Tracy stands quite still, letting the human world wash over him, a slick of fleurocarbons and poisoned air. He's fairly used to it, and in a little while he'll adjust, but the first minute is always unpleasant, a struggle to hang on to lunch.
He has a summons burning a hole in his pocket, and this one is interesting. His instructions were specific- the dream-killer cannot be informed of his sentence by any means other than a face-to-face summons. This is not how Fairy does things, these days, but even Fairy has to make allowances for a human like this- even a dream-killer. For some reason the Powers that Be have even chosen to forgo the old summons-under-the-pillow trick that usually works so well to get the old belief pumping. And the case itself-
He has Crossed to a convenient place in the human world- a harsh-lit, anonymous stairwell inside the case's apartment building. The mingling blur of some two hundred humans' perception of home has allowed him this far, although it needles faintly at him, like a pebble in the shoe. Boundaries are important- invites, too.
Tracy, that needs-must veteran of stairs, climbs quickly to the tenth floor, pausing to grin approvingly at some graffiti that states, with great conviction and awful spelling, that DI LUVS CHEZ. It's one of the most basic magics there is- write something down, make it more true- and it makes him feel more at ease.
And he needs it, because as he walks down the tenth-floor hallway, past numbered doors studded with glassy spyholes, another feeling is growing stronger. There is a smell of bad belief in this place, soured expectations, dreams well past their sell-by. As he stops in front of 1013, Tracy's thumbs start to prickle a bone-deep warning.
He swallows. He no longer feels interested in this case, never mind how special as it is. He feels, truth be told, more than a bit sick.
Get a hold on yourself, Tracy. You've had a grim week, and you're running on empty- the sooner you get this over with, the sooner you can get back home.
The thought of going home, of Crossing back to the cleansing magic-rich air of his own world, perks Tracy up to a remarkable degree. The queasy feeling recedes, and he lifts one of his prickly elongated thumbs and presses it so hard against the bell that the first joint bends at a bloodless near-right-angle.
It buzzes somewhere inside, flat and guttural like an angry mechanical wasp. There's a long silence. Tracy waits, a good step back, head cocked slightly to one side to ensure that the first thing the human sees is not an eyeless disembodied grin- this, he's learned, never helps. After a while, he presses the doorbell again.
He has to press it a third time before there's any response. Bolts slide, chains clatter, and the door half-opens. Tracy's smile widens.
"Uh, Mr. Blake? Mr. Martin Blake?"
"Yes," says Martin Blake, looking up at Tracy. He has a lined, tired face and a mop of wavy hair like a cartoon pianist, turning grey and wiry. "Who're you?"
As if by magic, the stiff shiny laminate appears between Tracy's fingers. It's not magic- he's quick with his hands, always has been, and he never wastes magic on showmanship if he can avoid it- but the summons speaks for itself, big and ostentatious and glowing a faint, charged blue in the long shadow he casts across the doorway. As always, glamour is what Fairy does best.
"I'm required to serve you with this. Just a formality- can I come in?"
"May," says Blake.
"May. 'May I come in.' Not 'can.' You're asking permission, not questioning your ability to perform the action."
"Right, sorry, may. May I come in?"
"No," says Blake, and shuts the door in his face.
Tracy's patient caseworker's grin stays put, but the rest of his face sort of sets around it. He leans over and presses the doorbell for a fourth time.
"I mean, I don't want to seem rude or anything," says Blake, opening the door, as if there has been no interruption in their conversation whatsoever, "It's just that if I'm going to be harassed, I'd rather it was grammatical."
"Does… that mean I can come in?"
"Try to sense the pattern emerging here," says Blake, and slams the door again. This time however, it doesn't shut, because Tracy's foot is in it.
"Right, that hurt," says Tracy, summoning his voice from the upper register it has temporarily fled to, "and I'm teetering on the verge of losing my patience. Not a good start, you don't want me to lose my patience, and I'm not just saying that."
"No, you're right, I bet it's terrifying," says Blake, deadpan. He looks at Tracy and the summons with- Tracy is quite sure- the single dullest, least impressed expression anyone has ever used to regard a supernatural being standing on their doorstep holding a magical contract.
"I'm in the middle of something," he says, "but whatever. Come in."
Martin Blake's flat is spacious, modern- but curiously blank. With the exception of a low-lit lamp by a leather recliner, most of the light comes from the fading, rain-streaked day outside. Whatever he's in the middle of, it evidently doesn't require much of a party atmosphere- or even company.
There's no sense of blurring in here- this is one human's space, and theirs alone. The sickly feeling Tracy sensed out in the hallway, that putrid sense of disbelief, intensifies once he crosses the threshold. If he hadn't been invited, he's pretty sure that it would be downright unbearable by now.
Tracy wanders over to the bookshelf. Thin paperback spines crowd one long row, striped with bright streaks of primary colours- energised, eye-grabbing, completely out of place in the dull room. The shelf directly above is lined with awards- a gold coin in a plush case, an engraved plaque, a heavy wood-and-metal trophy in the shape of a growing tree.
"Martin Blake," he says, with a touch of reverence. "The Martin Blake. You know, we were all surprised when your name came up. Last person I'd expect."
Blake makes a noncommital noise and sits down heavily in the armchair. There's an empty tumbler, dark amber at the very bottom, on the glass-topped table by his hand, and the woodsy, mellow scent of very good whiskey hangs cloying in the air.
"Big fan, if you don't mind me saying," continues Tracy. He picks one of the brightly-coloured books at random, teases it from the shelf. "Great stuff. Read 'em all."
"They're for children," says Blake, staring murkily at him. Tracy stops flipping through the book and looks up over his glasses, eyebrows raised, patently puzzled.
"Martin Blake," says Tracy, again, to the book in his hand. He ambles towards the window, turning pages as if lost in the narrative. "Author of twenty-seven best-selling books for the under-tens, thirteen young adult novels, and one seminal pre-school primer entitled Careless Fox and the Mysterious Box. Best-known, obviously, for the former- the multiple Carnegie Award-winning Harriet Skull series- set, of course, in your own highly imaginative spin on Fairyland. Recognised worldswide as possibly the best children's book author alive today. Which is why you could forgive us for thinking you were on the side of the angels- well, alright, fairies, not exactly angels, roughly the same physiology but generally speaking a higher sense of entitlement."
He shuts the book with a snap, looks up. In the watery, full-length glass he can see a ghostly reflection of most of the room, including his case, who is in the process of pouring himself another generous drink.
"So we're all pretty baffled, Mr. Blake, as to why it was that today, at precisely ten-forty-two AM GMT, you thought it necessary to announce- in front of a crowd of sixty-three small children and their parents- that the entire premise of Harriet Skull was, I quote, 'bollocks,' and nobody with half a brain in their head should believe a word of it. Just a little confused as to your motivations, there."
Blake swirls his glass, drinks half of the contents in a rough, gritted-teeth gulp. "Never had a bad day?"
"Ohoh, I'm having one," grins Tracy, too brightly. He turns. "It started around about the time you rocked up in Waterstones South Swindon and told an entire room full of little kids that dreams never get you anywhere and, altogether now, that there are no such things as fairies. You can say it, by the way, I'm not going to drop dead- although repeated exposure could give me a nasty stomach ulcer, so I'd appreciate it if you don't say it all that often."
Carefully, Blake puts down his drink. It seems to take him a deal of concentration, glass meeting glass at a clumsy angle, ka-klack. "You're not from my publisher, are you?"
"Do I look like I'm from your publisher?"
"No," admits Blake, after a deliberating glance. "You look like an accountant that really pissed off his tailor."
"See, that's original, that's original, because people usually go for one of two things, and you didn't pick either of 'em."
Blake smiles, and for a moment Tracy sees how it might once have been a charming, warming smile. It gives him a sad, icy shiver, a faint flicker of instinctive dread. In his experience dream-killers are usually arrogant, angry, alive, aggressive preachers of their own bad faith, but- his spectacular explosion this morning aside- Blake just seems weary. Burned-out. Used-up. Sucked dry, is the phrase that suddenly occurs to Tracy. It's in his flat shut-off eyes, his face, his body language, the way he sits in the chair- as if he's just an extra throw-rug that happens to have been chucked there, sinking into the folds.
"Originality was my job."
"Is your job," says Tracy, flourishing Harriet Skull #17 at him like a tract. "And let me tell you, after this little stunt, the next one better be a cracker."
Blake drops his head and reaches for his glass again. He manages to pick it up on the second go.
"There's not going to be a next one."
Tracy's eyes bug, outraged. "What? You can't stop now! Certainly not after the end of number twenty-seven, a cliffhanger like that, we're all waiting on tenterhooks here to see how you're gonna get 'em out! You can't just go, ooh, sorry, no, that's it, everyone out of the pool, I give up!"
"Because- you can't just leave Harriet and her mates embroiled in a hopeless situation, alright, I mean, what's that going to do to all the little kids sitting round with bated breath waiting for the next one to come out? Or all those weirdos who queue up on release night to get their hands on it the second it hits the shelves? They'll be devastated!"
Blake blinks slowly at him. "Wait... if you're not from my publisher... who are you, again?"
Tracy sits on an impulse to roll his eyes. "I'm Tracy," he says. "I'm your caseworker. You've been indicted for reckless dissemination of disbelief- technically, they could have you for sixty-three counts of first-degree murder of fantasy, but under the circumstances-"
He stops, because Blake doesn't seem to be listening. He's examining his now-empty glass, blinking at it with muddy eyes as if half-expecting to find some fundamental truth lurking at the bottom. Tracy wonders if he started drinking before the Waterstones incident, or if he hit the sauce after the fact and has been working hard to make up for lost time.
"Mr. Blake? Hello? Yeah- you might want to pay attention to this bit, it is fairly important. I can help you make this as painless as possible, but you have to play by the Rules. As I was saying, Fairy is prepared to be lenient-"
"Fairy," mumbles Blake. He's still staring into his glass. "'Fairy' has impressive reaction time, I'll give it that."
Tracy rocks slightly on his heels, fiddling with the bottom of his waistcoat, smoothing down the neat trim. "Ah, well, we work quickly. Got a lot of catchment systems in place, something of the magnitude of what you did this morning, pings up right away. Red alert, alarms, the works, and then before you can say Robin Goodfellow, thump, it lands on my desk and I have to come over here and sort you out."
Blake half-laughs, then sniffs, knuckling his sternum absently with the back of his fist. "Lord, what fools these mortals be. That one was always my favourite, you know. Always dreamed of writing for the stage." He shakes his head. "Funny, right? Hilarious. Set out to give Shakespeare a run for his money, ended up churning out cut-price fairytales for a bunch of snotty little kids."
"Shakespeare fan?" asks Tracy, trying a new tack. He usually tries to keep an open mind and not think too badly of cases right off the bat, never mind what they've done, but this is different. The impersonal disappointment he felt when he first heard about the Waterstones incident this morning is fading beneath a couple of new realisations. One, that he is genuinely starting to like Martin Blake- or, at least, the person Martin Blake could be, divorced from his strange deadened sadness- and two, that his celebrity case's problem might run just a little bit deeper than throwing a spur-of-the-moment wobbly in a crowded bookstore.
His grin stretches wider- knowing, conspiritorial. "Bit of a tale behind that one, actually. We really did have a Queen back then- a proper one- and her and old William... haha, well, there's a story you couldn't put in a kid's book, that's for sure. Pretty racy stuff."
He looks down at the book in his hand. "And don't put yourself down. Anyone can write for children, but you- no, you have a gift. Kids read what you write, and they believe. Bottom line, Martin- we need people like you on our side- now more than ever. People like you," and he emphasises each word with a earnest, pointing finger, "are pretty much the only reason Fairy still has a fighting chance."
"You're very persuasive," says Blake. "I'm touched, really. One tiny problem- you're not a fairy."
"Ha, well, see, that's where you're wrong, 'cause I am."
"You don't have wings."
"Or a wand."
"Not standard equipment for caseworkers."
"And fairies don't exist."
"Ouch- actually think I felt that one. Sort of gets you here- this area, here, right below the solar plexus."
Blake snorts, walks his fingers towards the half-empty bottle standing by the leg of his chair.
"Look," says Tracy, reasonably, "never mind all that. You've got nothing to worry about- you've just got to work with me a bit here. Let me help you, to help yourself. Like I said, they're willing to be lenient- just think of it as time off for services rendered. Weigh it all up, and what you did today is minor, really, a minor slip-up compared to the good stuff- call it first-offence D.O.D- dreamslaughter, maximum. If we play our cards right, all you'll have to do is a little thaumic reparation- sow a couple of toadstool rings, grant an easy wish or two, it'll be over before you know it. I'd go for the rings, if I were you- packet of spores and a trowel, find a nice park, half an hour on the outside and that's it, done. Point is, all you've really got to do is show 'em you believe, and that should be child's play, a human like you-"
"A human like me," says Blake, and then he starts laughing. It's not a good sound. Tracy's shoulderblades crawl and his thumbs- fairly quiet up until this point- give a barrage of sudden vicious twinges, as if someone is stabbing none-too-kindly at them both with a blunt knitting needle. It's all he can do not to flinch.
"Alright, I'll play." Blake fills his glass again, leaving the bottle half a finger from empty. He's moving slower, now, his hand slipping on the heavy crystal tumbler as if friction and gravity are both working unfairly against him. Whiskey splashes across the tabletop. "One more fairytale, just for old times' sake. So you're some kind of magical being, just like in my stories..."
"Well, yeah, fairy caseworker, actually, not exactly like in your stories, but close enough for jazz, got the whole 'magical being' thing down in any case, yes- um, Martin- not trying to change the subject, but... don't you think maybe you've had enough?"
"Yes," says Blake. "Oh, yes. I have had enough. That's the whole point, Mr. Fairy Caseworker-"
"Please, just call me Tracy-"
"-I've had enough. I've had enough of telling a load of rubbish to kids to keep them happy, I've had enough of coughing up a new book every eight months to keep my agent off my back, I've had enough of sitting in bookshops signing thirty lumps of dead tree a minute and wondering what happened to my life."
He sniffs again. "I mean, why shouldn't I tell kids the truth? I've been lying to them for twenty years, don't I owe them a little honesty?"
"It's not the truth, though, is it?" says Tracy, who is getting annoyed- and progressively more worried. It's not Blake himself, it's the feeling he projects, a bone-deep paralysing faithlessness that he can't seem to penetrate. He's good, good at his job, good with people- he always finds a way in, even with the most difficult cases- but this time he can tell that he's not getting through. It's as if Blake is somehow shieldedby his own misery, wrapped in it like some kind of primitive, double-edged ward. The lively wit and humour that shines from his books has turned in on itself, warped into a black, sawtoothed cynicism that lets nothing in or out.
"Just to re-iterate, me? Fairy? In your flat, reminding you of your responsibilities? Glow-in-the-dark bit of paper? Is none of this uncanny enough for you, or do I have to put a girdle round the flipping earth?"
"It'd be a start." Blake drains his drink, inhales the fumes, props the empty glass on his stomach. His other hand hunts clumsily through his hair, performs that funny knuckling action again, grinding against his sternum. "I mean, I know what I am, I know how much it's all worth. To adults, I'm some kind of guilty pleasure, something to read on the train- kids, they'll grow up and forget they ever read my books."
"That's not true," says Tracy, quietly.
"You know, I used to write to make a world that wasn't anything like the real one. Where things were fair at least half the time. I used to think if I wrote it all down, if I got through to enough people, I might even make it true."
He snorts. "Twenty years- nothing. If I was so important, you could have given me a little proof."
"Oh, come on," says Tracy. "Oldest argument in the book. We can't just go around proving things, that totally defeats the point, doesn't it? I mean, how much is belief worth, if you have to buy it?"
"No idea." Blake looks up. His dead, dilated gaze nails Tracy to the spot. "How much is it worth when you can't give it away?"
"My kid's nearly seven now. I hardly see her. When I do, she calls me Martin." He laughs again. "My daughter. You lot didn't feel like helping out on that one, I suppose? Since I'm so vital to you?"
"That's not how it works. There's Rules- we're not supposed to interfere-"
"You're interfering now." Blake is still looking at him, his stare both chillingly apathetic and far, far too lucid. Tracy finds himself fighting the instinct to back away. Humans usually spend the greater part of their adult lives walking around in a protective blanket of half-truths, and this can sometimes be frustrating as all hellto deal with- but stripping it away from them is neither kind or safe, for anyone concerned-
Thinking fast, Tracy gives in to the urge to put some distance between Blake and himself. He moves casually, almost sauntering, keeping his smug, knowing smirk intact. His hand brushes across the tabletop as he passes with a picky sort of nonchalance, as if checking for dust.
"Oh, you think this is interfering- give me a chance, I only just got here. I've been told it's my speciality, actually, interfering, sticking my nose in where it's not wanted... Speaking of, this is a lovelyplace you have here, by the way, lovely, very spacious, I bet on a clear day this window here just lights right up-"
It's all but dark outside, and the big window has become an inky, floor-length mirror, speckled with a bright neon blanket of flecks from the buildings across the street. With his thumb, now wet with very expensive single-malt Scotch whiskey, Tracy draws a single sweeping symbol across the glass.
It's a crude sort of magic- blood would have been better, but alcohol, that age-old friend of heightened senses and unorthodox sights, does the job well enough. The symbol starts to glow, burning with a distilled amber light. The reflection of the room, of Blake and Tracy, shivers, the edges of objects blurring and shifting as the mirror spell explores their true shape. A moment passes- then the glow fades and everything is back to normal.
Pressed against the mirror-Blake's chest, curled there like a hideous parody of a comfort-seeking child as he sits slumped in the chair, something grey and amorphous and terrible boils slowly in place like dry-ice smoke. Tracy stiffens, eyes stretching panic-wide behind his glasses.
"Oh, you are joking-"
Blake looks hazily past him, sees the thing on his chest in the charmed reflection, and screams.
The sound bursts from him, revulsion and terror, and he throws himself clear of the chair, sending his glass shattering to the floor. The thing in the window-mirror, sluggish and swollen, snakes after him, oozing over the arm of the chair in heavy wisps, tendrils reaching out for his chest. Blake hardly seems to be breathing, barely-verbalised horror tumbling from his mouth in a blurry, fractured stream.
"Oh jesus oh god what's that, what's that, oh Mary mother of god WHAT THE HELL IS IT?"
The feat of keeping his eyes on the mirror while warding off the invisible thing that appears to be coming straight for him would probably be beyond Martin Blake if he was sober- as it is, he barely lasts three steps. He stumbles on the rug, loses his balance, sprawls backwards on the floor. The thing spreads out complacently in the air above him, keeping shape like a lazy, matted blanket of fog, and begins to settle towards his face.
Tracy grabs his shoulders. He's no great weight-lifter- and Martin is heavy, as hard to budge as a petrified tree- but with a tremendous panicked yank he somehow manages to get him up and moving. In the mirror, the thing is eddied into grey shreds by the rush of Martin's body, reforming as it turns after them, darkening ominously- but Tracy doesn't stop, hauling the human's deadweight after him into a clear part of the room, never taking his eyes off the mirrored glass.
"It's an antifidian parasite!"
"It's a what?"
"It's a bloody faith-leech, that's what it is! And, and, here's an interesting little fact for you, concerning faith-leeches- they're supposed to be flipping extinct! Oh, godmothers, the paperwork alone, it is going to be dire-"
Martin is staring at the window. Under Tracy's hand, his shoulder is shaking and clammy through his shirt, pulse hammering in his neck. "It's coming-"
Tracy pulls him away, out of the path of the parasite's slow, ominous advance. "Alright, it's alright, we're fine, they're not too dangerous unless they absorb enough faith to physically manifest, and that never happens, which is lucky 'cause if it did-"
The parasite doesn't make a noise- if anything, it makes the absence of one, a great ear-hurting lack of a sound, belting through the air like a vacuum suddenly released. They both turn just in time to see the thunder-black pool of fog boil into existence at the centre of the room, folding in on itself and rearing back like a furious cobra. Formless suckerlike tendrils bunch and spasm outwards, spiking in a silent Mexican wave, powerful, pointed, and very clearly angry.
"-we'd be in serious trouble," says Tracy, slowly. "Right..."
Martin points a shaking finger. He's paper-pale. "It-it was on me-"
"Course it was! Someone like you, all that imagination, all that belief to spare, you're a dream come true for a faith-leech! Yum, free-range writer!" Tracy is trying to think, trying to remember everything he's ever learned about things- things- like this. They're old. They're nasty- humans, unlike fairies, don't need faith on a basic physical level, but they don't last long without it, either. If it isn't dealt with, a faith-leech will usually kill its host- and leave spectacular collateral damage in all directions, because dream-killers beget dream-killers, and nobody is better at poisoning faith than someone who has absolutely none left themselves. That's why faith-leeches died out- supposedly died out, he reminds himself, because this one still looks pretty bloody lively- because humanity as a whole no longer had enough faith to spare, and faith-leeches aren't bright enough to limit the damage they do. Once latched onto a human, draining their belief,they will eventually take it all.
He hates to think how long this one must have been feeding, killing Martin's faith inch by thirsty inch, completely unnoticed until its host's behaviour happened to catch Fairy's disapproving eye-
"See, this is not my department, definitely not under my purview, this sort of thing- oh god duck-"
The faith-leech barrels forwards. Tracy throws himself flat, dragging Martin down with him. They land heavily behind a rather nice leather sofa, and the faith-leech strikes the wall and splashes, foaming outwards across the flat surface.
"This isn't real," gasps Martin, into the floor. He sounds like a man who has just managed to cram five hours worth of sobering up into just under five seconds. "It can't be real."
"Oh, brilliant, brilliant, glad that's sorted- do you want to tell it that, or shall I?"
"What did you do? The window-"
"Simple mirror spell, not much to it- well, for a fairy-"
"But you don't look anything like a fairy!" Martin wails.
Tracy, who has been peering nervously over the top of the sofa, trying to ascertain the dream-leech's whereabouts, stops, and looks down at him.
Thanks for that, that really helps, he wants to say. Tell you what, if you could just sort of shelve your ableist preconceptions for the moment and focus on the thing that's trying to kill us in the most hideous manner imaginable, that'd be lovely. Alright?
What he actually says is, "Disguise. A glamour, basically, standard procedure, dealing with mortals, because- because, if you'd seen what I really looked like, ha, you would have absolutely wet yourself the moment you opened the door. Oh, yes, very, extremely eldritch and impressive, believe me. But we don't want it to know that, do we? Lull it into a false sense of security, that's the plan here."
"Oh," says Martin, and all of a sudden Tracy feels very slightly less sick, because- despite the dazed, dreaming tone- Martin believes. Believes in a flat-out lie, yes, admittedly, but it's a start.
The faith-leech is circling the ceiling, moving in a tight, concentrated swirling pattern, prowling like a big cat about to pounce. It wants back on its host, and it wants this maddening interloper out of the way, and it's not about to give up either objective without a fight. Tracy watches it, warily. After a moment, Martin recovers himself sufficiently to kneel up and join him.
"Can you... can we kill it?"
Tracy manages a wry smirk. At least Martin is reasonably quick on the uptake. Functioning, upright, lucid- well, just about, anyway- he's doing better than a lot of humans would in his situation. Ironically, this is probably a symptom of the dream-leech in itself- denial takes belief, if only in a comforting scenario of your own making, and Martin just doesn't have enough left even for that.
"Tricky. You can't hurt it with ordinary objects, I'm afraid- not going to be able to just hop up and clock it with a chair."
Martin stares at the faith-leech with horrified eyes. "Oddly enough, the thought hadn't occurred."
"Where does that door go? Big one just there?"
"Uh, the kitchen-"
"Right, well, on three, we're going to make a run for it. One..."
Tracy skids into the pitch-black room, decides as the door slams behind him that he doesn't have time to faff about hunting for the light-switch, and forks a quick cantrip at the high halogen spots. They blink and spark and snap on, leaving him and Martin blinking in the sudden glare of a kitchen that looks as if it was installed yesterday by a company that usually specialises in designing government labs. Steel glows. Tiles shine. Tracy whistles.
"Wow. This must have cost a couple of quid, who set all this up?"
"I'll give you their website," says Martin. He's leaning heavily against something which is either a fridge or a cryogenic storage unit, his forehead pressed against the cool steel. "If fairies use the Internet."
Tracy opens a couple of cupboards. "There has got to be something useful in here. Got any herbs, or-"
Something hits the kitchen door with an almighty thump, rattling it in its frame. A pause, and then a thin, ominous grey mist starts to seep around the edges, trickling through the narrow gap and beginning to pool on the spotless floor. Tracy backs up until he hits the oven.
"In your own time!"
Martin snatches at a drawer. "Uh- uh- oregano?"
"Oregano? Right, of course, because it's well-known for its mystical qualities, isn't it, oregano? You call yourself a Shakespeare buff, you ever heard the three witches going 'eye of newt, toe of frog, sprinkling of oregano?'
"How was I supposed to know?"
Tracy lunges for a puffy-padded oven-glove hanging from a hook, pulls it on. "Oh, sorry, you've only written twenty-seven books exclusively about fairies, obviously silly of me to expect you to have done any research whatsoever! Just use your head! Salt- do you have any salt?"
Martin grabs a steel shaker from the counter and tosses it. He's wide, but Tracy fields it with one long arm, pops the cap, and pours a generous measure into his protected palm.
"Here we go-"
The last vestiges of the faith-leech drain from the edges of the door, and in the space of a second the dark rolling puddle pulls itself together and rises up, building into a bulging thunderhead that turns hungrily towards Martin like a blind shark seeking lunch. Just as it bunches up to strike, Tracy steps in front of him and hurls the handful of salt hard, sending a slash of bright powder hissing crosswise into its churning bulk.
The faith-leech recoils, screeching, another silent, terrible sound, a fistful of nails dragged down a chalkboard at the heart of a black hole. Across the kitchen, glass-fronted cabinets explode into shrapnel, sending debris showering across the counter. Tracy winces and shields his glasses with the oven glove. Foul vapour rises from the faith-leech's bubbling cloudy mass, suckery tendrils thrashing in all directions as it writhes in agony.
"Get the door!"
Martin's there, elbowing the handle, piling helter-skelter out into the main room with Tracy just behind him. The air reeks of spilled whiskey and the burnt-sugar-electric tang of magic. Tracy shucks off the oven glove, looking around wildly.
"That's never going to hold it long, we're only making it angry! We've got to find something strong enough to-"
He never finishes his sentence, because at that moment the faith-leech slams out of the kitchen and hurls after them in a splaying, spasming streak. It smashes into Tracy with bruising force, knocking him off his feet. He hits the hardwood floor beneath the bookshelves shoulders-first, the dream-leech piling ravenously into his thin chest like acid candyfloss, burrowing intangible tendrils through his shirt, through skin, flesh, bone. Somewhere, he can hear Martin yelling, but it's incredibly far off, and he feels-
-heavy, paralysed, helpless. He's way out of his depth, he's drowning, he could die out here in the human world and nobody would care, because he's expendable, of course he's expendable. They sent him out here all alone without so much as a wand to protect himself with, hoping he'd have an accident, hoping something like this would happen so that some other more able fairy can take his place, because no matter how hard he works or how much he believes he'll always be second-best in their eyes. None of them have any faith in him, the crippled liability that he is, impaired, incomplete. Why should they?
He's dimly aware that he should be trying to fight, that something's wrong- but it's all around him now, crushing into his chest, and the worst part is that this feeling isn't strange, it isn't alien to him at all. This is how he always feels, in some small briskly-fenced-in place in his head, whenever he senses their stares on him, their pitying glances, their careful whispers behind his empty back. It's an old friend, a part of him- this choking, killing despair- and he can't believe he was stupid enough to ever believe-
It's a horrible, wet sound- very close and shockingly loud. It's thick and explosive and rushing, and the world comes rushing back with it, as if he was underwater and someone has just cannonballed in directly over his head, parting the sea. Tracy gasps once, hugely, and twists away, curling up, wheezing into the floor.
After a moment, he lifts his head, which still feels far too heavy. His chest feels cold and punctured- violated- his ears are ringing, and his back is soaked with sweat under his perfect dove-grey shirt, but he's still sharp enough to take in the scene in front of him, and understand it.
Martin is backing off, hands out, white as a sheet. The faith-leech, dislodged from Tracy's chest, is sliding slowly across the floor towards him. It appears oddly flattened, lumpy, dragging along like an animal that's taken a glancing blow from a speeding car. It seems to have solidified, or at least half-liquefied, sagging under its own bloated weight, leaving a scummy oil-slick trail in its wake.
The object that did this unbelievable damage is still lying where it slipped from Martin's nerveless fingers. It's one of his awards- the big, heavy one, shaped like a growing tree.
Trying not to think too hard about what he is about to do, Tracy scrambles across the floor towards it. Senses and balance still shot to hell, feet slipping drunkenly on the polished wood, he bears a striking resemblance to a swatted daddy-long-legs trying to take off.
The wounded faith-leech senses movement behind it and starts to turn on him, but before it can, Tracy grabs the award. One-handed, glasses askew, teeth bared in a manic grimace, he swings it above his head and slams it down, hard- once, twice. Goo splashes across the floor in thick gouts, and he makes a disgusted, agonised noise and staggers to his feet. He chucks the award hard across the space between himself and Martin, who catches it to his chest, his bewildered, appalled eyes nailed to the thrashing thing on the floor.
"It's got to be you, Martin, it's yours!"
Tracy, one hand clamped under his arm and eyes squeezed tight-shut, says something that, roughly translated, vents his opinions about parasites, humans, fairies, bureaucracy, and several other choice topics that he happens to be feeling quite strongly about at the moment. English might be the lingua franca this millennium, but nothing rivals the Old Speech when it comes to having a good old swear.
"For god's sake, SQUASH THE BLOODY THING!"
The faith-leech screams. Martin stares down at it. It's still grasping upwards, spitting up tendrils like twisted snarls of wet-black hair, trying to reach him. Trying to feed.
His eyes narrow.
On the third strike, the faith-leech pops like an ink-filled balloon. An arterial jet of grey ooze splatters across the floor, the books, Martin's front. There's a final queasy sound that tears at the very edge of hearing, a silent death-rattle- and then true, blessed, ordinary silence rolls back in to fill the void.
Martin stands like a statue- amost in the attitude of one, back too straight, hand to chest. When Tracy turns to him, he rocks back as if slapped, the sludge-soaked trophy clattering to the floor.
"Th- thhhhh-" Tracy's too adrenaline-fried, too out of breath to talk. He waves a bear-with-me finger, then sags, against the wall, sucking in air.
"Third time's the charm," he manages, finally, in a high wheeze, then ducks again, gasping.
"Isn't it always?" says Martin. Tracy manages a tired giggle, and after a moment, Martin laughs too. It's a fragile sound, rusty from disuse. He's out of breath as well, leaning back against the splattered bookshelves, his wiry, disarrayed hair sticking to his forehead with sweat.
"I- I thought you said it couldn't be hurt by ordinary objects."
Tracy tucks his hand behind his back and looks down at the award for a moment, gathering his thoughts. Someone- one of Martin's neighbours- is banging angrily on the wall next door. Tracy can hardly blame them. A lot has happened since he first set foot in Martin's apartment, barely ten minutes and several hundred years ago, and none of it has been very quiet.
"I did say that, yep- but, but, it's not an ordinary object, is it? Can't get much more extraordinary than an award. All those people, wanting you to have it, believing you deserve it- that thing, right there, is a tangible symbol of their absolute faith in Martin Blake. Poor old leechface over there didn't stand a chance. I mean, not to belabour the point or anything, but I'd bear that in mind, if I were you."
A faint prickly-buzzing sensation from his waistcoat pocket draws his attention. Blinking, he rummages inside one-handed and pulls out the summons, stares- then grins and turns it over, showing it to Martin. It's wiped clean, shiny-blank on both sides.
"Looks like you're off the hook," he says. "Sentence rescinded due to the mitigating circumstances currently spread all over your floor. You're going to want to get that up quickly, by the way- all that antifideous ectoplasm is going to be a nightmare to shift once it sets."
Martin nods, dazedly. Then he looks up at Tracy- studies him, thoughtfully. His eyes are shocked and wet and sore-looking, but no longer flat, or dead. He looks like someone who is just starting to wake up from a long, painful sleep.
"This... is what you really look like, isn't it? You were lying. This is actually you."
"Er... what makes you say that?"
Martin shrugs. "Like you said. Twenty-seven books, I've done my research, and that is no glamour."
He points. Tracy's expression takes on a slightly defensive edge.
"Right, not sure where this is going-"
"Because you just look like you," says Martin. "You don't need to look like anything else, do you? You don't need wings, or a wand- call it writer's conceit, shock, whatever, but I can just tell, alright?This is just- this is just who you are."
Tracy blinks, surprised, starting to grin. A human who has spent who-knows-how-many months or even years as a faith-leech's private all-you-can-eat buffet is not the first place he would have expected to look to find any kind of reassurance, but then, Martin is quite an extraordinary human. After the number the faith-leech did on him, in the seconds it was latched on- he still hasn't forgotten that awful, draining misery- Martin's words are welcome, warming.
He is him, Tracy, competent and complete, and he has a job to do.
"Well... yep, yes, you got me there," he admits. "This is me, you're right. Little bit of misdirection, just trying to get you going. Worked, though, so don't knock it... what about you, though, you think you'll be alright?"
Quietly. While his left hand squirrels into his pocket- the other pocket- while his chest notches up yet another small familiar twist of regret, because while Martin can heal now, can recover, can write the next Harriet Skull, can believe again-there's one thing he can't do.
The Rules are the Rules, after all.
"Yeah," says Martin, slowly, then again, more firmly, nodding into Tracy's approving mile-wide smile. "Yeah. I will."
His face goes regulation-blank when the bright puff of amnesia dust hits him, leaving him wrinkling his nose and blinking slowly at what is suddenly a perfectly empty (and spectacularly wrecked) living-room. For a moment he simply stands there, like a robot that's run out of orders, until the sound of the front door closing with a quiet, precise little click echoes through from the hallway, breaking the spell.
Then his brow crumples, and he clutches his chest, knuckles digging in above the high point of his sternum.
"It feels so light, he says, to nobody in particular, and- exhaustedly, unashamedly- he starts to cry.
Tracy jogs down the stairwell, stopping just short of DI LUVS CHEZ, and prepares to Cross back can't wait to get home, back to the bustle of the Dock, back to his small office where a small mountain of paperwork is no doubt waiting for him by now, piling up in drifts in the wake of this little incident. When it comes to paperwork, Fairy does not do things by halves.
He looks down, somewhat ruefully, at his right hand, sucks in a hissing breath. His splayed palm is already swelling, taking on an angry, scalded sort of look. A blister the size of a penny is rising in the pad of his thumb, and the whole thing blazes furiously under his skin, like he's voluntarily grabbed a hot poker. The irony isn't lost on Tracy- he can't help wondering who, exactly, had originally taken the interesting decision that an award given to the world's best spinner of fairytales should obviously be crafted from rowanwood and solid iron.
Tracy's not at all sorry that he refrained from giving Martin the whole truth- Martin will need all the self-belief he can get to start off with, just to build back up to an average, human level- but he's not easy in his mind, either. The bigger implications of the thing that was quietly killing Martin Blake are deeply worrying. If the parasites are coming back, what else might be lurking at the edges of the human world? Who knows what could be lying low out there? Unseen, unlooked for, getting stronger, while Lily and the rest of her lot up there in the Ivory Tower turn a blind eye and keep everyone hard at work reinforcing the Rules and punishing infractions, focusing on the small stuff. To Lily, humans are simple sources of belief, faith-generators, teeth-generators, otherwise unimportant.
It's been too long. Fairy's fallen so far out of touch with the human world, and Tracy sometimes wonders if he- and the others like him, working on the frontline, shoring up the slipping tides of belief- are the only ones who can see that.
Godmothers, he's tired. He needs to get home, he needs to fix his hand- a trip up to Medical and a bag of frozen peas are probably in order- and he needs to sleep, before he passes out right here in the stairwell like the world's longest and most neatly-tailored draught excluder. Then, maybe- before the next case lands on his desk, before the next irritating, maddening, fascinating human with a crisis of faith shows up and demands his time, he can think.
Think- and maybe even plan.
Tracy- who, even burned and bone-weary, can never stay solemn for long- grins in anticipation. When he fades from the world, the grin is the last thing to go. It hangs in the air, lingering like the last trace of a certain cat from a certain tale- then vanishes completely.