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The pain was nothing new. Remy had been dealing with agony--in different forms--all his life.
He rolled over and pushed himself to his feet. Blood caked his shoulder and the side of his face, and he was limping until the Dark symbiote living inside him forced the broken edges of the bones in his lower leg together, knitting them into wholeness. The pain decreased, but he was still drawing in huge gasping breaths and spitting out blood when the call came.
Only it wasn't a call. It was more like a buzzing inside the very center of his head, a tugging toward ... what? More trouble, certainly. He didn't need more trouble. What he needed was to find whatever it was the Brotherhood was scurrying around to find, and take it to Circle Lightfall. He'd already retrieved several artifacts and made himself a name as a quick and deadly opponent.
Except I'm just a glorified garbage man, he thought bitterly. A baby-sitter for old hunks of Power-soaked junk instead of a true Watcher.
"Maybe I shouldn't have killed him," he said out loud, the chill night wind rising and pouring through the broken windows, stripping his hair back from his face. He wiped the blood away and winced as his shoulder twitched, the flesh closing over quickly. It was a pale attempt at a joke. He'd been sloppy. The Brotherhood operative could have killed him, and that would put a distinct wrinkle in a Watcher's day.
He picked up the black rune-chased knives. They marked him as a Watcher just as the Darkness in him did. Then he looked back at the scorched, still-smoking patch of floor. The Brotherhood had sent some of its worst out here to themiddle of nowhere, and for what? An empty iron casket buried underneath a hunk of marble flooring in an old abandoned church. Only the marble had been torn up and the casket exposed, left lying broken in front of the hole. Someone else had gotten here first. Someone had outdone both Remy and the Brotherhood.
Who would dig up a church floor without knowing what was underneath it? Someone might have found some mention of the Trifero and followed the same clues he had. Although how somebody else could have found it when it had taken him a full month of poring over research texts and a careful mixture of threats, coercion, and charm to even get a whisper of it, he didn't want to guess. It was too depressing.
Remy paused, looking down at the empty casket. There was a faint, tempting glitter inside its cracked darkness.
He crouched down. The Brotherhood assassin had come out of the choir loft. Embarrassingly predictable. Let that be the end of it. I don't feel like killing anything else tonight. It was bad enough that the Brotherhood kept a flash-spell on their operatives to destroy any evidence of their existence. Once you killed a Brotherhood operative, the body burst into blue flame. It was annoying, but he could see why they did it. Still, did they have to make it smell so awful?
The broken iron casket wasn't empty. There was a snapped silver chain caught on a twisted sliver of iron. Someone had yanked on something after breaking the casket open. An amulet or a necklace--something on a chain.
So the Trifero could be worn, but it was now loose. It would help if he had come across a description or a drawing of it, but the Church had been cautious. Very cautious. They'd stolen the Stone of Destruction from a Lightbringer--the last European fire witch to survive past childhood--and hidden it here, in a French church.
Remy blew out a dissatisfied breath. There was enough ambient Power hanging around in this little church to give him the scent. He could track the Trifero.
Maybe that was the buzzing in his head. But an artifact had never called him before.
He picked up the chain, letting out a short sharp sound as the Power bit him. The Trifero was nothing to mess with. It was awake and on the move. The Talisman of fire and destruction was rattling around in the world now, ready to cause some havoc.
Damn. Now the Brotherhood would be tracking it too. And the gods alone knew where it might end up next.
Remy scooped up the casket as well. He would take it in with the chain and the Trifero when he found it. Hopefully this time he would get an assignment that would put him in proximity with a Lightbringer or two. It hurt, true, but how could he ever find his witch if Circle Lightfall kept sending him on these Easter egg hunts?
Like you deserve a witch, you animal. The Darkness in his bones twisted a little at the thought of a Lightbringer. Even the thought hurt. It was agony to be near any of them, and Remy was just crazy enough to keep hoping even through the pain. Hope was like a drug, even to a Watcher. He hadn't even seen a Lightbringer for four damn years now, too busy chasing down the little bits of Power Circle Lightfall just had to have.
A nice little Lightbringer, he thought, winding the silver chain up and slipping it into one of the pockets of his long black leather coat. The Watcher uniforms hadn't changed much since the seventeenth century, long black coats and utilitarian breeches. Some Watchers wore T-shirts and others went for a sort of poet's shirt thing that made it easier to hide weapons. Remy himself liked T-shirts. The long-sleeved, blousy things that were the alternative seemed a little fruity for serious work. Maybe it was just the macho in him.
A nice, quiet little witch to ease the pain. It would be easier to watch over one little witch than to chase ancient artifacts all over hell and creation. And it would be good to be taken care of, have his clothes mended and maybe a decent meal once in a while. Most witches were good cooks and liked fussing over their Watchers.
As long as I'm dreaming, I'll take a Corvette and a house up in Hollywood too. I don't deserve a Lightbringer and I know it. Why even think about it?
He shook his head, examining the church one more time. He hated this sort of thing. The good news was the Trifero was on the move. Moving, it would cause a disturbance he could easily track. The bad news was that the Brotherhood was also hunting it, and it would cause a disturbance they would easily track.
"No Lightbringer for me," Remy said to the dusty, moth-eaten silence inside the church. The marble flooring was scarred--maybe the Trifero was why the place hadn't been looted for fixtures. The artifact would have made psychics seriously uncomfortable and given normal people a sense of foreboding. The wonder was that the church hadn't burned down. But then, if a Crusader under the aegis of the Church placed the Trifero here, he would have bound it to stay still and not cause any harm until it was found again.
"Just a glorified garbage man, sorting through trash and bringing home the trinkets." And talking to myself again. Maybe it's time for that psych evaluation. He kicked at the floor with the toe of one heavy boot, and then stood, shrugging a little to make sure his weapons-harness fell correctly. "I should never have signed up for this."
Except he hadn't had any choice. This was his last chance. It was either being a Watcher or rotting in a solitary cell for the rest of his life. They had offered him an opportunity to make his life worth something, and here he was, complaining to himself in the middle of an abandoned French church after midnight. He didn't mind traveling the world and seeing new sights, but he was getting tired of international food and missing the little things about the States.
He should definitely never have signed up for this.
Well, too late now. And was that the Brotherhood's backup, flitting through the shadows? Of course. They never went anywhere alone. Bad for the Brotherhood if any of its operatives started thinking on their own.
Remy sighed and half-turned, a gun appearing in his left hand, held low and ready.
Time to get back to work.
Elise Nicholson set her guitar case down, sighed, and yawned, her ears popping slightly. She was drenched in sweat and bone-tired, and the heat hadn't helped any. Heat made most people crazy, and today had been a regular end-of-August scorcher. Elise actually liked summer, but gods above, she hated dealing with crazy people.
They'd played a whole set, and the bar crowd had been too busy fighting with each other to notice. Almost tore the damn place down. Even minor celebrity hadn't fully prepared Elise for the pain of being ignored by a bunch of restless drunks.
She'd been tempted to use a little bit of fire to restore order, but that wouldn't have been good, would it? It would have been childish of her to set a troublemaker's shoes afire. Or, gods forbid, lose control of her temper and set someone's hair on fire. She had contemplated it, though, and derived great satisfaction from the mental images. Too much satisfaction.
Even thinking about it now made sparks pop from her fingers. Elise grimaced and took a deep breath. Control is your best friend, she reminded herself. I have a gift to help people, not to set their hair on fire. Although it really would have helped me feel a lot better.
She leaned against the door and let her shoulders drop. Here inside her house, she could let her shields down a bit, let the tough front slip away a little. Let her neck stop its relentless aching and quit holding herself so tightly.
Just as she finally relaxed, the phone rang. Elise dropped her purse--an antique black-leather camera case with a long leather strap--and walked across the bare hardwood floor, down the hall into the living room. The punching bag swayed gently as she entered the room, and she spared it a single glance.
My temper must be really bad. She scooped up the sleek black cordless. "Hey, Theo. Tomorrow? Only before four, baby."
"You must be psychic." Theo's voice crackled over the phone, amused and serene. She sounded happy, at least, and Elise closed her eyes and concentrated. She could almost see Theo leaning against the glassed-in counter next to the cash register. Theo sounded happy more often than not these days. At least that was an unmitigated blessing. "I was going to ask if you could pull a shift for me tomorrow. Tina's getting out of the hospital, and I want her to be settled, and--"
Elise rolled her head back on her shoulders. Her neck hurt. She'd walked six blocks in the heat, carrying the guitar case. "Sure I can. I don't have to be at the Liberty to meet Vann and Trevor until four-thirty. I'm working all Sunday night at Brixo's to get some tips so I can spend Full Moon with you guys." And tire myself out so I can sleep. She took another long slow breath in. Static buzzed on the phone, subsided.
Theo was silent for a beat. Elise imagined Theo, her long dark hair pulled back from her pretty, serene face, frowning just a little. "Elise?" she said, quietly, and Elise shut her eyes. "Everything okay?"
How could I tell you if it wasn't, Theo? You've got enough to deal with. "I guess. It was a rough set tonight. The new drummer's a greenhorn, but he'll work out okay, I think."
Theo's silence intensified. Theo would be wearing her "listening look" now, as if Elise was one of her patients. She never could resist a stray cat, or someone who looked down on their luck. That was how the Watchers had horned their way into Theo and Mari's lives.
Sparks popped from the fingers of Elise's free hand. I don't want to think about that. It will only make me upset. I don't need that. Let's hope I can sleep tonight.
"Elise." A calm, firm tone, as if Elise had started to cry. "It's about Mark, isn't it?"
"I don't want to talk about that," Elise said hurriedly. "I'm just tired, that's all, and I had a bunch of barflies almost start a riot while I was onstage. It took some doing to insulate myself from that. Look, Theo, I hate to be rude, but I've got to catch some winks, okay?"
There was another silence, and Elise heard another voice. Male, a deep growling bass, saying something to Theo. That would be Dante. He would, of course, be hovering over Theo, his black eyes flicking everywhere at once, gauging the environment and watching for possible threats whenever he wasn't staring at Theo as if she was his own personal saint.
The thought of Dante and Hanson--the Watchers--made a cold shiver go up Elise's spine. Nobody that big, carrying that much weaponry, is trustworthy. She rubbed at her forehead, feeling the sweat-slick skin and grimacing.
Theo finally sighed. "All right," she said, her tone neutral. "Dante just reminded me that we have another request from Circle Lightfall. We're going to discuss it at Full Moon."
Elise's shoulders sagged under this new weight. "My answer's going to be the same. I don't want anything to do with it. Haven't they done enough?" Anger started in the pit of her belly, a familiar warmth having nothing to do with the muggy air. A comforting, familiar, friendly feeling with razor spikes up and down its broad back.
Anger. Her oldest and most faithful friend.
Her only faithful friend.
Theo sighed again. "I know. Your vote has always been no, and we have to be unanimous for us to take any action having to do with Circle Lightfall. I understand."
"I don't know, Theo. If you understood--and if your pet chunk of hunk understood--would you keep asking me?" Her tone was sharp enough to draw blood.
The moment she said it, she regretted it. "Oh, Theo," she continued, hearing the whining, mortified note in her own voice and hating herself for it. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to imply--"
"Understood and forgiven," Theo said immediately. Her voice was soothing, restful, and full of the smell of rich brown earth. Theo could hypnotize a wounded animal into calmness with that voice. Elise had seen her do it. "Don't give it any more thought. I'll see you tomorrow."
"You bet. Blessed be." Elise's free hand curled into a fist.
"Blessed be," Theo replied.
Elise hit the "talk" button to disconnect and laid the phone back in its base. The punching bag swayed again. She'd mounted it into a ceiling beam, and it creaked a little as it moved.
She regarded it, dropping down onto the folded-up futon couch set along the wall so she could look out the windows at night. Night was when she had the most trouble, really. Night was when everything seemed bleakest, and her life stretched out in front of her like a dead carnival, the rides busted-out and broken-down, all the people gone and the trash drifted up in corners. Night was when she felt the most vulnerable, because the things that lived in the darkness were hungry, and her anger could keep them at bay only so long. Anger only put the pain off, it didn't take it away. And the more it hurt, the more Elise felt furious, a vicious cycle.
And yet night was when she felt most awake. The constant prodding of her anger was the only companion in the darkness. The gods knew men didn't stick around, and her friends were too busy with the Watchers to pay much attention to Elise anymore.
She unlaced her knee-high combat boots and dropped them to the side, then fished an elastic band out of the pocket of her frayed, skintight jeans. The leather bustier would chafe, but it would keep her chest reasonably under control. She reached up, scraping her hair back, and twisted it into a bun, winding the elastic around to keep it up. Maybe soon she'd get that punk pixie haircut she'd been thinking about. But she was vain about her hair, though wild horses wouldn't have pulled that admission from her. It was her one concession to femininity.
She walked over to the punching bag, her bare feet whispering over the smooth hardwood floor. There was a pair of fingerless sparring gloves lying neatly on the floor right under the black bag. She yanked them on roughly and glanced across the room to the neat wooden bookshelf that held nothing but books. There was a low black lacquered table that held a single Shasta daisy in a long, thin black raku vase she had fired herself. Next to the daisy was a small statue of a goddess with a lion's head seated on a throne.
Sekhmet. The destructive fire of the sun, the Eye of Ra. Four thin red tapers, pristine in plain copper holders, graced the table as well.
Elise closed her eyes, centered herself. As usual, the rage welled up inside her, looking for an outlet. Rage--and something uncomfortably like pain. It hurt. All the way down to her bones, it hurt.
If you do not control the Power, it will control you, Suzanne's voice said, dry and academic. Fire is the most helpful of elements--and also the most destructive.
Suzanne. Her teacher, the closest thing to a mother she'd ever had, the woman who had believed both in Elise's talent with music and her talent with magick. The only person Elise had ever totally trusted.
Dead and gone.
When Elise opened her eyes again, she threw the first punch. The bag shuddered.
Right hook. Jab. Jab. Kick, left hook, kick, jab, cover your face! Work it, work it, hit it!
The sweat filming her now started to bead up and roll off. She punched the bag, worked it hard, using knees and fists and her elbows too. The crisp, clean punches began to blur, and before she realized it, she was hitting the bag with no finesse, no technique. Just pounding on it. And right on cue, the most hurtful thought of all showed up.
She hadn't seen it coming. What was the good of being a witch if she hadn't seen it coming? She hadn't had any warning at all. Just bam! One fine morning, she'd been prodded out of sleep by a phone call. Vann calling, his voice stunned and calm. Elise, I've got some bad news.
And that bad news was Mark, dead under a drunk driver's bumper. Walking home from the bar they'd played in.
She hadn't known. She hadn't even known. No premonition of disaster at all. No inkling that anything was wrong. What was the bloody good of being a witch if it didn't warn you about your on-again-off-again boyfriend's impending death?
The funeral, with Vann holding her arm and Mark's parents and little brother glaring at her, had been a particular type of hell. Mark's parents were conservative fundamentalists, and the way they looked at Elise and Vann was as if some particularly foul things had crawled up out of the sewers into their solemn occasion and let out a stink bomb. Nobody had spoken to either of them. Of course, Vann had been wearing a black polyester suit direct from the disco era, and Elise, while dressed conservatively in a knee-length black dress, was still the only woman there wearing silk stockings and a nose ring. She honestly hadn't thought that she would be so out of place.
Mark's mother had hissed something highly uncomplimentary at her. Elise had been too busy trying to hold back tears, or she could have told the woman about her husband's affairs--or the case of the clap he was going to give her soon. At least Elise was witch enough to know about that. She hadn't said a single, solitary word.
But oh, she had been tempted. So tempted.
And she couldn't even leave this stinking place. She'd sworn to stay, with Mari and Theo, as a Guardian of the City. She couldn't leave now even if she tried. She'd taken a bus out to the city limits and tried to step over, but the invisible line in the air--like a smooth glass wall, nothing for her to grab onto so she could break it--had pulled her up short. She had the uncomfortable feeling that if she was driving a car she would have wrecked it, crashed into the invisible barrier at full speed.
Sometimes life really sucked. The thing was, Elise didn't want to leave. This was home. She loved Santiago City, loved the bay and the freeways and the river, loved the University District and the East Side, loved everything about the town. She was just beginning to make it as a singer, and her art was hanging in galleries. She was known here. Respected sometimes, even.
When she was too exhausted to punch anymore, she dropped the gloves back where they had been and went to lock the front door. The rage wasn't gone. It lay beneath the surface of her mind, waiting, receded only enough that she could breathe and shove the thought of Mark under some black mental blanket.
Denial isn't healthy, Elise. Suzanne's voice, calm and precise.
She whirled, her green eyes wide and wild. Searching.
Bare white walls, bare wood floor, futon, punching bag, bookshelf, table. That was all. Nothing else.
Elise's ribs flared as she panted, breathing in the still, muggy air. She hadn't turned the heat pump on to provide air-conditioning, just left the ceiling fan on and the windows open upstairs. The air was absolutely still, humidity hanging like a wet blanket over the entire city. "Suzanne?" she whispered. The sweat-soaked leather of her bustier chafed under her armpits and cut into her lower back. "Suzanne?"
She repeated it, stupidly, for a third time, but no breath of air stirred in the entire house. She lived in a duplex, but the McCarrens had moved out last month and there wasn't a tenant yet. She still had to go through a pile of applications and pick a new lucky neighbor.
Nothing. There was nothing there.
"Goddess." The word fell flat against the floor. She hugged herself, suddenly shivering, gooseflesh standing out on her wet skin. "I miss you, boss," she whispered, and looked at the low lacquered table.
The candles stood there, waiting. Elise narrowed her eyes, felt the heat rise behind her skin. It was so easy to call fire, to bring it out of the air. It was behind the surface of even ordinary things, and just needed the right touch to release it. She had never understood why other people couldn't do it.
The first candle puffed into life. Clear, ordinary orange flame. Then the second. The third. And the last, the sound of the fire starting a soft puff! There was the smell of burning wax, and the candle flames stood up straight and steady. As always, when she used her gift, it felt like some subliminal steam valve had been released, and the relief was instantaneous. Pressure diminished.
There was a dark mark on the paint of the wall behind the altar, and another darker patch on the ceiling, soot from burning candles every day for the years of her life here.
Elise scrubbed at her wet forehead with the heel of her hand. "I need a vacation," she muttered, and stalked toward the stairs. She wanted a shower and a cup of tea, and then a snuggle in bed with her stuffed flamingo. If she was quiet and still for long enough, she might be able to pretend she was asleep.
There was, after all, nobody to fool but herself.
Twenty minutes later, she wrung the water out of her hair as she stepped out of the bathtub, shrugging into her red silk robe and tying the belt around her waist. She wrapped the towel around her hair again, chafing it gently. A yawn caught her off-guard, so she was yawning and looking into the mirror, swiping aside the condensation so she could see herself, when something hit the very edges of the warding laid on her duplex.
Crap. Elise leapt for her bedroom and was yanking a clean pair of jeans on when it came again. A weak hit, something blundering against the edges of the blanket of protections over her house.
She shrugged into a tank top and shoved her feet into a pair of black canvas slip-ons by her bedroom door. Then it was down the stairs, moving as quietly as she could. Her hands began to throb with Power, tingling in her fingertips.
Elise? It was Mari, faraway and dim. Ever since that awful night in the back room at Tantan's, she had been able to hear Mari sometimes, especially when the anger rose and made Elise's skin burn. Mari's big blue eyes and flyaway golden curls, the sound of ocean waves that seemed to follow Mari just like the smell of burning followed Elise.
Elise jammed a lid on that voice and shoved it away. I love Mari, but I don't want her involved in this--whatever this is. She balled up a fist and flung out her hand as she ran, and her front door unlocked, swinging inward.
She ran out onto her front step, stopped dead, and then jerked to her left. The laurel hedge right next to her door was absolutely still, not even a breath of wind.
That's where it's coming from. Someone in the bushes at the corner of the house? Well, they were going to be sorry when she finished with them.
There was a long howling scream, and something whooshed past her, streaking through the hot night air. Elise's hand jerked up, her hair raying out with static electricity, and a crackling whip of fire arced out from her right hand. It lashed across the thing, which let out a screech.
Slider! she thought grimly, and centered herself. She'd seen scuttling dark things before, but they had been easy to avoid until the Watchers had shown up. One of the dark things with four red eyes and insectile legs had attacked Theo's old shop, almost breaking the glass in its eagerness to get to Theo and drain her like a wineglass, to suck out Theo's wonderful calm light.
Light. That's what the Watchers called psychic women. Lightbringers.
The insect-thing let out another feedback squeal. Elise didn't flinch, though the sound was painful, slicing through her head without going through her ears. She snapped her hands up, the golden glow lining them clearly visible in the darkness, and Power crackled.
"Go ahead. Make my night, buggy. I'll be the last meal you ever attempt."
Because Elise was a Guardian of the City, a fire witch, and generally one tough cookie. She smiled, a hard delighted grin, and the Slider made an uncertain scratching sound.
Dante or Hanson would no doubt attack the thing, if they were here. But they were guys, and testosterone-laden guys at that. Hanson in particular treated Mari like some sort of child who wasn't smart enough to be let out by herself. Elise hated that. She'd dated men with similar brain malfunctions, and didn't know how Mari stood it. Mari just gave a shy smile and--most of the time--gave in. Sometimes she just quietly went ahead and did what she wanted anyway. It was those times that Elise was most impressed with her.
The Slider hesitated, then apparently decided that discretion was the better part of valor. It turned tail and ran, the wind of its passing smelling dry and venomous. Elise blew out a long breath between her lips.
Well, at least my hair's dry now. She flicked her fingers to shake the built-up Power away. Sparks popped. Power's good for something. And so much simpler than going to a salon.
She walked back to her door, feeling the thrill of exhaustion along her nerves. Once again, Elise Nicholson had proved she was the toughest girl around.
Now can I sleep?
The phone rang, shrilly. Elise kicked the door shut, locked it and paced into the living room, hooked up the receiver. "Hello," she said, trying to hide the anger sparking in her body. It was unsuccessful, but at least she tried.
"Elise?" Mari's soft, breathy voice, soothing through the receiver. "I had an awful feeling."
You and me both, sugar pop. "Just one of those insect thingies. I took care of it."
Mari gasped. "Why didn't you call me? I could have asked Hanson to--"
"I don't need him." Elise heard the sharpness in her voice, hating it. Why couldn't she be kind, like Theo? Or gentle, like Mari? Instead, she was the abrasive one. The loudmouth, tough-as-nails, brassy one. The crazy artist. "I can take care of myself. It's okay. I scared it off." She took a deep breath. The candle flames were tall--at least five inches tall--and burning motionlessly, bright blue.
Elise felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. The last time she had seen that, Dante had entered their lives, staring at Theo all the time and bringing all the Circle Lightfall trouble with him. Elise had never seen candles act that way before or since.
"Elise?" Mari sounded uncertain now, and frightened. "There's something else. I can feel it. What's wrong?"
"I'll see you tomorrow," Elise managed around the lump in her throat. "Okay? I'm pulling a shift at the shop before I go to the Liberty."
"Elise." Mari tried again. Elise heard Hanson's voice, asking a quiet question, and she closed her eyes. The dark behind her lids was comforting. But there was nothing to be gained by hiding.
"I have to go, Mari. I'm tired. I love you, good night." She laid the phone back in its charger, disconnecting the call. Then, as if hypnotized, she looked back at the hissing blue candle flames. "Goddess. Not again."
If there was a poker-faced Watcher for Theo, and an overprotective Watcher for Mari, and the candles were spitting blue again, it could only mean that Circle Lightfall was going to try to worm a Watcher into her life. A possible spy who would want to convince her to change her vote and get all three of them into this mysterious organization. They still knew next to nothing about this Circle, and it had already cost them Suzanne. Of course, the fact that Suzanne was haunting them--or was acting as a Guardian on the astral plane, Theo said, though Elise didn't put much stock in that--was a comfort, but it was only a pale comfort.
Of course, if Elise believed in the Craft and lighting fires with her mind, she could believe in the astral plane. It certainly explained a whole hell of a lot.
She made her way back upstairs slowly, stopping every so often because her legs were shaking and wouldn't quite hold her up. She had to lean on the wall for support. And oh boy was she glad nobody was around to see that.
It was exhausting, being tough all the time. Sometimes she wished she could just, for once, relax. Let down her guard.
She shook the thought away. There was no way Circle Lightfall was going to make her do anything she didn't want to do. Elise Nicholson was nobody's fool. She'd looked after herself all her life, thank you very much, and now she was responsible for looking after Theo and Mari too. The Watchers couldn't be trusted, and neither could Circle Lightfall. Elise would just have to take care of it.
When she fell into bed, she was mercifully exhausted enough that her eyes closed of their own accord, and she fell into a dreamless sleep. Now that she knew the worst was coming at last, she could relax.