flashed into his mind, and Jim's mouth lifted in a sour, unwilling smile. "Impotent. Guess I'm getting Freudian instead of Jungian, huh, Sandburg?" Lost for ideas, he did what Naomi had done, sat himself on the couch with Blair's head laid in his lap. That didn't work for him. Blair seemed too far away, and Jim hoisted Blair nearly into his lap and propped him with Blair's head against Jim's shoulder. Blair made a small protesting noise, but then with a long sigh, relaxed into the embrace.

They sat like that for maybe an hour, Jim dozing with his head leaning against the back of the couch. Blair's breathing stayed steady. His face stayed pale and his eyes stayed shut. He didn't say a word, nor did he move after he settled. Jim jerked his head forward, shaking himself out of almost-sleep, and saw the black jaguar sitting in a corner of the room, staring at him with inscrutable feline eyes.

"No offence, but you're not exactly a good omen here." The beast huffed in exasperation and stalked its way to the couch, where it licked at one of Blair's hands. "Unless you have magic spit I don't think that's going to help." The stare became unmistakably a glare, and the jaguar stretched out its neck and nuzzled at Blair's shoulder and chest. Its weight lay heavy against Jim's legs, and Blair was shifted in his arms by the force of the daemon's rough caress. Then it moved and placed its front legs on the couch and humped itself against the seat.

"Fuck! Stop that!" Jim shoved with his free hand, but he might as well have tried to move a furry wall. The daemon continued, although it certainly didn't look like it was enjoying itself. Its unspeaking face was turned towards the men beside it. "Jesus, will you just stop it!" Jim's voice broke, in anger and frustration. The daemon climbed down to all fours on the floor, and sniffed haughtily, before it turned away, and between the placing of one heavy foot on the floor and then the other, it was gone.

"This isn't working." Jim cradled Blair that much more securely. "This isn't working. Jesus, Chief, what are we going to do?" Blair's hair tickled at his nostrils. It smelled clean, even though there was an unhealthy taint underlying the scent. "Your mom's been taking good care of you? Hate to say it, but I don't think that the two of us got off on the right foot with each other." There was no answer.

"Your mom was talking about irony. Want some irony? Here I am, with you, and I'm absolutely positive that you're not working your hoodoo on me. Gotta be careful what I wish for." Jim nuzzled at the unresponsive weight in his arms, just as the jaguar had done, and then froze as the idea hit him.

"I don't think so," he announced plaintively to the empty loft. He looked down at Blair's slack face. "Come on." The protests didn't shift the memory of the jaguar humping against the couch. "Shit." Blair sustained himself on life energy as expressed through sex. Blair had pushed so much energy into Jim that he'd crippled his ability to feed himself. Jim - Jim was healed with Blair's life-force, no doubt augmented by the feral magic that had swirled in the air around them. He and Blair were connected enough that Blair had tracked Jim down in the middle of a magic storm that had driven other sensitives crazy, and saved his life. As Naomi put it, they were bound. "Your mother is a piece of work, Sandburg."

Sex without consent was molestation and rape. Jim shifted out from under Blair and settled him down to lie on the couch. Then he went to the fridge and grabbed a beer and returned to watch Blair while he sipped at his beer without really tasting it. He put the empty bottle in the trash and blew out a long breath. He went back to the couch, and knelt beside it and kissed Blair whose lips were soft, and unmoving. Jim couldn't sense anything that hadn't been there before - no change to the scent of sickness, no movement, no hitch of breath, no warming of skin. Jim wished one thing, that he'd kissed Blair at least once before in simple affection. He could fix that now, at least, but it lost something when Blair wasn't mentally present. "Hey, Sleeping Beauty. You're not going to make this easy for me, are you?"

It was a tight squeeze to lie beside Blair on the couch, but there was no way that Jim was even going to think about trying to carry him upstairs to the bed; as for the floor - no. Jim looped one arm under Blair's neck and shoulders and gently stroked across Blair's face. Nothing more. More awkward man-handling saw Jim on his back with Blair on his side propped between the sofa back and Jim's body. Jim murmured Blair's name. Then a rush of anxious humour overcame him, and he muttered, "Where the hell is the Viagra when you need it?" There were love philtres available almost anywhere for those who were willing to use them. Jim never had been.

They lay there for a while, Jim doing nothing except holding Blair, soaking in the weight and warmth, the rhythmic humidity of Blair's outward breaths. Finally, Jim took a long breath of his own and undid his pants, shifted heavy cloth and underwear so that he could touch himself. He felt stupid and embarrassed, and leaned his head toward Blair for a moment. "Here goes nothing. Again." This was a place to start at least. He couldn't bring himself to touch Blair in a directly sexual way. He was walking a knife-edge with what was happening now.

He shut his eyes, and pulled and stroked at his cock. The sensations were right, the touches were the right touches, but he'd seldom felt so unaroused. Get with the program he told himself, come on, this is Blair's life. No need for performance anxiety then. He kissed Blair's forehead and shut his eyes and tried to relax.

Gradually, gradually, he had something actually worth holding and stroking. "Blair," he whispered, trying out the name. He thought about Blair, about his good-natured, enthusiastic, eclectic friend, who smiled at Jim in a way that had given the game away pretty early, if only Jim had been willing to see it; who had shared his time and talents with Jim, who had beautiful skin stretched over a strong neck, who had a mouth that Jim would like to lovingly worry and bite at with his own. There was the merest hint of a sweet scent, and Blair stirred, mumbled and took a weak grip in the front of Jim's shirt. It was all the consent that Jim was going to get, and he accepted that, held on to Blair with a grip that trembled with the tension of trying to come, come now, while he stared at Blair's hand and stropped his own hand up and down his cock and let the dials go way, all the way up, until he was left with a thumping heart and heaving chest and a mess on his hands and his belly. Blair was still and silent, nestled uncomfortably into Jim.

Jim dozed like that for a while, everything undone and loose and floppy, before the weight and stickiness were more annoying than the effort of moving. He carefully wriggled out from under Blair and laid the blanket back over him. Blair's hair had gone everywhere and Jim pushed it back from his face, wondering if the stronger breathing was real or simply wishful thinking. Then he stumbled tiredly into the bathroom and swiped himself clean, did up buttons and zippers once more. When he came back out, Blair hadn't moved but his eyes were open. His gaze was clear and blue and angry.

"Get me your phone, will you?"

Wordlessly, Jim handed the cordless to Blair who with slow care stabbed out a number. It was answered immediately. "You and I are going to have words, Mom." Then Blair ended the call, and covered his face with his palm. "I told her not to do this. I told her."

Jim flopped down in the opposite chair, feeling odd currents of pain moving through him; nothing physical. "I guess she didn't listen."

"Story of my fucking life, man." Blair heaved a huge sigh. "Thanks. And I'm sorry."

"I'm not."

"What did you do?"

Jim reprised his last statement. Maybe he was sorry, at that.

"I jerked off. I didn't touch you."

"Very ethical of you."

The exhausted sarcasm set off Jim's own temper. "Yeah, I always ethically jerk off when I can save a life that way."

"Don't be stupid, Jim. You haven't done that."

"What?"

Blair leaned up on an elbow. "When do you think you'll be ready to do it again? Will it be more or less embarrassing when I'm awake and participating? Damn it, I told Naomi 'no'!"

"Sandburg, you were..." It was too hard to say it.

"Jim, I didn't want this."

Jim leaned his head against the chair back, stared into the high ceiling of his home. "I guessed that when you did a runner after you saved my life. What was that all about, anyway?"

"I didn't want you to die."

Jim turned his head from contemplation of the ceiling to fire words across the room. "Then you ought to understand some fucking reciprocation!"

"I didn't mean to...not like this, but they'd taken pieces out of you. You were bleeding so much, and..." Blair's voice was beginning to crack and Jim couldn't bear it. He crossed the space between them and took Blair back in his arms.

"Shhh, shhh, I know."

"I could feel it, there was this huge fucking gap in the back of your leg when I picked you up..."

"And you didn't want me to die, yeah, Chief, I know."

"There was a wolf. It kept showing up at the damnedest times, after I, you know, dropped out. The last couple of months have been one long freak out, knowing how much I was in over my head with you, that wolf appearing, and growling at me half the time, and the day of the hunt..."

"Did the wolf show you where to find me?"

"Yeah."

"Daemon, Sandburg. That's pretty top-notch stuff in a magic hierarchy."

"Probably a mistake. It's probably yours, led me to you after all, even if I was nearly too late."

"But you weren't too late. And it's your daemon, not mine." Jim paused for maximum effect. "Mine's a jaguar. Big black beast with wicked teeth. Very sexy."

Blair laughed at that, a quiet wheeze of sound. "And that's the important thing, after all." He calmed, and leaned his head against Jim's arm. "Jim. I can't feed off anyone else."

"That's what your mom told me. Strong-minded lady."

"Don't change the subject. I - can't - feed - except, by the look of it, with you. This is a problem."

Jim nodded. "Because you don't do repeat business. Sandburg, it drove me crazy watching you fuck everything that moved except me."

Blair stirred into irritation. "So what, you thought yippie-ki-yay! He's all mine now? Jim, there was a reason I spread myself around. Word of mouth was a wonderful thing and Cascade is a big enough city. We can be dangerous. What, you want to be fucked to death?"

"There are worse ways."

Blair struggled up from Jim's hold and stood, somewhat shakily. Jim rose straight away and reached to support him. Blair slapped his hands away, his face pale as paper, as pale as when he picked Jim up to carry him away from the confused remnants of the hunt. "This isn't a fucking joke! What the hell do we do? What if I drain you? What if I kill you? Or what if you fix me up enough that I can feed on other people again? What are you going to do? Pimp for me? Watch the fun?"

"We'll think of something."

"God! Denial is your fucking modus operandi."

"And running away is yours. And if you think that I'm letting you walk out that door to die, then you're crazy."

Blair flopped back on to the couch. "I don't think that'll be a problem. It was hard enough standing, let alone walking anywhere."

Jim took a breath, and tried to control the panic that had run through him at Blair's litany of what might happen. What did it say about Jim that the fear that Blair might kill him and the fear that Blair might seek out other lovers were about equal?

"Sandburg, there's this sentinel thing, and the daemons...animal spirits don't get handed out like crackerjack prizes. And I just missed you, okay? You, and the weird teas and the dumb ass experiments and the lectures about everything. You."

Blair sighed exhaustedly. "Fine, just so long as you're not saying that we have a manifest destiny, because that might be fine for an upstanding defender of the populace like you, but I always assumed that I was kind of lower on the ladder."

"You are not low on any ladder." It came out with the fervency of a marriage vow.

Blair shook his head. "Jim..."

"How about you come to bed? Think you can make it up the stairs?"

"Jim, this is stupid."

Jim ignored that. "Time for a good night's sleep. We'll see what we can figure out in the morning."

Blair looked up the stairs to the bedroom with a tired, wistful expression. Jim reached out a hand to support Blair as he stood once more.

"I would stay. If I didn't have to stay, I mean. But I hate the obligation deal, for both of us, I hate it."

They began a slow, awkward progress up the stairs. "I'm pretty sure that you bent my ear some night about the way that obligation and exchange were pivotal within societal and personal relationships." They had to stop, so that Blair could catch his breath. Perhaps it was unfair, but Jim couldn't resist. He kissed Blair, and then nuzzled across his cheek to whisper in his ear, "Some anthropologist you are."

"That's a cheap shot, man," Blair whispered back; but he didn't sound that pissed about it.

They made the rest of the ascent, and Jim helped Blair strip to a t-shirt and underwear and lie down. "Nice sheets." It came out a touch breathlessly.

"Better get used to them, Sandburg," Jim retorted, as he stripped off his own clothes and lay beside him. He took a deep breath of Blair's scent, and smiled as Blair took one of Jim's hands in his own, and held it tight.

"So, tomorrow."

Jim nodded. "Tomorrow." All of them, if they could just figure out a way; two men and all the tomorrows they could get.