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I was lying diagonally across the bed on my stomach, ignoring my book in favor of my headache, when I heard John come in. Wild Friday nights we were having, these days. His steps were slow on the stairs; he turned right at the top, away from me. I heard him knock at Maggie’s door and then say something, and faintly, her monosyllabic response. John said something else, Maggie didn’t, and her door closed again.

I could see the hall from where I was lying, I didn’t have to move. John appeared after a minute, face blank and impassive. He paused there, meeting my eyes straight on like he always did.

“I’m sorry I missed dinner,” he said.

“Stars, an apology,” I said, widening my eyes. “I’ve got to mark that on my calendar so I’ll know you’ve fulfilled your quota for the decade.” He didn’t move, not even a muscle in his face. Fuck. Twenty seconds in, and this was already going like I promised myself it wouldn’t. I sighed. “It’s . . . not actually okay, about dinner.” I said. “But I don’t want to fight about it.”

He nodded, and only then crossed the bedroom threshold and shut the door behind him. I watched him unknotting his tie with controlled tugs. He’d been gone when I’d woken up that morning, so it had been a long day. And a bad one, I could tell. Full of people to handle and problems to solve, and right at that moment, I knew I was both to him. Which, okay. That wouldn’t make me want to come home, either.

Except it didn’t make sense, damn it. I’d gotten the call right before Christmas that Maggie had started blowing out light bulbs by the dozen, just three months into her freshman year in a big New York public high school. I’d been a mess of terror and elation until she’d finally arrived on Epiphany, and little better after. Not John, though. He’d been a man on a mission since the moment I’d said yes, I wanted to take her if she wanted to come; he’d moved mountains to make sure she would be safe here. And there’d been this . . . light in him I’d never seen before.

And then she’d shown up and a week later he’d flipped over to unstoppable workaholic mode, and I’d hardly seen him since. It didn’t make sense, and I really didn’t like what I was thinking.

“So,” I said carefully. “Do you suppose we can talk about this without fighting?”

He thought about it, smoothing his jacket over a hanger. “Can we talk about anything without fighting?”

“Point.” We’d been snapping and sniping all week, just constant, wearing friction. Well, okay. We’d been talking to each other like we always did, only these days there was real bite behind it.

We looked at each other across the bedroom, rueful, and it was the first time I’d felt that click between us in days.

John held up two fingers and jogged out the door. I heard him on the stairs, moving much faster than he’d come up. He was back a minute later with his shirt sleeves rolled to the elbow, a bottle of rum and two glasses in hand.

“Yeah, that might work,” I said, nodding. Or it might make things exponentially worse. But if he was game, I was game. He poured silently, and sat by my hip. I propped on my elbows to accept my glass.

He touched rims with me, unsmiling. “To Margaret Angelica?”

“To Maggie,” I agreed, and threw half of it back in one go. John topped me up without batting an eye.

“So,” he said, with all the enthusiasm of a guy lining himself up to get slapped in the face. “How was your day?”

I bit back the first thing that started to come out, about how this would go better if he at least pretended he wanted to be talking to me. Be civil, Dresden, you do know how. “Mmm.” I propped my chin in one hand, glass tucked in the curve of the other. “Not bad. Not great. We did some basic evocation drills in the backyard, just a lot of pure kinetics. I think she had fun.” That was the one thing I had going for me with Maggie: I was her gateway to magic.

I’d tried to prepare myself for all sorts of things when my daughter came home at last. I’d spent days reminding myself that she would be upset to leave her foster family, that I was taking her away from a normal life, that she’d be homesick and need a lot of support.

I hadn’t prepared for a kid who’d been through five families in the past eight years, and who wanted to make it clear from day one that she didn’t give a damn. Not about moving halfway across the country, not about starting mid-year at an exclusive private school, not about John’s money, definitely not about some DNA she and I happened to share. Margaret Angelica didn’t need anything or anybody, fuck you very much. Stupid of me not to see that one coming, but what can you do.

That was a lot of families. Bad luck, a layoff, and a foreclosure had destroyed her first placement; I suspected after that Maggie had just stopped playing plucky orphan and no one had ever gotten a good hold on her since. You couldn’t fault her instincts, I guess.

The only thing she occasionally betrayed interest in was magic. And I knew, if we were ever going to build any sort of relationship, it would be in the evenings we spent in the backyard or in my basement lab, because that was the only time she ever seemed to hear what I was saying.

Well. She also thought Mouse was all right. But it was impossible not to like Mouse.

“Have you gotten a clearer picture of her aptitudes?” John asked. Okay, yes, he was handling me right now, going through this script of careful questions. But it was kind of working, so I didn’t really care.

“Sort of,” I said. “She’s not in a place where I can safely have her work with enough raw elemental force to get a clear picture. But she seems really interested in potion brewing, so we’re going to focus there for a while. It’s an interesting field. Needs a lot of intuition, lateral thinking.”

“And she’s a bookworm,” John said, nodding. Oh, huh, that was a point. She read voraciously, and that probably did train the mind to the symbol-metaphor sideways think of brewing.

“Was she at least polite to you, just now?” I asked.

He see-sawed one hand in the air, making a slight face. “Passably.” She’d tested us for the first time just ten days in. She’d neatly ducked Hendricks when school let out and taken advantage of her freedom to zip across town to the Chicago Public Library until Gard tracked her down. The first part was impressive, but really not funny; I privately thought the second part was hilarious and pretty awesome.

I’d been unavailable on a bit of Warden’s business, so John was the one yanked out of a meeting to deal with it. I don’t know what all was said, but it had been really, really tempting to reverse his five day ban on magic when she’d come begging to me, just to be good cop for a little while. I hadn’t, but it was a close thing. John had been immediately upgraded from ignorable irritation to public enemy number one, but considering he’d made a career out of being comfortable with that, he didn’t seem to mind.

“So, what about you?” I said, gamely willing to do my part for the not-fighting olympics. “How was your day.”

Something flickered fast across his face. “Yes, about that,” he said. Ruh-row.

“You finally going to tell me what’s been eating you?” I asked. I knew what my problem was; I’d been projecting all my frustration with Maggie onto him. It was one of those things I just couldn’t stop, even as I could see myself doing it every time. That, and I was pissed at him. But I had no idea what John’s problem was, except for a few unpleasant theories -- about Amanda Beckitt’s legacy, for example.

I knew one thing for sure, at least. Maggie had walked into the house the first morning, and when John had introduced himself and she’d hit him with that cool I am not impressed with whoever the fuck you think you are look, he’d melted like butter in front of a blow torch. She was surly and defensive and uncommunicative, and he liked her. He was nuts about her. I mean, I was too, but she was my kid. John was just weird. So at least we had that.

John drained his glass in two large swallows, then balanced it on his knee. He leaned forward, eyes steady. “There’s a new S.A.C. in the F.B.I. Chicago Field Office,” he said. “A high-flyer, lots of ambition.”

“Okay…”

“She’s decided to pin her career on bringing me down,” he said calmly.

It didn’t even make sense to me for a few seconds. And then I got it, and the shock washed cold into my extremities. Hell’s motherfucking bells, I hadn’t seen that one coming.

Which was insane, obviously. I mean, I worried about him, but it was mostly about some asshole out there getting smart or fast or lucky enough to put a bomb under John’s car or a bullet in his twisted brain. It was the same way he worried about something coming along and setting me on fire instead of the other way around, for once. Cost of doing business stuff.

But it had never occurred to me for a second that – that –

“Is she going to do it?” I asked.

He pursed his lips. “Unlikely. But it’s possible.”

“All righty,” I exhaled. “Anything I may have said or thought loudly in your direction about how you haven’t had my back for the past few weeks . . . let’s just cancel it, okay?” I took a long swallow. The burn spread through me, counteracting a shaky numbness. Stars and stones.

“Done,” John said. He shifted a little closer and rested his hand on the back of my neck. “There are contingency plans,” he said. “Which won’t be necessary, if I have my way.” And John Marcone almost always had his way.

“Should I be . . . doing something?” I asked.

He wet his thumb and ran it around the rim of his glass, making a faint, musical ring. “I own several people in her office. Some of her evidence has already . . . mysteriously vanished. And there are plenty of local and federal officials putting pressure on her to pipe down.” His mouth twisted. “But I suspect she’s the type to dig in instead. She may approach you. Don’t say anything – just refer her to the lawyers. I’m pretty sure I can keep her away from Maggie.”

“Okay,” I said slowly. That had been an awkward little intro meeting: ‘welcome to Chicago, Maggie, we’re happy to have you, oh and your new dad’s main squeeze has a reputation for being more than just an entrepreneur and real estate mogul, pay no attention to the goons with concealed weapons following you around.’ That hadn’t impressed Maggie, either. At least she wasn’t a panicker. “And what if you can’t make it stop?” I asked.

He winced minutely. For a guy who planned so meticulously for everything, including failure, John really didn’t like talking about it. “Then Hendricks will get you and Maggie out of the country," he said. “And I’ll join you when I can. It doesn’t matter how this goes down, there isn’t a judge in the tri-state area that would dare send me to prison.”

“I’m sure you thought that would come out comforting,” I said. I stared down into my glass. “You’re not . . . is killing her part of the plan?”

His thumb circled the vertebrae at the back of my neck, the way he knew I liked. “No. That would just bring down more heat, at this point.” Right. John Marcone, who needed a logical reason not to kill somebody. We were all just lucky he needed a logical reason to go on and do it, too. Fucking hell.

“Um,” I said, because sometimes I am unspeakably dumb and I just can’t stop myself. “What’s she trying to get you for? And if you say taxes, I might die of the cliché.”

“Not taxes,” he said. “Murder.” His mouth compressed at whatever he was getting off my face. “The last Torelli brother, Georgio. He was ramping up for another try at unseating me.” He topped up both our glasses, hands steady. “And he has a history of abducting the children of targets. So Hendricks and I ran him to ground at the end of December, and I shot him.”

John didn’t use euphemisms. It was one of the first things I’d learned to respect about him years ago, long before I’d ever acknowledged that I liked him, too.

The end of December. The very end, maybe. We’d spent a quiet new year alone. John had disappeared for a few hours after dinner though, claiming business, and come home barely in time to kiss me at midnight.

“Apparently we were a little sloppy,” he said.

I let out a careful breath, and spent a few minutes thinking soothing thoughts in the direction of the tension knotted between my shoulder blades. It was one of those moments where a little fragment of me that still thought it was a decade ago started gibbering what the fuck, what the fuck, how is this your life, what the fuck? But mostly I was hung up on the part where this was bad enough that John would even admit the possibility of having to leave Chicago for good. We had this running joke about which one of us would give the other an ulcer first; from where I was sitting, John was way out in front.

“If you turn me into one of those Xanax-popping mafia wives, I will hurt you,” I said with feeling.

“Ah,” John said, leaning forward with sudden interest. “I’m glad you brought that up.”

“What?” I was still distracted by an image of him in an orange jumpsuit: I couldn’t shake it, no matter what he said. There was a silence, and I finally looked back up at him, confused. He was staring at me coolly, one eyebrow raised. “. . . What?” I said again, rewinding my last sentence. “I was kidding about the Xanax.”

“I know," he said, and shut up again.

“Okay,” I said slowly. “So what . . .” And then my face blazed with color and I nearly spilled my drink all over the bedspread. “Wait, are you – Marcone, you asshole, are you proposing to me?”

“Not yet,” he said. “This is the part where I argue down all your objections ahead of time so when I do propose, you won’t set anything on fire.”

I was so rattled, I tripped right over into auto-sarcasm mode. “Your timing is cataclysmically bad, either way. And for the record, a proposal is supposed to have an actual question in it. One with an actual question mark, not one of those ‘I’m asking by telling you how it’s going to be’ things.”

“I’ll take it under advisement,” he said neutrally. “Anything else?”

I opened my mouth, because hell yes, there was something else. A lot of somethings. So many that I couldn’t come up with one particular thing to say, apparently. “. . . Yes. Give me a second.”

“Get back to me,” John said. “Would you like to hear my reasoning?”

I scowled. “If you have a Power Point presentation, I’m walking, I swear by my staff.”

He grinned, the really toothy one. “Just some mental index cards,” he said.

I pressed two fingers between my eyes. I was tired, edging past tipsy, and still so fucking surprised I couldn’t even see the plot from here. “Okay, let’s hear it,” I said.

He leaned forward, punctuating with his hands. “You’re a social asset to me,” he said. “People who haven’t met you think you’re interesting, and people who have met you generally like you, if they aren’t trying to kill you. You humanize me, and an engagement is excellent PR.”

“I’m swept off my feet,” I said flatly.

“Additionally,” John continued, “I associate with a number of people who are very uncomfortable with your place in my life, but who respect marriage enormously. It could make many things easier for me, and offer some protection to you.” And to Maggie, I assumed. I decided not to point out that the associates who respected marriage more than any pesky little laws against kidnapping and murder were often the same ones with the dead-eyed, Xanaxed up wives. Also that I was pretty sure a piece of paper wasn’t going to change the way they really felt about John and me. It’d only been legal for what, two years now? I didn’t follow vanilla politics much, not with the magical kind taking up all my attention, but even I knew making something legal didn’t make people like it.

“You’re going to bring up taxes next, aren’t you?” I said.

“That was fourth,” John said easily. “But there are financial benefits, yes. And the legal privileges of marriage, of course. You could never be compelled to testify against me, for example.”

“I cannot believe anyone ever buys what you’re selling,” I marveled.

John ran his hand down my back in a slow caress and settled it at my waist, tucked warm under my shirt. “Also, there are other privileges of marriage,” he murmured, voice dropping.

“You have those anyway,” I said. John smirked, and I hastily added, “. . . Maybe.”

“It would simplify things for you financially, if anything ever happens to me,” he sailed on. “And for me, if anything happens to you while Maggie is still a minor.” He paused. “How am I doing?”

“Depressing,” I said. I rubbed a hand down my face, a little overwhelmed. “Stars, John, I don’t . . . it’s just a piece of paper, a couple of rings.” Marriage hadn’t been anywhere on my radar since I’d half-heartedly flirted with the idea of asking Susan. My parents hadn’t been married; it wasn’t a thing I ever envisioned, looking forward.

“Not to me,” he said. Yeah, okay, I could see that. John was a traditional guy, that was no secret. “And if it’s such a little thing, why are you so freaked out?” He watched my face for a minute, then gently added, “It’s a symbol. And Maggie is interested in brewing.”

That was . . . a pretty good point, actually. Particularly since we hadn’t been presenting a very good front of stable solidarity to her. Though that brought up another thing.

“I read those magazines in the check-out line at the grocery store sometimes,” I said. “And I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to get married to fix a broken relationship.”

John’s eyes narrowed icily on me. “It is not broken,” he rapped out, dictatorial.

“Well, no,” I conceded. We were both stressed up to the gills and not handling it well, but under that we were okay. Funny thing about me and John, we were always solid exactly when we shouldn’t have been, with the really hard stuff coming in fast. It was the day-to-day shit, the stupid easy things like his compulsive orderliness and my . . . not that tripped us up.

“Good,” John said, still crisp and pissed off. He had this issue with people questioning us, and people definitely included me. He’d once spent three weeks in a silently volcanic rage when a local tabloid had reported we were splitting up. It was just one of those things.

“Stars, you’re freaky,” I said, conversational. “If I leave you for some twenty-five year old hottie, we’re going to have to change our names and flee the country, aren’t we?”

John swiped my glass away and rolled me over in the same motion. He was on me just like that, one hand at my throat and his face close to mine.

“A twenty-five year old hottie?” he repeated, eyes slitted.

“Yeah,” I said contemplatively. “A sweet young thing, easily led. And an animal in the sack.”

“Oh really now,” John said. “Have I not been satisfying you?”

“Lately? No.” It’d been weeks. He hadn’t been around much, and when he was, we definitely hadn’t been in the mood. The alcohol in my blood was heating me up, though, and yeah, I could really get into this. I swallowed; his grip at my throat was just a hair too tight to be playful. I notched my chin up and glared into his eyes. “Move your hand.”

He took his time about it, but he did. He bracketed my shoulders with his hands and shifted his weight up; his knee rode dangerously high between my thighs. The look he swept over me was comprehensive, effortlessly proprietary. It pissed me off and turned me on, because my reactions to him are just that Pavlovian.

“I want to fuck you,” he said softly. “Like this, on your back.”

I would bitch about the complete lack of sweet talk, except we both knew it worked on me just fine. I narrowed my eyes at him. “Say please.”

His teeth flashed as he picked up his end of that old, favorite game. “Make me.”

And we were all over each other. We kissed until I was out of breath, rolling across the bed. I heard the bottle thump onto the carpet as we grappled. John caught my left wrist; I planted my right hand on his chest and sent him skidding into the wall with a whisper of my will. He came back at me twice as hard, lips peeled off his teeth.

He got both wrists that time, and pinned me down while he bit right where my pulse was beating in my throat. I scissored my legs; one of his knees accidentally came a little too close to my balls, thank you. I yelped in real alarm, and then took advantage of his distraction to wriggle free and undo his slacks. There was heat coming off him, and he was already hard. I wanted to rub my face against him, breathe him in through his shorts.

He crawled up the bed, shedding his pants like a snake. I followed him, biting down on the tendon at the top of his thigh when I got close enough.

“If you insist,” John panted. He caught me by the back of the head, his fingers tight in my hair. I slapped his hand away and lingered for an extra minute just to be mean, rubbing my mouth up the insides of his thighs and gently scratching at the thin skin over his balls. I wasn’t satisfied until he shivered, hips jerking. And then I sucked him down.

I’d never been with anyone else for as long as I’d been with John. I knew his body and his moods, what he liked and what he loved. I sealed my lips as tight as I could, letting all the embarrassing noises and the slickness happen. I allowed him to hold the back of my neck, fingers kneading restlessly, and I tilted my head up to give him my eyes. He looked back at me, mouth curved, one eyebrow up. Hell’s bells, he was doing the Barron Marcone for me, pulling up all that self-made hauteur and taking everything I threw at him as tribute.

Like hell.

I rocked into the mattress, running so hot my eyes swam. And I pulled out every trick I knew, working him until my jaw ached and he pooled salty wetness on my mouth when I let him rest against my lower lip to catch my breath. He watched me through it all, his even breathing losing its rhythm as he started to sweat.

“Take off your clothes,” he said, and I was on board with the idea, so I let that one slide and did it. He stripped off his shirt, moving fast, and had his fingers slicked up by the time I was done.

I went back in for more, because he hadn’t said please yet, but he caught me by the hair with his dry hand, and that time I couldn’t get him off. He wrestled me onto my side, one arm bent up behind my back, and slid a finger into me, no fanfare. I huffed out a shocked breath, my spine sliding into a curve without my permission.

It’d been a while. And it didn’t seem to matter who was on top, I always got impatient with the prep while he seemed only to want to drag it out. I made him work for it, though. I got away from him twice. The first time I left a deep imprint of my teeth in his bicep, and the second time I nearly made it off the bed entirely before he brought me down on my belly with a full-body tackle. He got three fingers into me that time, most of his weight on my back. I bit my own wrist, swallowing a lot of sounds that I was not willing to give him yet. Working for things mattered to John; there was this streak of puritanical number-cruncher in him that calculated the value of everything and distrusted anything given too freely. My price was high, and I was worth it. If I ever stopped demanding from him, that’s when we’d be in real trouble.

I didn’t fight him when he rolled me over at last, because sometimes I do let him win these. Sometimes I really want him to. He knelt up, flushed and grinning, and pulled my legs around his waist.

Then he paused, a sudden softness touching his mouth. He leaned over me, a little clumsy, and kissed the spot on my neck he’d bitten earlier.

“Please,” he said, pride bending for me, his eyes steady.

Stars, the things that man can do to me.

I didn’t answer; I just closed my eyes and pulled him into me.

We fucked long and slow. I kept my eyes shut, my head tipped back, enjoying the hell out of myself. I could feel him over me, resting on his elbows, hovering close and staring, always staring, like he’d been since day one, for – stars, for nearly twenty years.

After a while he pulled out to get a pillow for my back. And then he played with me for a bit, sliding in deep and pulling all the way out, waiting an irregular number of beats so I couldn’t anticipate him, then pushing in again.

“Stop that,” I said after a few minutes, hitching up onto my elbows. My nerves were stringing tighter and tighter, the muscles in my thighs and belly jumping erratically. He loved that first push, the resistance and the yield, whether he was the one giving it or taking it; I loved the later parts, the rhythm and the friction. We could usually make our differences work for us, though.

He didn’t say anything, but he got back to business like I wanted. A little brisker now, with that serious set to his mouth as his hips snapped. I worked with him, planting my feet to meet every stroke.

It’d been a while since he’d pulled one of these stunts, so it took me a few minutes to figure it out. And by then we were both damp with sweat, breathing out of sync, my dick rubbing slickly between our bellies.

“Hell’s bells, I hate it when you do this,” I said, when I finally realized what he was up to. Once in a while a screw ratchets extra tight in his head, and he locks into this freaky state of mind where he utterly refuses to come before I do. He’ll run himself into the ground, he’ll fucking stroke out, but he will not give it up first.

“Liar,” he said, grinning like a madman. “In your own time, Mister Dresden.”

So I set my jaw and fought him for it. He just smiled wider, shifted his knees under him, and gave it to me hard until the mattress was thumping into the wall and I was saying “fuck, fuck, fuck,” whenever I could breathe. John’s face was terrifying; it was like he entered a state of agonized Zen restraint.

We fucked until I ached, until his arms shook, and he still would not give. I did, because sometimes it’s my job to be the sane human being between the two of us. How scary is that? I grabbed my dick, twisted against him, and came in five seconds flat.

John waited me out – I could see him biting at the inside of his mouth. Then he dropped onto me like a ton of bricks, hid his face in my shoulder, and jerked it all out until I was nearly worried he couldn’t stop.

It took us an hour to get ourselves together enough to clean up, let alone fix the bed we had wrecked. We settled back down, eventually, John’s arm flung casually across me. I leaned up to wave the candles out.

“It’s not a question, yet,” he said to my back. “But think about it.”

Like I’d been doing anything else. “Don’t you even consider trying some whole big thing,” I said warningly, flopping down. “I’m really not in a grand gestures frame of mind lately.” He usually wasn’t either, but once in a while he’d temporarily lose his mind and chuck a romance fastball out-of-the-blue at my forehead.

He hummed. “I was thinking something to remind you of the good old days, maybe a little sentimental,” he said thoughtfully. “Like, ‘marry me, or I’ll let these rabid werewolves eat you,’ how about that?”

I guffawed, I couldn’t help it. My desire to start stupid verbal slapfights with him was completely gone. Funny thing. “Oh yeah, that’s a real winner,” I said, and burrowed down to sleep.

*

We were standing together in the sunlight from the kitchen windows the next morning when Maggie came in. I had my arms looped around his waist; John’s nose was in his coffee and my nose was in his hair.

She flashed us a surprised look from the doorway. Kid played cool like a pro, but she was as alert as a deer in hunter territory, and she didn’t miss a goddamn thing. And yeah, it was true, we’d been trying not to let it through to her, but we hadn’t exactly been happy cuddly domestic lately.

“Morning,” I said, staying where I was. “Hungry?”

She made a noncommittal noise, heading for the coffee maker. I’d made the mistake of a slightly disapproving question about her caffeine habit just once, so now it had turned into a one-sided battle. She leaned at the other end of the island from us, gulping down the joe and silently daring me to make something of it.

I could feel John tracking her out of the corner of his eyes, like he does, and I leaned around just in time to catch the besotted grin he hid behind his coffee cup. Stars, if she had any sense, she’d stop stonewalling him and try to get him wrapped around her finger instead.

I rubbed my knuckles down his jaw, unshaven for our first lazy Saturday in a really long time. Maggie watched us in quick, flickering looks, assessing like crazy.

Then a minor miracle occurred, and she spoke without being spoken to. “You said we could start brewing.”

Eh, it could use some manners, but baby steps. “I did,” I agreed. "And the first thing we need to do is gather our ingredients. There’s a stack of handkerchiefs on my lab table, can you go get them?”

She did, preternaturally compliant. I kept one arm around John and laid a handkerchief flat over my other palm. I’d been thinking a lot about Justin lately. Impossible not to, with Maggie around. But for once it was mostly the good stuff, like the first time I’d ever folded up the smell of morning coffee in a little package of alertness and stored it away for a potion.

“It’s about symbols,” I said. “Things that mean more than themselves. You just fold them up, and put them in your pocket. Watch.”