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other things the road to hell is paved with

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They say-- and by they, I mean people who write complicated books about the universe that in the long run don't really change anything about our daily lives because when you're talking about things at that scale, you realize your life is kind of irrelevant and then suppress that knowledge or risk losing your goddamn mind. I mean, seriously, I get wanting to crack the hard nut that is why are we here, but you'd think when people realized most of the numbers were adding up to no reason, really, that they'd back off for fear of going the sort of crazy you tend to only see in Lovecraft stories before the narrator gets eaten by (or, in the more fun ones, turned into) the Eldritch horror of the week.

What was I talking about?

Right. They say that the universe is not only infinite, but there are so many other universes out there mirroring ours that it's like multiplying infinity with infinity again. Every decision we make and every one we might've made exist somewhere out there. When I'm sitting at the red light at the intersection, there's a whole other universe waiting for me depending on which way my signal light's blinking.

I tend to turn right by instinct when given a decision. Right-handed, evocate with my right side, and try to do the right thing.

But we've all done that, haven't we? Wondered what was going down in the universe next door. How one decision would shake up everything we knew.

What happens when we turn left.

 


 

"I want to make a deal with you," Gentleman Johnny Marcone said as he stood over me in the Streetwolves' den, a contract in his hand.

He'd made the offer before and the terms, he claimed, were the same. I'd seen them before and they seemed nice to my legally unsavvy mind. They were most comfortable leash a wizard could hope for. No more worrying about my rents, no more taking cases I knew were just attention-seekers wanting to see some flash. I could catch up on my research. I could learn and expand my repertoire of spells. I could have time. Security.

But I'd have Marcone's collar on me. When he called, I'd have to come. Sure, I'd never have to do anything explicitly illegal, but Marcone had enough power, he could bend the laws as he pleased. And just the idea of being one of Marcone's men made me feel nauseated.

Parker was still watching me with that barely-controlled rage. Well, me and Marcone, who he was giving equally murderous looks. Marcone didn't pay him any attention, his money-green eyes still on me. Talk about being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

I didn't want Parker to turn me into a bloodier pulp than I already was and I didn't want Marcone's shackles around my wrists. But I sure as hell didn't want to die in that rundown building.

I drew in what little will I had left, focusing on a few loose wrenches and tools on a workbench nearby and whispered, "Vento servitas."

That had not been a smart move. My head exploded in a pain that completely overshadowed what I was already feeling. I gritted my teeth and tried to fight off the wave of vertigo that slammed into me.

I opened my eyes to find I was laying sideways on the floor. It was better down there. The solid concrete under my head made my vision spin less. I shut my eyes again and fought to collect myself. It seemed I had literally tapped out all of my will with my magic overuse. Whoops.

Slowly, I became aware of an argument happening above me.

"I had him tied up, now let me--" Parker was growling.

"Don't take another step towards him, Mr. Parker," Marcone said with icy coolness. I heard the click of a safety being removed from a gun. "If Mr. Dresden truly is in such a weakened state, you won't be getting any closer."

"I will be when I kill him," Parker snapped back. "I don't know what game you're trying to play, Marcone, but I'm going to kill the wizard. This wasn't part of the deal."

"I am altering the deal. Pray I don't alter it further."

I couldn't help it, I let out a slightly hysterical giggle. You ever hear a crime don unironically quote Star Wars? It's guaranteed to brighten your day, even when your day involves broken bones and crazy amounts of pain.

"Ah, Mr. Dresden. Back with us?" Now Marcone's attention was back on me. "I was hoping to get an answer about our arrangement. If you're determined to sacrifice your life to make some point about autonomy, please come out with it. I have other business I could be attending to."

"You sonvoabitch, Marcone--"

Parker took a step closer and Marcone held him off by casually lifting a handgun and pointing it at his face. "Mr. Parker. Please. You need not worry. Mr. Dresden would almost certainly die before accepting my offer."

It was then I noticed one of Parker's underlings was back. Flatnose crouched in the office doorway near Hendricks. I was down, but maybe I wasn't out. A plan was percolating in my head that, either way, should have gotten me out of there alive. Provided my terrible luck didn't hold.

"Give me a pen," I said, my voice as even as I could make it. I tried to blank my expression as well, but couldn't quite manage it. Fortunately I think the only thing I was projecting was how much pain I was in.

Or so I hoped. Marcone looked at me with plain surprise. "What?"

"I'll sign." I licked my dry lips and tasted dry blood on them. "I don't want to die here. Not the most luxurious place to be torn apart by werewolves." Then, I gave Parker a cheeky grin, ignoring how it make my face hurt even more.

Parker let out an enraged growl and took a step closer. Marcone, barely sparing him a glance, fired a shot at his feet. With supernatural agility, Parker jumped back and refixed his deathglare on Marcone.

Over by Hendricks, Flatnose the lurking lycanthrope jumped out at big guy. Hendricks was on guard after watching his boss fire off a shot though and swung the butt of his shotgun, nailing Flatnose right in the temple. Down he went.

Well. Shit. I watched my plan slip away as Marcone knelt by my side. "Hoping for a distraction and a quick getaway, I assume?" He put a hand on my face, carefully turning it toward him so he could look into my eyes. It was disconcerting, his keen, evaluating gaze, like he was running the numbers on this situation in his head, hashing out the best course of action.

There was a rumbling sound, outside the building. "Mr. Marcone," Hendricks said simply and Marcone nodded before looking back at me.

"It seems our time's run out, Mr. Dresden, and the contract will have to wait. I'll have to leave you here." My eyes widened and I saw a flicker of grin on the mobster's face. He looked like the cat who caught the canary.

"I said I'd sign!" There was no keeping the desperate edge out of my voice. I'd already barely survived the last roughing up the Streetwolves had given me. I knew I wouldn't survive the next.

"True, but somehow I think that was only to give you time to attempt an escape."

"Mr. Marcone," Hendricks said again, slightly more agitated.

"They'll kill me," I snapped at Marcone, hoping he'd actually care. The fact he hadn't just up and left at the first sign of trouble said maybe he did. It was all I had to bet on right now.

"Something we'd both like to avoid." Marcone looked up at Hendricks, then back down at me, his gaze even harder. "I'll make this short as we don't have much time; if you want to get out of this alive, I want your word and your Name."

If I had enough blood left in me, I'd have blanched. "What?"

"I want you to swear on your power that you will sign my contract once we are safe and I want your Name as insurance." I was completely stunned by the request and clearly Marcone noticed. "I have done my research, Mr. Dresden. Now say it, we don't have much time."

I didn't want to even think about Marcone knowing my Name, about who he could give it to. It wasn't much better than Chauncy the demon knowing it. It might've been worse. "You scumbag--"

"Don't waste my time. This is your last chance and then I will leave you. You'll die, which makes you both less of a liability and prevents anyone contracting you before me. I win either way."

I had nothing, no way out, and he knew it. I'd been thoroughly backed into a corner.

I shut my eyes and swallowed against the lump of fear and despair in my throat. When I spoke next, I did so quietly so only he would hear. "I, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, swear on my power to sign your fucking contract, you piece of--"

"Good enough." Moving swiftly, Marcone dragged me to my feet and slung my arm over his shoulder. "Mr. Hendricks, we're leaving!"

I'd forgotten about Parker until then, when he snarled. "I'll kill all of you!" He had his tire iron again, lifting it to take a swing at us.

Marcone turned and put a few bullets in his chest, quick and clean. "Fool. I'd have paid him handsomely later for his trouble." He sighed like it was a damn shame Parker hadn't realized this little fact and had to die instead. "I think a fast getaway is in order now."

It was about then my body decided it was going to pass out. I couldn't blame it, really.

 


 

I floated in and out of unconsciousness for a while after that. The next time I opened my eyes, I could feel that I was in a moving car. I could blurrily see Marcone above me, his cell phone against his ear. He was talking, but the words didn't make any sense to me. It sounded like I was underwater, everything echoing and far away.

Turning my head, I saw I was lying on Marcone's thigh. His fancy Italian suit was staining with my blood and I got some vindictive pleasure out of that.

I noted that ludicrously expensive clothes made pretty comfy pillows before shutting my eyes again and slipping under.

 


 

Sometime later, I became aware of someone sticking another needle in my arm and fought to wake up a bit. It was hard; I didn't feel like I was dying anymore, but there was a different weight holding me down, this time medical. I'd been dosed on something. The lack of pain felt new and strange, almost unnatural after so long working through it.

I wasn't sure if I was in a hospital or not. I wanted to check, but I didn't even manage to get my eyes open this time before falling back into calm darkness.

 


 

Next time I woke up, I actually made it to full consciousness.

It wasn't a quick thing. I felt like I'd been sleeping for days, and dragging myself away from the easy rest and back to wakefulness took a few minutes. At first I just enjoyed being warm and feeling safe, a real pillow under my head and the soft heat of sunshine on my face.

Aforementioned sunshine was glaring, blinding even through my eyelids. I turned my head away, trying to shift onto my side instead. A tugging pain in my arm halted me and I jerked at the sensation, twisting to look.

There was an IV feeding into my arm. I vaguely remembered the needle pinch from the last time I was conscious. Someone had hooked me up to a saline drip.

Using my non-IVed arm, I rubbed my face, waking further. I wasn't in a hospital, it seemed, but a bedroom. It was sparse and clean enough to make it clear it wasn't often used. There was a dresser to one side with a first aid kit and some pill bottles sitting on it. Across from it were two doors, one ajar and leading to a bathroom, the other shut.

I slowly pushed myself to sit up, sore from both lying still so long and from whatever was hiding under the bandages around my chest. I took a moment to catalog; the bandages around my torso came with a piece of gauze taped to my temple, a color splattering of bruises across me arms, and a large, stone cuff around each of my wrists.

The cuffs worried me. They were thick rings of smooth stone, dark and almost blue grey. There were symbols engraved on the outer rim, not any runes I recognized. Most troubling was the fact the stone cuffs were solid with no breaks or hinges; they didn't fit over my hands, so unless they were some kind of new elastic stone, the way they got on me was a mystery. Tentatively, I extended a bit of my will, pushing a tendril of magic towards them.

Or, I tried to. Instead... something happened. It was a really strange sensation that I'd never felt before. The magic left me but instead of telling me anything about my new jewelry, it seemed to push back into me. I shivered at the weird prickly feeling it gave me.

I was starting to not like this situation I was in. There happened to be a candle on the dressed next to the medical things, unlit. I pointed a finger at it and said, "Flickum bicus."

Again, the spell started to leave me only to loop back and flow back into me. As it did, I noticed the runes in the cuffs lit up softly.

Huh. I had enough will to work with even if I didn't feel one hundred percent. I was feel pretty well recovered from going a bit trigger happy with my pick-me-up potion. Deciding to try something with a bit more bang, I pointed to the candle again. "Fuego."

Nothing, but when the magic flowed back into me this time, the cuff lit up brightly for a moment. The magic seeped back into my arm around the stone. The sensation was even warmer and felt just enough like my own power to make me shudder uncomfortably.

I didn't like where this was going and I wasn't going to stick around to see what was in store for me next. My plan was to get out of there and go looking for answers instead of waiting for them to find me.

I was picking the tape off my arm to get the IV out when the door opened and John Marcone walked in. "I would leave that in, Mr. Dresden. At least until the doctor can take a look at you."

I wasted no time getting tetchy with him. "What the hell is this?" I lifted one of my arms at him, shaking the bracelet around.

"It's helping," Marcone answered simply, approaching my bed and sitting in a chair next to it.

"Doesn't answer my question."

"It's Sarsen stone, I believe." Stars, the guy wasn't in a forthcoming mood. He just folded his hands in his lap. "How are you feeling?"

"Like a wizard who can't use his magic." I glared at him. "Which is not happy, let me tell you."

Marcone waved one hand dismissively. "I'm more interested in the physical than the emotional at the moment. This is the first time in days you've been conscious for more than a few minutes."

My indignation over the cuffs stuttered. "Days? How long have I been out?"

"Long enough to miss quite a lot of excitement." He then filled me in on the details. How the FBI agents had been hexenwulfen out to kill him, how MacFinn was lead to believe Marcone had destroyed his circle and showed up in his loup-garou form to kill him, and how my report to Murphy on the different varieties of werewolf had helped him identify and take care of the situation.

"What'd you do with MacFinn?"

"I lacked the proper means to kill him, so I lured him into a pit trap and waited until the full moon passed. Afterward, he was very interested in what we learned from interrogating the FBI agents, such as how they arranged for his circle to be broken so they could essentially turn him into a loaded weapon." Marcone picked up the medical chart sitting on my bedside table and flipped idly through it. "Last I heard, he was making the necessary arrangements for a new circle."

I wondered what 'interrogating' meant, but let it go. "And I suppose you'll keep his secret out of the goodness of your heart."

"MacFinn has proven to be an interesting and potentially powerful ally. It's in my interests to keep his confidence for the time being."

I snorted. "That what it's all about? Establishing whether someone can help or harm you, then filing them away in the proper folders?"

Marcone shook his head faintly, apparently amused by my take on it. "How are you feeling?" he asked. I waved the bracelet at him again and he sighed. "Honestly, Dresden... The bracelets are an artifact that recently came into my ownership. You'd be surprised what objects a man of means can obtain when he begins to investigate the supernatural. They're Welsh Sarsen stone and are medical euipment of a kind. The bracelets apparently take the energy put into them and turn it to healing magic. Given you attempted to light some candles, I imagine your control over your magic feels like its returned?"

It did, I had to admit. The terrible, overdrawn feeling I had in the Streetwolves' den was gone. I felt weird, bottled up in a way that could be explained by the bracelets, but I also felt a lot better, at least compared to before. Begrudgingly, I nodded. Then something hit me. "Welsh Sarsen.... are you saying these are from Stonehenge?"

"A powerful magical site, I've heard." Marcone looked smug at having impressed me. Because, yeah, Stonehenge was powerful. It was a nexus of ley lines that was so obvious, even the least magically inclined humans noticed it. "Be careful with them; I'd like them back when you're well."

Cautiously, I said, "I'm feeling well enough now. As nice as the hospitality is, I sort of have things to do. Elsewhere."

Marcone held my gaze levelly and said, "But we still have some unfinished business, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden."

A shudder ran through me at the sound of my Name, perfectly pronounced. I could feel the deal I'd made shifting amid my magic, the potential to seriously harm my power slithering through me like a snake in the grass. Breaking an oath always hurt a person's spirit. With wizards, the effect was even worse. I swore on my power, which meant if I didn't follow through, it'd deal a blow to that power. It was still tempting to rip the IV out of my arm and make for the door.

Which would leave me with my magic suppressed by the cuffs. And I was willing to bet Marcone wasn't going to tell me how to take them off until I'd signed his contract.

Hell's bells, what a scumbag.

"Where's the contract?"

Marcone smiled and reached into the soft suede jacket he wore, presumably into an inside pocket. Out came a roll of papers that Marcone put on his lap, pressing them down flat to uncurl them. "Given the fact I had more time to prepare a proper working arrangement this time, I've had my lawyers revise the contract. Smoothed out some wording, made a few key points clearer."

I slumped back against the pillows propping me up. "I hate you."

"You are eager to assume I mean to do you harm, Harry. That's not what this is about."

"Don't call me that," I grumbled.

With plain despair, I watched him run his fingers over the sheaf of papers. Marcone pulled out a pen and set it on top of the papers, then put them on my lap. "I imagine you'll want to read over the summary of terms, get to know what sort of arrangement you'll be getting into." He stood, smoothing out his jacket casually, like he wasn't setting me up to sign my life away to his evil empire. "Take your time. I'll have brunch sent up for you."

"Thanks," I said with a bright, angry edge of sarcasm as I watched him leave.

There wasn't much else I could do. With a resigned sigh, I settled in to read the new contract.

 


 

 

Marcone came back while I was still enjoying my meal. I was munching on bacon and spreading the fancy orange creme stuff over my waffles. Crime did pay, if this was the sort of breakfast Marcone got on a daily basis.

"Can you even taste the food, inhaling it like that?" Marcone sat in the chair next to my bed with a predatory sprawl, managing to look both relaxed and poised to strike at any second.

I took a long drink of orange juice and swallowed. I was sure it would be fun to irritate Marcone by talking with my mouth full, but there were serious topics to discuss. "I want to talk to my lawyer."

"You don't have a lawyer, Mr. Dresden," Marcone said gently, a smile growing on his face. "Once you've signed the contract, you will of course have access to my legal team, should you require. I believe in sharing resources."

I threw the contract at him, or tried to. It worked for about a half a foot before the paper just fluttered uselessly down. Marcone bent to collect them, unperturbed. "What happened to the old contract? It was simple, it made sense."

"That one was drafted in a very short amount of time. I was more concerned with getting you than the terms themselves." He tapped the papers against his knee until they stacked neatly. "This time, I've had more time to prepare."

Getting me. There was a self-confident, possessive curl to his words that scared the hell out of me. I pushed the food tray away, suddenly not so hungry anymore. I knew I'd been manipulated into this, that to say I gave my word under duress would be putting it lightly. But everyone knew Marcone was pals with the DA's office and it was unlikely I'd be able to convince anyone I'd been coerced. There was a reason Marcone didn't bring me to a hospital to recover: if he took care of me himself, there'd be no records to prove I'd been grievously injured. Every act of kindness was a business decision first.

"Is there any way I can not sign your contract and keep my magic?" I asked quietly.

Marcone didn't answer right away, but when he did, I could feel him staring at me, his gaze like a physical weight on my skin. "I've said this before, Harry, but my goal is not to hurt you. I gain nothing from that. I don't even have any problems with your business as our paths only rarely cross, and even then we tend not to be on opposing sides."

"Then what's this all for?"

"I can only safeguard myself and Chicago so much from the supernatural. I've explored your art to the best of my ability, but too often I find the information I've gathered fraudulent and useless. What I need," Marcone leaned forward on his arms, and it was hard to continue looking away from him, "is someone who can help me deal with the threats against Chicago. I try to keep this city in order, Mr. Dresden. I rein in its demons."

I smirked in an unhappy manner. "Except the actual demons."

"Precisely." He leaned back again, a little less intense, which was a relief. "You deserve to be treated with more respect than I am affording you, I know that. But we've both been caught up in conflicts that prove the mundane and supernatural worlds are growing ever closer. A partnership between us will help this city."

I finally tilted my head to look at him. "You are still just the lesser evil, Marcone."

He didn't argue that. "You may disagree with what I do and what I represent, but you cannot argue with how I operate."

And that was the lynchpin argument whenever anyone mentioned Marcone. We all knew he was a criminal with his fingers in every vice trade in the city, but we all knew he did it better. He made sure the collateral damage was kept to a minimum. That was why the CPD wouldn't go after him. That and he'd bought half the force, if rumors were true and I had no reason to think they weren't.

"So, Harry? Have you come to a decision?" Helpfully, he handed the contract back over to me.

I took it and set it on my lap, grabbing the pen off my lunch tray. It was a shiny onyx fountain pen, sleek and stylish. It looked like it should write in blood, or something. I pulled the cap off with my teeth. "I sign this, no more using my Name, 'kay?" I said around the cap. "Tha' serious magic an' could get me in trouble."

"Deal," Marcone said without hesitation. There was a new gleam in his eyes as he watched me put the pen to paper and sign the line at the bottom of the page. I wondered if getting a wizard to sign onto his syndicate was a turn on or if all business transactions made him look that ravenous.

The instant my pen lifted from the page, I felt the coil of our deal let go of my magic and I let out a relieved sigh. It'd been like standing with a noose around my neck and only now did I feel its hold on me loosen.

Marcone took the contract from me along with the pen, plucking the cap out of my mouth and putting it back on before tucking it into his pocket. "Excellent."

"Do I have to call you Don Marcone now?" I ventured weakly. "Can I get discounts at all the places on your protection racket?" I know, lame jokes, but there were all I had to drown out the underlying oh god what did I just do in my head.

Marcone smiled at me, bright and pleased. It was terrifying, let me tell you. I half expected him to have sharp teeth like a cat. "The next leather coat that falls off the back of a truck, I will have sent right over to you, Mr. Dresden."

Suddenly feeling very tired, I slumped back against the bed, closing my eyes. After a moment, I heard Marcone leave the room. I'd been asleep for too long already, but I dropped off again anyway. The last thing I needed was to stay awake and actually think about what I'd gotten myself into.

 


 

My body was still craving sleep it seemed. I woke up at dawn the next morning, having lost another day to my recovery. While I was out, someone removed the IV from my arm and put clean bandages on me. I finally dragged myself out of bed, a bit sore from lying around so much.

Thanks to Marcone's insane Stonehenge bracelets-- which still scared me because no one should have that kind of money to throw around on magical artifacts without even knowing if they'd work-- I managed a hot shower for once in my life without blowing the water heater. When I got out of the bathroom, there was a neatly folded stack of clothes on my freshly made bed.

I looked around for evidence of some security camera or something. I'm not sure if it was creepier to think someone was watching me or if they somehow just knew when I'd need clothes. There was no sign of anything though, which was a small comfort when I dropped the towel and got dressed.

I wondered what happened to the wrecked jumpsuit I'd used with my blending potion. After the way I'd been roughed up, there likely wasn't much left of the thing anyway. Now, I was dressed in clothes that fit me, which was a shock. Ask any tall person how hard it is to find jeans that actually fit. No easy task, but the pair I put actually fit my legs. As I put on the charcoal grey pullover and noted it fit well enough it might've been tailored, I wondered if someone took my measurements while I was out. Or, worse, Marcone already knew my measurements for some reason.

That thought got stuffed in the never think about this again folder in my head and I let myself out of the room.

I wandered around what I assumed was Marcone's house, trying to stay light on my feet and avoiding the lackeys I spotted in the halls. I was just thinking that things were too easy when I saw Hendricks coming towards me and ducked into the first open door I found.

"Impressive. I wouldn't have considered you capable of stealth without magical aid, but it seems you are able to avoid causing a scene."

Of course I ducked into Marcone's office. It was just as well; it'd be beyond idiotic to leave the relative safety of his house with my magic still sealed. That didn't mean I wasn't embarrassed though. I swallowed what little pride I had left and turned to look at him.

He was sitting behind a massive mahogany desk in the kind of executive chair that looked like it would not only give you a back massage but a happy ending to go with it. Maybe it could. That would explain why Marcone was so damn smug all the time.

"Going somewhere, Harry?"

"What, am I a prisoner now?" I casually pushed my hands into my pockets, strolling over to the desk. "I didn't see that provision in the contract."

"Of course not. You are merely a unique asset. I just thought you'd be wanting these back." He leaned down under the desk and came back with my staff and blasting rod, setting them gingerly before me.

I felt my lip curl on its own; my tools, crafted by my own hand, didn't belong under Marcone's desk. Rolling up my sleeves to show the bracelets, I said in a peevish tone, "Bit useless while you've got me shackled."

"Again, they were for your own good," Marcone said patiently. I had to give him credit, he said it with enough conviction I almost didn't think he was full of shit. Almost. He went back to shuffling through his desk. "Put your hands out."

"Why?"

"Because I told you to." He was barely paying attention to me, pulling a box out of his desk and putting it between us.

"I'm not gonna start asking how high when you say jump, John."

"Harry," Marcone said, drawing my name out in an exasperated sigh. "You can either hold out your hands or continue to wear the bracelets for the rest of the week."

I wanted to tell him not to do me any favors, but there was the chance he'd take that as a challenge and really leave me shackled. The more Marcone played that he was on my side, the less I trusted him, and I hadn't trusted him a lot in the first place. Tricking me into a soulgaze left a rather dubious first impression.

I held out my hands over the desk. Marcone opened the box and pulled out a stone sphere. He swept the sphere over each of my wrists and the cuffs seemed to phase through my arms, falling to the dark wood below with a dull thunk each.

Marcone put the sphere and the two cuffs into the box and tucked it away, out of sight again. "I know you're not one to take advice well, especially from me, but you really should at least attempt to work with me. I don't know how many times I have to point out the fact we're not enemies."

I rolled my eyes and grabbed my staff and rod. "Let's not rehash that conversation again, Marcone."

He nodded faintly. "Some other time then." He settled back in his fancy chair, fingers together, steepled in classic Bond villain style. I guess no one ever dared to tell him he looked like a cliche when he did that.

"So I can go?"

He looked surprised, which was just his normal vaguely omniscient expression with his eyebrows slightly lifted. I wondered what it would take to rattle him. "Of course. You'll find the garage down this hallway and to the right. Whoever is on duty there can see you back to the Loop."

And that was that. I walked out of his office wearing his clothes, with my Name taken and my allegiance bought.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, that once again the popular wisdom of the Windy City was right; Gentleman Johnny always got what he wanted. Including me.

Chapter Text

Getting home after all that happened in the last week was surreal. Mister still headbutted me while I got the door open. My wards were still up. The milk in the icebox was still bad. It was still crisply cold, the October air seeping into my apartment.

Everything felt the same.

I wished it didn't. Some sign that a major event had happened in my life would have made it more real and easier to deal with. As it was, it was still morning and part of me wanted to go into the office like usual. Or call Murphy to see if there was anything interesting on her agenda.

God, Murphy... Last I'd seen her, she'd wanted me arrested. I'd left her at the CPD after Carmichael...

I wondered if Susan and Tera were all right. Marcone hadn't mentioned any of them in his recap of what I'd missed while I was out. Presumably, if MacFinn was all right, Tera would be too.

I picked up the phone and started to dial. After getting halfway through Susan's number, I hung it back up. What was I going to say? Sorry for not getting back in touch with you after I leapt out of your car, Marcone kidnapped me and now I work for him? With the way Marcone could work the rumor mill, half the city would know about my shady employment by the end of the week.

The question was, would Murphy just never speak to me again or would she march over to my office and strangle me? She sure as hell wouldn't be calling me in on any cases, not with the pressure on her from Internal Affairs. Meeting my rent requirements would get just that much harder. Obviously Marcone would be sending me paychecks, but actually cashing them would be like admitting defeat.

My breathing had picked up with the start of a panic attack. I needed to do something, find some distraction.

I uncovered the trapdoor and headed down into my lab. If I was going to stay indoors, ignore my job, and avoid everyone, I might as well occupy myself with some magic. Idle hands, and all that.

"Soooooo..." Bob drawled once he had me halfway into a potion.

"Yeah?"

"There something wrong, boss? I only ask because your aura looks pretty depressed right now. If I had arms, I'd give it a hug."

"Sweet of you, Bob." I didn't look up from my stirring. I did not want Bob's opinion on my recruitment into the Chicago mob.

"Susan dumped you, is that it? I told you, boss, you get laid so rarely, you gotta be careful not to scare the women off."

"Susan did not dump me." Yet.

Bob whistled, which was impressive if you thought about it. "You know what? We should make you a happy potion. Grab some beer, candy, the centerfold from that Playboy you got me. I got a recipe that'll cheer you right up."

"I'll pass on the magical Prozac, thanks."

"Suit yourself..." He was quiet for approximately ten seconds. "So if it wasn't luscious Susan... You make a pass at Murphy and she shot you down?"

"No, Bob."

"What about one of those newbie magic users you're giving advice to? They withholding the kinky teacher-student roleplay?"

"It wasn't anything sex-related, Bob!" The bunsen burner under my potion flared up as I did. I calmed my temper. "It was John Marcone."

"The mafioso?" Bob hummed contemplatively. "I thought you said it wasn't sex-related."

"It wasn't. Wait, why would you think otherwise? Marcone's a guy."

"Yeah, but he's a guy who's trying to buy you, right? He's willing to pay any price for your hot bod, Harry. I know you're oblivious about this stuff, but I have a whole stack of novels that taught me all about what it means when a man tries to buy your favor." His orange glowing eyes tilted meaningfully to a paperback sitting next to him. "Try The Yakuza Boss's Lover, it's great."

I was going to have to be more careful about what books I bought Bob. He was getting weird ideas. Weirder ideas. "That wasn't about... sex." The potion was starting to smell a little burnt. I turned off the burner and stared at the ashen black liquid. It didn't look like the illusion potion I was supposed to be making. "He needed a magic consultant."

Bob's candlelight gaze settled back on me. "Past tense. So either he gave up or... Boss, you didn't!"

I wasted no time going from zero to defensive. "I had no choice! The bastard basically forced me to do it! Someone told him how to make deals with wizards and about Names. It was agree to his terms or get torn apart by lycanthropes!"

"You're a mafia moll!"

"I'm a-- what? I am not a mafia moll!"

Bob cackled cheerfully. "Oh, this is great. First it'll be 'Oh, Mr. Dresden, please get rid of this ghost haunting my office,' then next thing you know he's got you bent over his desk and--"

"Hell's bells, Bob!" I covered my ears, not wanting to hear the rest of Bob's lurid fantasy. "I just sold my soul to the king of the Chicago underworld and you're making sex jokes?"

Bob blinked owlishly at me. "Well, yeah?"

He had a point, but I didn't want to stick around for more heckling. "I'm going out."

"Awwww, boss, you're no fun."

I really wasn't. At the time, though, I really didn't care.

 

Denial was a beautiful, many splendored thing. Last week, I sat in my office with my feet on my desk and a Pratchett book on my lap, not a care in the world. Today, I did the same thing, though I'd moved on from Small Gods to Soul Music. Nothing unusual, no sign of what had happened, and while I still hadn't heard from Murphy, I wasn't going to go looking for trouble. Not unless I was getting paid for it.

Speaking of getting paid, the phone started ringing. It'd been a slow day for calls so far and the only one I'd received was the standard are you for real call from your average skeptic. With the werewolf job having fallen through, I didn't expect a paycheck from SI anytime soon, so I put on my most chipper, friendly voice as I snatched up the phone. "Harry Dresden's office. How may I help you?"

"Were you ever planning on calling? Letting me know you were alive?" Susan's normally dulcet tones sounded harried and upset over the line. "Last thing I saw of you was that stunt you pulled, jumping out of the car, and now you've joined the Outfit?"

"I-- Stars, Susan, I'm sorry. I've been unconscious for a few days and I'm only just rejoining the land of the living."

"I can deal with that. God knows you've gone MIA before. But explain why I'm hearing you're in bed with Gentleman Johnny now."

I put my book down to rub my face, scratching at the days-old stubble spreading over my jaw. "It's not like... Look, am I talking to you or to the Midwestern Arcane?"

Susan got quiet on the end, sucking in a gasp between her teeth. "It's true. Oh my god, Harry, what did you do?"

"Nothing I wanted to. He pretty much backed me into a corner to get me to sign his damn contract." I took a calming breath. "I didn't have another choice."

"I... I see."

"Listen, Susan--"

"No, no, Harry. Don't, just..." She sighed. "Don't. I gotta go."

There was a cold feeling in my stomach, like I'd swallowed an iron weight. I had expected this from Murphy, but I had hoped Susan would at least hear me out. "Susan, please."

"I'll talk to you later." She didn't hang up right away, and I listened to her soft exhalations over the line until it clicked and left me with the dial tone.

Reluctantly, I hung up the phone, hand lingering on the cradle. Slumping over, I put my head down on my desk, eyes open, but unfocused. I stared into nothing and waited for the wave of despair to recede.

 

I know it's hard to tell with all the time I spend reading paperbacks and doing nothing in my office, but I had the instincts of a workaholic. When things got rough, I threw myself into my work. I didn't want to dwell on my problems, so like any able-minded male with the powers of repression, I boxed up my problems and shoved them into a dusty closet in the back of my mind and set out to take some cases.

A few found items, one elderly man whose "demons" turned out to be a few wily neighborhood kids, and what should have been a simple missing person case that got a bit complicated. Instead of a missing boyfriend or runaway kid, it turned out I was looking for some escaped kittens. Easy enough, a quick tracking spell lead me right to them.

Except the client had said she'd misplaced three kittens. I found ten. Since several of them were completely identical, I figured someone was playing a prank, making a few magical constructs that happened to look like the missing cats.

Very funny, but now the things were crawling all over my office, knocking over things, mewling pathetically, and basically not cooperating at all with my tests. I'd identified one kitten as a real, live, genuine fluffball, then immediately lost the thing when it vanished under my desk.

There was a small racket going on, so I didn't hear the knock on my office door. When it swung open, I saw an eager cat prance over to make its escape. "Don't let it get out!"

Marcone leaned down and picked up the wayward kitten before quickly sliding into the room and shutting the door behind him. It meowed angrily and bit his thumb, clearly upset at losing its chance at freedom.

I could kind of relate.

"Mr. Dresden," Marcone greeted evenly. "I'd ask why there's a feline invasion underway in your office, but I'm not sure I want to know. Wasn't it witches who favored cats as their familiars?"

"The preferred term is 'wizardess,'" I corrected.

"Of course, my mistake." Marcone walked forward carefully, watching his step as he did. "Let me guess, you saw a box labelled 'free kittens' and didn't think twice."

"It's a case, scumbag." I leaned over and grabbed the cat out of his arms. Then I had to figure out how to juggle three kittens while trying to wave my prism over one to check it for authenticity. One of them decided to help out by climbing up my arm and onto my shoulder, headbutting me affectionately. I think it started licking my hair. "Three are real, the rest are fakes."

Marcone nodded solemnly and looked around. Without a word, he emptied my inbox of its books and started grabbing kittens, putting them into the empty box. "Not going very well, I take it?"

"It's going fine." I winced as my shoulder cat bit my ear. All of the things were teething apparently. "What're you doing here?"

"Currently?" He dropped another cat into the box. "I have six here."

"One's still missing then." Carefully divesting myself of my own three, they joined the others in the box, which was getting a little crowded.

"Here." He ducked down swiftly and came up with the last tabby, holding it by the scruff of its neck as it cried. Marcone set it on the desk and it turned over onto its back, claws up and ready for battle with the big, bad mobster.

If not for the fact Mister would be furious at me, I'd take one home. They really were adorable and I'm not immune to weapons-grade cuteness like that.

Marcone arched an eyebrow at me. I realized I had what was likely a really goofy smile on my face. I scowled at him and sat down in my chair, digging around for my first aid kit. My hands were covered in tiny scratches. "What're you really doing here?"

There was a chair across the desk from me and Marcone helped himself to it, sitting with his hands clasped lightly, posture relaxed in a way I didn't like. I wasn't supposed to be the kind of person Marcone was relaxed around. He wasn't even dressed for business, I noticed belatedly. Jeans and a dark green sweater that radiated softness, perfect for the cold snap and looking sinfully comfortable. I bet the sweater alone cost more than my rent.

"I have a job for you."

"Forget it."

He went on, ignoring my response. "I'm opening a nightclub on the North Side. It's in an older building I've had renovated and ready for an opening on Halloween."

"Couldn't pick a worse day for it," I muttered, coaxing a kitten to sit in front of me so I could wave my prism at it. I pushed some of my will into the crystal, peering at the cat through it, looking for the tell-tale signs of a construct.

"We can discuss the mysticism of various dates later. The decorators reported seeing something in the building after hours. Lights have been going out and the security cameras begin malfunctioning after midnight. I want you to take a look into it and preferably before the 31st."

Sounded more legit than most calls I got. I didn't respond, instead noting the kitten under my hand was a fake. I petted its fluffy head for a moment before murmuring, "Abîtis, abîs, abî," and tapping it on the nose with my prism. It vanished like it had never been there, just some residual ectoplasm left where it'd been standing. Even that promptly started evaporating. I grabbed the next kitten out of the box and let it bat playfully at my shield bracelet as I went through the process again.

I'd hoped Marcone would take my refusal to reply as a hint to get the hell out of my office and not let the door hit him on his ludicrously expensive jeans as he left. He seemed fine with waiting me out though, picking a cat out of the box and letting it wander around his lap. It exploded into a purry ball of joy when he started petting it.

It made me nervous to have him just sitting there. If he'd been in his suit or in his I'm a professional criminal mode, that'd be one thing. Marcone sitting in my office playing with a kitten was adding to the surreality of my life.

"Don't you have some protection payments to collect? Kneecaps to break?"

The kitten had curled up and gone to sleep. If Marcone was affected by the extreme cuteness, it didn't show on him at all. "I have a meeting in an hour and a half. Otherwise, no." He gave me the slightest smile. "I left my baseball bat at home. No bustin' caps today."

I let out a startled laugh at the sound of Marcone's urbane tone dropping consonants and putting on a bit of Southie. I covered it quickly by vanishing another cat. "Do I have a choice in this job?"

"You'll receive a bonus on your paycheck if you take care of it for me. I daresay you need it. Your car obviously needs to see the mechanic, you have rent to pay, your milk is spoiled, and you have less than a hundred dollars in your bank account."

I dropped my prism. "How do you know that? How could you possibly-- do you own the banks too?"

"Not yet," Marcone said primly. "But I'm very good friends with many of them."

"You have tabs on my account."

"I had to, to get a direct deposit line for it."

"You're what? Why?"

Marcone's smug snake smile reappeared. "Because you are irritatingly noble. I have no illusions that if I were to cut you a physical check, you would never cash it for fear of crossing some sort of quaint line of morality you've drawn for yourself."

Thing of it was, he was right. My plan had been to pretty much take any money he gave me and burn it. Not wise, but enough to help me sleep at night. "Dammit, Marcone."

He picked up a legal pad off my desk and took a pen out of his pocket, the shiny one I'd signed his contract with. "I'm leaving the address of my nightclub here, the keycode for the front door, along with the names and numbers of relevant witnesses. Also, the line to my office. It'll get you my secretary. She's under orders to put you through to me unless I'm in a meeting. Call me when you have something."

"Don't count on it."

"Mr. Dresden," he said softly. That knowing smile of his was pissing me off. "Your reluctance is noted. The sooner we move past that, the smoother things will go for both of us. I can make your life very difficult if you make me."

"Long walk off a short dock?" I beamed back at him.

"Oh, you're far too valuable for that, and too integral to my plans." He returned my grin, not remotely intimidated. "Go to the club. Find out what's going on. Keep me informed." He returned the kitten to my desk as it cried unhappily. Without another word, he left my office.

 

I took the Red Line to Belmont and ended up in, of all places, Boystown. Not the sort of area I generally went to, but the address Marcone gave me lead me to a building off the Halsted markets, just a block away from the friendly rainbow pylons that proudly adorned the main street. It was odd to see the pride stickers in all the windows of the shops I passed. Not in a bad way, because more power to them. Just... odd. Don't give me that look, I have no deep thoughts on this stuff. I had no problem with Chicago's gay community. Even as a North Side guy, though, I didn't spend much time in Wrigleyville and had forgotten about the area. Honestly.

Just two blocks away, the businesses gave way to converted flats. The buildings were tall, stocky residential structures, facades of brick with large glass windows and iron fire escapes that doubled as the tenants' patios. One patio even had a mini barbecue sitting on it, smoking in the early evening with someone's dinner. Another a few levels down had a garden box with some kind of hanging vegetable trailing down.

On the corner was one building repainted to a more sedate slate color, otherwise a repurposed copy of its neighbors. A grand entrance had been knocked into the corner, under some tasteful neon-- or, rather, as tasteful as neon got. Above the entrance was a sign proclaiming it Ganymede, Marcone's club.

The name rung a bell and I groaned aloud at the reference. It was fitting, but lame. I made a note to hassle Marcone about it later.

It was just before sundown when I walked up the steps to the club. The door was locked, but there was no keyhole. Instead, a small black box was set into the stone archway, a number pad on its face.

An electronic door. Great. I hoped Marcone wouldn't bill me if the thing shorted out. As it was, I took a few calming breaths, leaned as far away from the mechanism as I could, and punched in the code I'd been given with the eraser of a pencil I had on me.

The door opened, much to my surprise. I wasn't sure why technology hated me like I'd said something about its sister, but it did. It was a constant source of annoyance to me. I mean, consider just for a moment what your life would be like without computers and light bulbs and cellphones and whatever they called those devices that acted as calendar, music player, phone, and whatever else you need (something fruit-related, a stupid name...). Hell, I couldn't work a CD player and vinyl was hit-and-miss. Same with radios. Even going to the movies was a chore until I found that drive-in near the Art Institute. You have no idea how hard it is to keep up with pop culture when most of it is allergic to you. It takes real effort.

Sometimes, I thought as I let myself into the club, I felt old. Like I was just shy of shaking my staff at the local youngun' on my lawn and complaining about those whippersnappers. Whatever a whippersnapper was. Stars, I didn't even have a lawn.

I was disappointed in the lack of sequins and hot pink once I took in the interior of Ganymede. I didn't look any different from any other club I'd been in, not that I had a wealth of experience with these things. There was a multi-level dancefloor, sparkling clean and unused. A DJ booth was off to the left. To the right was another room with a long, stainless steel bar, already stocked with shelves of various alcohols lining the wall behind it. Swanky, but nothing surprising. It seemed dance clubs were really uninteresting without the dancing.

Things only got interesting when the sun finally dropped out of sight. As dusk settled in, I could tell Marcone's guys hadn't been mistaken in reporting weirdness to their boss; I could feel something in the building. Nothing too strong, but enough it had me convinced. I could feel the energy convalescing above me. There had to be a second story.

I found the staircase to the second floor tucked behind the DJ booth. At the top was a velvet rope, so I assume the VIP section was up here. There were a few private tables along the windows and a hallway that looked like it belonged to a hotel instead of a nightclub; there were numbered doors along each wall. I wasn't sure if that was normal for a nightclub, but filed the information away to deal with later. Maybe I'd call Susan and ask. It'd be a good excuse to get in touch with her again.

A prickly feeling made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. There was something in that room, something sad and broken hearted. I could feel it like it was my own depression, making my eyes well up suddenly. I shook myself. "Pull it together, Harry." I shifted my grip on my staff, ready to defend myself from whatever was making that energy build up.

"Rachel... Rachel is that you? Have you come back?" I spun on my heel, duster flying out in a cool, dramatic way as I leveled my staff at the source of the sound. "Rachel, there's so much noise lately. Banging and sawing and hammering and I just want to sleep, Rachel."

It came through one of the walls, incorporeal and lacking the opaqueness of a real, living body. It was in the shape of a spritely woman, tall but shorter than me and thin. Not a healthy thin either. She looked weak and malnourished, like she was coming off a long illness. Her hair was reddish blonde and stuck to her head like she was in the middle of a cold sweat. Even with the transparency issue, I could see how pale she was. The spectre was the very image of a tired, ill woman.

"Rachel, I just want to sleep. Please, honey, make them be quiet," she moaned pitifully. Her accent wasn't anything local, lilting in a vaguely British sense. Or so I assumed. I didn't know my British accents outside villains in Hollywood films and some Eddie Izzard.

Immediately I knew she was either a ghost or a spectre. Both were similar beings, an echo of someone who had died. She wasn't a person, but I felt bad for this woman. She'd clearly been in poor shape, sad and hurt as she passed away to leave such a sorrowful impression behind.

I cleared my throat and willed a little power into my voice as I called out to her. "Can you hear me, miss? Can you see me?"

Her filmy eyes flitted to me briefly before passing me over. She cried out again, "Rachel, is the tea ready? I could really use a cuppa... Tea cures all that ails you." Suddenly she coughed, her hand over her mouth. Her shoulders shook from the force of it, her eyes squinted shut in pain.

My face grew more grim. "Listen to me, if you can hear me, I can help you! I don't know who Rachel is, but..." She wasn't listening, staggering around the room before sitting on one of the windowsills. Her face turned out to the street and I knew I couldn't reach her.

There was a payphone out on the street that I availed myself to. I dialed the number Marcone had given me. As the line connected and started to ring, I looked back at the Ganymede. I could see the illusory shape of the ghost in the window as she looked out over her neighborhood.

"Poor lost girl," I murmured.

The line clicked, staticky but clear enough for the moment. "Mr. Marcone's office."

"Yeah, it's, uh... Harry Dresden? Marcone said if I called I could--"

"Putting you through, please hold."

The line went quiet again, no tinny hold music to cover the silence. Well, that was... brusque. Were all of Marcone's employees people of few words?

"Harry," Marcone greeted me coolly over the line. "This was sooner than I expected. I was sure you'd put this off at least another day just to be stubborn."

"Don't call me that, John," I said by rote. I didn't give him a chance to snipe back. "I need information about the building."

"What would you like to know?"

"Know any former tenants from when you bought it? I'm looking for a woman named Rachel."

"Rachel Gainsbrook was the last tenant of the building. After she left, it was open for me to purchase and renovate. What've you found out?" His voice was devoid of humor now, all business.

I watched the window some more. I didn't want to give Marcone anything yet, not without knowing the full story. "Nothing much yet. Just a hunch."

Marcone sighed. "You're lying." I had a shitty poker face, but he could just tell over the phone. It bore repeating: Marcone? Creepy. "Rachel Gainsbrook still lives in Wrigleyville. I have her address if you need."

That would save me from having to beg some favors or make my way through the phone book. I grabbed my pencil again and jotted down the info on the back of an old receipt. "Thanks," I said without thinking.

"Of course. If you require assistance, let me know and I'll see you get it."

"I can do my own job, thanks." This time was a bit more sarcastic.

"I never meant to imply otherwise, Mr. Dresden. Will that be all?"

"Yeah..." Something struck me. "No, wait. You named your Boystown nightclub after Zeus's bit on the side?"

Marcone laughed, rich and deep. "It seemed fitting."

"It's cliche."

"Perhaps. Have a good evening, Athena."

I cut in before he could end the call. "Athena? How am I Athena? She's... a girl."

He laughed some more. The amount of amusement he got out of this was aggravating, let me just say. "Yes, she is. The Goddess of wisdom, and war. She was also among the most chaste of the Greek Pantheon. Something I believe you can relate to."

The sound I made at that observation was not a squeak and anyone who says otherwise will be hexed. I nearly blurted out a blatant falsehood in defence of my virility, before realizing how mortified I'd be if he caught me lying. Again.

"I'll call you when I have something." I hung up and shivered. My new employer was a goddamn stalker or possibly omniscient and really seemed to enjoy screwing with me. I had to be born under a bad sign or something, seriously.

 

"He's right though," Bob pointed out. "In the archaic 'wizard' means wise and sagely."

"I know."

"You should have told him your love life was full of vacancies. That he should feel free to fill." Bob leered at me. "You know, with his di--"

"Can we talk about the case, please?" I put my face in my hands, if only to stop myself from beating my head against the lab table. I really needed to break down and buy Bob some new literature soon. He was getting desperate enough for material he was focusing on me, and that never lead to good things. In fact, last time it lead to a love potion being used at the precisely worst moment possible. I mentally jotted 'new smut and lust books' at the top of my shopping list.

"Boss, you are... the anti-fun, or something." Despite that, he cut to the chase. "Sounds to me like you're dealing with a really mellow ghost, which I think we can all agree is better than the alternative, not-mellow ghosts."

"But when I called out to her, she heard me."

"Yeah, that's weird. You didn't even have her name, so you shouldn't have been able to do anything to get her attention." He hemmed and hawwed a bit as he thought. I drummed my fingers on the table impatiently as I waited him out. "So, she's a spectre."

I shook my head. "Aren't spectres more corporeal? She walked right through a wall."

"Well, spectres are made from ghosts anyway. So she almost acknowledged you, but she wasn't solid... Maybe a shoddy spectre-ification. Left her half ghost, half spectre."

That didn't sound pleasant. "With the powers of both."

"Or neither," Bob countered. "I need to know more before I can tell you anything."

Whoever our ghost-spectre was, she didn't offer much up evidence-wise. She didn't cause trouble or anything, just... moped. And made me want to give her a giant hug despite her not being real in the truest sense.

From my pocket, I pulled the crumpled receipt with Rachel Gainsbrook's address on it. "Well, I got someone who can hopefully fill me in."

Chapter Text

The address I was given was outside Boystown, closer to the Wrigley bit of Wrigleyville. You know how people find the idea of two Starbucks across the street from each other hilarious? Wrigleyville had that, but with bars instead. In this neighborhood, if you wanted to get smashed and shout at whatever game was on the television, you had your pick of about fifty bars that would oblige you. Plenty of places to find others who, like you, needed to vent about how much the Cubs sucked. Or, if you stood on the other side of the fence, the Sox.

I won't say where I stand on the issue. Some people take the Crosstown Classic seriously.

The bar Rachel Gainsbrook's loft was above was thankfully one of the quieter establishments. I had no doubt it'd get rowdy on game day, but in the overcast afternoon as I walked down the street, it was fairly peaceful. It was one of those Bar and Grill joints that actually went along with the 'and Grill' part. Some college kids were sitting on the steps leading up to Ms. Gainsbrook's pad, sharing a massive basket of riblets like it was finger food.

I took the stairs two at a time to escape the mouthwatering smell of the spicy dry rub. My stomach was already growling, upset I had skipped breakfast. I hadn't gotten around to grocery shopping, so there wasn't much in my apartment. And therein lay the real reason I wasn't procrastinating with Marcone's job; so long as I was avoiding Murphy, I needed the income.

A bit too eagerly, I rapped on the door to Ms. Gainsbrook's place. My mind was still half on the food and I didn't prepare my usual spiel for when I showed up at someone's door. By now, I should have had it down pretty well: Hello, my name is Harry and I'm a wizard, please don't slam the door in my face.

I was mute upon meeting Ms. Gainsbrook for the first time. She opened the door and stared at me with luminous dark eyes. She was tiny, not quite Murphy tiny but close to it. Her hair was shorter than even mine, and in a mussed, boyish style. An angular, dark face turned up to mine, mouth pulled into a frown. By the lines around her lips, it was clear she frowned a lot.

"Yes?" She narrowed her eyes at me expectantly. "Can I help you?"

I slide my foot forward to rest against the jam. Ask any detective and they'll tell you, you get a door open, you make sure you get your foot in there lest it shuts on you. "I hope so. I'm Harry Dresden, I'm..." Investigating this ghost girl and her Hemingway-level depression. "I'm looking for Rachel Gainsbrook."

"Found her." She leaned sideways on the door, arms crossed in that clearly unwelcoming way some people used.

"Good, great, I'm off to a good start then." I smiled warmly, hoping Ms. Gainsbrook would defrost a bit. No suck luck. "Well, anyway, did you... were you until recently a tenant of a flat over in Boystown, off of Halsted?"

There was a chip in her pretty, icy facade, no more than a sharp inhale and a slight widening of her eyes. "I was. That was months ago. The building's not even a flathouse anymore."

"I know. It's a fancy nightclub or something now. But you were the last tenant before it was sold, right?" She gave the barest of nods. "This is going to sound weird, but before you left, did anything... strange happen?"

"Strange." Her tone was suddenly a lot less hostile, dull and featureless.

"Yeah, strange. Any..." I winced, because this is where I normally lost people. "Sudden cold drafts, strange noises, maybe even seeing something like a... ghost?"

Gainsbrook stepped back into her flat and swung her door shut. Or tried to. My foot happened to be in the way. "Ow, Christ!" I jumped back, stumbling into the railing behind me from the jolt of pain.

She, of course, took the opportunity to slam the door shut properly. Sometimes the foot-in-the-door thing didn't go down too well. I swore under my breath for a moment as the pain faded to a throb, then limped over to the door to knock again. "Ms. Gainsbrook? Listen, I'm not here to cause trouble. I just have a few questions to ask." I heard the sound of a deadbolt being flipped and a chain lock being slid into place. Dammit. "I'm not with the cops or anyone else." Well, not technically true anymore, but close enough.

I gave her a moment, listening in the hopes that I'd hear the sound of the door being unlocked. When nothing of the sort happened, I knocked again, harder. "Look, lady, there's a ghost in that nightclub crying for Rachel and I think you know why. I can help her, but I need to know what's going on first!"

When I was about to give up and walk away, maybe try again later, there was a shuffling on the other side of the door before it opened. The chain was still on and Gainsbrook peered at me through the small gap. "You can help her?"

I nodded slowly. "If you help me first, yes."

The door shut again only to swing open wide a second later, the chain off. "All right. Sounds fair." She looked me up and down once before stepping back. "I won't invite you in," she said carefully.

Oh. Huh. As I followed her in, I felt a threshold pushing down on my magic. It wasn't a strong one. The flat was a home, but not a place of love and comfort. Nevertheless, it was there and Ms. Gainsbrook knew about it. Belatedly, I thought about how she had yet to look me in the eyes, instead focusing on my lips as we talked. I'd chalked that up to my studly, handsome face and our height difference, but now? "You know about thresholds."

She nodded. "Yeah."

"And you know about the ghost."

"Yeah." She shut the door behind me. "So, what are you?"

"Wizard. You?"

Gainsbrook snorted, brushing her hair out of her eyes. Her bangs were messy in a way that made me think she ran her fingers through them a lot lately, an exasperated tic. "I... guess I'm a witch? Or sorceress? Something like that."

"Something like that."

She nodded and sighed, a long exhalation that made her sound weary. "Want a cup of tea?"

"Sure."

 

Ms. Gainsbrook-- or 'Rach,' as she asked me to call her because Ms. Gainsbrook made her feel old-- had a decorating style I could get behind. Colorful paintings covered the walls, the furniture was comfortable despite no two pieces matching, and rugs and throws were littered around, overlapping textures. Reds and golds dominated the room, like a warm summer sunset despite the Chicago autumn going on outside. I got situated on the sofa in her living area as she busied herself in the kitchenette.

Soon she carried a large teapot over, two mugs tucked in one arm, sugar and milk in the other. I rose to help her, catching the paraphernalia before any could fall. Only after we each had a hot mug of tea in our hands did she speak.

"Her name's Dahlia. Dahlia Gainsbrook."

"Relative of yours?" I regret the words as soon as they left my mouth. Rachel gave me a bemused look.

"Yeah, 'cause we look so much alike."

I shook my head. "Right, sorry. She was your... partner then?" Was it my fault she didn't look the type? And I know, I know, I shouldn't make judgements on appearances, I'm a bad man. Cut me some slack, my gaydar is non-existent.

"As legally as we could make it. We kept talking about moving to a state that'd let us make it official, but..." Rachel shrugged one shoulder. "She died before we could get around to that."

"I'm sorry."

Rachel shook her head like it was nothing, but there was a lack of conviction to the motion the belied the grief going on there. "She got sick. Dahlia never had the best immune system. Inherited that from her family. Even getting rid of a cold was an uphill battle for her."

Dahlia's ghost made more sense now, the portrait of a woman fighting off illness. I didn't remark on it though, letting Rachel explain at her own pace. I took a sip of my tea, something strong but bracing after walking in the cold outside.

"When she..." Rachel licked her dry lips. "After, it was like she was still around the apartment. I could feel her. Sometimes even saw her from the corner of my eye. I thought it was just me being a nervous wreck, but I was desperate and started looking into the idea of ghosts. A friend pointed me towards this shop, Bock Ordered Books."

I knew the place. It was one of the more legit occult stores in Chicago. I suggested it to my newbies when they needed a place to start.

"I..." She sighed and looked down at her cup. "I wanted Dahlia back. I knew I had some power in me and one of the books said that I could maybe use that power to bring her back. I thought it'd be like before." Only now did her voice shake a little. "There were instructions in this book, a spell or something, I guess. It was a binding ritual. I used it to bind Dahlia's ghost to the house."

"You anchored her there." Not a smart move, but looking at Rachel, I could hardly hold it against her. Like with Dahlia, I mostly wanted to give her a hug. Rachel didn't seem like the touchy-feely type though. It was never a good idea to startle an inexperienced mage anyway.

"I didn't want her to leave!" Rachel froze and took a deep breath. "Sorry."

"S'fine. Go on."

She took a long drink of her tea first. "After the.... binding ritual thing," her nose wrinkled at that, as if the whole thing was absurd, like she was a plain old vanilla mortal and magic still had no place in her worldview, "it was nice for a while. But she was still sick. She was still... like she was. Right before she-- it happened."

I nodded. I explained as gently as I could, "Ghosts aren't the spirits of those who have passed on, lingering in the physical plane. They're just figments, like a snapshot of someone's life before they die. They can't change or grow or move on. They just are."

Rachel bit her lip hard. "So it wasn't her? Not really?"

"I'm sorry, Rach, but no."

She surprised me by smiling a little. "No, no, that's... that's good. I thought-- when I moved out, I thought I was abandoning her there all by herself. I thought I'd gotten her stuck in our world and it was my fault if she never got to... well, whatever comes after." She laughed weakly. "It's been driving me crazy. I kept wishing I'd stayed, even if it was killing me on the inside to see Dahlia like that. But it wasn't her?"

"No. Just a footprint in the sand, to use a tired cliche."

"Okay. Okay." She breathed slowly, like she was keeping herself under control. "So, but how did you even find out about Dahlia?"

That wasn't something I wanted to go into. "My employer owns the nightclub they're setting up in the old building. He hired me to find out what was going on, that's all."

She blinked at me. "You work for John Marcone."

I frowned. I'd hoped she wouldn't figure it out that quickly. "Unfortunately."

"Wow. Okay. Okay. I'm saying that a lot, sorry." She looked a little more nervous now. "I didn't mean to... hurt his business or anything."

"Whoa, hey," I held up my hands. "This isn't about that. I'm not a muscle man and no one's going to rough you up because you didn't mention the ghost thing when collecting your security deposit. Once I take care of it, he's not going to care anymore."

"How're you going to take care of it? What happens now?"

"I know her Name now. I can use it to call out to her and hopefully make her realize she's dead. Then she'll go away. No more haunting."

"No more Dahlia," Rachel murmured. Hands shaking somewhat, she put her mug down on the coffee table. "I know, it wasn't her, but..."

"Yeah." Tentatively, I put my hand over hers, offering as much comfort as I dared. "I know."

 

I woke up on Halloween feeling cranky, but ready to finish the job. Dahlia's ghost-spectre wouldn't be hard to dispel; Bob and I suspected it would have faded already if not for Rachel's rookie spellwork binding it to the building. With her Name and a little chalk, it'd be easy.

Drinking down a coke and munching on some toast (the breakfast of champions), I called Marcone again. His secretary left me on hold much longer this time and I hummed some Queen under my breath as I waited.

"Let me see if I know the line..." Marcone murmured as he came onto the line. "Jaws was never your scene and you don't like Star Wars?" I don't know how long Marcone had been listening to me. I wished he used hold music like everyone else.

"I know it's blasphemy to speak ill of Freddie Mercury, but how the hell do you not like Star Wars?"

"Clearly he was more of a Flash Gordon fan," Marcone said dryly.

"Flash! Aaaah-aaah, savior of the universe!" I couldn't resist.

"Very nice."

"Thank you." I took another big bite of toast and chewed loudly at him. "I need the club empty, for, like, an hour."

"You want to me to clear out Ganymede on its opening night." His tone implied this was not a very reasonable request.

"Yeah. And it has to be after sundown. Your ghost only comes out at night." There wasn't an immediate reply. "What, John, can't control the goings-on in your own business?"

"I can hear you smirking." It was true. He wound me up so much, I liked getting some payback. "The club is meant to open to the public at seven tonight. I believe sunset has been falling around five-thirty, six o'clock lately. You'll be there at five. My workers will leave for the duration of... whatever it is you'll be doing. After, you'll inform them that you're done so they can prep the club for the opening."

"Oh, I will, will I?"

Marcone didn't sound amused. "Interfering with the result of months of work is not a way to endear yourself to me, Mr. Dresden."

Yeah, not in a ha-ha mood. "I'm not trying to endear myself, John. Five-thirty. I'll make it quick as I can."

Marcone didn't stay on the phone. I had a boring wait ahead of me without any distractions. I was already prepped for my task, but it was hours away and I didn't have anything to do. I caught the Red Line back to Boystown and tried not to feel too awkward loitering around there. No one chatted me up or leered at me even though I was all clean and freshly shaven. Either I had no idea how gay communities worked or Tall, Dark, and Wizardly wasn't a popular menu item.

Probably the former, yeah, I know.

I browsed the shops a bit, begrudgingly bought a few romance novels for Bob-- I figured a lesbian love story would shut him up for a while-- and let a nearby cafe overcharge me for a latte macchiato. The drink came to me with a rose pattern on top, made from the milk. It was pretty, if utterly destroyed by the first sip I took. I guess when you worked in a coffee shop, you had to find some way to occupy your time.

At four o'clock I was sitting outside the cafe like all the other hipsters, reading one of the books I'd picked up. Just as I was marveling at how Bob not only read this drek but liked it, I spotted Susan walking down Halsted. I stuffed the paperback into one of my deep pockets and nearly knocked the chair over in my haste to get up. A quick vault over the cast-iron fence around the cafe area and a jog across the street was all it took for me to catch up to her. "Susan, hi."

She turned around so fast, her braided hair nearly smacked me. I leaned back to dodge it. "Harry?" She said. She didn't sound as pleased to see me as I was to see her. "What're you doing here?"

"Job for a client. Haunting." I smiled, even though my track record for playing friendly with people wasn't great lately. "How about you, how've you been?"

"I... fine. Good." She looked good, the most beautiful, reassuring face I could think of. I hadn't realized how lonely I'd been over the last few weeks until I saw her. Not lonely in Bob's terms, just... companionship. Having someone on my side, who I could depend on and who I could help in return. And Marcone didn't count. I was his asset.

"Are you headed somewhere? Do you have time?" I tried not to sound too pathetically hopeful.

"Harry, I don't know..." She looked away, but she wasn't rushing to leave my company yet, so that was a good sign.

"Susan, hey, I know this mess I've stumbled into sucks. I don't like the fact I'm working for the devil any more than you do." Taking a risk, I reached out and took her hand in mine. I kept my grip loose so if she wanted to pull away, she could. "Trust me, if I could get out of this, I would."

Hesitantly, she met my gaze. I didn't even blink, hoping she would see how earnest I was. "Please, Susan. If you have someplace to be, okay, but if you don't... want to come see me exorcise a ghost?" It wasn't fair to use that as a hook, I know, I know. I was reluctant to let anyone, let alone someone I cared about, near my side of the mundane/supernatural fence. In my defense, the ghost of Dahlia Gainsbrook was as close to harmless as you could get. What would go wrong there?

Yeah, yeah, knock on wood.

She finally, slowly as the rising sun (and just as lovely, let me just say), smiled for me. Just a little quirk of her lips, a small glimpse of her teeth. "A real ghost?"

"Totally real. It's depressing though. Just a warning."

"You know you're a jerk for using that as leverage with me." She squeezed my hand slightly before letting go. "All right, Harry. Hope you know how to show a girl a good time."

 

We had an hour and a half before I could get into the club, so I coaxed Susan back to the cafe I'd been loitering at and got her talking. It felt like ages since I'd seen her and I was desperate to reconnect. Maybe I had to work for Marcone, but I didn't have to let the scumbag ruin my life.

She told me about the stories she was working on and I added what insights I could. I filled her in on ghosts and even gave her my blessing to write a column on them. Unfortunately that went with the caveat that she couldn't mention Ganymede or any specifics. When she asked why, I told her the club was Marcone's and it was for her own protection.

Her lips pressed together in a severe, unhappy line at the mention of Marcone's name. I quickly changed the subject.

After a while, things felt comfortable between us again. On the stroll up to the club, she even linked her arm in mine, standing close enough I could smell her perfume. I was feeling like much less of a loser. Things were looking up.

The crew was on their way out as we approached the club. One of them looked at me, his face pulled into a frown. "You Mr. Marcone's man?"

I winced at the wording, my good mood taken down a few notches. "I'm Harry Dresden," I answered instead, not wanting to admit I might be one of Marcone's men. More lines I was reluctant to cross.

"We still have things to do before doors open at seven. We're expecting a big crowd."

I nodded dutifully. "I'll be quick as I can."

Once inside, Susan whistled. "Nice."

"Is it?" I couldn't tell. I didn't have a lot to compare Ganymede to.

"Classy with a bit of camp for humor. Doesn't overdo the gay-friendly club vibe either." She smiled at the room in general. "Fine line to walk, that one."

I snorted. "I'll let Marcone know he does camp well."

"Oh god!" Susan laughed. "Think he'd put a hit out on me for saying that?"

It was the first joke she'd made about my situation, which was a good sign. Even I could admit it was a situation begging for some wisecracks. "Want to know a dark secret? I think he's a fan of kittens." I put my finger to my lips, like this was some closely-guarded morsel of information. At the same time, I beckoned her to follow me upstairs.

Susan's heels clicked as she climbed the stairs. "As hors d'oeuvres?"

It was still barely light out, the sky over the building purple and orange from the setting sun. I took the time to give Susan an abbreviated recount of my kittensplosion case and Marcone's fastidious cat wrangling.

"Man, if I had one of those blind item columns..." She chuckled.

"He'd find out anyway. He's kind of creepy like that." Night was falling and I could feel that build-up of energy in the room. "Do me a favor, Susan, go sit over there." I pointed to the cozy VIP seat nearest to the staircase. "If things go bad, run for it. I'm pretty sure they won't, but..."

"Yeah, this is you we're talking about." She slid into the chair and lounged luxuriously across it, her chocolate gaze fixed on me. I felt like I had an audience.

I put that out of my mind and turned to face the point where I could feel the ghost. I planted my staff in front of me and focused as Dahlia came closer.

The image of the dainty wisp of a woman came through the wall and into the room. I heard Susan inhale sharply behind me. Heedless to our presence, the ghost started her whimpering cries.

"Rachel.... Rachel, honey, where are you? I... I can't find you. Please, Rachel, are you here? Did you go out to pick up tea?" Dahlia pressed her hands to her face, rubbing her pale skin wearily. "I'm so tired... Rachel..."

"Harry," Susan whispered at me, managing to fill the two syllables with all the sympathy and sadness she already felt for this ghost. I knew the feeling. That urge to cuddle Dahlia to my chest and tell her it would all be all right was rising again.

I could make it all right. I lifted my staff and thumped it against the floor once. Dahlia went still. She could hear me. I pushed my will out through my voice. "Dahlia Gainsbrook, can you hear me?"

Shaking like a leaf, Dahlia lowered her hands. Her cloudy eyes peered at me. She looked terrified. "Wh-who're you? Where's Rachel?"

"Rachel's gone, Dahlia."

"No..." She clapped her hands over her ears. "You're lying. Where's Rachel?!"

"Rachel's been gone for months. She left after binding you to this house. She shouldn't have done that, but she loved you and missed you." I took a deep breath because this was the roughest bit. "Because you died."

"NO!" Dahlia's face crumpled in utter despair. "No, I'm fine, I'm getting better, I... I..."

"You died."

"You're a lying sod, stop it!" And she started crying, then she ran out of breath for it and started coughing instead. "Oh god, I'm dead, I'm dead," she hiccuped through her tears.

"Yeah..." I lowered my staff. "I'm sorry."

Dahlia wrapped her arms around herself and sniffled. The lines around her were blurring, like a camera going out of focus. "I'm dead."

"Yeah."

Her eyes snapped to mine with a sudden sharp clarity. "You, you said Rachel left. Is she all right? Is she... happy?"

I smiled gently and nodded. "Not yet, but I think she will be. She..." I cleared my throat, feeling a lump forming in it. "She said she loves you."

Dahlia shut her eyes tightly. "Silly bird, loving a lame thing like me." The color seeped out of her, fading to greyscale. "What a silly thing..." After her color bled out, she went more and more out of focus until her form was no more than a pale smudge in front of me. Like a sunspot that slowly tilts away, Dahlia vanished like she'd never been there.

I stared at the point she'd been until Susan came to stand next to me. She wrapped an arm around me and stood up on her toes to kiss my cheek. "She wasn't real, Harry."

"What? I know that." I coughed and blinked my eyes until they stopped burning. Susan shook her head ruefully before resting it on my shoulder, her curls brushing my cheek. If I leaned into her a little, it wasn't because I am secretly a massive romantic sap and Dahlia tugged my heartstrings like a puppeteer. Really.

"We better go. Don't want to hold up the club's prep," I said with a mostly steady voice. Susan broke away from me and lead me out.

So the whole haunting case was a wrap and it had gone better than expected. Once we were outside, it was dark. Ganymede's crew pushed past us to get back inside and there was even a small crowd starting to line up in anticipation of the opening. The majority of them, I noticed, were in costume for the holiday. The costumes were a bit more androgynous than I was used to, but I guess that came with the territory.

"And so the day is safe for fabulousness, costumes, and dancing," I announced. Susan rolled her eyes. "I don't suppose you're free tonight?"

Susan turned back to look at me. "Well, I have this column on ghosts to write up."

I stepped close to her, dropping my voice to something quiet and cajoling. "Can't that wait for morning, Ms. Rodriguez?"

Susan smiled, but placed her hand on my chest, pushing me lightly back. "Easy there, wizard. Not all of us are so eager to hop in bed with the mob." I scoffed and started to protest, but she went on. "Not tonight, Harry. I'm still not sure how... okay I am with this."

My heart sank, but I nodded. "Okay. Some other time."

"Definitely." She gave me a frustratingly chaste kiss on the corner of my lips. "I'll see you around, Harry." And I watched her walk away.

Ah, well. God forbid my evening go that well. At least we weren't avoiding each other anymore. That was a start. Anyway, I had a phone call to make.

 

My plan had been to call Marcone, tell him I got the job done, then go to McAnally's for some of Mac's brew. The secretary told me instead to wait by the club as Marcone was on his way there for the opening and he'd speak to me then. Only in a lot fewer words. The call lasted maybe twenty seconds. If you including the ringing. I was starting to suspect that secretary was actually a robot.

I wasn't a big fan of Halloween festivities, so I found a place to slouch in the shadows, out of sight. A few residents and their kids wandered the neighborhood, bright plastic orange pails in hand for collecting candy. I watching the little kids in their ridiculous outfits drag their parents along. I adverted my eyes whenever a woman walked by in a much less wholesome costume.

I was about to say screw Marcone and go home when the mountain that was Hendricks approached. He was dressed, I swear this is true, as a football player. I burst into a deluge of snickers as he got closer.

"You just made my night, Cujo."

Hendricks glared at me. "Mr. Marcone wants to see you."

"Did he make you dress up for the club opening, or did you actually think that was a good idea on your own?" I reached up and tapped the side of his football helmet. Hendricks growled and knocked my hand away. "Nice, Cujo, nice."

Unceremoniously, he shoved me towards Ganymede. I was too amused to care about the rough handling.

I was ushered into the club and it was barely recognizable. There were so many people dancing and drinking and enjoying themselves in so many colorful costumes, I wasn't sure what to do. Hendricks helpfully put a hand on my shoulder and steered me through the crowd and upstairs. There were plenty more people upstairs, but the music was slightly less deafening and it wasn't as crowded.

I got directed over to the bar on the far end of the room and more specifically to a private table tucked away from everything else in a little alcove, out of sight. John Marcone was sitting there on his own, waiting for me.

That wasn't all. "Stars and stones, you could at least be subtle about it, Marcone."

Marcone tipped his head back just enough to grin at me from under the brim of his fedora. It was black with a carmine red silk ribbon wrapped around it. It perfectly matched the 1930s zoot suit he had on, dark with bold red pinstripes and a scarlet tie in a double Windsor knot around his neck. There was even an Ace of Hearts tucked into his breast pocket to complete the effect. The get-up would look completely ridiculous on anyone else, but he wore it with such charming aplomb, it sort of worked. He wore stereotypical mobster really, really well.

"I don't know what you mean, Mr. Dresden," he said with sincerity that was ruined by his smile, sharp as a knife and just as bright in the dark.

"Wouldn't it be easier to just wear a badge saying 'my name is Gentleman Johnny and I'm a mafia kingpin'?"

Marcone shook his head, looking amused. "Sit, Harry."

"Don't call me that," I retorted easily, but slid onto the other end of the half-moon seat, tucking around the little round table between us. It was a tight fit. I was lanky, and all my height was in my legs. Not accidentally kicking Marcone was a chore. "Doesn't seem like your kind of crowd, John."

Indulgently, he said, "When establishing a new business, one should see it off personally. As a gesture."

I laughed. "You just wanted an excuse to dress up, don't lie."

"I never denied that." He looked off into the distance and waved a hand. Only a few seconds later, a waiter came by and set twin highball glasses on the table. "Speaking of," he went on as he took a drink, "I notice your lack of costume this evening."

I was fairly sure Marcone wasn't going to poison me, so I tried my drink as well. It was a G&T, nothing fancy, but good after the day I'd had. "I don't do Halloween."

"So if I told you I had a cloak and pointed hat in one of the back rooms that I was certain would fit you?"

I returned his smile, showing all my teeth. "I would tell you to go fuck yourself."

"I expected as much." He leaned back in the seat, arms spread wide over the back. Stars, he even had on a few gaudy gold and rhinestone rings to complete his cheesy transformation. "I see the job went well."

I gave him a sarcastic salute. "The building is now ghost-free. Any further ethereal visions, please see your doctor."

"You cut the timeline rather close, don't you think?"

"Hey," I pointed a finger at him. "I got it done. The rest shouldn't matter." I took a big gulp of my G&T. Liquid courage. "You don't like how I work, you can dissolve the contract and I'll be out of your hair forever."

"If I wanted rid of you Mr Dresden, I doubt it could be arranged so simply. You have a certain skill at finding trouble in this city." His grin shifted into something more rueful. "Overall, excellent work, even if your procrastination needs work."

"Hey, I'm a great procrastinator!"

His reply was dry as a desert. "With the amount I paid for you, I expect the best."

"You paid a pretty penny for me, John. Speaking of payment..."

"It's already in your account." He waved airly, brushing my remark aside. "The money was transferred around the time you were bidding Ms. Rodriguez goodnight."

My impulse to banter with Marcone was struck down just like that. I leaned forward, elbows on the table. "Marcone, I'm warning you--"

He held up a hand and gave me an exasperated look. "Please, Mr. Dresden. Let's not get paranoid."

Right. It wasn't like all signs pointed to the notion Marcone was having me tailed and collecting information on me and those close to me, information he had no right tossing so casually into our conversations-- oh wait. I grit my teeth and looked away before I said something stupid. "Am I done here?"

"If you are so eager to leave my company, then yes, I suppose we're done for now."

I stood up stiffly and grabbed my glass to down the rest of my drink. I wiped my mouth on my sleeve. "If you have any more problems, please hesitate to call."

Ignoring me, he reached under the table. "One more thing." He stood as well, something in his hand. In a swift motion, he put a hat on my head, one of those old west-style ten gallon hats. "I believe you could pass for an urban cowboy now."

"You know what your problem is?" I went on, because he might've actually answered if I didn't. "You're such a big shot now, no one has the guts to tell you how not funny you are."

"Well, luckily I have you now, don't I?" He gave me a weird smile I didn't understand before sitting back in his seat. "Have a happy birthday, Harry."

My breath caught in my chest. I had nothing I could possibly say to that, so I turned and walked out of the club, smoothly dumping the stupid hat in a trashcan as I went.

Chapter Text

Marcone stayed away for a while after that. I think he somehow understood how pissed I was at him and was giving me space and time to cool down. It was scary he could read me that well while I had no idea what was going on in his head. It wasn't fair. We'd both seen each other's souls, and yet he maintained the upper hand over me. Sometimes I really felt the urge to steal a lock of his hair to test it for magical enhancement. The thought that he was actually just that good freaked me out more than most of the terrors of the Nevernever.

So he backed off, and I managed to get some good, honest work done for a while. Rachel Gainsbrook got in touch with me and I helped her learn the basics of magical defense and what it meant to have the Art. She'd never have enough to quit her day job (mural painting, as it turned out-- she was apparently a very talented artist) but mentoring Chicago's newbie mages was one of the services I offered pro bono. It was in everyone's interests that such people got coaching from someone who wasn't going to enthrall them and use them for black magic.

Not that I'm speaking from experience or anything.

I got word of some strange wolf sightings on the South Side, around Chicago U and Hyde Park in particular. A week of stakeouts later and I witnessed a ghoul torn to pieces by a bunch of wolves who didn't feel like wolves. A little bribery to some pixies who did recon for me in exchange for pizza, and I learned the wolves were roughing up any supernatural menace that entered their territory.

Thus, I met the Alphas, a bunch of werewolves. They were kids with some magical ability, but could only do one spell-- turning themselves into wolves. They did it well though. They were students at the college who'd met Tera West and got tutored on their canine sides. I added them to the list of kids who needed a little supernatural guidance from me. They were eager to learn. Their de facto leader, Billy, even invited me to their game night. I didn't tell him yes, but only because I had to find where in my apartment my d20 went first.

What, because I'm a wizard, I can't enjoy a little tabletop? You young whippersnappers and your fancy Nintenboxes.

And no, still no idea what a whippernsnapper is. It's fun to say though.

Bob enjoyed his new shiny lesbian porn and stopped telling jokes about me being Marcone's glorified rentboy, much to my relief. A few small cases kept my cashflow steady. Not that I really needed it. Just for the Gainsbrook case, Marcone gave me enough for three months rent with plenty left over for food and miscellanea.

Still no word from Murphy. I tried not to let that bother me.

Before I knew it, it was getting close to midwinter. Chicago enjoyed the usual snow and sleet. It was less winter wonderland and more dammit I can't get my car out of the slush, but I was used to it by now. One upside to being a self-styled fire mage is that you can melt the ice off your windshield real good.

It was nice. Calm for once. I spent a few hours a day in my office, checked up on my growing circle of newbies, sometimes dropped by Billy's to see how the pups were doing, then went back home. On the colder mornings when the Beetle wouldn't start, I just stayed in, which would be unheard of for me a year ago.

It was a rare luxury, just puttering around my apartment in flannel drawstring pants and my robe all day. I read a bit, I cooked some actual food, and spent time with Bob talking magic. Usually, I used Bob for information I needed right away when I stumbled upon my Big Bad of the month. With my finances less tight, I turned down the jobs people offered that were obviously not looking for real magic, but to feel special and see some smoke and mirrors work. Less jobs, less running around, more time for the research I'd been wanting to do for years.

I felt like a legitimate businessman instead of a working Joe living paycheck to paycheck. Then I remembered that security was funded by Johnny "I'm a Mafia Don, Ask Me How" Marcone.

"You glare any more at that belladonna, I'm going to start feeling bad for it, boss," Bob said.

I blinked out of my thoughts, not realizing I'd been so caught up in them. I was in auto-pilot as I worked on ingredient stock. My belladonna was running low, and you never knew when you needed a flight salve, a magical painkiller, or a really trippy hallucinatory potion. I had out the old mortar and pestle, my gloves on, and was working on grinding down some dried leaves, careful to not inhale any of the resulting powder. Don't try this one at home, true believers; belladonna's dangerous stuff.

"Just thinking, Bob."

"Looked more like moping to me. You always get this surprised face when you're thinking. Which I can understand. I'm always shocked when you use your brain instead of just lighting things on fire."

"Wizards are supposed to be moody," I pointed out, definitely not pouting.

"You are so hypocritical." Bob rolled his glowy eyes. "You can say all wizards are grumpy, but I can't say all women who dye their hair blonde are easy. It's such a double-standard!"

"That's because they're not and that's rude, Bob!"

"Can you say that definitively, Harry? You've been big on research lately. Why don't we go out and do some of our own? Hit a few bars, see if there's any correlation between hair color and attitude towards casual sex."

I poured the powdered belladonna into a container, writing on the side with a Sharpie marker, 'BELLADONNA, POISONOUS' and the date. I picked up my mortar and pestle and headed for the stepladder. "Read your books, Bob."

"Next time you want something, I am demanding a night out!" Bob called at my back.

I shut the sub-basement door and threw the rug back over it, ignoring him. I had potentially deadly potion ingredients to get rid of. It was tempting to put off washing my equipment, but I was afraid Mister would lick the stone mortar and put his omnivorous nature to the ultimate test.

Before I got to my kitchenette, there was a knock on the door. I sighed, tucking my things under one arm and going to the door.

"Good afternoon, Harry," Marcone greeted as he stood before me. Hendricks was with him, holding an umbrella over them both to fend off the snow. He glared at me, devoid of all the magnanimous warmth his boss had. Oblivious or uncaring to his bodyguard's bitchiness, Marcone said, "I'm sorry to intrude, but you haven't been in your office recently and I have a pressing matter in need of your expertise."

I leaned on the doorframe, looking him up and down. Another day, another super-expensive comfy sweater. "Am I just not good enough for your fancy suits, John?"

Marcone smiled. "You always look so keenly at my more casual attire. I was thinking of getting you a sweater for Christmas, since you've taken such a liking to them."

Was he saying I eyed him up? What? "No thanks, I don't think I have the je nais se quoi to pull off scumbag chic." Sarcasm, my last line of defense. And occasionally my first. Basically, any time fire didn't work. But this time, it did nothing to dull the needle-sharp stare that was Marcone's weapon of choice against me. I cleared my throat and dropped my gaze, staring at our feet instead. That was safe territory, right? He couldn't accuse me of perving on his round-toe Oxfords. "Anyway. Not really big on Christmas, seeing as I'm not exactly a Christian."

"I think you'll find that few people who celebrate the holiday are. The Solstice is approaching, would that be more appropriate?"

I rolled my eyes at him. "What do you want?"

"I'd like to come in and speak with you, Harry. We brought lunch."

"Well, in that case," I said, and walked away from the door, leaving it open for them. I got the mortar and pestle in the sink and started rinsing them thoroughly. Only after the brown specks of dried belladonna were gone did I take off my gloves and toss them out.

I took my time with it, my back to the living area because... weird. Really weird, having Marcone and Cujo in my home. I mean, I've seen Marcone's house. I bet his bedroom has more square footage than my entire place.

Behind me, I heard Marcone say softly, "You can sit, Mr. Hendricks."

"I'm fine, boss."

"We're in one of the safest places in Chicago and no one is aware we're here. Sit, take a breath, have a gyro." He pronounced it oddly, almost like 'hero' without the 'h' and I wondered if I'd been saying it wrong all the time I'd been living in this city.

I finally turned around, drying my hands on a dishtowel. "You bought Greek?"

In the plastic bag Hendricks pulled out of the ether, there were several large take-out boxes fill with pita gyros. For those of you poor souls who don't have a Mediterranean place near you, that's slow-cooked lamb meat on warm flatbread with chunks of feta cheese and tomatoes with this amazing yogurt dipping sauce. It's the sort of thing that comes with massive portions on newspaper or checked parchment paper. There's no elegant way to eat it, you just roll it up, try to hold the pita bread closed, and take big bites out of it.

At least, that's how Hendricks and I ate it. Marcone used a knife and fork, which felt like sacrilege to me. But he brought me food, so I wasn't about to tell him off for not knowing how to eat a gyro properly.

Especially when the last box in the bag had crescent-shaped cookies. "Kourabiedes," Marcone said quietly.

I popped a few pieces of them in my mouth. Buttery, almond-y, and perfect, hell's bells. "Okay," I mumbled as I chewed. "You so definitely have my attention now."

"And you lead me to believe you were above bribery, Harry." Marcone, for all his care in dissecting his gyro and eating it with the sort of grace that belonged in a five star restaurant and not my apartment, dipped the side of his thumb into the little cup of cucumber yogurt. He licked his fingers clean of yogurt and salt as he sat back on my sofa, looking content enough to purr.

"Should have started with goods. Dresden doesn't have enough imagination to be tempted by money." Hendricks said as he dragged the half-finished kourabiedes box over to his side of the coffee table.

I gaped at him. "Since when do you talk? Doesn't Marcone have, I don't know, a gag order on you or something?"

Hendricks glared at me again. Marcone looked between us and sighed in a 'now, now, children' manner. "Mr. Hendricks is more than capable of speaking his mind, Mr. Dresden. You'd do well to pay attention when he does. I'm not in the habit of surrounding myself with people that aren't worth listening to."

Wonders never cease. I tossed my napkin down and leaned back in my chair. "So."

Marcone didn't need any more prompting than that. "There's a marina on the lake shore, a place of interest for me. Over the past few months, there have been recurring incidents involving people drowning. Four individuals so far." He manifested a file folder out of seemingly nowhere and handed it to me.

Inside were three police reports about the victims. Two were civilians, one was a marina worker. With the last one, the report lacked the CPD crest and was printed on the wrong type of paper. I held up the report in silent question.

"The last drowning isn't a matter of public record and the Chicago Police aren't yet aware of the victim's disappearance," Marcone explained evenly. "I had a few of my people draw up a similar report on him anyway for your use."

"He's one of your men and died on the job. You don't want it to be a matter of public record." Marcone nodded. I looked over the reports, now catching some of the details. "The Poseidon Marina. I've been there, it's a dive. What's so important about it to you?"

Marcone smiled and deflected the question easily, "Perhaps I have a predilection for Greek Mythology."

Which meant he was using it for nefarious crime-related activities. My phone was a couple of paces away. I could chuck Marcone out, call Murphy, and have the Marina swarming with cops in five minutes. And if they found something, something that'd stick in court... I took a calming breath and looked up from the folder, thoughts of freedom dancing in my head.

Marcone's amused, knowing stare stopped me cold. Right. They'd find nothing. Marcone was too freaking careful. I'd get my ass handed to me for wasting police time, sued to hell and back for defamation of character, and... and Murphy probably wouldn't even take my call in the first place. Goddamnit. That would be a great basis for a good long pity party, but while I missed Murphy, I was back in Susan's good graces and the Alphas had invited me over for a Totally Non-Denominational Christmahannusolstice gaming night Thursday. It wasn't that bad. I just had to remember that.

I had to figure out what was drowning people at one of Marcone's... what? Smuggling drops? His favorite out of the way place to put bullets in competitors?

Stop thinking about that, I scolded myself and refocused on the papers. I could plan a way to screw over Marcone later.

There wasn't much on offer in the files. All the victims died from either hypothermia or drowning. September 26, October 17, November 7, and December 12. None of the dates really jumped out as significant in an occult or spiritual sense and I didn't think they were full moons. Something caught my eye as I looked through some of the photos paperclipped to the Oct 17 report: a photo of something odd at the marina, a crowd of water lilies floating on top of the water. Instead of that pale pinkish white color water lilies tended to be, they were all blood red.

Shit.

"Something interesting?" Marcone leaned forward, tilting his head to see what had caught my attention.

I snapped the file folder shut. "Not really." Marcone wasn't going to be forthcoming with me, so I would return the favor. Petty, yeah, but I took my victories against him where I could.

"Thoughts?"

"Looks like a bunch of drownings. That marina's ancient, maybe the docks are rickety or something. Bad weather, or something."

It wasn't true at all, but situations like these were a little delicate and I needed to be able to work without Marcone hovering. I needed to talk to Bob and dig up some old lore books I had in the lab. I also needed to call in a favor or two.

"Mr. Dresden," Marcone said, filling my name with the full depth of how much he didn't believe me.

"No, seriously, I'll look at the marina but don't worry about it. I'm sure whatever it might be won't interfere with..." I made a face. "Whatever you're doing down there. I doubt it's yachting."

"True. I utilize the Columbia Club for my boating needs, but the marina is of some... strategic importance." He did that finger steepling thing I hated. "If there is an issue with the marina, Harry, I'd really prefer if you told me."

I shook my head, not giving myself chance to reconsider. If I hesitated, I knew Marcone would notice and would press me for more information than I was willing to give him at the moment. "Nope, no issues."

"You are a wretched liar," Marcone said softly. He sighed and got to his feet. Hendricks followed immediately, obediently tailing Marcone to the door. As he passed my chair, Marcone put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed faintly. "In the hypothetical event that there is something to worry about at the marina, I suggest you sort it quickly." He backed off, vague threat delivered, and gave me a politician's smile, his eyes like green ice. "Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Dresden."

I let them show themselves out, then waited a full sixty seconds before flipped the rug off my lab door and climbing down. "Bob! Wake up, we got a problem!"

"No! Forget it! I want a night out!" Bob yelled back.

Damn. I'd forgotten about that. I needed my magic encyclopedia and he was still sulking. My luck is amazing, let me just say.

 

I caved and gave Bob permission to hitch a ride in Mister's body and go out for a day. That gave me time to visit the marina to make sure my suspicions were correct.

The place was nearly empty. It wasn't exactly the season for recreational boating, with the Lake cold enough to kill a man in minutes. The latest snowfall was cleared from the streets, but another one was on its way down, small snowflakes that vanished the moment they touched ground. It looked innocent and pretty, but by the time I got home, it'd be working on reclaiming the city with a blanket of white that would turn to ice in the night.

The Poseidon Marina wasn't like the flashy corporate yacht clubs further south along the shore. It was a single building made of worn but freshly repainted wood. I could see its berth consisted of just two long docks extending into the Lake. A few boats were tied there, all small modest affairs. It was quaint in a place where quaint didn't usually last very long before being bought out and transformed into something else entirely.

Chicago, depending on your point of view, either glutted on itself like a cannibal or was constantly rising from its own ruin like a phoenix. My opinion on which one it was changed from day to day.

Once I was inside the marina, I was reminded of car dealer or a mechanic's office. There was a desk on the other side of the room. There was a bored-looking boy sitting there, his eyes on a book in his lap and not on me. Behind him, the wall was cork board with numerous hooks in it. Some held keys with little identifying tags on them. Most were empty though.

There was a lobby area, decorated sparsely but with warm kitsch. A few barnacle-encrusted license plates hung on the wall between a life preserver and an old-fashioned ship wheel. The walls in here were wood as well, the blue paint chipped and worn, obviously left that way for aesthetic purposes. Standing there, you expected to inhale and breathe in salt water and seaweed smells.

It just smelled like cold and snow.

"Need something?" The kid at the desk finally asked, putting a index card in his book to mark his place before setting it aside. He was young, probably a sophomore or freshman at one of the colleges.

I sauntered over and took a peek at what he'd been reading. "The Man Who Was Thursday. Nice."

"You know Chesterson?" He had the tone of someone who'd become convinced that the modern world had abandoned literature for flashy Hollywood action movies and sex-heavy late night television, and was sure I was one of them. And, hey, I'd love to watch some action movies and late-night television, but technology. It hated me. Just wasn't fair.

"GKC, oh yeah. He was a man who knew what was going on." The kid stared at me, the reference flying over his head. "Geez, kid. Gaiman and Pratchett, try them sometime."

He snorted. "Only hipsters like Gaiman."

"Hey, his comics were amazing!" And scarily close to the truth. There were rumors in the magical community that Gaiman was one of us in some capacity, but no one had been able to prove anything yet. There was a pool at Mac's, and I had my money on Gaiman being a minor Wyldfae. Most of the bets were on him having made a deal with the Leanansidhe. I wouldn't put it past my Godmother, honestly. Not that I was about to ask her.

The kid gave me a look that contained nothing but disdain. Comic book hater, clearly. "Can I help you with anything?"

"Nah. Mind if I look around?"

He arched an eyebrow at me. "Why? Shit, are you here about the drownings?"

That caught me off guard. "Uh... no?"

"People are stupid." He rolled his eyes. "The docks get slick at night with the tide and all. We have signs about it put up, but I guess no one bothers to read them."

"You're not a people person, are you? Four people died, you can be a little nicer about it." Yeah, I wasn't going to make any friends that way, but the uncaring attitude bothered me. Especially if they died how I thought they did, the deserved more than a world-weary college kid.

"Three, man. Not four." He picked up his book again and slouched in his chair. "Look around, I don't care."

There wasn't much to see. I walked up and down both docks, trying to sense anything that might help me pinpoint the culprit. The planks under my feet were shaky and somewhat uneven and the cold left a thin sheen of ice over them in places. I skidded a few times just walking normally. But there were ladders hanging off the dock and into the water below. They looked sturdy enough that someone could climb out if they fell in. And yet all the victims were recovered from the water.

One of the four victims missing the ladders, that I could believe. All four of them, though? That was suspicious.

Between that and the image of the red water lilies still burned in my mind's eye, I was not liking the way this was going. I was hoping for evidence that would contradict, not support.

And Bob wasn't going to back until tomorrow afternoon. That gave me very little time to work. I needed to get things ready before Thursday and it was already Tuesday.

Speaking of Thursday.

I went back to the sulky kid at the desk. "Are you open Thursday night?"

He sighed explosively and took his time finishing his paragraph before marking his page again. He gave me a lazy look. "What?"

"Thursday night."

"Booked."

Stars and stones. "Thursday night is booked?"

"Ye-- no." He looked at the little appointment book on the desk next to him. "I thought..." I saw his eyes widened minutely, just for an instant. "Oh, right. No, we're closed that night. Everyone has the night off. Holiday."

I frowned, checking my mental calendar. "What holiday?"

"Birthday. Someone's, I forget whose. What do I care, I don't have to come in." He glared at me for daring to question him.

"So no one is going to be here? You're sure?"

"Positive." He picked up his book again, which I knew was just a nicer way of telling me to get the hell out.

I wasn't going to argue. I showed myself out. There wasn't much I could do until Bob got back to confirm my theories, but it was a load off knowing no one was going to drown in two days.

September 26. October 17. November 7. December 12. All Thursdays. And I only knew one creature that had a preference for that day.

For those playing along at home, I hope you know your Germanic folklore.

 

Bob was late and it drove me nuts. I paced by the front door, waiting for the sound of Mister's claws on the door, asking to come in. It was over 24 hours and while I hadn't given Bob an exact curfew, I was getting annoyed. He'd probably gotten caught up in whatever orgy he'd started. Bob had the attention span of a goldfish when it came to naked people.

I was getting antsy. It was Wednesday already and long past time I got to work on the Marina problem. But without Bob, all I could do was wait. The apartment was clean, my dishes were done, and I put more ice in my icebox, all despite the moral objections I had to chores as a bachelor. I also added a new ring of runes to my blasting rod and powdered three more potion ingredients.

I was considering cleaning out my fireplace when I felt something near my wards. I immediately went to the door and opened it, letting Mister and Bob in.

"Skull, now," I said tersely, locking up the apartment and heading to the basement.

A moment later, the orange glow that was Bob lit up his skull. "Where's the fire, boss? And did you light it this time?"

"The fire is at the Poseidon Marina." I filled Bob in on my findings, talking about the Thursday deaths, the unused ladders, and even showed him the photo of the red water lilies.

"Ah," Bob said. "That fire usually hangs out in Europe, not North America."

"So I'm right? It's got to be a water fae, right?"

"Sounds like a Nix. The lilies are a dead giveaway." His gaze seemed to alight on the photo. "Nix, Näkki, Neck, Bäckahäst, Rhinemaiden-- they got a million names. Most are Wyldfae, but some align with Winter or Summer, depending on if how nasty they are about their job. If this one started in September, it may be Winter. A Summer Nix would prefer warmer waters."

I blew out a long breath. Hurrah for being right about this, but now I had to actually deal with the thing. "How do I get rid of a man-eating mermaid?"

"Mermaids are different from Nix. They're a bit more friendly and less likely to kill you. Nix are closer to sirens, actually. Big on using magical melodies to learn humans in. Sirens do it for kicks, but Nix want blood."

"Are Nix always Chaotic Evil?"

"Nah, not if you know how to handle them. You can summon one with an offering. Make a deal and they'll teach you to play like they do."

"And you summon them how?"

Bob snorted. "You thinking of picking up the lyre, boss?"

"No, but if I summon the Nix, I don't need to cut a deal for music lessons, right? I can just rid of it when I'm done."

"I think you could pull off a lyre, actually. Think about it. Playing an instrument is a big hit with the ladies."

"Bob," I warned.

"Anti-fun, seriously." He sighed. "It's like summoning pixies. Instead of milk and honey, you use three drops of blood. That'll get a Nix's attention."

"And how do I get rid of it?"

"Usual standbys. Iron will work. If you had its Name, you could banish it with that. If it's in Winter's Court, you could use the usual 'kill it with fire' tactic, but prepare for it to attack you if you don't do it fast. Or you could just make a deal with it." I had the impression that Bob would shrug if he had shoulders. "Barring the whole sucking you dry bit, they're not that bad company. Lot of them trade musical talent for blood instead of just snagging mortals wholesale."

"Four people have died because of this thing, Bob."

"I knew a Nix in Denmark that lived under this old bridge and snacked on children for something like three hundred years. Four people is nothing."

I didn't bother giving Bob a lecture on how every life was important. Amoral as he was, I doubt it'd sink in with him any more than the other times I'd tried. Instead I looked around the lab, thinking. "If I were making a deal, it'd probably be for blood, right?"

"Probably the best bet, yeah. Mortal blood is a yummy snack, but wizard blood might actually give you some leverage. Just be careful the Nix doesn't drain you."

"Noted." I got up and examined my newly restocked shelves, an idea forming in my mind. It'd be a dirty trick, but so was eating mortals. "Thursdays only, right?"

"That's their day, yeah. Watch the water for the lilies. They're a sign the Nix is around. They turn red after feasting, but they'll be normal beforehand."

"Normal, if horribly out of season."

"Part of the appeal. You see something that odd floating in the water, you wanna get close and look. It's bait." Bob watched me collect a few things and set them on the work table. "Got a plan?"

"Yeah," I breathed, sitting down and rolling a jar of iron powder between my hands. "Yeah, bit of a plan."

Chapter Text

And because I am an idiot, I was surprised when Billy the Friendly Neighborhood Werewolf called me and reminded me to bring beer for the Christmahannusolstice party.

"Hell's bells, that's tonight?"

Billy sighed over the line. "You're going to skip out on us, aren't you?"

"No, no! I didn't say that!" I looked at the clock on the wall and gave it some thought. Today was my day to eradicate the Nix, but I also really wanted to go out and pretend my life wasn't a bit of a mess with some D&D and friends. Susan was out of town to see her family until New Years and I didn't have anyone else to spend the holiday with. It was one thing to tell Marcone I wasn't the type to celebrate Christmas, but when it got right down to it, nothing was more depressing than being alone at the end of the December.

I'd been there before a few times. It tended to involve sitting in my lab three sheets to the wind, whining to Bob about how I was a friendless pitiful wreck of a man who was unloved and persecuted by my own community. Kind of embarrassing.

Anyway, the Marina was closed. I mean, who in their right mind would break into a run down marina in this weather? Not even a nice, fancy boat club-type of marina. The damn Poseidon Marina wasn't going to get any visitors tonight. It was very nice of the Nix to limit its hunting to a single day a week. I'd go the party and if I got out in time, I'd go take care of the Nix. If not, I'd get it next Thursday. I was a man with a plan.

"Harry?"

"I'll be there. Sorry, it just slipped my mind. But I'll definitely be there."

"Good, because you need to pick up the beer. The rest of us get carded."

The fact the Alphas mainly consisted of college kids really hit me. "You all are twenty-one or older, right?"

Billy was quiet for a long moment. "Yes."

"God, I'm your enabler, aren't I?" I chuckled. "And here I thought you guys actually liked me."

"We do. The fact you can bring us beer is just a bonus. You're our favorite wizard-slash-occult private detective."

"I'm filled with warm feelings."

"Come over at six, you'll be full of pizza too."

I wasn't one to turn down such a great invitation. I left the Nix eradication tools in the lab and went out to pick up beer before heading over to Hyde Park with my dice knocking together in the pocket of my duster and a smile on my face. I felt strangely satisfied on some deep, neglected level. I'd found somewhere I was welcome. Wanted, just for myself and my company, not as a last resort in some supernatural crises. It was a new, welcome feeling.

I had a seat at the folding card table that served as the game board for the Alphas. Next to me, Alex started handing out character sheets. "New campaign, in honor of our new guest. Mitchell's DM for this one."

Georgia rolled her dice dutifully, frowning at what numbers she was getting. "Why bother, Alex? You always play a cleric. Always."

"I might get better rolls this time."

"Oh, so you can break the game faster?"

Mitchell gave me an exasperated look. I had the feeling this argument came up a lot. "Alex, if you start that shit again, I will nerf you with my mighty DM powers."

Alex scoffed. "That's not fair! It's in the core books, why is it my fault?"

"Because you exploit them, jackass," Billy said, tossing his dice lazily. "Harry, I have a few premades if you want. I think I have a wizard even."

I got out my dice and a pen. "Nah, I'll play barbarian, thanks. My lowest roll is going in intelligence. Do they still have that thing where barbarians have to buy the ability to read? I haven't cracked a Player's Handbook in years."

"You're going to use intelligence as a dump stat?" Mitchell boggled at me.

"Me Tarok the Large," I said, affecting a caveman drawl. "Me smash things for shiny monies. Me join party, help look for shinies."

"Oh, man, this is going to rock," Alex said, laughing.

 

"Tarok polishes armor. Cannot see shiny purple under all the troll blood."

"Purple?" Billy gave me a long look across the table, then cleared his throat and said in his character voice, "Tarok, might I ask why your armor is purple?"

"Silly bard, you ever see a half-orc in purple armor?"

"No, can't say I have."

"Dat because purple armor makes you dead sneaky." I wiggled my fingers. "Tarok will show rogues how it's done."

I wasn't trying to send the whole thing off the rails. I was rusty at the whole tabletop thing, so I reacted to everything in the most ridiculous way I could and hoped that would cover my ass. But then it seemed my ridiculousness was infectious.

"Can we see the creature?" Georgia asked Mitchell as the party found the final boss of the temple we'd just fought through.

"Hm, no, unless you want to use a skill to try. You just see this tall being at the end of the cave, just outside of the torchlight," Mitchell said.

"Okay. Is he, she, or it facing us?"

"No," Mitchell said slowly, narrowing his eyes at me as if to say 'don't get any ideas.' I put my hands up, going for an innocent face. He sighed and looked back at Georgia.

Georgia nodded, deciding. "Then I'll sneak up behind the thing and attack its ankles. That should lower its mobility. Always best to get your debuffs out of the way right off."

Mitchell's jaw dropped. "I... uh... Well, roll for it!"

I burst out laughing as Georgia rolled a natural 20. For you non-tabletoppers, you should know 20s are great for the player. A natural 20 is kind of like killing a toad demon by channeling a lightning storm, for instance. "What're the house rules? Extra damage with her weapon plus modifiers?"

"No!" Mitchell said, looking a little flabbergasted as he rolled a die behind his screen. "Oh, fuck."

And that's how we killed a black magic sorcerer that was supposed to be an unwinnable fight we were meant to lose for plot purposes. I clinked my beer bottle against Georgia's. "Cheers."

 

Then things got a little unconventional. Cindy, our ranger, rolled a 19, taking out the potion dealer from afar. Georgia's rogue slipped into the shop and looted it of everything her Bag of Holding could carry. Forgoing the dungeon crawl to uncover a dragon's horde of treasure, the party made a killing with potion sales and hired some mercenaries to plunder the horde for us.

"You guys," Mitchell cried, giving us all a hangdog expression. A hangwolf expression?

Billy rolled big and charmed the local Baroness into selling us her castle. We set up shop and started a business that catered to the potion-related needs of all the neighboring territories. With the profits, the party started a business with the local mercenaries, playing contractor for anyone who needed gruntwork done. Our beleaguered DM watched in horror.

"You guys!"

 

Sometime after midnight, Mitchell knocked over his screen with a flick of his finger. "I give. You win."

"Shinies for the shiny god!" I cheered.

"Wrong game, Harry."

"Tarok don't care!"

Alex punched me in the arm. "Congrats on breaking Mitch." Mitchell made a sad, dejected sound.

"All in a day's work." I knocked back the last of my beer before standing. I'd only had the one, the Alphas drinking most of what I brought like it was a competition of some kind. Kids these days. "I better head out. You kids be good."

I headed out into the cold, feeling cheerful. As much as it forced our DM to scramble to keep the ball rolling, everyone seemed to have enjoyed the evening. It turned into a game of who could derail the plot train more than the last guy. I was binged on pizza and good company. I was ready for a careful drive home and crashing for a good ten hours or so.

As I crunched through the new layer of snow on the way to the Beetle, I found my car was boxed in by a sleek black Mercedes, parked too close for me to get out of my parallel park.

There was also the matter of John Marcone sitting on the hood of my car, watching my approach with a guarded, hooded look in his eyes.

I walked up to him, ambling leisurely. "We got to talk about this stalking thing you do, John."

Marcone slid off my car and walked to the Mercedes, opening the rear passenger door. "Get in, Mr. Dresden."

There was no humor in his voice, none of the indulgent concern he often leveled at me. My warm fuzzy feelings were replaced with a cold dread spreading in my chest. "What happened?"

"I am not going to say it again, Dresden," Marcone nearly growled at me, continuing to hold the door, waiting.

I didn't need to be told again. I spared the Alpha's de facto HQ a hopeful look, wishing someone would glance out the window to see me getting hustled into a car by Gentleman Johnny, but no such luck. Instead I carefully avoided Marcone's eyes, not wanting to see that fierce, controlled anger in them as I slid into the vehicle.

Marcone climbed in after me and shut the door. Instantly, the car locked up and pulled away from the curb.

I was getting a bit freaked out. "So, uh. Is this the point where you kiss me in a brotherly fashion, say it's just business, then have me killed?"

Marcone said nothing, just sat there with his hands balled into white knuckled fists in his lap.

I broke out in a cold sweat. "Guess you liked Goodfellas more," I murmured as I started contemplating blasting the car door open with a bit of magic and throwing myself out. "Marcone, you got to tell me something. I get that you're upset--"

"Mr. Dresden, you lied to me, and one of my people was hurt because of your lie. To say I am upset with you would be a phenomenal understatement. Your incessant babbling is not endearing you to me. For your own sake, be silent."

Generally when someone tells me to shut up, I do the opposite because I'm contrary like that. This was not such a time. I clammed up and didn't say another word for the rest of the drive.

 

In the quiet car, time seemed to move slowly, but eventually we did get to our destination. We parked in the Northwestern Memorial Hospital lot. I almost turned to ask Marcone what the hell was going on, but he was already climbing out of the car before it came to a total stop. A tap on my window signaled that I was meant to follow. I reluctantly got out and fell into Marcone's shadow, tailing him as he went into the hospital. He didn't stop to talk to anyone, bypassing the receptionist and heading directly to the elevators.

As soon as the door closed, Marcone reached into the inside pocket of his suit and pulled out two familiar bracelets. "Put these on."

I gave the Stonehenge bracelets a withering glare. "I'd rather not."

"That wasn't a request. You're not walking into Hendricks' room with your magic untapped."

My eyes widened. "We're going to see Hendricks? What happened?"

Marcone's lips pressed together, a thin pale line. He continued to hold out the bracelets. Eventually, I gave in, taking them and putting them on. I shuddered at the feeling of my magic being suppressed. Imagine something that you take for granted because it's so constant in your life, like the ability to tell textures apart or see color. It was like losing one of those-- unsettling as hell. But we were in a hospital, filled with sick people and the delicate, advanced machinery that kept them alive. On some level, I liked the bracelets for making my magic less dangerous in places like these.

We got out on one of the upper levels of the hospital. Marcone led on with a purposeful stride. One nurse moved to intercept us, but the glare he shot her was so venomous, she faltered mid-step and let us go.

"Scaring the nurses, Marcone," I murmured uselessly.

Marcone came to a stop in front of a door at the end of the hallway, far from everyone else. He opened it and waited for me to enter.

There were two beds in the room, but only one was occupied. Hendricks' large form was laid out on the far bed, near the window. The lug looked zombie pale, his skin a whitish grey with dark circles under his eyes. Seeing him out of a suit and in scrubs was unsettling to say the least. There were wires attached to his skin and a monitor watching his heartrate, steadily beeping. More than a few blankets were piled on him.

I hung back in the doorway and watched Marcone move to his bodyguard's side. "Mr. Hendricks," he whispered, his hand reaching out to cover the man's wrist. Hendricks stirred and grumbled something I didn't catch without opening his eyes. "I know you are," Marcone replied. "After this is done, you can rest as much as you need, I promise." His gaze still on Hendricks, he waved his hand at me, beckoning me over.

I shuffled over, feeling very nervous about the whole thing. I did not want to be there.

"Tell me what happened," Marcone said.

Hendricks mumbled something before coughing. "'ready did."

"I know. I need you to tell me again."

Hendricks opened one eye and looked at Marcone, then at me. He grunted and shut his eye again. "Went to do the job. Got th' boat unloaded, the merch put away."

That nervous feeling in my chest solidified into a deep dread. "At... at the Marina?"

Hendricks nodded weakly. "Yup. We made sure it'd be empty for the deal. It went fine, but then..." His brow furrowed. "Heard... music. From the dock. Went to see what it was."

I closed my eyes and put face in my hands. I already knew where the rest of the story was going to go.

"Then what, Mr. Hendricks?" Marcone prompted.

"Gets fuzzy. I 'member walking down the dock, tried to see where the music was comin' from. Got foggy allova sudden." He was slurring pretty badly. "Stood there for a moment. Then something..." Hendricks stopped and yawned suddenly, long and weary. "Grabbed me, my ankle. Water was cold. Felt something cut my arm, then I dunno." He shrugged one shoulder. "Woke up here, with the boss yelling at the doctors."

I lowered my hands from my face and looked at Marcone, who cracked the smallest smile. "I was not yelling."

"Maybe not. Sounded pissed, though," Hendricks said.

"I had reason to be." Marcone leaned forward and put his hand on Hendricks' forehead. "Thank you. You can sleep now."

"Oh, can I?" Hendricks mumbled dryly.

His breathing evened out less than a minute later, already sleeping again.

Marcone stood and gestured for me to follow. I fell into step behind him again, grateful we weren't talking yet. I was trying to hold back the overwhelming guilt I felt. While I goofed off with the Alphas, Hendricks had gotten attacked by something I knew about and could have taken care of. I didn't like Hendricks or his boss, but the big guy getting attacked by a Nix while just doing his job... Granted, the job sounded like it involved smuggling, but that didn't change anything. Hendricks might be a thug in the employ of a scumbag, and up to no good, but he was a human thug employed by a human scumbag in my city, and I'd let him get hurt by something I'd had the power to stop. Supernatural baddies were my jurisdiction.

In the car, Marcone wordlessly took the bracelets back off me and pocketed them. "Is Hendricks going to be okay?" I asked, ducking my head and rubbing my wrists.

"Yes. The other men heard the splash and pulled him out. He's had some blood loss and mild hypothermia. They tell me he might be released tomorrow depending on how he's feeling," Marcone reported with clinical coldness.

"The blood loss... The thing that grabbed him wanted blood," I mumbled, still staring at my hands in cowardice. I didn't want to look up anytime soon.

"The thing. You know what it is?"

I squeezed my eyes shut. "Yeah. It's called a Nix. Sort of Fae that's what you get if you mix a vampire with a mermaid."

"Can you do something about it?"

"Yeah. Have to do it now, before daybreak. Otherwise, it'll be gone until next Thursday."

"Then we have little time to lose. Do you have what you need?" I shook my head. "Fine." He leaned forward and tapped the glass separating the front and back seats. It slid open a crack. "To Mr. Dresden's apartment, and quickly."

As expected, the drive was quick, but tense and silent. I kept my eyes shut and didn't say anything to break the quiet.

 

I made the stop at my apartment fast, grabbing the things I needed and stuffing them in my duster pockets before returning to the car. A jar of iron powder and a bottle filled with... well...

"Is that what I think it is?" Marcone said as I opened the bottle, held it between my knees, and started slowly tapping the powder into it.

"Yeah. Don't worry though, I ate my cookies and juice after donating." I capped the bottle and shook it vigorously before adding more iron.

"That looks like nearly a liter."

"I staggered it out and was careful. I'm fine to kick Fae ass."

Marcone frowned at me before looking away, out the window. I got the feeling he wanted to press further. He seemed to secretly be a mother hen towards his employees. If I hadn't just gotten his golden boy nearly killed, he'd probably fuss more. I wasn't happy about the Hendricks thing, but any distance it provided between Marcone and I was welcome. Having a mob boss fuss over me, bringing me food and being so affable and solicitous, it'd been unsettling.

So did I prefer the Friendly Neighborhood Mafioso or the one who was living up to his press and scaring me a bit? No idea. A few times, I looked away from my work to glance at him, trying to guess where under his suit he might be hiding a silenced firearm, ready to disappear me into Lake Michigan if I screwed this up.

It was thankfully still dark when we reached the Marina. Once again, Marcone and I were alone, leaving the car and its driver behind as we headed inside. This time, he let me go first. I actually preferred when he was leading. Now I had to deal with the weight of his gaze on me, which I could feel like an itch on the back of my neck.

Upon reaching the docks, I stopped and looked around. I hadn't expected a sign saying Hungry Nix Here, as helpful as it would have been. The Nix had already gotten a bite out of Hendricks, so it probably wouldn't be poking around for more tonight.

That's why I pulled a teacup out of my pocket and set it at the end of one of the docks, balanced carefully on the edge of the wood. Then I patted myself and swore under my breath.

"Problem?" Marcone asked.

"I need something sharp. I thought I grabbed a needle, but I can't find the damn thing now."

Marcone flicked his wrist and a long, shiny knife appeared in his hand, the movement as smooth as any magician's slight of hand. "Will this work?"

"Where did that come from?" In response, he just looked at me. I swallowed thickly and took the knife. "Y-yeah, that'll work."

Kneeling, I leaned over the teacup and placed the blade to my hand, the point pressed against the fleshy outside edge of my palm. The knife was thankfully sharp enough that it went in easily, barely hurting as I sank the tip into my skin. I winced as I pulled it out, carefully tilting the knife so my blood didn't slide off.

I tipped three drops of blood into the cup before standing. After wiping the rest off my blood off it, I handed the knife back to Marcone. It was a little awkward, like giving someone back a handkerchief after you used it, but Marcone just unbuttoned the sleeve of his suit coat and tucked the knife up inside it, where I assumed he had a sheath of some sort.

"And now?"

I stepped back from the dock's edge. "I made an offering. The Nix should appear to accept it and begin negotiations."

He nodded to the teacup. "Just a few drops? It took more from Mr. Hendricks."

As if I needed the reminder. "It's traditional. And it's wizard blood, so..." I shrugged.

"How soon will we know?"

Again, I shrugged. "I've never dealt with Nixes before. If I had its Name, I could call it, but I don't know who we're dealing with."

Marcone grimaced, like the fact we were dealing with unknown elements was deeply irritating to him. The way Marcone collected information on me and presumably everyone else in Chicago, I had the feeling I wasn't far off there. Knowledge was power and Marcone liked holding that power in any given situation.

We stood in silence on the dock for a while. After having enjoyed such an easy rapport with him up until today, the lack of banter made me tense. When we talked at Ganymede, I came close to openly threatening him and he just smiled and made a joke out of it. Now, without the insulation of our customary repartie, he was freaking me out, all that intensity unmitigated and laser-focused on me. Every time I caught his pale green eyes on me, I had to suppress a flinch.

And I blamed myself. Because yeah, I fucked up. In hindsight, the way the Marina's desk boy mentioned the place being closed on Thursday should have added to the fact Marcone called this a place of interest to equal obvious shady goings-on. And I could've skipped the Alphas' party to take out the Nix. Or I could have called Marcone back after Bob confirmed my theories and told him.

But I didn't. I had it in my head that dealing with Nixes and drug-producing sorcerers and loup garou was my job alone. And, dammit, I had reason to think that way, but it did get me in trouble a lot lately. Or, in this case, it got Hendricks in trouble.

Before I could get in some good mental self-flagellation over that, a fog rolled in, so sudden it could only be magical. It abruptly became hard to see even a few feet in front of me. I pulled my pentacle off my neck and wound it around my hand. Pushing some of my will into it, the silver pendant lit up brightly, cutting through the fog somewhat.

I put myself between the edge of the dock and Marcone. "Stay behind me," I said quietly.

"Don't insult my intelligence, Mr. Dresden," Marcone sniped back, tone just a hair shy of bitchy.

"Geez, sorry," I muttered. I had actually considered telling Marcone to wait inside the Marina office. No way I was going to risk that now. Between Marcone and the murderous water Fae, I was more willing to take on the Nix at the moment.

Speaking of the devil, as I kept my eyes on the teacup, I saw it. One hand reached up from the water and gripped the pier. Another joined it, and the creature's sharp nails dug into the weather-beaten wood. With that leverage, it pulled itself up and into view.

Nix were shapeshifters, using their beauty and music to lure in prey. This one appeared as a dark-haired male with algae green skin shimmering from the sheen of water on it. Its face was angular around bright ocean blue eyes that glowed through the dark twilight and fog. Strong arms lifted it from the water, and the Nix sat itself on the dock, legs bending gracefully into a lotus position. It was wearing, oddly enough, blue jeans that clung snugly to its body. The hem of the jeans was wet.

As we watched, the Nix dipped its finger into the cup and swirled it in my blood. It then placed its finger in its mouth and sucked the offering off, eyes fluttering shut. The thing moaned, more than a little sexually.

I could feel heat rushing to my face. The Nix wore its Fae glamour far too well. I could admit the Nix was, well, beautiful in a Golden Hollywood way. You'd think the green skin thing would take away from that, but not really. If anything, it made the Nix more exotic.

"Mm, mm, mmmm," it purred. "It's been a long, long time since I've had a treat like that." It lifted its eyes to mine. "Yours, I assume, little magus?"

I tore my gaze away from its. Something about its glamour mixed with the fact it had my blood, I was slightly worried about being charmed by the thing. "Yes."

"A worthy offering." It smiled at me, teeth sharp and obvious despite the glamour. "What would you wish of me, little magus?"

"You have been hunting these waters for the last few months. I'd like you to stop."

It licked its lips. "Usually I would say no outright, but you might have a tasty deal to make. What do you give me in return?"

I got kind of distracted by the fact its tongue was a strange dark green instead of a human pink. I shut my eyes and took a breath. Amazing how just a little blood could let it affect me so much.

And it was the blood making me so susceptible. That's all. No one can prove otherwise.

"I would have you leave this place and never return to Chicago's waters for the rest of your days," I said. Its eyes narrowed at me, unhappy with such terms.

"In return, I would get your human?" It tilted its head to smile at Marcone standing behind me.

I'd... forgotten he was there, actually. I jumped and looked back at him. Marcone gave me a grave, disapproving look. The implication that I had any ownership of him seemed to agitate him further. Which, you know, was exactly what I needed right now, yeah. "No." I shook myself and faced the Nix again. "He's not for sale, sorry."

"More's the pity," the Nix murmured. It looked back at me. "So what do you offer then, little magus?"

I pulled the bottle out of my coat, holding it up. "More of my blood."

Its eyes gleamed with hunger. "That is a fair portion. Is it fresh?"

For certain qualities of fresh, I thought. It was a few days old. It took a while to bleed yourself that much without passing out. I nodded to the Nix and could see it thinking about the offer. I tried not to let my anxiety show.

It was a risk, to hand over such a large amount of my own blood. Faerie magic wasn't like mortal magic, but that didn't change the fact that a liter was a lot of blood as far as magic was concerned. If the Nix wanted, it could use the blood to control me further. I was willing to bet my apartment that would mean I'd become intimately close to those sharp teeth. Not the best case scenario, basically.

But I was hoping on things not working out that way. I was telling the truth about having a plan.

"So. This bottle in return for you leaving Chicago waters for good. Deal?"

The Nix rose to its feet, unfolding from its seated position as fluidly as a wave. It was almost as tall as I was and its stride was long as it approached me.

I pulled my blasting rod out of my coat and pointed it at the Nix. "Don't."

It held up its hands in a placating gesture. "Oh, little magus, so distrustful."

"I've had some experience with the Fae before," I replied.

"Have you?" The Nix tapped its fingers against its lips. Its full, emerald lips... I shook myself again. Focus. "How about an addendum to our deal?" The Nix held a hand against its bare chest over where its heart would be. That is, if it had one. I wasn't certain if Fae did, to tell the truth. "I will not use your blood against you, to seduce or influence. I will do naught to harm you."

"What?" That wasn't part of my plan. It may have sounded like the Nix was making a pretty sweet deal, but that in itself made me extremely suspicious. I had planned on the iron tainting my bottled blood to poison the Nix when it inevitably took a drink from the bottle. The high concentration of iron powder should had been like a kick in the teeth to the Nix. That much iron would weaken it, making any attempts to work its magic on me impossible. By the time it recovered, my blood would no longer be fresh enough for a decent spell.

That was a big catch with thaumaturgy and similar magic. Mortal Names changed over time, blood lost its potency, possessions lost their connection to their owners. My blood was fresh, but not that fresh, nevermind the fact it was tainted with iron.

That had been my plan, anyway. Now though, I was worried.

"Exactly as I said. I give my word." The Nix held out its hand. "Give me the bottle and I shall hunt in these waters no more."

Slowly, I lowered my blasting rod. I didn't know what else I could do without giving away my deception and causing the Nix to attack. I was taking a bigger gamble than I'd anticipated when I came up with this plan.

I placed the bottle in the Nix's hand. I didn't immediately let go though, instead meeting the Nix's eyes and asking, "What's your game? You're probably a Nix of the Winter Court. Winter is in power now. This isn't enough to make you leave if you're not going to use it to influence me."

The Nix tightened its grip on the bottle and yanked it out of my hands. In a flash, it backed up to the edge of the dock before smiling at me. "You are too shortsighted, Harry Dresden." With a dancer's grace, the Nix spun on its toes and dove back into the water.

The fog receded and the presence of the Nix faded from my senses. Rather than relief, I felt a sudden crushing worry. I only realized then, as my mind cleared of the Nix's charms, that the Nix promised it would not use my blood against me.

It said nothing about someone else using my blood.

"Hell's bells," I whispered, staggering back a step like I'd been punched.

Marcone put a hand on my shoulder. "Mr. Dresden?"

"I'm... fine. The blood's fairly useless with all that iron and it's not that fresh. The Nix probably can't do anything with it. No one should be able to use it." I let out a long, shaking breath, trying very hard not to think about who in the Nevernever could have wanted my blood and what they could have done if I hadn't sabotaged it.

One name came to mind. Many things she could've done to me also came to mind.

I rubbed my face with both hands and willed myself to calm down. I was going to be fine. I'd made an admittedly dirty deal, but I hadn't lied at any point, so the deal would hold. The Nix couldn't come back to get revenge, being limited to water to fuel its powers.

I was fine.

I sighed, letting the tension in my shoulders go out. Marcone's hand squeezed once before dropping away. I followed him as he left, letting myself relax.

I was fine. I was fine. I was fine--

As soon as I slid back into the car, the door locked. That wasn't unusual, so I paid no attention, my mind still on what had happened. I wasn't prepared for Marcone to catch my wrists and put his bracelets back on me, his movements fast and smooth. I yelped and tried get away, but it was a small car and Marcone grabbed my collar, pulling me back into him. It all happened very fast, only a second or two between my climbing into the Mercedes to being restrained and forced to stare into Marcone's bright, predatory eyes.

"You and I," he said calmly, "have things to discuss, Mr. Dresden."

Okay. I take it back.

I was definitely not fine.

Chapter Text

I can admit it. I was a little scared.

I didn't know how long I'd been left in that room. There were no clocks and the window offered nothing but a moonless night and a view of the property surrounding Marcone's house. I tried knocking on the door to get the attention of whoever was guarding it, but no one answered.

I knew someone was there though. When the Mercedes took me to Marcone's estate, two of his goons were waiting and obligingly dragged me out of the car and into the house. The place was massive, and I lost track of what hallways I was being brought down. By the time they stopped, I felt like I'd been pulled into the center of a labyrinth. No one said anything as my coat and blasting rod were taken. Marcone's men even turned out my pockets before bodily tossing me into the room and locked me inside.

The room was a stark contrast to the rest of Marcone's house (or, that is, what I had seen of it so far). All the casual opulence was missing; it was small and decorated in a spartan, bare style. There was a bed, a simple chair, and a metal table. The table had some worrying dents in it and I wondered if someone's skull had made them. But the detail that really got to me was the spots on the wall that had spackle paste over them. I had no reason to think so, but I was certain they'd come from repairing bullet holes. I just knew it.

I paced, trying to keep the investigative part of my brain from looking too closely at the room, lest I notice something else that would remind me of how screwed I was. Instead, I turned my attention to the magic-suppressing bracelets. It was unlikely they'd come with an instruction manual when Marcone got them. Maybe there was a spell I could sneak around them. I worked up from the most subtle spells I could think of to the sort of evocation I used in life-or-death situations.

Trying to force the door open with my most powerful wind evocation resulted in some heavy feedback from the bracelets. They lit up in a blinding flash of light and I felt my magic returned to me with such strength, I staggered and fell to my knees. My hands shook as the power flooded back into me, feeling like I'd pushed my forearms into hot water. The feeling stood on that knife's edge that separated pleasure and pain, just sharp and bright.

After that, I gave up on getting around the Stonehenge bracelets. For what were meant to be healing apparatus, they were sure helpful for crime lords who needed to keep wizards in line.

I wondered if Marcone was going to kill me. Maybe right now he was looking through his armory for the right weapon. Don't give me that look, if anyone in Chicago had an armory, it was Marcone.

I looked down at the bracelets again, and wondered how they'd hold up to a death curse. A strong one. Powered by a wizard whose capacity for destruction frightened half of the White Council. Maybe the bracelets would reflect that back on me too and I'd be saving Marcone the bullet. Or maybe I'd pull this building down around his ears and ground his empire into dust.

Or perhaps Marcone was going to keep me here until Hendricks was back on his feet and let him have the honor of offing me. Stars, after what happened, I might let him.

I sat on the bed and put my head in my hands, waiting with a knot of dread in my gut. I was getting fatalistic, throwing in the towel. Marcone killing me was not a certainty. I had to remember that. I may have been without magic, but I sure as hell wasn't powerless. I was six feet and nine inches of Chicagoan tenacity and I didn't take attempts to kill me lightly. It's not like this was the first, either. It's just the first time a plain old vanilla mortal dragged me down to his level and then left me to wait. Maybe that's what this was. A waiting room for execution victims.

I scanned the room with more purpose. No cameras, which made sense to me. Marcone wouldn't want footage of what happened in this room to leak out, but that meant he wasn't watching me. The window was sadly too high off the ground and too far from any trees for me to escape that way. I contemplated breaking one of the legs off the chair to use as a weapon, but hashed the idea because doing so would make too much noise.

I noticed the door itself. It opened into the room. That was one hell of a design flaw. I got up and padded quietly over, pressed my ear to it, and listened. There was nothing to be heard, though I would have bet that just meant the thugs on the other side of the door were the quiet kind. Marcone did seem to like his people taciturn.

I stood against the wall next to the door, in the one blind spot the room offered. I kept alert despite the late hour and waited.

Eventually, the door opened and I took the only shot I'd get.

... See, in my head, this is how it would have happened: I slam the door back shut, catching whoever was coming in against the doorframe hard enough to knock them out. Then I barrel out of the room like, as Meat Loaf sang, a bat out of hell and be gone when the morning comes.

What actually happened was that Marcone's hand came up and grabbed the edge of the door before I could throw my weight against it. And Marcone had more strength than I did.

The door swung towards me and banged against my head, and down I went. "Fuck, ow!" I clutched at my forehead as pain exploded behind my eyes. Ow, ow, ow.

Marcone shut the door, cool as you please, and knocked on the frame twice. I heard the sound of a deadbolt being slid into place.

I took the opportunity to stumble back to the bed and sit heavily on it, groaning as my head throbbed in pain. Nothing happened as I recovered. When I was finally able to open my eyes without wincing, I lifted my head to look at Marcone.

He stood with his back against the door, arms crossed over his chest. He stared back at me, face as blank and impassive as I'd ever seen it. I didn't blink, I didn't even breathe, just watched him and waited for his move. Marcone just leaned there, tall and deathly still. His suit was gone, instead just jeans and a black tee. Probably didn't want to get my blood on one of his nice pinstriped Dunhills when he killed me.

I was without my magic, and I had the feeling Marcone didn't need a weapon to kill me if he wanted.

The thought of it hit me hard and I blinked.

Marcone moved fast. Scary fast. He had crossed the room to me by the time my eyes opened again and before I could even give into the urge to run the fuck away, he had me with a fist of my shirt in his hand. I made an undignified sound and grabbed his hand, trying to pry it off. "Marcone, listen--"

"No." His other hand caught my jaw, simultaneously forcing me to meet his terrifyingly intense gaze and shutting my mouth. "You are going to listen to me, Mr. Dresden." His voice was quiet and perfectly composed, and a jolt of panic flowed through me. I kept trying to draw in my magic to make a shield or defend myself somehow, but it kept slipping away from me. The bracelets around my wrists started glowing brightly as I did, and the light reminded me again of how completely fucked I was. My panic doubled and I frantically tried to pull away from him, drawing my feet up on the bed and pushing so I could slide backwards, scooting back across the bed.

Marcone countered this by following my movements and shoving me down so I was on my back, planting his knee against my diaphragm and knocking the air out of me. Being pinned down by someone physically stronger than you isn't a pleasant experience. It makes you panic. I had no leverage, but I took a swing at Marcone anyway.

Moving swiftly, he blocked my haymaker. Marcone grabbed my wrists and pushed them down on the comforter. "Stop. You have broken one of the rules of this city and the fact you aren't already dead is only due to my own leniency. Keep acting like an idiot and we'll see how far my mercy goes."

It said something about how compelling he could be when threatening to kill me that I went still underneath him.

"Better." He let go and slipped off me, sitting next to me on the bed. For a while, I just watched him with trepidation as I lay there, breathing shallowly. He went on, "Now. We both know that anyone who hurts someone loyal to me is repaid with interest. Because of your negligence, Mr. Hendricks nearly died." I opened my mouth, but stopped when he held up a hand and gave me a cold look. Instead, I just nodded. "We both know that you didn't mean Mr. Hendricks any harm and there was no ulterior motive in your decision to put off dealing with the Nix."

"Hell's bells, I thought the marina would be empty, if I knew--"

"Did you know there was danger there before you investigated the location? When I gave you the files originally?"

I nodded again. "I suspected, yeah."

Marcone sighed, a small crack in his composure. "Then why in the name of all that is good and holy did you not tell me? What possessed you to lie about it?" The look he gave me then was softer. He seemed honestly perplexed.

I didn't feel in danger so much then and tentatively sat up, rubbing my wrists idly. Marcone's grip on them had been tight, pushing the bracelets into my skin. I rubbed at the red marks left behind until they started to fade. "Nix are dangerous. I didn't want your people involved with something like that."

His eyebrows lifted. "You were protecting me."

"I... guess? Yeah?" It'd made perfect sense at the time, but his tone implied that my decision had be phenomenally stupid. "I wasn't even sure how to get rid of the thing at first. It was a special case. I didn't want your guys going in and getting hurt."

"I'm sure Mr. Hendricks will find that ironic," Marcone said dryly, making me flinch.

"Look, you can be pissed about it, but vanilla mortals can't handle things like creatures of the Nevernever. This is my realm. I have to handle these things and I needed time to work out what to do. Having you push me into a confrontation would've made things even worse, Marcone."

"Harry." He put his hand on my knee, which despite the fact I just had his knee in my chest was a shocking enough invasion of space that I went silent. "At one point did I give you the impression I was a fool?"

"Huh?" Intelligent, I know.

"If my magical expert told me to steer clear of an unknown element, why wouldn't I listen to him?" His smile was faint, half amusement and half disappointment. It had a strange effect on his face. You hear about how a big grin can make someone look younger, right? Marcone's smile was sad, almost melancholic, yet it took years off his face. Something in my chest twisted at the sight of it. He almost looked vulnerable. Almost. "Why would I send my men in before knowing what they were up against?"

"Uh... I..."

"I know you are sadly more used to working with the CPD's Special Investigations and most of those officers considered you a con and charlatan. Perhaps you had to keep information from them to ensure their safety." His grip on my knee tightened as he stared imploringly at me. "But Harry, I am not them. If you tell me something is dangerous and I should back off until you know more, I will pull my men back and give you time. I think you'll find I am a very reasonable man."

"Oh," I said rather lamely, looking away. I felt more than a little dense. In my defense, I wasn't used to people actually believing me when I told them that their problems had a supernatural root and that they needed to be careful and listen to me. Things never worked out so smoothly for me.

You could say I was distrusting. You wouldn't be wrong but it wasn't out of some misanthropic notion that people couldn't handle these things. I really just wanted to protect the unprepared from what went bump in the night. Usually, they didn't just let me protect them, so half-truths and lies of omission were a staple of my life.

The idea that someone would actually listen to me and take me on my word was... a new concept.

"So, what now?" I asked, making myself look back at Marcone.

He considered. "I will warn you that if something like this happens again, I will kill you for it."

I gulped. How could he just say things like that? "That's... I mean, I'm good, Marcone, but people do get hurt. Isn't that part and parcel of the mobster thing?"

"You misunderstand. I meant if you lied to me again or through inaction allowed one of my people to be hurt." He tipped a wry look at me. "I am aware of the dangers of my own profession, Harry. You lived in Missouri for a time, no? You've heard the idiom, 'I did not just fall off the back of the turnip truck?'"

Again, he got me to laugh, the sound startled out of me before I could stop it. "Stars and stones, you are such a stalker, John." The smile he gave me then was strained, not as free as the ones I sometimes caught from him. More because of that than anything else, I lowered my voice and asked, "You still pissed at me?"

"Yes." No anger showed on his face, but Marcone could mask his emotions well enough that I had to take him at his word. The only tell was a new detachment in his eyes that hadn't been there before. "I think I will be for a while. At the very least until Mr. Hendricks makes his full recovery and comes back to work."

"I'm sorry," I blurted out suddenly. "I mean, you're still a criminal scumbag, but I never wanted... Hendricks least of all, you know?"

Marcone's lips twitched. "Such eloquence, Mr. Dresden."

"You know what I'm trying to say." I was certain he did.

As I expected, he nodded. "I do. And perhaps you should be telling that to Mr. Hendricks. I'm sure he'd appreciate the sentiment." Marcone stood and gave me a somewhat strained smile. "I suggest you leave out the insults when you do. Not everyone holds such a fond view of your naive attempts at moralizing."

I narrowed my eyes at him. "Don't worry. I don't think they make 'Get Well Soon, scumbag' cards. Anyway, you're the scumbag, not him."

"Do you really think so?" His grin grew. "I assumed that was just something you told yourself to help you with the various ethical and emotional dilemmas I inspire in you." I stared at him. Not for the first time (and probably not the last time either) I had no idea what he was trying to say and wasn't sure I wanted to know.

So I changed the subject. "So you're not going to kill me?"

"Not today." He was completely blasé about it. "It was my intention to scare you somewhat."

"You jumped me!"

"And now you are aware of what I am capable of doing to those who wrong me. There are not many people I care to warn, Mr. Dresden. You're a very fortunate man."

"You're deranged." I rubbed the point on my head where he'd hit me with the door. "I'm going to bruise," I whined, giving him a hurt look.

"You poor darling, however will you recover," Marcone said in the most deadpan voice I'd ever heard in my life, rolling his eyes. "You'll be fine. At worst, you may need a cold compress."

I watched him stand and felt that our little tête-à-tête was ending. Taking comfort in the fact Marcone probably wasn't going to have me killed anytime soon, I worked up the courage to say, "One more thing, John." He turned, raising one eyebrow in question. "I screwed up, I get that, but you withheld information too."

He took a step towards me and I tensed, ready to make another break for it. I didn't have to though. He just said, "It's part of your contract that I cannot force you into any illegal activities."

I was still a coward, so I looked down at my hands, idly spinning one of my bracelets. "You still should have said. I know, if I just said, hey, stay out of the Marina-- I know. I didn't say, but you didn't either."

Daring to glance at him, I found his eyes on me, contemplative and soft. "You may have a point. But at this juncture, I don't trust you to not use any information I give you against me. You have friends on the force, as it were."

"The contract had that big section on non-disclosure," I pointed out. "Like, ten pages just on how hard you could ruin my life if I did exactly that."

"Still." Marcone's melancholic, candid smile returned. "I have a good deal less trust for you than I did a day ago, Harry. Let's leave it at that for now."

That... stung. It shouldn't have-- it's not like I wanted a mobster's trust-- but it did. I nodded briskly, looking away again while I reined in that stupid disappointment I suddenly felt. I was very suddenly off balance. "Just, you know, for the record? I'm not going to tattle to Murphy. Mostly because we haven't talked since October, but you know."

I fought the urge to look up and see his reaction to that. He murmured, "I'm sorry."

"You should be. It is kind of your fault."

"Which is why I said I'm sorry."

Oh. And there was that weird feeling in my chest again, back with a vengeance. "S'fine. Nevermind."

Marcone sighed audibly. "It's nearly four in the morning. Stay in one of the guest rooms, get some sleep, and come find me when you'd like to leave. I'll take the bracelets off then." I nodded. "Goodnight, Harry."

I listened to him leave before shutting my eyes and putting my face in my hands. How did my life get so complicated so fast?

 

I got plenty of Zs, waking up when the sun was reaching its apex for the day. Another set of clothes was laid out on the bed for me, another buttery soft cashmere pull-over and a pair of corduroy pants that did an excellent job keeping out the December cold. Of course everything fit and looked great on me. I wondered if this was going to be a habit of Marcone's, giving me high-end threads every time I had to stay over. He'd now provided the two nicest sets of clothes in my closet without a word.

Some people just had way too much money.

Steeling myself, I set out to find Marcone. One of the patrolling guards pointed me towards the kitchen and said in a hushed tone, "Be careful. Hasn't had his coffee yet." Which... weird. But since signing Marcone's damn contract, I was getting a very high tolerance for weird.

Marcone was indeed in the kitchen, which (tell me if you're sensing a trend here) was about as large as my entire apartment. The cabinets were glass, stocked to the brim, and supplemented by a pantry that was tucked next to the massive refrigerator that looked more complicated than some computers I'd seen. There were appliances along the marble counters, few I recognized as I owned next to none myself. Marcone was standing in front of some kind of coffee machine. Not your usual dinky Hamiliton Beach thing, but something that looked like it belonged in a Starbucks.

Every newspaper and magazine article written about Marcone emphasized his rags to riches life story, how he'd come from a ne'er-do-well Italian neighborhood on the South Side and built his empire from nothing, educating himself and yadda yadda-- you know the type of American Dream stories I'm talking about. I found it really hard to believe at the moment, watching him make himself some complicated cafe drink with steamed milk and everything. He looked perfectly at ease with the wealth around him. All the shiny, polished metal and glass made me feel like a dust bunny laying in the middle of a ballroom floor. I couldn't have been more out of place.

"Latte?" Marcone asked.

"No, I'm good." I self-consciously pulled at the collar of my fancy new sweater. All the bourgeoisie surrounding me was making me nervous.

Marcone mumbled something and scrubbed his face with a hand as he finished up his drink. He shuffled to the kitchen island I was leaning against and slumped into one of the tall barstools. I suddenly found his hair really distracting. It wasn't combed back in its usual businessman's part yet, laying messy against his forehead. Like his sad smiles, it de-aged him about a decade.

"What?" He sipped his latte, giving me a sharp look.

"I didn't say anything."

"You're staring at me, Mr. Dresden. I am not awake enough to entertain you. As you may recall, I had a very late night thanks to you." He took another long sip and shut his eyes. "Amuse yourself elsewhere."

So Marcone wasn't always 100% on the ball and five steps ahead of the game. But even a barely-awake Marcone was more eloquent than I was at my best. That just wasn't fair.

I rolled up my sleeves and shook the bracelets at him. "Cuffs off."

Marcone grumbled something under his breath in what I assumed was Italian. It didn't sound very flattering. He got the stone sphere out and swiped it over the bracelets, then put everything back in his pocket. "There. Kindly show yourself out."

"You're a real charmer, Gentleman John."

He ignored me in favor of his latte, fixing it with an adoring, longing look like one would gaze upon a lover. I kind of wished I'd taken him up on the latte offer, if only to find out if it tasted that good.

I left him to it, grabbed my things, let myself out, and procured a ride back to my apartment. I made myself a pot of coffee once I got home, using my old brewer. Ambrosia of the gods it was not.

The oddly bereft, disappointed feeling in my chest stuck with me as I spent the day in my apartment. Not one to give into introspection, I paid no attention it. The last day had been crazy enough without trying to quantify the many ways Marcone disquieted me. I figured it was like the weirdness he kept introducing into my life; eventually, I'd get used to this new turmoil. I just had to wait until I was accustomed to it.

I just hoped that I didn't have to wait much longer. My life was getting too complicated as it was.

 

I kept to my knitting for a while, so to speak. There were always things that required the attention of the only wizard in the phonebook. For instance, after the Alphas dropped off my car, they recruited me to help them vanquish a troll. It was hanging out at the Wells Street Bridge, eating the people who operated the drawbridge mechanism.

The day after, I took Susan out to dinner. I treated her to a nice four-star place in Lincoln Park because a regular salary meant I could. I didn't even have to go halfsies on the check. What a new and exciting world I was living in.

I wore the cashmere sweater Marcone gave me. Susan showed her appreciation by running her hands over the fabric, leaning into me, and getting as handsy as she could without openly groping me in the middle of the restaurant. I guessed she wasn't upset anymore about the fact I was a member of the Outfit by proxy. The way she and I got cosy in my car after dinner was a tip-off.

I wished I had a bigger car. Heavy petting and make-outs in a tiny Volkswagen didn't quite work.

"My place or yours," I gasped when Susan slid off my lap and back over to the passenger's side.

She tipped a sultry look at me. "Mr. Dresden, so forward."

"You were the one just checking to see if I'd ever had a tonsillectomy. With your tongue."

Susan laughed and twisted in her seat so she could lay her shoeless feet in my lap. "Start the car and drive, Harry."

It took me three tries to get the key in the lock. And no, that is not a euphemism, I was just distracted. Minds out of the gutter, please.

Anyway, the point being that despite the fact I almost got Cujo killed, my life was getting back on track. Or maybe I was just in a more optimistic mood about the whole thing. Having a comfortable, casual sexual relationship with a smart, funny, gorgeous woman will give anyone a brighter outlook on life.

My bright outlook dimmed a little when I answered my door one afternoon to find Hendricks on the other side. It was a week after the Nix Incident, but he still looked pretty rough. His skin was still a little pale and his posture wasn't as straight as usual, such as when he stood protectively over Marcone like some red-headed guardian angel with a pump-action shotgun. I had the feeling just being on his feet was tiring him out.

"Hey, Cujo," I greeted quietly, the nickname lacking most of the acid I usually put into it. "What's up?"

Subtly, Hendricks put his hand on the door frame, letting it hold a little of his weight. "Boss sent me. Said you were going to teach me the basics."

I blinked, confused. "Basics?"

Something about my obliviousness made Hendricks narrow his eyes. Oddly enough, I don't think he was mad at me. "Yeah, the basics," he said like I was supposed to know what he was talking about. "Faeries, magic, all that stuff."

"I..." I caught the clue bat a moment later, a sudden epiphany hitting me. I get Hendricks injured by withholding information, Marcone sends the big guy to me so I can play tutor. Normally Marcone's actions left me in the dark, but I could see what he was doing here. This was my chance to make up for my mistake. "Yeah, right, basics. Right. Come in." I stood back and held open the door for him.

Hendricks didn't move, just glaring at me. "Lemme guess. You didn't tell Mr. Marcone you wanted to give me lessons."

Erk. "No, I totally told him that. I did. I just forgot. We wizards are all a bit scatterbrained, which I would have told you if I wasn't scatterbrained. It's a vicious cycle."

The bodyguard sighed and shook his head. "Not your fault, Dresden. I'll ask him to back off. No more arranging playdates." He took a step back, turning away. "I'm leaving."

In what was not the smartest move of my life, I reached out and grabbed the back of his coat. "No, no, hold on." Cujo gave me a glare over his shoulder and for a moment I thought he was going to break my hand for daring to touch him. I barreled on before he had the chance. "Come on, Cujo, you got your ass whooped by a mermaid. Next time, who knows? A mob of pixies might bitchslap you. What'll all your mobster buddies say?"

Hendricks snorted and shook my hand off. "Pixies? Seriously, Dresden?"

I nodded gravely. "You mock, but get a bunch of them together and they're less Tinkerbell and more plague of magical locusts." Stepping back, I kept the door open. "Get in here, I'll grab you a beer."

Hendricks didn't follow me in, but he wasn't walking away anymore. He looked torn between his dislike of me and the memory of that Nix.

"Plus, you can get brownie points when you report everything I tell you to the good ol' Don himself," I said to sweeten the deal. "You know if he could bug my place, he would."

"He's tried," Hendricks said, the tiniest twitch of a smile on his face. "Nothing but static."

"Look, big guy." When in doubt, bust out a little honesty when they least expect it. "You look like you're about to fall on your ass. You could leave, but I think those stairs," I pointed to the steps that lead down to my door, "would achieve flawless victory against you."

Slowly, he shuffled into my apartment, hesitant like I was going to take the opportunity to hex him or stab him in the back. Hendricks was a tense guy. I guess working in close proximity to Marcone did that to you. "Did you just make an arcade game joke? I thought you couldn't use electronic shit."

"I work very hard to stay current. Gotta know what all the kids think is fly and hoppin'." I shut the door behind him and got him situated in a chair with a bottle of Mac's ale in his hand. It was the best peace offering I had.

"Okay," I said, sitting on the sofa across from him. "The basics. We'll start with thresholds."

So I gave Hendricks the mortal version of Magical Protection 101, beginning with thresholds, then going into the main traits and weaknesses of the things that go bump in the night. I left out the specifics of the Courts (Faerie and vampire) and the other things that would get him killed by the White Council. Like all good ancient vague councils, they got twitchy when the uninformed masses got a little too informed. Bit like the Mafia in a way, actually.

It was still more than I'd ever told Murphy.

That line I had drawn for myself when working with mortals, the line that said how much I could say and what I never would, I was crossing it. I hadn't crossed it for Karrin Murphy but I apparently would for John Marcone. Some part of me, deep down, was screaming at me that I was doing something big, something life-changing and I needed to acknowledge that. My allegiances were tilting out of whack and that meant trouble.

I knew that. I did. But at that moment, I didn't care. So I crossed some lines. They'd be redrawn somewhere and I'd be more careful. This week was all about learning from my mistakes.

Eventually, I'd figure everything out. My new place in my city, what this thing between Marcone and I meant, who I trusted, who I couldn't.

Eventually.

Chapter Text

It was a midsummer night and the shadows hath offended.

I was west of Chicago, somewhere in a cluster of woodland near Lake Katherine and the Cook County forest preserves. It was a hell of a hike, especially since I'd abandoned the trail a while ago. I had no idea where I was or which way lead back to the Blue Beetle. I wasn't built for forest trails and had made more than a few missteps, tripping over the undergrowth and tumbling around in my haste to keep moving.

I had a sheath slung over my back and its weight wasn't helping my progress. The sword inside was heavy. I carried a staff with me on a daily basis, but I couldn't imagine how anyone could do the same with a sword for extended periods.

The fact the sword was acting like a beacon to the nasties that were chasing me didn't help.

I kept running as fast as I could, ignoring the way the sword on my back slammed into my shoulder as I did. Not so easy to ignore was the pixie pulling my bangs like reins. "Mush! Faster! Go, go, go!" Toot-toot crowed from where he was sitting in my hair.

"How... close?" I managed to gasp between breaths.

"Close, close, close! I can see their teeth!" He let out a shrill cry. "Very sharp!"

"Please... don't describe them." I vaulted over a fallen tree and splashed through a shallow creek. Toot gripped my hair hard enough to really hurt, making upset noises until we crossed out of the water. And now my jeans were soaked. Great.

"No more water! Bad enough with the white steel." Toot grumbled, "No amount of pizza is worth this."

I heard something behind me let out an unholy roar of animalistic fury. It was close, and I was slowing down, the rough not-path and overexertion beginning to take its toll on me.

"Toot, fly ahead.... find the car!"

"No amount of pizza in world, Harry Dresden! Too dangerous, teeth too sharp. Hellhounds are hungry." I felt Toot shift around on my head, sliding back to where my dark locks were thicker and hiding himself there. "They can eat you first!"

Useless pixie. In his defense, the beasts chasing us were a lot more than he bargained for when I enlisted his service. He'd done his task well, finding the item I was looking for a lot faster than I would have. As one of the Fae, his supernatural radar was better than mine, letting him feel the sword's power and lead me in the right direction. He didn't deserve to be made into a Hellhound snack just because I hadn't anticipated this kind of resistance.

"This isn't working..." I gritted my teeth and put on a burst of speed, taking a few sharp turns and leaps through the forest. I needed some distance between our pursuers and us. Without looking, I swung my hand behind me and shouted, "Vento servitas!"

I didn't have a focus for the spell, but I didn't need one. I just needed a distraction for a second. The loose leaves and branches along the ground flew up and at the Hellhounds.

While the Hounds snarled and snapped their jaws at the onslaught, I skidded to a halt and bent low to the ground. I seized a sharpish rock from nearby and drew a fast circle in the dirt around me with my left hand, the one with my shield bracelet on it. Toot fluttered out of his hiding spot and watched me with nervous eyes. I snatched the idiot out of the air before he could escape the scope of my circle. "Contego, tutis contego, riflettus contego," I chanted as I poured my will into the circle and felt it snap up around us.

Just in time too. One of the Hellhounds took a massive leap at the same moment. Without my circle, it would have taken my head clean off. With my circle, it slammed into the air a few inches in front of my face and was thrown back with equal force, like it had hit rubber.

"Hell's bells, I'm glad that worked," I gasped and slumped to the ground, letting go of Toot to rub my face. There were a few more dull thwump noises as the Hounds continued to try to get to us. Each time, they were just bounced back.

Toot landed on my shoulder, one tiny hand fisting in my hair. He yanked. "You do not know your own magic, Harry Dresden?"

"Hey, it's a new one. Been working on upgrading my spells." This one had been Bob's idea, tweaking a protective circle to reflect any force against it. It made it harder for something to get close and try to break the circle. Not that these monstrous magical dogs could-- breaking a circle required an act of Will that was beyond them. But either way, it bounced back any advances from them, and that was good enough for me.

I scrubbed my face with both hands, exhausted and weary from my big getaway and the events of the evening. My hands came away covered in light blue dust that looked like a mix of talcum powder and glitter. Groaning, I glared at Toot. "Did you have to get pixie dust all over me?"

Petulant faerie that he was, Toot threw a cloud of the stuff in my face. "You didn't speak of the dogs! You just told me to find the sword and you'd give me pizza!"

"I will! When we get back to safety, I will buy you five pizzas!" I rubbed the dust off my skin. I probably looked like an idiot with it smeared all over my face.

Toot put his hands on his hips, arms akimbo. "You think I can eat five pizzas at once?"

"You could share with your pixie buddies!"

"You want me to share pizza?!" He said this like I had suggested he grind up some iron pills into Queen Mab's dinner.

"Toot, I will buy you five pizzas over the course of a month if you stop pestering me. I'm trying to focus on my circle."

That kept Toot quiet for a while. It was a deep, dark night and the Hounds paced around us growling, waiting for my spell to run out of juice. Thankfully, I just had to keep it going until morning light, when the dogs would back off as their binding spell would run out. It wouldn't last past dawn; I'd gotten a look at the kid who sicced the dogs on me. He was a warlock with plenty of raw talent, but not enough finesse to make a binding survive the sunrise.

I settled down into a lotus position on the grass and tried to relax, mediating a bit. Toot flew back up on top of my head, and I could feel him drop into a similar fold on my hair. Whether he was mocking me or showing a bit of solidarity, I had no idea. I shut my eyes, felt the humming energy of the circle around me, and waited.

 

The skin around Michael's eyes crinkled into well-worn laugh lines as he smiled at me. I was standing on the porch of his cosy house on the South Side. The Carpenters lived in one of the nicest patches of suburbia hidden in the city. They were planted in prime real estate, walking distance from a school, two churches, and a nice public park. They had a lawn and a backyard, which I found a little overwhelming. It was one of those places that felt like a real home. I tried not to be jealous.

"Harry." His eyes alighted to the sheath on my back. "I cannot thank you enough for doing this for me."

"Hey, what're friends for if not busting up some newbie cult to save a holy artifact for the local Fist of God?" I pulled the sword off my back and handed it over to him.

Michael drew Amoracchius out. The sword started to glow in his grip, like it was happy to be back with him again. "I hope it wasn't any trouble."

"Nah. All in a day's work." The sword had been swiped a day earlier by some new age magus brats who wanted to pawn it off to some Fae in return for a big favor. I hadn't caught the details, mostly because I didn't care. The kids clearly had no idea what they were doing, Hellhounds notwithstanding. I figured their Fae benefactor had loaned the dogs out.

I went to get the sword back so Michael didn't have to. He didn't want to miss his daughter Alicia's softball game. It was the last game of the season for the church league she was a part of and he'd missed several of the previous games because of me, so I was glad to lend a hand. Not only did it help out one of the kindest men I knew, but I hoped it got me some points with his wife, Charity. Honestly, I had no idea why Charity had such a mad-on against me. Maybe I wronged her in another life, I don't know.

Or she knew about my employer. Some days, I wanted to punch Marcone in the face, once for every time someone heard my name and reacted with trepidation or hostility. 'Harry Dresden' was now whispered in the same breath as 'Gentleman Johnny,' and while plenty of people never made that connection, a few did and that was enough.

Michael hadn't judged me back when we met five or six years ago and since my recruitment into the mob, he never mentioned Marcone or the Outfit. It wasn't a factor in our friendship. To him, I was just another clued-in guy, someone who could help him do some honest occult crimefighting. Since then, we'd collaborated on a few jobs. When I needed some divine muscle, I called him, and when he needed some magic, he called me.

Michael drew me into his house. Crossing the threshold was like walking through water, it was so thick. It held a healthy majority of my magic, to the point I would have trouble lighting a candle. That just reinforced the homeyness of the house. Two of the Carpenter kids were sprawled out in the living room, taking shelter from the summer heat. "Where's the rest of the brood?"

"Charity took the older ones out shopping. School's starting up again soon," Michael explained, nudging me towards the living room. "Sit, I'll get you something to eat."

"No, that's fine, Michael--"

"You had breakfast?"

"Yes," I said, then winced. There was something deeply wrong about lying to a Knight of the Cross. "Okay, no. I was busy bribing faeries this morning."

Michael vanished into the kitchen. "Sit, Harry."

As soon as I folded myself up on the sofa, little Hope crawled up next to me. Hope was a shy little thing with moments of the sort of straightforward boldness that were common in children. She stood on the cushion next to me and rubbed her little hand over my face. "You have blue on you."

Dammit, Toot. "Mm," I nodded gravely. "Pixie dust."

"Really?" She stared at the smudged blue on her hand in wonder.

"Yep." While she was preoccupied with that revelation, I grabbed the hem of my tee and tried to scrub my face free of the dust.

Hope tapped me on the shoulder and I straightened. She poked my pendant. "What's that?"

I tugged my necklace loose and held it up for her. "It's a pentacle."

"What's that?" She gave me a stern look for daring to use words she didn't know.

I smiled apologetically. "It's a symbol for magic."

Hope sat down with a plop, half on my lap as she took my pendant in her hands and looked at it. "My friend Joyce says circle stars are evil."

I rolled my eyes and barely reined in the urge to say this Joyce girl was an idiot. "Pentacles are protection from evil. They keep magic contained and safe so it can help people."

"Are you a magician?"

"No, I'm a wizard." She gave me another annoyed look. I didn't want to get into the differences between magicians and wizards (thus having to explain illusions and thereby ruining Hope's chances of ever enjoying a magic show) so I whispered, "Watch," and willed a little power into my pentacle.

It glowed silvery-white in her palms, and Hope's eyes went wide and her mouth opened into a little shocked 'o'. She waved a hand at her younger sister, who was on the floor with a box of crayons. "Mandy. Mandy, come here, come here!"

Amanda bounced up on the sofa with us and got a similarly stunned look as she laid eyes on my tiny display of magic. She yanked the pendant away from Hope and I squawked as the motion pulled me forward. "Careful with that, kiddo."

Michael walked in to find me pinned under his children, their faces lit up with awe and the light of my magic. He smiled wryly at me. "Showing off, Harry?"

"You know me," I said and withdrew my will from the necklace. Both girls let out twin "awwwww"s as the light went out. "Don't be like that, your dad's way cooler than I am anyway."

Michael chuckled and shooed the girls off me before handing over a plate. There was a tall sandwich and a pile of sweet potato fries there, smelling amazing. He set a tall glass of lemonade on the table next to me. "Don't let Charity see you using magic," he murmured quietly.

"I know, I know. I just wanted to be the cool adult for a moment." I munched on some fries, washing them down with the lemonade. "Hell, I don't want to let Charity see me at all."

Amanda and Hope in unison turned and pointed at me, making accusatory, "oooooh" sounds.

I winced. "Sorry, sorry. Mea culpa." I glanced up at Michael sheepishly. "You got a swear jar? I have a quarter on me somewhere."

"Might have to get one just for you, Harry," Michael mused, putting a hand on my shoulder. "Could use it to take the kids out for I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M."

There was something so relentlessly normal about that, I started laughing. Michael could smite demons with a holy sword, but he feared saying 'ice cream' aloud near his kids. I leaned back on the sofa and slowly ate my sandwich, letting that normalcy seep into my skin and soothe me. It was a nice feeling.

 

The warm fuzzies faded as I pulled the Beetle into my usual spot in front of my apartment and found a black luxury car in the next spot over. As I clamored out of my Bug, Cujo climbed out of Lincoln. He didn't stop to open the back door, which meant that once again Marcone wasn't with him.

"Don't you get tired of playing errand boy, Cujo?"

That was the closest I was going to get to asking where the hell Marcone had been. The last I'd seen of him in person was that morning when he seemed to be about to elope with his latte. That was back in December. Somehow the time had just slipped by since then. I hadn't heard from my employer since. Well, not directly. Hendricks continued to come to me on Saturdays, his day off. Not every Saturday, but often enough I'd worked in more lessons for the big guy.

I noticed some of the effects of his new knowledge as he stood there. It was too hot for him to wear any jackets and I could see that next to the holster for his concealed handgun (which he proudly wore on his hip as if there wasn't a handgun ban in the city) was a long rod of steel attached to a loop on his belt, just as ready to draw as the firearm. Cujo had a thing about faeries, probably thanks to his ordeal with the Nix.

"You busy?" He grunted at me. We'd moved past the open contempt part of our relationship, but Cujo still didn't say too much.

"Nah." I waved him along, heading to my apartment with him in tow. A murmured word lowered my wards and got us inside, out of the heat. One of the benefits of my basement bachelor pad was that it stayed fairly cool in the summertime. Small comfort, considering it was freezing in the winter months. It wasn't like I could get an A/C unit after all. "Beer?"

"No. On the clock."

"On a Saturday? At this hour?" I had no such issues, so I grabbed a beer out of my icebox. Before taking a sip, I just held the bottle against my forehead, enjoying the cold. "You should unionize, show Marcone who's boss."

"Mr. Marcone wants a report on vampires," Hendricks said, ignoring my snark. "Their characteristics and any viable defense strategies, short and long term.

This was how Marcone had been using me lately. Hendricks would show up and mention something Marcone needed. So far it'd been mostly information: magical defenses, types of wards, a rundown of how rituals worked and how to recognize them. All the topics so far lined up with Marcone just wanting to protect himself by being able to recognize magical danger and avoid it.

Vampires, though, that set off alarm bells in my head. "Why?"

"Not for you to ask."

"Uh, yeah, it is, Cujo." I leaned back against my kitchen counter and sipped my beer. "Vampires around here keep to themselves. You'd have to go out of your way to get involved with them."

Hendricks narrowed his beady eyes at me. "Just write the report, Dresden."

"Okay, sure." I grabbed the legal pad I kept near the phone for when I needed to take fast notes. I wrote something down, ripped out the page, and handed it to Cujo.

He took it and read aloud, "Hit beehives and you're going to get stung." He lifted his gaze to mine. I looked away as I felt the tug of a soulgaze. I didn't want to see the soul of a mobster. Once was enough, thanks. "You want Marcone to beat your ass again?"

I went from calm to flustered in a second's time. "Where did you hear that!?" Okay, I shouldn't have been surprised Cujo heard about that. He and Marcone were thick as thieves. God, I hoped it wasn't common knowledge around the Outfit.

Hendricks shrugged. "Doesn't matter. You gonna write the report or not?"

"Not until I know why he wants it. Hey, maybe he can actually come by my damn office and talk to me sometime. Or is the Don too good for such plebeian practices?"

He looked around the room surreptitiously, like Marcone would be slinking in the shadows, listening in. "Look, Dresden, you got to learn how the game works."

I stood up straighter at Cujo's quiet, honest tone. Was the big guy giving me advice? I had no idea he had... thoughts and opinions and stuff. O brave new world that has such people in it. "Okay," I said slowly.

"Mr. Marcone hasn't come to see you and hasn't put you on any real jobs, right? Why do you think that is?" He spoke slowly, giving me a heavy, exasperated look. I got the impression that the fact he had to explain this to me was painful to him on some level. Like it was my fault I didn't quite get it. I failed the Understanding Mafia Communications part of my GED, what can I say.

I kept my voice pitched low. "I dunno. Figured he was busy."

"You're his pet wizard. He's the king of Chicago." Pet wizard?! "You think he can't make time?" He gave me a look that reminded me of the one Marcone used whenever I said something stupid. The resemblance was uncanny.

I squashed the urge to complain about the 'pet wizard' remark because, what? Really? "I... Okay." I thought about it, something I had carefully avoided for the past few months. "Last we talked, he was angry at me. Then he started sending you. So... he's still mad?" Hendricks shook his head. I tried again. "He's... keeping away from me for some reason. I don't know, throw me a line here, Cujo."

"You're a moron, Dresden," Hendricks helpfully informed me. "Last time he asked you directly, you lied to him. So far, you ain't lied to me. 'Cos you aren't as scared, or you don't have as much to prove, whatever, but things have worked out just fine this way. Until now."

Stars and stones, that actually made sense. I hadn't realized Marcone's trust in me was that damaged, that he felt the need to set up another way to deal with me so he'd know I was telling the truth. And Cujo figured this out while I was left in the dark. He clearly missed his calling in politics.

I thought on that for a moment, working my way through the rest of my beer. Something occurred to me, a little belatedly, but I was still reeling from Chatty Cujo Advice Hour. "No offense, but why're you telling me this?"

Hendricks shrugged on shoulder. "You're helping me. Returning the favor. Don't like to be in people's debt."

I nodded. "Smart. Keep that in mind if you ever deal with the Fae, it'll save your life."

"So you going to do the report?"

"No. Vampires are serious stuff." So long as we were gossiping, I figured it was worth it to try just asking. "You know why he wants to know?"

Hendricks stared at me, face suddenly very blank. I recognized the motion. Asking about Marcone's business matters got that reaction from Hendricks usually. He was tight-lipped about what Marcone actually did.

"I'm not asking what he wants it for, just if you know, Cujo."

Reluctantly, Hendricks shook his head. "No. Hasn't said. He's been working on a lot of private projects lately. That's all I know."

"Alrighty then." I tossed out my empty bottle and clapped my hands together. "This lack of communication isn't good for our relationship. You can tell Johnny I'm feeling neglected and unappreciated, so if he wants anything from me, he can stop using you as a go-between. Office appointment or he gets nothing out of me."

Hendricks gave me the thousand-yard stare. "Want me to say that?"

"Oh yeah. Word for word, buddy. Need me to write it down?"

He shut his eyes, looking pained. "No. After Mr. Marcone kills you for giving him lip, I'm going to laugh at the funeral."

"Well, I'll be dead, so I don't think I'll care either way." I twiddled my fingers at him. "Bye-bye, Cujo. Give Johnny my love."

Hendricks sighed deeply and lumbered back to the door. As his hand touched the handle, I called out, "Hey, Cujo. Uh. Thanks. I'm kind of out of my depth with the Mob thing, so..."

He didn't look back at me, but nodded. "Try not to piss Marcone off, Dresden. Don't want to have to vanish you."

"Oh, like you could."

"Don't get cocky," he warned before shutting the door behind him, leaving me to my thoughts.

My thoughts went something like this: Marcone wanted to get involved with the vampires. That made sense, since Bianca St. Clair happened to be a big player in the Red Court and also ran a profitable escort and prostitution business. Everyone knew Bianca and Marcone were the big names in the business, the only competitors. It made sense that Marcone would know that she was a vampire-- Bianca wasn't quite subtle if you knew what to look for. It also made sense that he might want to muscle her out and take her share of the business. When you monopolized a specific trade, you didn't have to price that trade competitively; you had total control of prices and could make a killing. There was nowhere else for the customers to go.

But Marcone also knew the benefit of being informed. Stars, I had the feeling that if he knew about Bob, he'd just kill me and claim my Spirit of Air and Intellect by right of conquest. Gentleman Johnny wouldn't make a move until he knew what he was getting into. So he needed me to fill him in on the Courts and the dangers of each.

Like hell was I just going to give that information over to him, especially when he was keeping so far away from me. If he was desperate to get rid of Bianca, I probably couldn't stop him, but if things came to that, I needed to be closer to the action so I'd know what was really going on.

I gave Marcone an ultimatum. He couldn't stay away if he wanted my help. I'd make him come to me.

And maybe in return, he'd fit me for some nice cement shoes and toss me into the Lake. But I had to try. Never let it be said I took things lying down.

Chapter Text

Marcone didn't rise to my challenge, which kind of pissed me off. I was all ready for a verbal throwdown with him. I had been running through it in my head, hearing his soft, calm voice fray in my imagination as I needled him and flawlessly got under his skin. He wore reasonable politeness like Michael wore kevlar, his perfect armor. I was putting my bets on the notion that under the armor, he was more vulnerable. If I got him mad and shook him up, maybe I could make him actually listen to me when I told him to back off the vampires.

I went through the possible variations of our fight in my head over and over until I figured I could make it work in my favor. I needed to steer the talk without losing my own cool. No simple task. I would be the first person to admit I had a temper.

But, as I said, this was all pointless because Marcone didn't show up. Instead Hendricks came by one more time to reiterate Marcone's orders.

"Dresden, just write the fuckin'--"

"No. If Johnny can't make time for me, I won't make time for him."

"If you don't drop the wronged girlfriend act, Mr. Marcone is going to--"

I flapped a hand at him. "Please. I can handle Marcone. Don't you worry, Cujo."

Hendricks hadn't looked remotely convinced when he left. Susan didn't look convinced either when I related all of this to her over farfalla and brand name alfredo sauce.

"Do you want me to give your eulogy? You know, after Don Marcone kills you?"

I shook my head, spearing a few butterfly pasta and waving my fork at her. "People need to stop assuming Marcone's going to off me. Cujo talked me through Mafia Powerplaying 101, I get it now. Marcone is trying to see how much he can control me. If I let this slide, he's going to think he can just push me around. I got to be assertive."

Susan sighed. "I know you think you're this alpha male type, Harry, but Marcone is too. And I think he's better at it than you."

I gave her a mock glare. "Talk like this is going to make me rethink making wild monkey love to you tonight."

"Is it really?" Susan purred. And slid her foot up my pant leg.

Susan was really good at derailing my thoughts. She won a lot of arguments that way. I was gracious enough to not hold it against her.

 

Even though Marcone was paying me enough that rent and food weren't a major issue for me anymore, I put in some office hours next week. For one thing, doing so meant I didn't have to stay home and hear Bob call me a 'kept man' anymore. For another, I left my copy of Hogfather in the office and wanted to finish it.

I was right at the end when my office door slammed open and Hendricks walked in. Again, he was minus Marcone.

"Whatever it is, I'm busy," I said in my best disinterested voice, turning my attention back to my book.

Hendricks was living up to his nicknamesake, letting out a low growl as he rounded my desk. He grabbed my arm and hauled me out of my desk chair. Those coulda-gone-pro muscles weren't just for show. "Boss needs you. Now."

"Your boss can make an appointment! I thought we had an understanding here!" I dropped my book and lost my page as I struggled to get my feet properly under me. Hendricks half-carried me towards the door, wasting no time. Call me crazy, but I think he was in a bit of a rush.

"Not about that, Dresden. Needs you for a job."

I had actually figured that. Most people being hauled out the door by a mobster would panic about their imminent demise. Not me. For one, it was only one mobster. If Marcone wanted me dead, he'd send more goons and he'd send them when I was vulnerable. Not when I was holed up in my office, able to launch quick and dirty evocations at anyone trying to barge through the door. And he'd be sneakier about it. Get me on my way in or out, when I had no cover, or try and get close and slip those bracelets round my wrists when I wasn't expecting it.

See the logic there? Now you're thinking like a criminal scumbag. Makes you wanna take a shower, doesn't it?

Back to me, I was still trying to stand up properly as Hendricks rushed me out the door. "Hey, you can't make me work one of Marcone's jobs! It's in my contract!"

"Section C, page 41." He didn't even sound winded as he carried me along. He stopped to grab my rod, staff, and coat with one big hand on our way out. "In case of emergency that falls under the purview of the signed and within the scope of corporate interests, the signed may be compelled to respond to such situations within certain restrictions as outlined in subsection 1 through 6."

I stopped fighting for a moment and turned that over in my head. Since when did Hendricks have my contract memorized well enough he could rattle it off like that? "What's that when its at home?"

Hendricks slammed me against the wall, holding me up with one hand fisted in my shirt. I took the opportunity to regain my footing and avoided looking him in the eye. It wasn't easy to do with him leaning in close, face a little red with anger. "It means the boss needs your help and you're going." He shoved my wizardly gear against my chest, punctuating the command.

"I don't answer whenever Marcone snaps his fingers."

"You do now," Hendrick replied. "Our boss needs your help, and I swear to God, Dresden, if you let him die, I will sue you into the ground for breach of contract."

It was a threat. And it wasn't. It was a plea for help. I'm not so good at ignoring those. I didn't have to look in his eyes to know he would drag me all the way there if needed. Dammit. I missed the kinder, gentler Cujo I'd grown used to giving magic lessons.

I took my things out of his hand, immediately sliding into my duster and tucking my blasting rod into its folds. I tightened my grip on my staff and said, "Fine. Lead the way."

 

We headed for Lake Shore, one of the glitziest parts of Chicago. I wasn't very familiar with it. Not my crowd, really. I guess when you live in that area and get a haunting or lose your car keys, you just buy a new house or car. It was that kind of money, where what I got monthly would barely cover your children's weekly allowances.

Hendricks filled me in on the details as our Town Car tore through the streets. I kept one hand clenched on the Oh Shit Handle in a tight grip. At the same time, I kept just as tight a grip on my magic. I think Cujo would have pummeled me if I fried the engine before we got there.

As far as I could gather, Marcone was attending a nice social function with some Chicago elite and celebrities when someone gatecrashed the party. The mystery someone-- Hendricks had no idea who it was-- took Marcone hostage. According to the people who'd been inside, Marcone had done some smooth talking to get the other party guests released, then managed to get away himself.

The catch to all this was that the hostage-taker wasn't using a gun to hold up the place. He was using magic.

"Magic. Got anything more specific than that?" I asked, shutting my eyes as Hendricks ran another light. Last I looked at the speedometer, we were going way too fast for navigating an urban sprawl. I wondered if Hendricks had Hollywood stunt driving on his resume somewhere. Was that standard, or did Marcone have to pay extra at Thugs R Us?

"He lit the place up real good, but not with fire. Someone said he was shooting sparks."

"Great. An affinity for electricity in the middle of a high rise that's doubtlessly wired up with enough power to keep all the big screens and on-suite jacuzzis."

"Just get him out of there," Hendrick said. He sounded very unhappy. I wondered if it was because he wasn't there for Marcone when Marcone got into trouble. Hendricks sometimes seemed oddly protective.

Lake Point Tower was already surrounded by the CPD. Red and blue lights shone into the night, throwing eerie shadows onto the walls as they spun atop the cop cars. Hendricks slid the car casually into an open spot next to the yellow tape, just beyond the barricade. There were plenty of uniformed men and women milling around.

"There," Hendricks said, pointing to a tiny door tucked away in an alcove. Elegant lettering next to it said Lake Point Tower - Receiving. "The boss was on the 25th floor when we lost contact."

I looked around. "You know, I'd like to see that Section C before--" Cujo bared his teeth and growled at me. Yikes. I gave in; I wasn't up on my rabies shots. "Hell's bells, okay, okay. How am I getting inside?"

"I'll take care of it. Come on." Hendricks climbed out of the car and I followed. He gestured towards the door and I started edging towards it, keeping my gaze on Hendricks. I hoped he had a plan, because with so many cops around, there was no way I could--

Hendricks pulled the steel rod from his belt and slammed it into the window of one of the cop cars, smashing it into bits, glass tinkling to the ground.

The effect was immediate. Every cop in a thirty foot radius fixed their attention on Hendricks, shouting at him to get on the ground, hands on his head, get on the damn ground. Hendricks let go of his rod and dropped to his knees, hands up, expression resigned.

I slipped into the Tower as quietly as I could as the cops tried to find a pair of cuffs that would fit Cujo's wrists.

 

I ran up about five storeys before giving in and chancing the elevator. The Tower had about 70 floors, not including basements. I pressed the button for 25 and hoped the elevator wouldn't crap out on me.

Of course Marcone had to get in a jam in a skyscraper. Inconsiderate scumbag.

At around 23, I felt a swell of energy above me, a pulsing, crackling magic. The elevator lights started flickering, the ride getting a little bumpy. I considered myself lucky to have gotten up that far and hopped out at 24 before I got stuck inside the thing. That'd make for an embarrassingly bad rescue.

24 looked normal but for the lights going on and off randomly. It was like a very high-end hotel, but bigger. I could drive a small car through the hallways if I wanted to ruin the plush carpets, which were so thick I felt like I was sinking into them every time I took a step. The ornamentation was understated and actually kind of nice, reminding me of Marcone's house: plainly wealthy, but not bragging about it.

I headed up another flight of stairs, following the lingering feeling of spent magic and the smell of ozone.

The next floor up, in comparison, looked like a train had run through it. Some of the light fixtures were still working, but most were out or on fire. There were markings on the wall, dark lines that seemed burned into the wallpaper. But not with fire. The ozone smell was strongest in the main lobby of the floor, where chairs had been tipped and a refreshments table looked like Thor's hammer had come down and smashed it in two, the wood splintered and smoking from some kind of impact.

The room felt angry. Berserker fury was in the air along with the ozone and residual static. Whatever came after Marcone was mad as hell and was not going to take it anymore.

I heard the sound of gunfire and took off in its direction, duster flapping behind me.

I hate when my job involves running towards the danger, let me just say.

One of the apartment suites had its door blown off the hinges. Inside was dark, but as I got close, the hinges sent a big charge of static at me. I winced and tried not to make a sound at the jolt of pain. Instead, I leaned against the wall outside and Listened, trying to find Marcone's voice.

After a moment, I heard talking. "--nothing to do with it, I give you my word."

"You lie. You're lying, everyone knows you run the drugs in Chicago, you sonovabitch. You die, the whole thing falls apart."

Marcone scoffed. "Not only is that untrue, it's quite the opposite of what will happen. I won't deny that I control the drug trade in this city, but even my control is not absolute. Whoever did this to Natalie--"

"Don't say her name, you don't have the right!"

"All right, all right," and Marcone sounded placating and terribly reasonable. It didn't seem to the working though: at the same time, I felt the sparkling electrical energy rise to a dangerous fervor.

"You killed her, so I kill you." The other speaker was male and youthful, teenage or young adult. His voice kept breaking, pitching all over the place. "No one gets hurt like Natalie. I-it'd be doing the city a favor."

I'd heard enough. When someone starts psyching himself up to kill you, that's about the time you should be running and hiding. I brought my shield bracelet up at the ready and did my best to slide into the room as quietly as I could.

The two occupants of the room were so focused on each other, I escaped their notice. Marcone looked a little frazzled, his back pressed against a wall. His gaze was mostly calm, but his hair was sticking up like he had his hand pressed against one of those Van Der Graff balls. It would've been funny if he wasn't being crowded against the wall by Zeus' acne-ridden redheaded stepchild. The magic energy was coming from a kid who looked like he should've been in his room doing his homework, not holding up mafia bosses with lightning magic. He was lanky and pale, his face not so much freckled as one big freckle with a few splatters of white tossed in.

He was also holding a fistful of electricity.

I didn't have time for finesse. I lowered my staff to point at the kid. "Forzare!"

I caught him off guard and he went slamming into a plate glass wall on the far side of the suite, the cracking glass like a spider web from the impact.

Marcone wasted no time vaulting over an upturned sofa and heading towards me. On the way, he swept a hand down and picked up a submachine gun from where he presumably dropped it earlier. He made retreating look graceful. "What are you doing here?"

Ungrateful jerk. "Well, I was in the neighborhood," I sniped, walking towards him and lifting my shield bracelet to cover his back as we left the room. Lightningbolt was slowly picking himself up from where I'd thrown him, and that static feeling in the air was rising again, making the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

"Marcone!" the kid roared, producing far more sound than I thought his gangly frame was capable of. He lifted his hand and I could see a delicate chain wrapped around it, glowing bright. Some sort of focus, I assumed, which was strange. The kid had obvious raw talent, but didn't act like he'd had formal training. Maybe he'd read a book or heard about using a focus from someone. Either way, I didn't take the time to get a closer glimpse; I was too busy backpedaling and getting Marcone out of the room.

Not a moment too soon, I leapt back into the hallway. As soon as I did, a blast of lightning hit the door frame, coloring the wood there dark with a burn. "Christ, that kid's got some juice. Who is he?"

"Gregory Vail," Marcone said as he grabbed the sleeve of my coat and pulled me away.

"Looks angry."

"He believes I killed his sister. The boy's in the second stage of mourning, I believe."

Vail tumbled out of the room behind us and let out another scream of rage. He was glowing like a Christmas tree, walking steadily towards us. Electricity flickered and snapped around him, the power coming off of him almost tangible. Marcone was right, the kid was furious and it was fueling his magic nicely. I knew that feeling, how magic could just come so easily if you tapped into it just right. And Vail seemed to be very determined to keep it up.

I took a look back at him as Marcone and I ran for cover in the lobby. The focus around his hand, the necklace shone brightly with his magic. It was a simple gold chain with a pink rhinestone gem cut into the shape of a heart. It was very much a girl's piece of jewelry.

Ah. So he'd inherited it. I could relate to that.

I let Marcone drag me down behind a table that had been knocked over.

"Did you?" I asked, peeking around the edge of the thick walnut table to watch Vail.

"Did I what?"

"Kill his sister."

"No."

"Sure now?" I thought Vail seemed pretty convinced. The few lights that had survived Vail's presence before burst as he entered this time. Lots of teenage angst in that kid. It was dark in the room now, and I was a little relieved. It was harder to aim for a target in these conditions.

"Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Mr. Dresden," he said, grabbing my shoulder and pulling me until I was looking him in the eye. "I had nothing to do with Natalie Vail's death."

I examined his face for a long moment before deciding I believed him. I nodded curtly. "Okay, do we have a plan?"

Marcone gave me a sardonic look. "We? You are the one doing the rescuing, Mr. Dresden. I would have hoped you had the foresight to actually think of a plan before barging in and making yourself a target." I rolled my eyes. He wasn't wrong, but I wasn't going to tell him that. "Then I suggest we retreat to the stairwell and get the hell out of here."

"Agreed." I nodded curtly.

Marcone readied his gun before jumping up and heading for the far door that would lead to the stairwell. I followed, bringing my shield up to block the ball of electricity Vail flung at us.

"Out of your league, kid!" I called across the room. "Give up while you can!"

Vail grabbed a metal platter off the ground. The dish started to shine with his magic. "The cops said accidental overdose, like it was her fault! No one blames him!" Vail yelled, and flung the platter at us like a frisbee.

"Ventas!" I blew the projectile off course before it could get close enough to fry us.

"You are attacking the wrong man, Mr. Vail!" Marcone caught the mantle of my duster with one hand and started to lead me backward. "I didn't do anything to hurt your sister and killing me will bring you no solace!"

"Dunno, I think I want to find out for sure!" Vail sent another bolt at us.

I flung up my shield, but the magic glanced off it and arced to Marcone's MP5. He made a pained noise and threw the gun aside. The metal flickered with electricity even as it slid along the floor away from us.

"Shit, John!" I threw myself at him, knocking him to the ground and covering him with my body. As I expected, I heard the magazine in the gun give way, the lightning setting the bullets loose. I heard one whiz past my head and two embed in the table we'd taken cover behind.

Marcone exhaled shallowly against my cheek. "Harry..."

I lifted my head. "Coat's bulletproof," I explained briskly. I didn't mention that, like my refined shielding spell I'd used with Toot, I wasn't sure it would work. Hard to test new upgrades like that without nearly killing myself.

"Ah." He looked at my duster with new respect. "That explains why you persist in wearing it when it makes you look like an reject from the Dollars trilogy. Do you do commissions? Something less ostentatious?"

I rolled my eyes and started to get up. "Blow me."

"I'd prefer to pay in cash. It's easier on my accountants."

I had no rejoiner for that, so I looked over to check on Vail. The boy was leaning on the wall, breathing hard and shaking slightly.

"We need to get out of here," I murmured, watching him.

"He seems to be tiring," Marcone noted as he got to his feet as well.

"No. He's not using incantations. Throwing this much magic around without the insulation of spellwords, that's going to hurt him. He has no idea what he's doing." I nudged Marcone towards the stairwell. "Come on."

Vail opened his eyes and locked onto our movement. "No. No! I am not finished!" He staggered to his feet and started chasing after us. As he did, his whole body lit up again with energy. He was turning himself into a human battering ram.

Marcone got the door to the stairwell open and I fell through it after him. As soon as I was clear, I shoved him right, out of the way.

Vail came tearing through, looking like a blur of red hair and lightning. In front of him was the down stairs and with his momentum, there was no way for him to avoid them. He tumbled down half a flight and slammed into a wall.

I watched Vail slid to the ground, wondering if that had finally done the trick. To my shock, the kid put a hand against the wall and started to stagger back to his feet. As a guy who could take a few hits and keep going, I was kind of impressed. Vail seemed stunned, but recovering fast.

We didn't have time to lose. "Come on!" I snapped, heading up the stairs. I wanted as much distance between myself and Vail as possible. It wasn't like I couldn't put the kid down with some of my own magic, but I'd been playing it mostly defensive so far. If I wanted, I could swat the untrained mage down, but I sure as hell didn't want to open fire on a grief-stricken teenager who didn't know what he was doing. Marcone was right; Vail was rocketing through the 'anger' part of the Five Stages of Grief and it was hard to hold his actions against him. But things were getting a little too dire for me to keep to my shield. I needed an out, and fast, before one of us broke the First Law.

After a few flights of stairs, I couldn't keep going. My heart was pounding hard enough that I could hear it in my head, loud in my ears. I led us out of the stairwell around floor 40. Below us, I could feel Vail's magic. He wasn't out of the game, but we had some time, I hoped.

I picked a room at random in the hallway, lifting my foot and driving it into the door right next to the handle. With a splintering sound, the door swung open and we went inside.

"I hope you have a plan of escape, Mr. Dresden," Marcone said snappishly. In the distance was the sound of our upstart mage's approach. it was slowly getting louder and it seemed to be grating on Marcone. I had to admit, the guy looked tired. I guess hostage situations did that to everyone, even generally unflappable mafia bosses. "You seem to have led us in the exact opposite direction we'd want to be going in."

As he spoke, he reached behind him, under his suit jacket, and pulled out another MP5. I gaped at him. "You can't be serious."

"I always consider my ability to defend myself when making my sartorial choices," he replied coolly.

I whistled under my breath. "And people think I'm paranoid." I looked around the deserted penthouse, scanning for anything that could help. Marcone was right, running up the stairs instead of down was a mistake on my part, but hey, he didn't have to follow me, did he? "Working on it." I went over to one of the walls, which was entirely glass, the window overlooking the inky-black water of Michigan.

An idea was forming. One of my crazy schemes that just might work.

"Work faster, Harry." I heard him loading the last magazine into his gun. He was getting ready for a showdown.

I was thinking about air currents.

"I got an idea," I said finally, starting to smile.

"Let's hear it then."

"You're not going to like it." I turned back to him. "Hey, you're wearing a belt, right?"

Marcone looked at me levelly. If the question startled him, he didn't show it. "Yes."

"What kind?"

"Leather."

"Great, gimme." I snapped my fingers at him before getting myself ready. I tucked my blasting rod into my duster and pulled the collar of my coat up. Marcone handed me the belt and I looped it around my left shoulder. It was going to hurt, but it would do. "Shoot out the window."

His eyes narrowed. "Why?"

I smiled cheekily at him.

"No. Absolutely not." Marcone actually took a step away from me, as if my crazy was contagious. "Think of another plan."

There was a crash nearby, outside the room. Similar sounds followed. It seemed Vail was checking every door on his way down the hall. "No time! Come on, window, now!"

Marcone grit his teeth, the muscles in his jaw popping angrily. He lifted the semiauto and unleashed a sweep of bullets on the windows. The glass couldn't handle multiple impacts and dissolved into tiny chucks of glass along the floor. "He'll have heard that," he said.

"Probably." I shifted my shield bracelet to my right wrist, then gripped my staff, focusing my will. This was going to be tricky. "Come on, John, time for a daring rescue."

I got Marcone to hold onto me, one of his hands wrapped tightly in the belt for purchase, his other arm around my neck. We walked stiffly to the threshold of the broken glass, the wind whipping my hair into a bigger mess and mussing up Marcone's a bit.

"Harry," Marcone said loudly over the howl. "In case this doesn't work--"

"It will!"

"In case it doesn't," Marcone went on, ignoring my optimism, "I'd like you to know I appreciate you trying to save my life. I'm now convinced forcing you into a contract was one of the better decision I've made and I don't regret it."

"Well. Thanks. I guess..." What was I supposed to say to that? Was that Marcone Speak for 'it's been an honor'? I was confused. "You're still a criminal scumbag, but you haven't killed me yet, and I know that takes restraint. So, thanks for not being a complete dick."

Marcone smirked and nodded once. His face slipped back to solemn determination as the door behind us blasted open and Gregory walked in, glowing like a sunset and looking ready to throw down.

"Time to go. Hold on!" I wrapped my free arm around Marcone as he tightened his hold on the belt and on me. He moved with me as I took a big step over the side and into the open air.

As I mentioned, we were about 40 floors up. They went by a lot faster than I expected. I mean, yeah, 'freefall' kind of says it all, but the ground was coming up fast. Too fast. We were speeding up and the whiplash was going to hurt, but I knew I wouldn't have the focus to use my magic for long, so I had to wait until we were closer if my plan was going to work.

It was strange. The sensation of falling to your death while waiting for the right moment, it felt like things were going really quickly and really slowly all at once. I just tried to focus on the fact I had more than my own life to save. Marcone was a real weight against me, his presence impossible to forget.

I could have used a bit of wind magic to send him flying. Or just kick him away from me. Or...

Yeah, right. He'd just trusted me enough to let me throw us out of skyscraper with just my word that we'd make it. Merciless bastard who treated me like property or not, I couldn't do that.

I threw my hand up and forced as much power as I could into a shield over our heads. The trick was, I wasn't trying to ward anything off. I was trying to hold the air in. My bracelet was working as a magical parachute, catching the air and slowing our descent.

It was, predictably, like holding a parachute with only one arm. My shoulder made a popping sound so loud, I could hear it easily over the roaring wind. Thankfully, the shield held as I poured most of my will into it through the pain of having done something extremely not good to my shoulder.

Marcone's arm around my neck tightened and I looked down. Likely, no more than a few seconds had passed, but we were still 40 or so feet above the ground. Too fast.

"Ventas, ventas, ventas," I chanted, drawing more wind towards us, up into my shield. It was working, we were slowing down.

The two of us hit the ground at an angle and rolled. I found myself pulled in by Marcone, my shield dissipating and my arm drawn in by his. Like a barrel down a hill, we circled over and over, the velocity from our fall continuing. I would have expected to go flying like a ragdoll, but Marcone held onto me, transferring our momentum into a tumble in a very controlled way.

Eventually, we slammed into a cop car and came to a stop.

"Oh, ow, fuck, ow, get off my arm, ow." I swore up a storm until Marcone shifted off of me and landed with a tired thump on the asphalt next to me, breathing as hard as I was.

There were people looking at us, two guys who had literally fallen out of the sky. A few cops, the EMTs, the bystanders, and I think I could see a handcuffed Hendricks in the distance, frowning at us like he wasn't quite sure we were real.

Gingerly, Marcone got to his feet, dusting himself off primly as he did. He was still a mess from the unforgiving wind we'd just been blasted with, but when he straightened and surveyed our surroundings, there was no doubt he was still every bit Gentleman Johnny Marcone. Sometimes it stunned me that he was a vanilla human. Most of the Fae didn't have that kind of poise.

"Excuse me, but I think my friend Mr. Dresden has dislocated his shoulder," he said in a quiet voice that nevertheless carried over all the white noise around us. "If someone could look him over, I would appreciate it."

Well, if Marcone wanted to take over, I wasn't going to stop him. I shut my eyes and lay my head back on the ground, relaxing. It was foolish and dangerous, but with my employer rescued and back in his nigh-omniscient leadership role, I felt like I could relax.

And I had just saved his ass from a teen wizard on a rampage with some really clever spellwork. I deserved a break.

 

My arm was popped back into place, I had a sling around my shoulder, and I was waiting. Marcone had gone over to talk to Hendricks about his arrest. I was sure Marcone was going to take care of that in his usual casually magnanimous way. Maybe he'd make a few bribes, get Cujo out before the weekend. I couldn't imagine it'd be a hardship for him.

As they talked, I leaned on the Town Car, watching my surroundings idly. I kept an eye on things and managed to catch a glimpse of Gregory Vail as they brought him out of the building in handcuffs. The kid's head was low, his face out of sight, but I could see his shoulders were shaking. Poor kid looked exhausted after all that spellwork. I wondered how long he'd get for what he'd done.

Crazily enough, I thought Marcone would probably do something to abate whatever sentence Vail got. Most of the time, I had a hard time reading Marcone just because the man hid his emotions so flawlessly. Yet, when they put Vail into a cop car, I saw Marcone turn to watch and there was a hint of pity in his green eyes. It was so slight, I didn't think I'd notice if I hadn't soulgazed with him.

Kids in bad situations make mistakes. Kids in bad situations who also happen to know the Art make really big mistakes, but they were still mistakes.

I considered trying to see if I could get Vail to join my little group of mentees, but decided I wasn't qualified to solve a problem like Gregory Vail. He needed proper instruction. I'd send word to my own teacher, Ebenezar, see if he knew anyone up for the task. Vail had too much raw power to let him continue without any education.

I sighed, suddenly feeling very tired. Between this and everything else, I was looking forward to going home and sleeping. That and some food. Cujo had grabbed me before I could get any dinner and I was suffering for it now. I just saved Marcone's life, I could probably get him to...

My thoughts derailed as I saw her across the crowd. She wasn't turned towards me, but I'd know her anywhere. Her height made her stand out.

She'd cut her hair since last year. And, Hell's bells, October wasn't that far away, it really had been nearly a year since last saw her. It felt like yesterday she was kicking my ass and arresting me. At the same time, it felt like a lot longer than a year.

I watched Karrin Murphy from afar, and it was like looking back on what my life had been. It hadn't been great and sometimes it even sucked, but I understood where I stood back then. Life was simpler, in a way.

I stared at her as she talked to her fellow cops and a few of the hostages. I should have gone over to her, said hello or something equally asinine.

But I didn't. I was scared to. At that moment, I had no idea how she would react to me, and not knowing hurt less than some of the alternatives. It made me a coward, I know, but I didn't want to take the chance of approaching her only to see hate or disgust twist her lovely face.

I have no clue how long I stood there watching her like a creeper, but eventually Marcone touched my arm, drawing my attention away from her. "We should leave while we can. The police want to take us in for questioning and I'm certain the truth isn't what they want to hear."

"Uh..." I looked back over and found that I had lost Murphy. She'd gone somewhere, vanishing from my line of sight. I quashed the disappointment that hit me. I could've gone to talk to her but hadn't, it was my own damn fault. So I just nodded once and let Marcone usher me into the car. There was a driver already inside, waiting for us, not any lackey I recognized.

A few moments passed in silence. I slumped against the car door, forehead pressed to the tinted window, watching Chicago go by. "Gonna give me a ride home, Johnny-boy?"

Marcone gave me a sideways glance, most of his attention on his Blackberry. I was surprised he was daring to use it in my presence, but I was tired and aching and working up the will to do any magic would have taken a large amount of effort I just wasn't up for at the moment. "I'll ignore the diminutive only because your work tonight was exceptional." He paused, then added quietly, "I'd prefer to keep you somewhere safe until you've recovered."

"You're a real mother hen sometimes, you know that? This," I tapped my sling with my free hand, "isn't worth the worry. I'm fine. Anyway, considering how exceptional I was," and I didn't have to smother a grin because his praise definitely wasn't making me all warm and fuzzy inside, honest, "you owe it to me to let me sleep in my own bed."

"If you insist." Marcone put the phone to his ear and his attention shifted away from me, his face growing somber. "This is Marcone. Alert all ground-level personnel to spread word that I want the person responsible for selling heroin to Natalie Vail. V-A-I-L. Standard reward for bringing them in alive." He listened to the other end of the call patiently for a beat. "Yes. Yes. Keep me informed." He ended the call and wisely shut his Blackberry back off.

I stared at him for a moment. "Wait. What did I just listen to?" I wasn't privy to any of Marcone's business, especially not the criminal aspects of it, and that call sounded more than a little sketchy. The Chicago Outfit apparently just got new orders. "Did you just put out a hit?"

"Considering I specifically requested the culprit alive, no." Marcone frowned at me, his expression mildly worried, like he thought I had a concussion or something because I was being extra stupid. Asshole.

I turned to face him, then winced as my shoulder brushed the seat. I'd been given some pain meds, but damn if it didn't still hurt, a dull throb radiating from my injury. Marcone's look shifted from 'Mr. Dresden, were you dropped on your head as a child?' to 'I am considering locking you in a glass case forever.' It was all in the eyebrows.

I put on a brave face, trying to look less like a vulnerable marshmallow of a man that Marcone would want to save from himself. "What're you going to do once you get him? Shake him down for ruining your evening? Recruit him to your evil empire?"

Marcone fixed me with a stare that would have undoubtedly caused a soulgaze if we hadn't already had one. "I'm going to kill him, Harry."

I didn't move for a moment. I was almost certain I'd misheard because... I mean, obviously my crime lord of an employer dealt in these kind of things, but he never told me, never like this, never to my face. "What?"

The grim look on Marcone's face faded into something else, matched with the oddly tolerant and benevolent tone that colored his words. "I have taken precautions to insulate you from my more morally questionable business ventures to allow you to adapt more readily. You are unaware that I have enforced certain rules since succeeding the Vargassi famiglia." He grimaced as he mentioned the name of his predecessor.

"Well, I know one," I mumbled, thinking of Hendricks.

Marcone nodded. "Granted. But there are others, and one pertinent to the fate of Natalie Vail. Anyone doing business in Chicago knows that to involve children in drugs or prostitution or any other vice trade is a death sentence." His gaze finally shifted away from mine. He turned to look out the window, expression almost regretful under the stoicism. "No children. Violators are executed. No exceptions."

I knew that Marcone had rules like that. Everyone said that he imposed order on the chaos of the Chicago Underworld, that things were better with him in charge. But I had no idea that this, of all things, was a rule, and one so rigorously enforced. You included children and you were punching your own card.

I suddenly remembered, over a year ago, back when Murphy and I still, you know, talked. She'd mentioned a case with a man who'd been shooting pornography with underage kids. The guy had vanished before his court hearing and was found weeks later with a double tap-- two quick, clean gunshots to the head. No bullets were found, no clues to who'd done it. The case went cold.

Now I knew what happened to that guy.

If I took the time to dig through old copies of the newspapers and old CPD case files, how many would I find like that? How many had Marcone taken out because of this rule?

"Hell's bells," I breathed out shakily.

Marcone's eyes snapped back to mine. "Does that bother you, Mr. Dresden?"

"I..." I had no idea.

Marcone stared at me measuringly for a long moment. "Or perhaps what bothers you is that it doesn't bother you. I'm going to kill the person who tried to make an easy profit by dealing to a minor and neither of us are going to lose any sleep over it." There was such conviction in his voice, as though he could will this to be true even if it wasn't already.

I sunk back against the seat carefully, not wanting to jostle my shoulder, and blew out a long breath. I didn't say anything to confirm what Marcone had said, but he didn't need me to. Natalie Vail's death had driven her brother into a berserker-like rage Marcone and I only barely survived. Who else did she leave behind who loved her and mourned her?

I shut my eyes and rested my head against the window again. "Wake me when we get home."

Chapter Text

Marcone was wrong. I didn't sleep well after the incident with Vail. Admittedly, it wasn't the fact that Marcone was going to off a guy who dealt death to kids that kept me awake, so maybe 'wrong' wasn't the right word.

It was everything else that was keeping me from sleep. Seeing Murphy, and not calling to her because I didn't know what she'd think of me. Hearing Marcone lay down the law in Chicago, and realizing that some small part of me was relieved. He was criminal scum, dammit, and I should have had something to say about Marcone going around exercising vigilante justice. Where were my moral objections evaporating to all of a sudden? These things kept me awake, staring at the ceiling well into the night.

Because it frankly scared the hell out of me. I felt so unbalanced and out of sync with the world around me. I kept thinking I was going to wake up from a deep sleep and be done with John Marcone's contract. Until then, I had this weird dissonance to deal with. I wasn't exactly my own man anymore, and I felt Marcone's control over me like a collar around my neck. I knew for sure, after the Nix, that Marcone was a real threat to my physical well-being, and my magic. I had to be careful around him, make sure he couldn't get the drop on me. I knew that. But then last night, I'd gone and dragged his criminal ass out of the fire. If he was dead, I was free, simple. But he was alive and kicking somewhere in Chicago tonight because of me. On some insinctive level, one I really didn't want to be thinking about, I seemed willing to go along with his demands.

That felt so wrong. It wasn't... me. I have history of reacting sort of explosively to people who think they might want a handy wizard puppet. Yet Marcone... I was willing to leap out of buildings with Marcone. And while I was refusing to give him the lowdown on vampires, it wasn't just an act of defiance. If I was honest with myself, I'd admit most of it was because I was sure if Marcone started drama with the vamps, he probably wouldn't walk away from it alive. I wanted him to include me in whatever doubtlessly insane plans he had so I could protect him.

So wrong. I don't know when Marcone stopped being this evil criminal dictator I wanted to avoid at all costs and started being... whatever the hell he was to me now. It was giving me insomnia.

Reason being... While my life was changing into something I couldn't begin to figure out, I was living more comfortably than I had since moving out of Ebenezar's place. I was still working, doing the whole Helping the Helpless thing I had devoted my life to, and I had time. I had a regular game night with the Alphas, I was expanding my knowledge of the Art with lessons from Bob, and I thought I was a pretty good boyfriend to Susan. Hell, more often than not, Susan had to cancel on me because of her job taking over her schedule, rather than the other way around. It was nice and I was enjoying life, and it was all thanks to Marcone.

I had no idea what to think about that. Marcone had said he was insulating me from the realities of his business to make my new situation easier and the thing of it was... maybe it was working. Compared to a year ago, when I was barely scraping by and my life was one big cycle of hurry-up-and-wait, when my best friend didn't trust me not to be a murder suspect most of the time, when I was so soul-crushingly lonely I could hardly stand it...

What really made my chest tight with fear was the fact I was really starting to like this new life, with my affectionate girlfriend, my new ability to be reliable to my friends, and my surprisingly personable employer who fretted over my well-being.

I had the sinking feeling Marcone was trying to tame me, really make me his pet wizard (I could still hear Hendricks saying the words, they echoed around my head forebodingly). I couldn't figure out what scared me more: that he might be succeeding or that I wasn't doing much to stop him.

It was a very complicated feeling, being so content and so uneasy all at once.

 

As Marcone said, a car picked me up late the next morning to bring me to the station. I gave a vague statement, claiming to not remember too much through the fog of adrenaline. I made it quick and got out of there as fast as I could. I wasn't in the SI building, but I was still nervous about running into Murphy. I stayed up most of the previous night, trying to sort out what the hell was going on with my life and I still had no clue. If I had to run into Murphy, I wanted more time to figure out what I would say.

I waved off the goon who was waiting to take me back home, electing instead to walk and do some more thinking. I wasn't the kind of person who devoted a lot of time to introspection, but I was hoping an epiphany would come along and hit me if I kept at it.

I was buried deep in my own musings, only paying enough attention to the world around me to avoid walking into any busy streets. I made the walk back home slow, just one foot in front of the other.

So I didn't realize I was being followed until a BMW slowed to a crawl next to me and the passenger window rolled down. "Hey! You Harry Dresden?"

I blinked out of my thoughts and looked at the car in confusion. I stepped closer, leaning down to look into the car. A vaguely handsome guy in a polo shirt and jeans with a timid smile peered at me. He instantly reminded me of a golden retriever, friendly and eager. "Who wants to know?"

"M'name's Franklin. I think my boss is looking for you. If you are Dresden, anyway."

"That depends on who your boss is."

"Uh," Franklin scratched his nose in a nervous gesture. He glanced around to make sure no one was eavesdropping. "John Marcone?"

I sighed. I had to admit that was better than some of the other possible answers. "Did he... put out the word for me or something? Is there a network of mobsters whispering in each other's ears like the world's biggest game of Telephone?"

"No, Hendricks sent out a mass page." Franklin shifted in his seat, digging a hand into his back pocket and pulling out a pager. He thumbed a button and held it out for me to look at the display.

It read: C. Hendricks- L Harry Dresden, BT MMO, FNA.

I had no idea what any of that meant. Except maybe Hendricks did have a first name and it started with a 'c'. Worth remembering. "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?"

"It's code." Franklin put the pager back in his pocket. "You don't know the code?"

"I can't use pagers."

"Oh." Someone in the lane behind Franklin honked his horn. Franklin rolled down his other window and flipped the bird at the car behind him, casual as you please. "So, can I give you a ride?"

I really wished Marcone would just bow to my very reasonable demands and make an appointment with me. I deserved that much after the rescue I pulled for him. But if he wasn't willing to stop being an asshole for long enough to do that, I had to go see him. We had things to discuss. "Yeah, all right." I opened the passenger door and got in.

Franklin stopped gesturing to the guy behind us and put the BMW into drive, pulling away. "Thanks." He glanced at me out of the corner of his eyes, seeming at a loss of what to say. I was carrying my staff with me and had left my duster at home due to the late summer heat, so my pentacle sat proudly on top of my tee. I must not have looked like his usual clientèle. Eventually he cleared his throat and said, "Can I ask you something, Mr. Dresden?"

'Mr. Dresden' was said with a quiet respect, which I wasn't used to hearing from people. I boggled at Franklin. "Sure, I guess."

"I heard you were... Some of the guys were at the Tower last night and said you were..." Franklin shook his head. "Nevermind, it's stupid."

I slouched back in my seat, propping my head up with my elbow by the window. "Didn't your parents ever tell you there's no such thing as a stupid question, Frank?"

"Franklin," he corrected instantly. Then he winced. "I-I mean, sorry, you can call me whatever you want, sir."

'Sir.' Stars and stones, no one called me 'sir.' "Sorry, Franklin. What'd you want to know?"

We hit a red light and Franklin-Not-Frank drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "The guys are saying you're a magician. I know, it's dumb, but--"

"I'm not a magician, I'm a wizard," I replied coolly. "Put that out on the streets, why don't you?"

Franklin's head snapped to look at me and I turned to face the window. Accidental soulgazes are never fun. "So it's true? You do magic and stuff?"

"And stuff, yeah."

"Can you fly and stuff?" I found myself smiling at his slightly awed tone. It was like a kid who'd just been reassured that, yes, there was a Santa Claus. Which is the truth, by the way.

"I'm not good at the flying thing. Pretty good at thaumaturgy and passable at evocation." I watched Franklin nod along even though I was sure he had no idea what I was talking about. "Can I ask you something, Franklin?"

"Of course."

"What's the code? What'd that page say?"

Franklin frowned and bit his lower lip. He was a big guy, not quite as muscled as Cujo, but he still looked capable of pounding a skinny guy like me into the pavement like a nail. At the same time, he looked like a boy who was going to tell a secret he wasn't supposed to. "That's... I mean, if you don't know, I'm not sure if I should say. Only the capos are supposed to teach the code to newbies."

Interesting. I had no idea Marcone's Outfit used the usual Mafia power structure. Capos, as far as I knew, were captains of sorts, in charge of all the mafioso in a given area. They answered to Don's second-in-command. "Hey, I work for Marcone himself. I'm like..." What was the term? I tried to recall, but I'd only seen The Godfather once. "Consigliere. I'm above the capos."

Franklin chuckled. "You're new, aren't you?"

I sighed. "That obvious?"

"A bit." He gave me one of his good-natured smiles. He looked less like a mobster and more like one of the carpentry guys Michael sometimes worked with, big but mostly harmless. "I mean, we call the district leaders capos, but that's just leftovers from the way the Vargrassi did things. It's not really a famiglia anymore." He didn't say it like Marcone did, with that little Italian flourish. I was pretty sure you weren't supposed to pronounce that 'g.'

We got stopped at another red light. I pushed a little more. "Come on. C. Hendricks. What, is his first name Chris? Charlie? Something embarrassing like Caroline?" That would make my day, it really would.

"No. C means command. It's a command issued by Hendricks, which usually means it came from Mr. Marcone himself." Franklin blew out a breath, sounding resigned. "L Harry Dresden, locate you."

"BT MMO?" I prompted. I felt like writing all of this down for future reference. Never knew when it could come in handy.

"Bring to Marcone main office." He nodded to a building we were closing in on, a skyscraper at the end of the Magnificent Mile. "That's this one up here. Mr. Marcone has a few places around the city and no one but Hendricks knows where all of them are, but this is where he takes care of the more, uh... legit business stuff."

This was news to me. I never knew exactly where Marcone did his business from. I had to admit, the image I had been running with was Marcone in shady alleys with some disreputable types, making deals and putting caps in whatever asses weren't doing what he wanted. Given his preference for business suits, the office building made more sense. "I forget the rest."

"FNA. Force not authorized."

"Sooo..." I turned that over in my head. "If I told you to leave me alone, you couldn't intimidate me into the car or anything?"

Franklin nodded. "Pretty much. Just as well, I'm not good at the whole intimidating thing."

I believed it. He looked far too nice to be part of the mob. "I thought that was a job requirement."

"Well... I just watch over some of Chinatown, really, make sure no one messes around with the businesses Mr. Marcone's protecting. I run errands, help when they need grunt work. Drive around VIPs," he added, nodding to me.

"I'm a VIP?"

"You didn't know?" He seemed as surprised as I was. "You... you work for the man himself. I've met him, I don't know, twice?" He coughed. "N-not that I'm complaining."

I smirked. "Don't want to see the Don?"

"Nah, he's..." Franklin scratched the back of his neck, looking away from me. "He was nice and all, but friggin' scary. Like if I said the wrong thing, he'd eat me alive."

A mobster that wouldn't swear. That was oddly endearing. I patted Franklin on the arm. "I know the feeling."

The car stopped in front of the doors to the office building. "Well, this is your stop, sir. Mr. Marcone's office is at the top level."

"You..." I shook my head. People showing me respect was just strange. "You don't have to call me 'sir,' seriously. Just Dresden's fine."

Franklin smiled. "Okay, Dresden. Nice to meet you."

"You too, Franklin." I bade him farewell and got out of the car. Franklin waited until I was inside the building before pulling away.

He was not what I expected from one of Chicago's made men. He struck me as the sort who'd go to college on a football scholarship then decide against going pro so he wouldn't be too far away from his family, that kind of guy. I guess Marcone was equal opportunity about his hiring process. Big guys needed, criminal tendencies preferred but not necessary.

It was a long elevator ride to the top, where Marcone was waiting for me. As I rode up, I leaned against the elevator wall furthest from the buttons, and reflected on another thing I'd learned from Franklin: I was a VIP to the Chicago Outfit. The mobsters around the city knew me well enough to recognize me walking down the street. They called me 'sir,' of all things. After years of working with the CPD and being accused of being a con-artist or charlatan, I had no idea how to handle being treated like that. It was a novel experience.

Speaking of new info, I got out a little notebook I kept tucked into the back pocket of my jeans. I pulled the pencil out of the spiral wire binding and wrote down what I'd learned about the pager code. Could come in handy to someone eventually.

I'd just shoved my notepad back in my pocket when the elevator doors opened to sunlight. The roof of this skyscraper was glass, a massive arch that hit its apex twenty feet above my head. My jaw dropped at the view. It wasn't the tallest building in the city, but it was in the running and the panoramic view was beautiful. I walked out onto the floor proper and was instantly drawn to one of the glass walls. I stared out at the Gold Coast and Lake Michigan beyond it. Looked straight down, the cars going by looked like tiny beetles crawling along.

Looking down also gave me a wicked case of vertigo. I stumbled back and stared at the horizon again instead. From up here, the city looked completely different, her blemishes too far away to be seen, her visage strong and lovely in a way that demanded respect.

"Mr. Dresden," a woman's voice said behind me. I snapped out of my reverie and spun around.

On the opposite end of the room was a woman who I assumed was Marcone's secretary. She was giving me a severe, impatient frown, like a school teacher that just found a student slacking off during an assignment.

I shuffled forward. "Yeah, sorry. Gorgeous view from up here." I smiled at her apologetically.

She touched her hand to her ear, and I could see a device was hooked around the shell of her ear, a thin microphone extending from it, out over her mouth. "Sir?" She was quiet for a moment. Then she nodded to me. "Go in."

Wow, five words altogether. I think I just met the short-spoken phone secretary I'd spoken to before. I regaled her with an even bigger grin before walking to the door. Not only were the outer walls glass, but the inner ones as well, albeit a more opaque, fogged type. The door was the same, with a shiny chrome handle that looked like it'd just been polished. Everything was very sleek and chic.

I walked into Marcone's office, which was similarly styled. It was like walking into an opal, with the cream tiled floor and silver fixtures and glass tables. Hendricks' red hair stood out starkly, incongruous in the rest of the room. He was seated at a desk just inside, and as soon as he saw me, he shut the laptop in front of him and spun around the pull the plug out of the wall.

I felt that was an unfair reaction to my presence. I had yet to wreck any of Marcone's electronics. I'd been really good about that so far.

"Hi, Cujo. You summoned me?"

Hendricks put a finger to his lips and said quietly, "Phone." He pointed one finger towards the far end of the room, silently urging me along.

The wall in front of me was another floor to ceiling window, overlooking the Loop and the Chicago sprawl. In front of it was a large desk that was immaculately organized. All the papers were stacked neatly, the computer was sitting even on the corner, and a silver gyroscope was perfectly balanced on a stand at the exact middle of the desk. It lacked a name plate, probably because no one walked into this office not knowing exactly who it belonged to.

Behind the desk was another one of those executive chairs that looked sinfully comfortable. It was turned slightly away from me, but I could see Marcone's profile around the wings. As I got close, I could hear him talking. I sat in one of the chairs in front of the desk and listened in.

"No, I'm glad to take care of it. It's the least I can do." Marcone chuckled softly. "I know, the timing was dreadful. Has it scared you off? It was hard enough to get you to leave New York. Oh, I know how Manhattanites are, you never want to leave your little island." He hummed in vague agreement. "I suppose that's true enough, but at least I have the excuse of having a business to run. Yes, well, next time will go better, I promise you. Yes, I'll see you then. Have a good day, Bobby."

At last, Marcone spun his chair back towards me and put the handset back on its cradle. "Harry. I wasn't expecting you so soon. Sorry to make you wait."

"It's okay, I assume whoever Bobby is, they're more important than I am." I sniffed disdainfully and worked up a good pout. "I'm not the apple of your eye anymore, John, I get it."

Marcone smirked. "Bobby is the person whose window I am replacing after you had me shoot it out last night. I should have you apologize to Mr. DeNiro yourself, as it was your insane plan that resulted in the damage."

"DeNiro. Bobby DeNiro." My eyes widened. "That Bobby DeNiro? Taxi Driver DeNiro? Young Don Corleone DeNiro? Raging Bull DeNiro?"

Marcone nodded, and the man looked just slightly smug. "The same."

"You're pals with Robert DeNiro."

"Acquaintances, yes." He put his elbows on the desk, steepling his fingers against his mouth and I just knew he was hiding a grin.

I laughed and shook my head. "Stars, John. Tell me the truth, you just want to buddy up to him so he'll play you in your biopic, I Was A Criminal Scumbag."

The smile he'd been suppressing appeared and he leaned back in his chair, rocking in it comfortably. "Hm, I don't know. I suppose he could do if Clooney was too busy to play the role."

"Wow, you want Clooney? Narcissistic much?"

"What about you, Harry?" He eyed me critically. "Robert Downey Jr, perhaps? He was recently in a very funny noir film."

"Wasn't he in prison for cocaine possession or something?"

"He's sober now. And a remarkable actor."

I snorted. "Yeah, no thanks."

"All right, give me time and I'll think of someone more suitable." With that, some of the humor left his face. "Now, I think you and I have a few things to talk about."

Just then I discovered my armchair spun. I quickly took advantage of this by spinning in circles. "Oh, do we?"

"Yes." He paused, watching me. "Are you going to sit still?"

"Signs point to no." I was really enjoying spinning, if only because it obviously bothered Marcone. I couldn't keep it up for long though; Hendricks walked up to me and grabbed the back of my chair in both hands, halting my twirling. "Dammit, Cujo, I thought we had an understanding."

Hendricks grunted and went back to his desk. He could get chatty when it was just us in my apartment, but when Marcone was around, he got quiet again. And clearly our tentative truce was void when Marcone was involved.

I titled my head and glared at Marcone. "Okay, what?"

"Well, first," he said, his lips twitching up in a vaguely fond look, "thank you for your assistance with Mr. Vail. Your methods were rather extreme, but undeniably effective."

I still had no idea what to do with someone who actually thanked me for my work, so I snapped back, all ruffled feathers, "No, first let's talk about the fact you're an idiot if you think I'm going to let you throw down with the vampires."

You could have heard a pin drop. Nothing about Marcone's expression changed but he still managed to suddenly seem a lot less amiable towards me. When he spoke, his voice was measured and calm. "Let me, Harry?"

A small, pragmatic part of me pointed out that I was in Marcone's territory and had no home field advantages. And, without my duster, I was certain Hendricks could easily put a bullet in me from behind before I knew I was danger. The biggest, more reckless part of me ignored the tiny sensible part in favor of continuing. "Yeah, let you. You're talking about something that's solidly in my jurisdiction, and I'm telling you to back off. I know Bianca St. Clair is your only competition in the prostitution game, but it isn't worth taking her on." I took a slow, deep breath, and met Marcone's eyes steadily. "I need you to trust me on this. You won't make it through this alive."

Marcone stared back into my eyes, and it was like we were locked in a battle of wills. Others would mistake it for a staring contest, but they'd be wrong.

"Once again," Marcone said softly, "you are withholding information in an effort to protect me. Do we have to go through this again, Harry?"

"This is different. You're going to be picking a fight and you have no idea what you're getting into."

"Then tell me."

I put my face in my hands and tried to rub the stress and exasperation away. No luck. "This isn't worth having a monopoly on the sex trade, John." I dropped my hands and leaned forward on his desk, close enough now to see the flecks of hazel in his pale green eyes. "Vampires have been around longer and they aren't going to play fair with you if you threaten them." I tapped my finger against the desk for emphasis as I said, "Let. This. Go."

Probably because he knew how much it would startle me, Marcone reached out and put one of his hands over mine, pressing it against the glass. "Harry. You are working under the incorrect assumption that I am doing this simply to expand one aspect of my business. While that would be a fringe benefit, there are bigger stakes."

I felt my face grow warm under his intense gaze. I looked away and tried to lean back in my chair, but Marcone's hand tightened around mine, stopping me. "They feed on Chicago, do they not? In the last few years, more and more young women have vanished off the streets. Some of that might be just normal disappearances, but you and I know that Bianca St. Clair is growing in power and is culling humans accordingly."

Worst part was he was right. Bianca was rising in the eyes of the Red Court. From what I heard, she was due to be named head of her own house, the first Red Court stronghold this far north, which meant she'd gain even more power. Reds would go to join her house and she'd have more mouths to feed. More disappearances were a given. There was also the matter of the people the Red Court enslaved when they addicted them to their narcotic venom and their bites. It was worse than Marcone knew. And that was before bringing the other Courts into account.

Of course I wasn't about to tell him that. He didn't need more justification. "John."

"You're not the sort of man that ignores the suffering of innocents, Harry," Marcone murmured.

"I know. Christ, John, I know." My voice got louder as I went on, my temper picking up. "You think the entire supernatural community is blind to what the vampires do? Don't you think if we could do something, we would? This isn't some fancy new business opportunity for you to try to buy into. This is a conflict that's been going on since before either of us were alive and you don't want to get into it." Marcone opened his mouth to reply and I cut him off, thumping my fist against the desk. "You wanted a supernatural advisor, you got one, so listen to my damn advice!"

On the desk, there was a whirring, popping noise. Marcone's computer took offense at my rising emotions and started smoking from the vents.

Marcone sighed. "And this is why I invested in private servers to back-up data after hiring you."

"Sorry," I muttered.

"No, it's fine." Marcone leaned forward on the desk, his hands clasped and tucked under his chin. He regarded me levelly, lacking all the anger I was expecting from him. He didn't seem surprised by my outburst. "I might be asking too much of you at this juncture."

I snorted. "This isn't a matter of timing."

"I disagree. At this point, you trust me enough not to kill you, but not enough to keep myself safe. That will hopefully change."

"Should you be telling me this?"

"It shouldn't be news to you that I want your trust. I need you on my side, Harry. You are an important part of my plans for Chicago." He smiled enigmatically.

"That's ominous," I joked weakly. "Want to throw in an evil laugh there for flavor? I'm not sure if you're a big enough cliche yet."

"If I were a cliche, I'd be bragging about my plan. Possibly while stroking a white Persian cat."

"Hey, that'd be nice. Why don't you do that so I'll know what the hell you're going on about?"

Marcone shook his head and kept smiling, which was starting to drive me crazy. "Someday, perhaps. But not now." He pushed his chair away from his desk and to a file cabinet in the corner of the room, gliding across the floor. "Perhaps you and I will start smaller. It's about time we got used to collaborating peacefully."

I watched him pull a file folder out of one of the drawers with narrowed eyes. I was perfectly happy about not being used to collaborating with Marcone. I liked the boundaries drawn between us. It seemed they were gradually eroding over time, my autonomy being whittled away. "Why?"

"Because, if all goes well, we will be collaborating often in the future." He put a few folders on his lap and slid back over to the desk. I had the distinct impression he was a fan of abusing his rolling chair.

"Not sure how I feel about getting friendly with you, John."

"Oh, Harry, you've been nothing but amicable so far," he purred, placing the folders on the desk. "I think the wizard doth protest too much."

The wizard was going to punch him in the face if he didn't quit the smug snake act. I grabbed a folder and took a look. "I have not yet begun to protest." I lost the thread of our banter when I looked inside the folder and found building plans. "What am I looking at?"

"A new property I've purchased. I'm hoping to put a new central office there while I have it renovated." He went back to the villainous slouch and steepled finger pose that made me want to tease him mercilessly. "Your home, it's protected from supernatural threats, correct?"

"Yeah, I'm warded pretty well. Why?"

"Would it be possible for a non-magical being to have such protections?"

"That depends on the way the wards are set up and the place that's being protected." I caught on quickly. "You want to spook-proof this place?"

Marcone nodded. "For reasons that don't need to be examined right now, I think it'd be prudent for me to have certain measures put into place and to learn how to keep myself secure."

"What did you have in mind?" I asked in a guarded tone.

"What's available?"

That was a loaded question. My eyes rolled skyward as I thought of all the magic I had laid around my apartment and the protections I'd seen others use. And I do mean skyward; the ceiling was glass too. "There's... reflective wards, spells that react to malicious intent, inscribed runes, utilizing thirteens to disperse harmful ambient magic, reinforcing thresholds, prepared seals, strategically placed Hermetic circles, using iron and silver in the architecture, faith symbology--"

"We'll start with those then," Marcone said.

"What, all of them? Are you..." I rubbed my eyes again. This was just a reminder that Marcone, however scarily well-informed he was, did not understand magic. I'd grown up in this invisible world and he was playing catch-up. "John, even I don't use all of those."

"Is there some limitation? Too much magical energy in one place causing problems?"

"No, but--"

"Would using as many forms of protection as possible not make the room safer?"

"Yeah but-- No, don't, let me finish!" I waved a finger at him and Marcone started laughing at me, quietly and behind a fist, but I could see his eyes brighten. God, one day I was going to snap and punch him and he'd have no one to blame but himself, I swear. "Okay, yes, in theory more is better, but to get everything working together without cancelling things out by accident, that takes a lot of planning. This isn't something I could bang out in a day or two."

He cleared his throat and settled down. Well, gee, glad he found me so amusing. Hell's bells. "How long would you need?"

"I don't know. I've never done anything that extensive."

He made a contemplative humming noise under his breath and pulled a little leather-bound book out of his desk. He started flipping through it, reading quickly. "A few weeks, then?"

"I... I don't know, John. Yeah, weeks, maybe a month or two, depending how much time I can devote to it. Why?"

"But you're capable of doing it?"

"Yeah, I guess." If I wasn't up to snuff on some things, I had a lab assistant who was. "Why do you need the magical equivalent of a panic room? What's your game here?"

Marcone looked at me and smiled. "Play along and you'll find out." He leaned back and addressed Cujo. "Mr. Hendricks, if you would speak to Ms. Reynolds, see what we could do about opening up my evenings for the next month or so, barring emergencies."

Hendricks nodded and left the room. I turned back to Marcone. "You're serious."

"Yes. I have the feeling measures like this are going to be necessary for my future endeavors." He fixed me another of his piercing stares. "I need your help, Harry. I'm sure you realize I am, despite my best efforts, not au fait with the intricacies of the supernatural. I need to rectify that."

I stood up and placed my palms against the desk, leaning over him. He didn't seem at all nervous at my gesture, which was annoying but to be expected. I glared down at him anyway. "John. I don't know if it escaped your notice, but you're a murderer and a vice lord. What makes you think I'm going to help you gain more power than you already have?"

"Because I am a professional monster, Harry," he conceded dispassionately, "but I'm much more than that. And deep down you want to know what my plans are and where you fit into them. You're curious, and there is no force in the universe more inexorable than curiosity."

"You're not going to change my mind."

"So you keep telling me." The smile on his face softened to something guileless and honest. "Let me convince you. In fact," he rose to his feet and circled the desk. I recoiled instinctively when he put a hand on my shoulder. His voice had lowered enough it was just above a whisper. "How about a deal, Harry? The next time I ask you about the matter of Chicago's vampire problem, if you still don't believe me and trust I know what I'm doing, then I'll dissolve your contract."

I staggered like he'd hit me, gawking at him. "What?"

"Exactly what I said," he murmured. "Give me a chance to show you what I intend. If you still don't want to help me, then we'll broker a dissolution of your contract."

I was instantly suspicious. "What's the catch?"

"There's no catch." His fingers dug into my shoulder a little. "Look at it from my perspective. I recruited you for specific purposes. If I cannot gain your trust, you'll be useless to me. It'd be more economical to cut you lose and seek out another magical consultant."

"You want me to trust you, John?" I didn't hide the thick layer of skepticism in my words.

"Yes," Marcone answered, apparently unaware of what he was asking of me, that it was just not gonna happen. Ever. "So does that sound fair, Harry? A deal between us?"

I considered it. It was very tempting, given the fact I was currently having a pretty severe existential crisis. There was no downside. If he had some insanely persuasive reason for needing to know about the vampires, I'd be stuck with the status quo. But it was more likely I'd remain unswayed, get freed from my contract, and return to life pre-Marcone.

"A note of caution before you answer," Marcone added. "I want your loyalty, Harry. I will work very hard to secure it. I can be convincing when I want to be." He was close enough that I could smell his cologne and it was hard for me to stand still, not let him intimidate me. This near, my height advantage was more obvious and I shouldn't have been so disquieted. The man had presence though, an undeniable, natural ability to compel.

To borrow a line from DC, there was nothing mere about this mortal.

"I have it on good authority I'm a stubborn son of a bitch," I replied.

"Oh, you are. Infuriating but doubtlessly entertaining." He smiled and slid his grip off my shoulder, brushing down my arm in a blatantly proprietary gesture before he offered it for a handshake. "Do we have a deal?"

He knew before he even asked what my answer would be. Like there could be any doubt I wouldn't take him up on the offer with the prospect of freedom at stake. Like I would let his easy confidence in his power over me go unchallenged.

I shook his hand. "Deal."

Chapter Text

"You can tell Mr. Sexy Mafia Overlord," Bob said as I gathered a few things to bring with me the next day, "that I am disappointed in him."

"Bob," I groaned. I should never have told him anything about my new deal with Marcone. I really didn't need Bob fixating on him for the rest of the week. For some reason, Bob really liked Marcone. I couldn't figure out why, considering, "You've never even met John, stop calling him that."

"Ooooh, it's John now." Bob made gleeful, keen noises, his skull practically vibrating where it sat. "Tell me everything, Harry. Did he wine and dine you first? Was he a gentleman?"

"What are you-- stars, Bob," I slammed a stack of books on the lab table and shouted, "I am not sleeping with Marcone! It's not happening!"

"Wow, he really must be a gentleman if he's this patient. I wouldn't be if I had to work on seducing a prude like you."

"You can, you know... Stop. Anytime now." Bob was thinking about my sex life way too much. Way too much.

"Hey, in case you forgot, boss, I don't have a body of my own. I'm stuck with living vicariously through you and you never do anything fun. Except Susan." He lifted his voice before I could yell at him about showing women in general and Susan in particular respect. "Now, back to my initial point in all of this: what's your forfeit?"

I was in the process of trying to get my backpack to zip up around all the junk I'd piled into it. The question caught me off guard. "My what?"

"If John loses, he has to give you up. Makes sense. If you lose, though, what's he get?" Bob asked slowly. "That's how deals like this are supposed to work."

Huh. That was a good question.

That evening, I walked back into what I was mentally referring to the Opal Office (punny, I know), reticent and excited in equal measure. Because I'm kind of, well, lame, my occupation and my favorite past time are the same thing. I never get tired of dealing with magic. It's a rush to be a conduit of the Art, to know the world is so much bigger and more amazing than the general public can fathom. Examining the limits of my control over magic is my idea of fun. Sometimes it makes me feel like a nerdy kid who signs up for AP Calculus because he genuinely likes math, but mixing potions and brainstorming new spell ideas with Bob is relaxing and routine, like wearing a tee you've owned so long it's completely faded but is the softest, most comfortable thing in the world.

What Marcone wanted from me was like the magical equivalent of a research grant. He made it clear before I left yesterday that I was not to worry about expenses, just focus on building the most secure supernatural safe room I could. Despite my initial reluctance, he hardly had to twist my arm to get me to do it. It'd be like putting a gun to someone's head and demanding they eat a Snickers bar. No problem, can I have some more?

Marcone wasn't in the room when I showed up, but Hendricks let me in and led me to a work table that had been moved into the cavernous office. Across it were the blueprints for the building Marcone wanted renovated. I noticed that despite the great swaths of paper overlapping each other, none hung over the edge of the table and everything sat at neat right angles.

I was starting to think John Marcone was a little OCD. Call it a hunch. I made a note to test that later.

"Boss's changing out of his suit," Hendricks said. "He'll be here in a sec."

"I'm just not good enough for his fancy threads, am I?" I gave a beleaguered sigh. "I'm so unloved."

Hendricks shook his head. "One of these days, your mouth is going to get you in trouble with him."

"Aw, come on, Cujo, we both know Marcone loves my banter. He's not going to off me for getting snarky."

"Not the kind of trouble I mean," Hendricks muttered, returning to his desk.

Before I could ask what that meant, Marcone walked in. "Evening, Harry." He had his suit on a hanger, slung over his back. He handed it off to Hendricks, who put it away in a side-room. Marcone managed to make dressed-down look good, handsome in a forest green shirt under a suede jacket I remembered from the first day I spent in his house. The jeans he wore fit so well, I assumed they were tailored. Did they tailor jeans? I had no idea.

I looked down at my own tee shirt and jeans and tried not to feel inadequate. Spending any extended amount of time around John Marcone could do that to the best of us. Hell, his civvies made Hendricks look sloppy, and Hendricks was still in a suit.

"Harry." Marcone raised an eyebrow at me. "You're staring. Are you all right?"

Oops. I hadn't meant to do that. He was just really good at distracting me, though I hadn't the foggiest as to why. I looked away quickly, looking down at the worktable laid out for us. "Yeah, sorry. Zoning out."

"Already? We haven't even begun." He raked his eyes up and down my figure and I could feel his steely, efficient predator mind working away at me. After assessing me, he asked, "Have you been sleeping well?"

I barked a laugh. "You're incredibly creepy, has anyone ever told you that?"

"No. But that is what I have you for, is it not?" He pulled a stool out from under the table and sat down. "It is refreshing to have someone so suicidally fearless working for me."

"I'm offended on Cujo's behalf." I grabbed another seat and settled in next to him.

"Mr. Hendricks' advice is invaluable to me. However, he's not the type to call me 'creepy.' Now," he paused to open a drawer and pull out paper and pencils, then went on, "speak to me about defensive possibilities."

It was an overt command. I would have bristled any other time, but decided not to bother. As far as I could see, the sooner I got through designing this room for Marcone, the sooner the subject of the vampires would come up. It was my opportunity to end this thing with Marcone. I could always save my indignation for bigger slights. If we were going to be working together for a month or so, I was sure we'd find the time to fight before we were done.

I took a pencil from him and started writing. As I wrote up a list, I talked about each item, giving Marcone the basic rundown. Some things (thresholds, water as a magic-cancelling agent, iron and salt) he knew. He was a diligent student as I brought up other aspects of magical theory, mostly listening silently, sometimes asking questions.

Darkness fell abruptly around us as the sun dropped below the horizon. My eyes started to feel the strain of writing without enough light to see. Without having to say anything, Marcone seemed to pick up on this and looked at Hendricks. So often, it seemed like Marcone and Hendricks had some kind of elaborate non-verbal communication going on. Apparently the look Marcone gave Cujo with a slight nod and a vague hand gesture added up to 'please bring us a hurricane lamp.' Because a moment later, he brought one over, a lamp made of sterling silver and blown glass that had bubbles of blue and red inside. Hendricks lifted the glass, placed a candle inside, then dug around for a lighter.

"Hang on, Cujo," I said. I pointed a finger at the candle and murmured, "Flickum bicus."

Hendricks recoiled from my tiny display of magic in a way that cracked me up. He glared at me before setting the glass on the candle and stomping back off to his desk.

My face got hot when I realized Marcone's eyes were on the candle and they were dark like molten peridot. It might have been just the shadows confusing me, but I thought he might have licked his lips.

I cleared my throat and looked back at the paper I was writing on. It had to be the shadows. It was dark and my eyes hadn't adjusted yet. Yeah, that made sense. "So, uh, anyway. Without a threshold, wards are tricky. We could bind them to the ley lines if the angle's right, or set up some fixtures..."

I focused on giving Marcone a crash course in wards. If I spent the rest of the night conspicuously avoiding his gaze, he didn't say anything about it. I tried not to feel too grateful.

 

The next day, the Blue Beetle decided it missed my mechanic so much, it broke down halfway to Marcone's office. I called up the number I'd committed to memory, letting Mike know where my car was and if he could tow her off to the shop, I'd appreciate it. He sounded reluctant until I casually mentioned I had enough to pay off the tab he had running on me. After that, he sent the truck right over to drag the Beetle into the shop. I patted the hood fondly and told my car to enjoy her latest tryst with Mike.

Then I put a few more quarters in the payphone and called Marcone. He sent Hendricks out to pick me up.

As soon as I walked into the Opal Office, Marcone said, "I'll have a driver bring you in for the rest of this project."

"The Beetle will bounce back in no time. I'll be fine."

"I insist."

I took my place in the chair next to him and pulled an atlas and a few maps out of my backpack. "I have my own transportation, John."

Marcone sucked in a breath, frowning in a deeply irritated way. "While that is technically true, I find myself tempted to have a few of my men carjack that rainbow monstrosity and melt it down for scrap."

I stared at him, too surprised to get indignant about this crazy controlling habits. "I... had no idea my car offended your delicate sensibilities so much."

"I'd buy you a new one," he offered in a conciliatory tone, like I'd give him permission to get rid of the scourge of the Earth that was my car.

"I'll only break that one too." I tapped my pencil against one of the maps. "Come on, I've mapped out some ley lines we can look at for anchoring your wards."

 

A week ticked by and we didn't even get to the blueprints. Mostly, I talked and explained things to Marcone and he took meticulous notes, complete with bulletpoints and clean, legible handwriting. I had Bob feed me ideas on how to ward a place that wasn't a home, then passed them off as my own when I relayed them to Marcone later, which probably wasn't fair to Bob, but I considered it payback. Every time I came home from my meeting with Marcone, Bob asked me if we'd had sex yet.

"Yeah, Bob," I replied sarcastically. "It was a night to remember."

"Did you really?!"

"No. Now shut up, I'm tired and want to go to bed."

And so on.

On a Wednesday night, I had out a protractor and ruler, drawing in pertinent ley lines on the blueprints in light, dashed lines. Candlelight, building plans, and mafia bosses-- yeah, real romantic.

Marcone watched my hands as I worked, but I was getting used to him doing that. I'd come to realize that when I was in the office, all of Marcone's attention was on me. As long as I didn't think about it too much, it didn't bother me. It wasn't like John Marcone's scary intensity was a recent revelation of mine.

I glanced across the sea of blue paper and let our eyes catch. Something had been bothering me and I didn't have any reason not to act on my curiosity, especially since Marcone was such a fan of it himself. "Can I ask you something?"

"Hm?"

"The thing with Vail... Did you get the guy?"

Marcone didn't say anything, but held my gaze unblinkingly for a long, tense beat.

I took a shaky breath and returned to my work.

He had.

 

I spent a good four to five hours a night brainstorming and plodding along in the renovation project. It was interesting work, but time-consuming. Marcone was still adamant about layering every protection possible into the plan. The hardest part was trying to figure out where to start. I was thinking about the building materials themselves and if there was a way to ingrain some of the wards into those. There was also the matter of how many wards were logistically impossible unless I was building this room with my own hands.

In a fit of frustration, I knocked over the cup holding all the pens and pencils, letting them roll across the table. Grumbling, I laid my head on my folded arms.

Marcone sighed. "Really, Harry?"

"Yes, really. You're asking me to build a magical bunker, probably one of the most powerful on the continent. I'm a wizard, John, not an interior designer."

Pretty much confirming my suspicions about his need to impose order on any and all chaos around him, Marcone stood the cup back up and started putting the utensils inside, taking the time to cap all the ballpoints. OCD, seriously. "I have total faith in your abilities."

"Yeah, yeah. I have faith in you feeding me now."

One upside to Operation Marcone Is Paranoid (my current moniker for the project) was that I got to eat really well while I worked. Around eight, Hendricks always left to retrieve dinner, and every night it was something different. I had another feast of gyros, some lobster ravioli with decadent pink wine sauce, roast duck with curry... I balked at the sushi, earning a short lecture from Marcone about keeping an open mind and expanding my horizons. I didn't see what was wrong with cooking the food before eating it. Call me old-fashioned.

I managed to convince Marcone to sully his palate with some take-out Chinese from one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Over teriyaki chicken, lo mein, and wonton soup, he asked about water's grounding qualities.

"Shouldn't water be just another element to control?"

I shifted the chopsticks between my fingers, trying to imitate the way he held his. I usually ate my Chinese food with a fork because I'm low-class like that, but I took Marcone's usage of the chopsticks as a challenge. I will never claim to be a mature adult.

"I... okay, yeah, I guess in theory you could, but water is... Here." I grabbed a paper I had covered with rune symbols and flipped it over. I sketched out a pentacle and labeled each point, saying each aloud as I did. "Spirit, water, fire, earth, air. You have earth and water as pretty much opposite elements."

Marcone set his carton of food aside and leaned forward on his elbows to watch. "I would have assumed earth and air were the most diametric."

I pointed to the line linking water and earth. "You're not wrong but... No, actually, you are, sorry." He snorted, shaking his head in amusement. "Yeah, not going to spare your feelings here, John. See, earth is tough and stationary. We can map it and it doesn't really shift on its own unless we or one of the other elements acts upon it. It's there, hard to effect because it's such a solid mass. A wizard with enough brute force ability could sling it around and do serious, immediate damage. Earth magic is close to basic kinetic force."

Marcone rested his chin in his palm, listening attentively as I expounded on this. "And water isn't?"

"Water does its own thing." I moved my hands in a serpentine, curving gesture. "It flows, it's hard to redirect it, and it's really good at muting the other elements. Water erodes earth and puts out fire and slows down air." I dropped my arms and took the opportunity to steal one of his dumplings. "Think about it; humanity has always had to work around or with water. Working against it takes massive force and even then you can't stop it, you just try to contain it. A wizard who prefers water magic would have to be of a very specific temperament."

"Can't the same be said of air?"

I titled my head to side to side, turning the thought over in my mind. "Eh. To an extent, I guess. Air works with us more than water does. I always found air magic easy, probably because I use fire." I put my finger on the spirit point of the star, then traced the line to fire, then to air. "It's like how someone who knows one romance language can learn another one quickly. Or so I hear. I only speak two languages."

Marcone smirked dryly before supplying the necessary straight line: "Which ones?"

"English and bad English," I finished, grinning.

He nodded, like he expected that answer. He also refused to laugh at my bad joke, the jerk. "You're right in your assumption. Once you know one romance language, the others come easily."

"You're bilingual, right?"

Marcone's eyes widened slightly at my question, which made sense. Personal information was not freely given and asking for it was akin to asking Marcone to reveal a weakness to me. Part of me wanted to see if he would answer. It seemed like a fair trade to me; he wanted my trust, so I wanted some of his in return.

"No," he murmured. "Trilingual. English and Italian are both my primary languages, and I picked up French for business purposes."

There was something exhilarating about that honesty. I'd lived in Chicago long enough to hear people whispering about Gentleman Johnny, and after a while everyone heard all the rumors about him. Nothing new had leaked into the populace in years. His life was the very definition of a closed book. Any peek at the pages was a rare thing.

I forced my voice to remain light. "Two primary languages? Were you always an overachiever?"

None of the humor in my words was on his face. His expression was calm, but serious. He wouldn't let me pretend this wasn't a big deal. "It wasn't a conscious decision. My mother spoke English as her second language, but my grandmother stuck to Italian unless she absolutely had to use English. I grew up with it."

"Oh." I tried to look away from him but found my eyes drawn back. "Big family?"

His lips quirked every so slightly. "Let's not get carried away. I'm hardly going to give you my life's story."

"You want me to trust you."

"I do," he agreed mildly. "Would knowing if I am an only child or not affect that trust?"

I shrugged. "Maybe?"

"No."

"Yeah, no." I backed off. The boundaries between us had been in flux, but as I turned the conversation back towards the project, I felt them settle again.

 

The thing about Cujo was that you could forget he was there.

Take a moment to think about that. A six-something linebacker-wannabe in a suit with red hair, you'd think that'd be extremely conspicuous. Having him in the office should have been like having a police siren emanating from that corner desk at all times. In actuality, the guy somehow dropped off my mental radar every time I settled in to work. He became background, like a piece of furniture more than a person.

That may sound like an insult, saying Cujo is boring or something. Wrong. He's a bodyguard. He's a six-something linebacker-wannabe in a suit with red hair bodyguard who can be so unobtrusive you forget he's there.

More and more, I was starting to understand why Marcone liked Cujo so much. The guy is impressive.

I only realized all of this late one night when the project was interrupted by an urgent phonecall Marcone insisted he had to take. He went back to his desk, and I didn't feel the need to keep working when Marcone wasn't going to be pulling his weight.

I got up and walked around the Opal Office. When it was that late at night and we were working by candlelight, the shiny tile floors started to reflect the night sty, full of stars. Most Chicagoans don't get starry nights-- there was just too much light pollution at ground level to see through. Up this high, it was a different matter. It was almost like walking on a dusty mirror, a few pinpricks of light shining up from the floor.

I was so wrapped up in enjoying the strange, otherworldly effect that I nearly walked right into a window.

There is no sight like Chicago at night. Up this high, looking out at the city, it was like being surrounded by stars. The lights sprawled across the Earth shone in answer to the ones above.

I leaned in close, letting my breath fog the glass to mar the illusion of standing on thin air. It was a little overwhelming standing there. I pressed a hand to the window, feeling the cold of the wind-chilled glass. It clouded around my skin where my body heat seeped into it.

Caught up in the sight like I was, I don't know how long I stood there. Eventually, I dimly heard Marcone end his phone call. Only then did I realize it was just him and me in the room. Hendricks wasn't around.

I didn't hear Marcone approach, because when he wanted to go undetected, his tread was utterly silent. But I felt his presence as he joined me at the window. For a long time, neither of us spoke, simply watching our city.

"She's beautiful like this, isn't she?" Marcone's words were whisper-soft when they finally came. "The White City, as they once called her."

"They call her the Grey City too," I said, my voice pitched low like his. "I always thought you'd see her like that."

"Mm." He half-stepped closer, not touching the glass, but close enough it still clouded from his proximity. "That isn't incorrect, but I can also see her as she should be. The ideal shrouded by the grey."

I turned my head to look at him then and... I had no word for the look on his face, illuminated by stars and city lights. I liked to think I knew Marcone more than most people. I'd seen his barely contained rage, the icy chill of his fury, the way his eyes shone when he was amused, and a few shades of wry smiles. I'd even seen him in the mornings, pre-coffee. I could read him more and more the longer we spent together.

But clearly, I was missing big pieces of the puzzle that was John Marcone. The expression on his face as he looked at Chicago wasn't something I'd ever seen before. It was a little like love, a little like infatuation, a little like obsession. The only thing I could compare it to was the dark, shadowed corner of his mind I'd glimpsed in our soulgaze, the place where his endless ferocity and strength came from.

Hell's fucking bells. How had this ardent devotion been so well-hidden inside John, invisible under a facade of iron will?

John loved Chicago in a way I never loved anything in my life. No wonder he was so terrifying sometimes, the sheer force of will he had, all for the city...

I tore my gaze away, my face hot. I felt like I'd just seen something I shouldn't have, something close to the core of what made this man who he was.

What had I gotten myself into?

 

Hendricks taking the night off wasn't too strange. While I couldn't imagine what his life was like when he wasn't orbiting Marcone like a satellite, I knew he must have had a life of his own. Maybe the guy had a Saturday crochet club or something. Hidden depths.

What was strange was walking into the office and having Hendricks tell me, "Boss isn't here. Night off."

"Marcone has the night off," I repeated dully.

"Yeah."

"John Marcone takes nights off."

Hendricks sighed, like he knew where this was going. "Yeah. Once a month."

"See, what you're saying resembles English, but I'm not following."

"Whatever, wiseass. Go home and do whatever you people do in your free time." He was putting his laptop away in a briefcase with some papers, snapping the thing shut before slinging the whole thing over his shoulder. Maybe he was serious.

Marcone taking a day off. Wow. That was weird, and I say that as a wizard.

"I divide my time between wrestling bears and working on the Next Great Canadian Novel," I replied.

"Canadian."

"Everyone is working on the Next Great American Novel. Canada is a growth market, I'm telling you."

"Whatever." He went to the door and held it open for me, waiting. I suppose he wasn't about to trust me to be left alone in the office without supervision. I took offense and made that clear as I flounced dramatically past Cujo, nose in the air, and then grabbed the elevator before he could finish locking up. Teach him to call me a wiseass and not play along with my banter.

I could have called the Alphas to see what they were up to and if they wanted some wizardly back-up for the night. I could have called Susan and asked her out to dinner. But no, I had a head full of ideas for the project. It was plodding along. Marcone and I decided on the basic structure and design of the room. I just had to get the specifics down for his people to incorporate as they built.

So I pulled on a robe and settled down in the lab, writing long lines of Ogham and Elder Futhark runes that would be incorporated into an arch over the entrance. I dragged Bob down from his shelf to sit next to me as I worked so he might catch any mistakes I made. Another set of eyes always helped.

I was working for a good hour and Bob had yet to make any remarks about the sex I wasn't having with Susan or Marcone, which was starting to freak me out. "You're quiet, Bob."

"Hm? Am I?" He sounded distracted. "Just watching your runes, boss."

"You haven't made a single sex-related comment yet. What's wrong?"

Bob was quiet for a long moment. "Nuthin'."

"Bob."

"It's nothing, really. Just... observing."

I was less than convinced. Rune work was involved and required some finesse, but it was also deeply boring. Even I was getting tired of it without Bob's color commentary. "Don't leave me in the dark here."

"It's not anything serious. I'm... Your aura's different."

I lifted my head from my writing and looked at him. "My what? Why? What's wrong?"

Bob groaned. "I knew you'd jump to conclusions. Take a chill pill, boss. You've been working in close quarters in active collaboration with another person with a strong aura. I was just getting a read."

I put down my pencil and leaned back in my chair, crossing my arms authoritatively. "A read."

"Yeah. Usually your aura doesn't mingle with anyone else's. Sometimes you have remnants from the sexy fun you have with Susan, but she's not around enough to leave a mark on you. More's the pity," he mumbled, sounding regretful. "But with you working with Marcone for over a month now for hours at a time, you got some of his aura mixed with yours."

That didn't sound healthy. I didn't want any criminal scumbag du jour in my aura. "Is that so."

"Yeah. It's normal. People who spend a lot of time alone, their aura is very distinctive because it doesn't mingle around. Most people, though, they interact and connect. They carry bits of everyone they meet with them. Totally normal." His orange eyes lights blinked at me. "Well, not normal for you. Anyway, I was just looking at Marcone's lingering aura on you. I gotta get my kicks somewhere since you never let me out to meet your sexy friends. You're the most exciting thing I get to see."

"Ha ha," I said dully. "But mine and John's auras mixing, that's not going to have any effects, right?"

"No ill effects. It's just a part of interacting, like when you spend a lot of time with someone and you become more aware of them and think about them more." Bob trailed off, and I could feel the weight of his regard on me. "Interesting guy, this mafia kingpin you refuse to have sex with."

"You can tell?"

"Yeah. Intense, strong willed, dark but disciplined. You've been feeling calmer lately, haven't you?"

I took a second to think about it. I had been, maybe, but there wasn't much to get worked up about. "I guess."

"His influence. See? You barely notice the effects unless they're pointed out to you. It's just a part of life, boss. Or so I hear. We Spirits of Air and Intellect are above all that." He glowed a little brighter as he boasted. If Bob had a body, he'd be a total showboat, I swear.

"Fine, okay." I dug back into my work. Hearing that Marcone's effect on me was almost palpable didn't help my issues with him, but the assurances that it wasn't a big deal made me feel better.

I just had to keep my head down and get through this. That's all. I could do that.

 

Or maybe not.

Now, I have freaky dreams a lot. They're kind of part and parcel of the wizard thing. If dreams are meant to help your brain get your thoughts and memories in order, it just made sense that those with the Art would get weird ones a lot. We deal with things most mortals can't imagine. Since we're also more in tune with magic around us on a basic level, dreams that seem precognitive can occur. My subconscious is a bit of a dick, and occasionally he gives in to frustration to whack me upside the head with something he thinks I should know. But usually, the dreams are just peculiar and confusing.

I was running in my dream. The sort of running where even though your legs are aching and you can't catch your breath, you keep going. I was being chased, though I didn't know by what. I only knew it was close behind me and it would strike the moment I slowed down or showed any sign of weariness.

The scene around me kept changing. Sometimes the ground beneath my feet was an uneven forest floor with wild undergrowth that threatened to catch my feet and ankles and send me tumbling to the ground. Other times, it was hard pavement, unforgiving under my feet. I looked around at the rainy Chicago night I was running through.

Except it wasn't just Chicago. It was a jungle. Vines and untamed plantlife mingled with the buildings, equal parts urban fortress and damp rainforest.

I barely had time to think Upton Sinclair would be proud, before I urged myself to go faster. I felt heavy like lead, my body and clothes saturated from the downpour. It was slowing me down. I couldn't afford that. I risked taking a moment to tear off my duster, forgoing its protection for the lighter burden.

I was sweating, but a blast of cold air made me shiver. The dreamworld around me couldn't decide if it wanted to be balmy and humid or freezing. Some of the rain turned to snow, even though that was impossible. I guess the dream didn't care.

As I threw my duster to the ground, I heard a growl, low and menacing. A bolt of terror flashed through me and I started running again.

The snow was getting thicker, making it hard to navigate the jungle floor. I stumbled a few times, usually managing not to topple over onto my face.

Eventually I looked behind me. I couldn't not. The curiosity and fear of the unknown hurt more than my aching feet.

It blended in with the snow, its fur dusty grey with black stripes. The tiger's body was sleek and powerful, but so very graceful as it stalked forward. I stood there like an idiot, gaping at it, but it didn't charge or pounce, just kept following me at its own pace, assured it would have me.

I was in the midst of a game of cat and mouse. It was toying with me, so confident that I would be its prey. My heart leapt up into my throat and I bolted.

I ran, I ran so far away (sorry, sorry), until I was exhausted, but I couldn't hear the tiger's growl or its footfalls behind me. I looked around, trying to spot it. There was a blizzard going on by now, coating the Chicagoan jungle with white. For once, it looked like the White City, the urban decay replaced by snowy spires and icy streets.

I didn't see it before it hit me. One second I was gawking at the city-jungle, the next I was knocked to the ground by a terrible weight. I think I yelped or maybe even screamed as I looked up and saw the tiger above me. Its broad paws were planted against my shoulders and held me down against the concrete and underbrush. I fought and squirmed and tried to get away, but it held me firmly. Its soft green eyes watched me, like it was just waiting for me to tire myself out.

It didn't have to wait long. Eventually I gave up, slumping back against ground. "Fine... you got me..." I managed weakly. "Finish the job, you scumbag."

The tiger bared its teeth and I shut my eyes, not wanting to see this part.

The paws lifted from my shoulders and hands wrapped around my wrists, just as strong. "You should take solace in the fact that you provided a very good chase." My arms were pressed down, spread out from my body.

I chanced opening my eyes and saw Marcone over me, pinning me down instead of the tiger. Except, no, that wasn't right. He was the tiger, obviously. He had the same pale green eyes, gleaming with adrenaline and victory.

I tried to move again and found my arms held down. Wires and vines wrapped around me, extending from the White City to latch onto me from my shoulder to my fingertips. Chicago continued to hold me as he let go and sat back on my hips. The part of my mind that was deep inside the dream logic knew the city would obey him, that it was his to command. He'd given himself to Chicago and in return she gave him power, as potent as any supernatural bargain and just as binding.

"Glad I could be so entertaining. Get it over with," I snapped back at him.

He tilted my head back with one firm hand in my hair. "One day, you are going to learn that I am not here to harm you." He ran the pads of his fingers over the exposed line of my neck, ran his tongue over his teeth. Stars and stones, they were sharp and feline.

I feebly tried to jerk away from his grip. "You're a liar."

"No." He lowered his head, hot breath ghosting over my skin. "I never lie. Never to you, Harry." I shut my eyes against the pain as he sunk his teeth into my neck.

But there wasn't pain. He bit my neck with his sharp teeth and I felt my skin break and my blood flowing, but it didn't hurt. It was the opposite. I felt... safe, in a way. Claimed. Cared for. Secure in the knowledge that this, this was a right reserved to Marcone alone. He was powerful and deadly, and he'd kill anyone who presumed any dominion over me. Poachers would suffer the consequences.

I shifted under him, gasping, trying to get away. He was marking my skin like a brand and it felt good and the cognitive dissonance was making my head spin.

He leaned back, mouth red. His eyes were heavy as he ran his thumb over the bite marks, brought it to his mouth, and licked the smeared blood off his skin with a rough, catlike tongue. "Exceptional as always, Harry," he murmured like a purr.

And then he leaned down and kissed me, tasting like coppery magic, like my own blood. Marcone curled a hand around my neck, his palm pressed against his brand, and I groaned at the rush. The danger and the trust and the feeling of being completely out of my depth, they all mixed into some intoxicating cocktail and I kissed him back.

"More," I said when he let me breathe.

He smiled at me. "Never more than you can give." And he lowered his mouth to my neck again, teeth penetrating easily as I moaned and arched my back and--

 

-- jerked awake so suddenly I fell out of bed and onto the floor, my legs tangled in the sheets.

I stared up at my ceiling in the dark for a moment before gasping out, "What the fuck was that?!"

Chapter Text

It was a small but much appreciated mercy that the project was almost done. It was a month and a half in, and we'd gone through several iterations of the plans. Rings of copper inlaid into the floor, a mirror ward that would reflect any long distance curses, iron and salt and water incorporated into some uber-feng shui that would give dehabilitating migraines to any magical being that walked in without an invitation. The floor was designed to utilized oak, pine, and maple for maximum positive symbolism, cut into a swirl and inset with thirteen circular discs of silver (which I planned to make myself, etching some protections into each one). Hidden in the complex parquetry was a pentacle, only noticeable to anyone who spotted the thin lines of silver reinforcing it. The doorway had a faux-threshold built on runes carved into some more sarsen stone (not from Stonehenge, he promised me, but similar rock) and once it was built I'd have to do a ritual or two to bind the room to the ley lines in the area, powering the whole thing.

That was just the structure. More protections would be added once it was built, disguised as some funky New Wave interior design. Candles that would react to malicious and friendly presences, symbols of faith, a few artifacts Marcone mentioned being able to "borrow," and others.

I was incredibly proud of the work. Looking at the power harmonizing on the plans was a little beautiful. I hardly believed I came up with it. Tiny details weren't my forte, magically speaking, but this was... It was good. Really good. It'd take the supernatural equivalent of rocket launcher to even dent the defenses. And I had ideas for more improvements, how to make the whole thing sing.

I should have been celebrating what I'd pulled off. Mostly, I was trying very hard to ignore John Marcone.

It was exhaustively difficult. I wanted to just bang out the last details and avoid looking at Marcone at all, but at the same time I was running hot. My mind kept straying back to the dream and the thought of it sent a cold sweat popping up over my skin.

Things got tense when Marcone leaned against my shoulder to look at the plans I had in front of me. I kept my head down and resolutely did not look at him, but he was radiating warmth and his cologne, fuck, it was something musky and a little sweet and some traitorous part of me wanted to turn my head, nose along his neck, and breathe in.

Hell's bells.

"Harry," Marcone said on an exhale. "Are you all right?"

I didn't look at him, just bobbed my head in a nod. "Yeah."

"What've you done to your neck?" I felt him lean in to look and I nearly fell out of my stool in my haste to get away.

"My neck?" I went to the window and checked my reflection in it. There was a red mark flaring up... Oh. I'd been scratching at it. I let out a shuddering sigh as I realized, running my fingertips over the spot. It was sore, and the feeling of it was giving me vivid flashbacks to the feeling in the dream.

I shut my eyes and willed myself calm. It was just a dream. A really teeth-grindingly sexy dream that didn't have the decency to fade from memory like every other dream I'd ever had. But it was just a dream. Probably a side-effect of Marcone's aura messing with mine, mixed with the insight I'd gotten on what made John Marcone tick. The symbiotic thing going on with him and Chicago had been obvious enough even I caught it.

Despite having been very distracted at the time.

That sticky hot feverish feeling skittered over my skin, my body very keen on the whole Marcone concept.

Very, very carefully, I opened my eyes and looked back at him. Marcone was leaning back against the table, watching me with a mask of false disinterest on his face. His face was blank, uncaring, but after so long working with him, I wasn't so easily fooled. The heat and concern were apparent in his eyes, boring right into me, incongruous with his expression.

Nope. I couldn't handle it. I shook my head hard, like I could eject the visions of the dream out of my head with sheer force. "Sorry. I gotta go."

Marcone's eyes widened in genuine surprise. "What?"

"The plans are done, you don't need me until you get the building part. I..." I headed for the door, not quite running, but letting my long legs carry me out of there as fast as possible. Marcone called something after me as I left, but I didn't stop, heading for the elevator.

I pressed the button and found the thing was way down on 32, meaning it had fifty floors to rise before I could get into it. I swore and went to the stairs instead, grabbing the door handle and pulling.

Marcone's palm slammed into the door as it started to open, and he pushed it shut again. "Harry, stop, what happened?"

I took a step away, blindly trying to get some distance from him. Half of me was close to panic mode at his presence. Half of me wanted to tackle him to the ground and see if I could provoke him into biting me again. It was a very jumbled feeling, basically.

Marcone put his other hand on my shoulder lightly. "As loathe as I am to admit it, you're starting to worry me, Mr. Dresden."

I kept my head down, staring at our feet to avoid looking at him. I had this sneaking feeling he'd look into my eyes and know everything I was thinking and then I'd have to throw myself out the window or something. "Marcone, you can't keep me here."

"Well," he murmured dryly, "I think that's a matter of opinion really--"

"John, back off. Please."

The effect was immediate. Marcone took a step away, dropping his hands. I stole a glance at him, seeing surprise and disquiet in his face as he watched me. Something about the dark color of his eyes then, it reminded me of that night looking at Chicago through the windows. That intensity, that...

The elevator dinged and I didn't waste my chance, darting into it and jabbing the lobby button repeatedly until the doors closed. When they did, I leaned forward, resting my forehead against the doors, and tried very hard not to think.

 

It wasn't until leaving the building that I remembered my car was halfway across town, sitting in my driveway. One of the Outfit guys had picked me up and now I was stranded in the Gold Coast. There was a Red Line station nearby though, so I decided a little walking wouldn't kill me. I needed the time to think anyway.

That had been a minor freak-out in Marcone's office, I could admit. I'd put the dream aside before I'd shown up, but the moment I laid eyes on Marcone, it'd all come flooding back. A part of that was the heterosexual panic-- I put that aside for the moment, not prepared to explain that madness-- but a lot of it was the fact that I could see where my subconsciousness was coming from. I wasn't any fan of Freud, but I could see what was going on. Chicago and Marcone holding me down, Marcone leaving a brand on me...

Twenty-four hours ago, if Marcone had asked me about the Red Court, I'd have said yes. If my dream shook me up a bit (a bit? Okay, maybe more than a bit), that was a small price to pay for the wake-up call.

In hindsight, I could see what had happened. I mean, Gentleman Johnny beat out the Vargrassi for control of Chicago in a few short years. A man who could do that without much bloodshed had to have amazing powers of persuasion. Having me close by and willingly working with him had been the perfect opportunity to endear me to his cause. Hell, he admitted that he was shielding me from certain parts of his empire. He was manipulating me, what parts of him I saw and what parts I didn't.

Stars, maybe there wasn't a genuine moment in all our interactions. Of course he'd joke about killing my car, to soften my image of him with wry humor. And standing at the window with him and seeing his devotion to Chicago, I hadn't thought that was an intentional slip, but if it was, it worked. I could chalk everything up to being a calculated risk on his part to turn me to the dark side.

I really hated when people did that. I was no saint, but I had a code of morals I live by and I took them seriously. I had seen firsthand what happened to wizards who strayed too far. I wasn't about to give John Marcone the satisfaction of turning me.

As for the... the rest of it, it didn't matter. I was straight as they come. I mean, I would know, right? I've been me for almost thirty years, I know me pretty well. I was attracted to women and had a steady girlfriend who I really enjoyed sex with. If you put all the evidence on a scale, the side with all the Gay wouldn't hold a candle to the side with all the Not Gay.

The dream kiss was probably just a manifestation of Marcone's power over me. God, that made so much sense. He had me so figured out, he was screwing with my head and making me think I was attracted to him. It was all a sort of mortal glamour, brought on by spending too much time with Marcone and his intricately crafted charm.

I slumped down on a bench and smiled up at the sky, dyed purple and red by the setting sun. Identity crisis adverted, sexual orientation reaffirmed, emotional turmoil settled. Not bad for a evening stroll.

I noticed a black, nondescript sedan idling along by where I was sitting. In a fit of pique, I got up and tapped on the tinted window.

It rolled down, revealing Franklin and another bashful-looking mafioso. "You guys are the worst tail in the history of crime," I told them.

Franklin winced. "I'm... not the best at that, the whole tailing thing."

"No kidding. Hey, pass on a message to the Don for me?" I waited until Franklin dug out his little pager and gave me a 'go ahead' gesture. "Stop fucking stalking me, you creepy scumbag. I know where you live and I will hex your expresso machine into oblivion." I watched Franklin's face drain of color. "What? Is that over the character limit? Use that fancy code of yours. Get it done." I patted the top of the car and turned, shucking my hands into my pockets and whistling "Feelin' Good" as I walked away.

 

It was a bit like I imagined detox to be, getting back to my regular routine after the project. Marcone didn't come after me after I left and I didn't volunteer to show up again, but part of me was used to his company. He had an intensity to him, and now that I didn't have to deal with that presence, it was a little weird. If anything, that reinforced my desire to steer clear of him, just to get my equilibrium back.

This also meant Marcone didn't have the chance to bring up the vampire thing with me again, which left us at an impasse. Frankly, I was okay with that for the moment. It gave me time to get my head together.

I checked up with everyone I'd missed while working on the project. The Alphas bitched at me about how much their college textbooks cost and how unfair it was that crime fighting was cutting into their study time. Oh, the troubles of the young.

When I visited Michael, it happened to be right when he got a call on Knight business. I arrived just in time to babysit while he went out to vanquish a little evil. I didn't really mind that too much as the Carpenter kids were sweet on me. When Charity turned up, she barely even snapped at me, which was an improvement. The day we'd have civil conversation had yet to come, but I still held onto hope.

Susan caught wind of a malk nest that had been settled out of Undertown and too close to the public for me to ignore. It wasn't a large group and a little fire magic chased them back into the depths of Chicago. Susan snapped a picture of the fight, using her camera from over a hundred feet away to avoid wrecking the tech. She got one usable shot, a blurry photo of me fending a malk off with a bloom of flame. I let her use the picture and in return she kept all mention of Undertown out of the column. Fair trade.

Everything was going okay. So obviously that's when I got the invitation.

Susan and I were having another nice night in when a candle on my mantle place suddenly shifted from its normal yellow flame to a green one. "Shit," I said, pushing Susan's shoeless feet off my lap (I'd been massaging them-- Susan's a big fan of my hands and I am always eager to please) and grabbed my staff and blasting rod.

"What? What is it?" She tugged her shoes on and stood up, following me to the door until I held up a hand.

"No, stay back. Something's tripped the wards."

"What is it?"

"Dunno. Gonna find out." I tightened my grip on my blasting rod as one of my proximity wards went off, a low bell tolling in my skull. There was a knock at the door and I called out, "Who is it?"

"Ordained herald of the Red Court," a male voice answered through the steel door. "We wish to speak with Wizard Dresden of the White Council."

'White Council?' Susan mouthed silently at me. I shook my head and went to open the door.

A Red gave me an envelope, careful not to reach across the threshold of my home, and informed me that Bianca St. Clair was having a celebration of her ascension to Margravine of the Red Court. The rumors I heard about her gaining power were apparently true. Sometimes I really hated being right.

I shooed away the herald before locking up again and looking at the invite. "Exactly what we needed, a Red House in Chicago."

Susan took the invite from me and opened it, looking over the expensive, fancy gold lettering on the thick card stock. "What's that mean for us feeble mortals?" she asked, aiming for light but sounding worried. My own unease was too clear for her to joke about it.

"Bloodsuckers are going to get a base of operations around here." I grimaced. "Not great news."

"No kidding..." She tapped the invitation against my nose. "Do you have a tux?"

I shook my head. "No need. I'm not going." I went back to the sofa and flopped back down on it.

"What? Why not?" I watched Susan run her fingers over the calligraphy on the card with interest. Aw, crap.

"Because they're vampires. I mean, by inviting me, I'll be protected by the laws of hospitality from overt attacks, but Bianca hates me. If I give her the chance, she'll kill me."

Susan turned and put a hand on her hip, waving the invite at me. "You're not the only one at stake here if this... Red House, if that means more vampires in Chicago, people need to know about it. We should go, and I'll write a column warning people--"

"No. No, no, no, Susan," I stood up and took her hands in mine, staring into her eyes imploringly. "That is a bad idea. The Reds eat people and this is going to be a big deal for them. A lot of them are going to be there and they'll be hungry."

Susan yanked her hands out of mine and folded her arms. She didn't look convinced. "The rest of the city has no idea what's happening. We have an obligation to inform them!"

"You know I'm more than willing to throw myself into harm's way to save the masses from the baddies, Susan. But preemptively throwing myself to the wolves isn't something I'm willing to do." I cupped her face in my hands. "And I wouldn't bring you. I could never put you in that kind of danger. You're too important to me."

Susan's glare softened a little. "Harry..." Frowning, she tossed the invite on the table, then continued to stare at it with a look of longing as she murmured, "There's that whole world out there and I'm missing it again."

"I know. I'm sorry, but trust me on this one."

She nodded faintly, and I let out a massive sigh of relief. "All right. If you don't want to go, I understand," Susan said and lay her head on my shoulder. I wrapped my arms around her, slight but strong against my body, and let myself calm down.

As far as I was concerned, Bianca St. Clair would have to try harder than that to draw me into her web. I was slowly learning the benefits of ignoring my curiosity and staying out of trouble. I had people to protect. It wouldn't do to throw myself into the fire. I couldn't stop Bianca's ascension and if she found a roundabout way of getting rid of me at her party, I wouldn't be able to help the people she would victimize in the future as she settled into her new rank and power.

Even I could learn that discretion is the better part of valor.

 

Susan didn't share my thoughts on discretion. After a track and locate job to find a car that'd been lost in one of those multilevel carparks, I came home to find someone had gone through the papers on my coffee table. It'd been a mess before I left, but it was a subtly different mess when I got home. The bills had been stacked on top of my little black book-- yes, I had one, but it was mostly just repeat clients, nothing too interesting-- were tucked under the book instead. I'd been updating the book with Pizza Spress's new location, Michael's new number, and the one that went to Marcone's line. I knew I'd used the invitation as a bookmark.

Now, there was no bookmark.

"Goddammit, no, no, no," I swore as I dived for my rotary phone and dialed Susan. I let it ring five times before slamming the phone back down and dashing right back out the door and to my car.

If I didn't want to go, she'd understand. Dammit, Susan. I took it as a small mercy when the Beetle started up smoothly despite my high stress level. I puttered out of my driveway and turned towards Bianca's manor, hoping against hope I wasn't too far behind Susan. It was only a half hour before the party was due to start. Maybe I'd get lucky and Susan would shoot for being fashionably late?

Yeah, Susan being late to a vampire masquerade ball. Not in a million years.

Speaking of masquerade, I was without an outfit. I had my cowboy boots and my duster though...

I made a very, very fast stop and bought a gallon hat from a streetside vendor. Urban cowboy indeed. The joke wasn't any funnier now than when Marcone made it, but I didn't have time to be picky. I had a vampire party to gatecrash.

 

I got caught up at the gates.

"My plus-one has my invite," I was telling at the guards. "She was supposed to meet me here to help me in. Hey, maybe you can call for her, do you have one of those little PA intercom things? Ms. Rodriguez, ask for her."

The guards didn't say anything, just continued barring my way into the estate. They were doing a very good job of ignoring me, which I found kind of impressive, considering I towered over them and was almost yelling.

"Not to pull rank, sparky, but I'm a wizard of the White Council. You don't let me in, you could cause a diplomatic incident!" Still no dice. I growled and was about to just say screw it and try to jump the fence when another voice broke in.

"Perhaps if I vouched for Mr. Dresden, that'd be all right?"

I whipped around, one hand in the folds of my coat, wrapped around my blasting rod. A limo had pulled up to the gates and a man was leaning half out one window with a debonair smile on his face. He was handsome in a model way, dark hair curled around a strong face. Hanging out of the window as he was, he was showing off a very fit physique. The only clothes he was wearing were a pair fairy wings attached to his shoulders.

"Do I know you?" I asked archly. It pissed me off when people I'd never seen before knew my name.

"I'm Thomas Raith, of the White Court," he said warmly, smiling with a set of teeth Colgate would love to put in their ads. He turned that sparkling grin to the guards. "This appears to be holding up the line." He tipped his head back to acknowledge the line of fancy cars and limos waiting for entrance. "How about I escort Mr. Dresden in to recover his invitation?"

The guards seemed reluctant to tell Thomas no and I took the opportunity to get into his limo. Not the best idea, climbing into an incubus' car, but I didn't have much room to argue if I wanted to catch up to Susan.

"Thanks," I said to Thomas once we pulled past the gate and into the courtyard. "Want to tell me why you did that?"

Thomas leaned back in his seat and put his arm around his plus-one, an extraordinarily pretty girl wearing a swirl of flower petals and not much else. She snuggled up to Thomas, touching his bare shoulder. Now I could see he wasn't actually naked, but wearing a loin cloth, a sheathed sword, and sandals. Their matching lack of outfits went well together.

"I was always a fan of westerns," Thomas said, grinning up at my hat, which added even more inches to my height. No one would have trouble picking me out in a crowd, that was for sure.

"Uh huh. I suppose you just decided to help me out of the goodness of your heart."

Thomas' smile didn't shift from his face, but something about his gaze got more intense. "Something like that." He shrugged with one shoulder, carefully not dislodging the lovely girl at his side. "If you don't appreciate the help, that's fine since we're here." He slid over to the door and opened it, climbing out before offering his hand to his date. She gave me a dazed, sweet smile before letting Thomas pull her out.

Once she was clear, Thomas extended his hand again for me. I sneered and got out the other side. Thomas shook his head, still grinning, and wrapped his arm around his girlfriend's waist, heading up the steps to the manor.

I had no idea why a White Court vampire would lend me his aid. It was a prospect worth mulling over, but I had bigger fish to fry first.

 

Bianca's party was packed with all manner of creatures. The masquerade helped everyone feel a little more comfortable blending in; if you were playing dress-up, you didn't have to follow the modern trends. The majority of the attendants were Reds and their consorts, who were mostly young, idiotic kids who got off on being bitten and were now snared in their patrons' control. I tried to stay clear of all of them and focus on finding Susan before she got stuck in a similar situation. With Bianca reaching Margravine, she'd have the power to make new vampires and Susan would be prime conversion material. Like hell I'd let that happen.

I found her after a few minutes of nigh-panic. She was dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood, which struck me as really tempting fate. She was talking to a vampire cheerleader and an older man in a Roman centurion costume. Well, I assumed older. He had an odd timeless quality to his features. I knew just looking at him he wasn't a Red, nor a Fae. He wasn't anything I'd ever seen before. He was watching detachedly as the cheerleader touched Susan's arm, smiling coquettishly.

"I'm fine, really. My date's just a little delayed," Susan said loudly, taking a step backward, pulled herself out of the vampire's grip.

"Oooh, poppet." The vampire brushed a red and black pom-pom against Susan's cheek. "I could keep you company while you waited?"

Susan shook her head. "I'm fine talking to Mr. Ferro, thank you. I'm sure my date'll be along soon."

The Centurion cast a lazy sideways look at the vampire. It instantly shrunk back, like it'd been caught in a sunbeam. "Ssstay out of this," the vampire hissed.

"The lady said no. Respect her answer before I enforce it," Ferro said, blowing out a plume of cigarette smoke.

The vampire glared weakly before vanishing into the swirling crowd.

"Thank you, Mr. Ferro," Susan said and curtsied, not ironically but with actual reverence.

"Ware yourself to danger, girl. I will not aid you again."

I stepped up and wrapped an arm around Susan's waist. Susan inhaled sharply in surprise, then relaxed upon seeing who I was. "No need. Sorry I'm late," I said, grinning. "Honey, can we talk?"

"Oh, Jesus, Harry, you scared me," she breathed.

I tightened my arm around her, looking around nervously at the crowd. "The feeling is mutual," I muttered. "We gotta leave, now."

"I, oh for God's sake, Harry," she said in an exasperated tone as I tried to urge her along. "Don't get all caveman on me." She tipped her head at Ferro and said, "I'm sorry, if you'll excuse me."

The tall urban cowboy idea had been a bad one. I stood a head above everyone else in the room normally and with the hat I stood out even more. I felt nervous watching the vampires and other guests circle lazily around us. Goblets of wine were being passed around, but no one was drinking yet. I assumed Bianca was about to make an appearance and give a speech to get the party going proper. I wanted to be gone before she showed up and spotted me.

"Hey, mister, hands," Susan complained and slid out of my grip with a twirl, her cloak floating up behind her. "Look, Harry, I know you're mad--"

"I'm not mad, I'm just thinking that caveman thing might be the way to go. Throw you over my shoulder and carry you out before you get bitten and what were you thinking?" I couldn't help the anger that slipped into my voice. I never liked using that tone with a lady-- stupid outdated chivalry, I know-- but the many ways Susan could get hurt or worse were crowding my thoughts. She'd been a steady support when my life had been shaken up by Marcone and the thought of losing her now was too much to even think of.

"You know what I was thinking," Susan retorted. "You're always saying 'with great power comes great responsibility,' you nerd. If I know about what's happening, I have the responsibility to protect those who don't, just like you. This is just my way of doing it, learning and informing."

"I know that, but you have no idea how dangerous these creatures are. There's a White Court vamp here, the Reds are everywhere, whoever you were talking to was incredibly powerful, and there's also--"

"The sidhe, godson?"

I froze, a bolt of pure fear shooting down my spine and the purring voice that cut in behind me. I didn't turn around, some scared little voice in my head suggesting that, hey, if I can't see her, she can't see me, right? That was how it worked, right?

Susan's wide-eyed gaze past me said otherwise.

"Don't look in her eyes," I murmured. Then I steeled myself and turned to face the Leanansidhe, my godmother.

She was standing there with a cat's smile on her face, copper hair like fire to the watery, aquamarine dress she wore. Her skin was pale like ivory and her eyes had slitted pupils. Her blood red lips curved into a pleased smile as she looked upon me.

I took a step back, reaching blindly for Susan's hand. Once I found it, I drew her behind me, putting myself between Lea and her.

Lea pouted. "That is the reception I receive from my sweet estranged godson?" She clicked her tongue, disapproving. "Am I something to fear?"

I licked my dry lips and squashed the wave of childish fear that was threatening to bubble up my throat and out my mouth as a hysterical laugh. This was not what I needed right now. "I just want to go my way, Lea."

"But the party has not even officially begun." She snapped her fingers and a domino-masked butler appeared like she summoned him by magic. The butler offered us all goblets of wine. "This place is protected by the laws of hospitality, sweet. Stay a while, let us catch up. It has been so long since I have seen you. Not that I have not tried." She rocked the goblet against her lower lip, voice simpering and cloyingly sweet.

"The Nix," I said.

"Mm, you've been very naughty, godson. Avoiding your godmother, poisoning your blood offerings with iron, trying to run out of a party before the hostess has even appeared. Not introducing me to your lady." Her eyes flickered to Susan behind me.

My hand around Susan's tightened. "Susan, this is the Leanansidhe, my godmother. Lea, this is Susan. Now can we go?"

"You never mentioned you had a... a fairy godmother," Susan whispered against my neck.

"And my car turns into a pumpkin after midnight," I added.

"Susan," Lea murmured, her gaze mischievous and delighted. "What a lovely little thing. Perhaps not powerful like you, sweet, but the fire in her." She laughed, like silver bells. "I see why you were drawn to her."

"Leave her alone," I growled. "Come on, Susan." A quick getaway sounded like a great idea.

The lights went out, and darkness fell absolute for a moment before a dais at one end of the hall lit up. Bianca stood there, regal and gorgeous in a dress made of flame, next to another Red, one with dark Hispanic features. He raised his wineglass and said in a smooth, cultured tone, "A toast, to Bianca St. Clair. The Red Court welcomes such an esteemed member to the title of Margravine. May her House be strong."

Shit, the pleasantries were starting. I stilled, not wanting to draw Bianca's attention.

Lea drew up beside me and wrapped her hands around my left arm, her cool, soft fingers twining with mine. The words of the speech immediately started to blur and meld together into an unintelligible mush. A flush crept over my skin, my godmother's glamour pulling a veil over my senses. I let go of Susan to make a fist with my other hand, hard enough my nails bit into my palm. I could feel the pain, just barely, and held onto it under the assault of the dreamy pleasure that coursed into me.

"My sweet," Lea murmured in my ear. "Have you sold yourself to somebody? Oh, but you lack the right, godson. You are mine by blood, by your broken oath."

"Stop it," I grit out.

"Fulfill our bargain. Come with me. You are so lost, and this deal you have wrought with Chicago's lord, it pains you." She pressed her hand over my heart and I shuddered at the wave of compassion she sunk into my skin. "You're confused, you poor thing. Don't even know who you are, what you're becoming. He breaks you down, hurts even as he helps. He incites your passion even as he leashes you. I can feel how it cuts you." A quiet, sympathetic noise, then, "Come, be mine, and you will see clearly again. It'll be so simple and lovely."

God, that sounded wonderful. I knew she was right, that at her feet, I'd be at peace. No more sleepless nights, lying awake and wondering if I was being turned into some sort of monster, something like Marcone. I never knew what was right and what was wrong anymore, it was all grey. I wanted what Lea was offering, the chance not to think, not to get caught up in moral dilemmas over every aspect of my life.

But while Marcone was taming me to what he wanted, Lea would do the same. Really, the two should have lunch and trade tips. But Marcone, who was a mortal with nothing binding him to honesty, had yet to deceive me, which was more than I could say for the Fae.

I shook her grip off my arm and took a stumbled half-step away. "No, Godmother."

"Oh, child. I will have you. You promised yourself to me."

"You can't take me here. Hospitality laws. Back off." I rubbed my face, trying to break free of the remaining strands of glamour she had webbed me in. There was a burst of polite applause as the speech ended, and I could feel Susan against my side finally. The world around me had been blocked out by Lea, but it was coming back slowly.

I swept my tongue over my chapped lips again and grabbed a goblet off one of the tables, taking a bracing drink of the wine.

"Oh dear, that wasn't a smart move." I turned to look at Thomas, standing behind me with a vaguely worried expression on his face.

"What?"

"Drinking the wine," he went on in a careless tone, apparently more intent on drawing abstract patterns on his date's bare leg. "It's been poisoned."

Chapter Text

Usually I love my job. I really do. I've been living in a magical world since I was a pre-teen and you'd think by now I'd be used to it, but it still sometimes takes my breath away that all these things exist, that the world is so inexplicable and unknowable, that it never end. I can't get over that sometimes. How people didn't feel it, how the world hummed with life and, by extension, magic and only a small part of the population had any clue. I sometimes felt strong pity for the oblivious masses, not knowing what they were missing out on.

And then there are days like this, when my girlfriend gets caught in a who's-who of the supernatural elite, my faerie godmother shows up to harass me, and the vampires spit in my wine.

I should have stayed in bed.

Susan patted my back as I yacked up as much of the wine as I could into a plant pot. "Harry, are you all right?"

I spit bile and grimaced at the new, fun taste in my mouth. Ugh. "Did you drink any?"

"No, didn't get the chance."

"See any water around? My mouth tastes... well, like I just threw up a bunch of wine," I said, straightening. As I did, I felt a vague fuzziness that I assumed came from Red Court saliva. I hadn't had the pleasure of experiencing the effects firsthand, so it was a new thing for me. The narcotic was very potent, affecting the victims even through just skin contact. I wasn't sure how bad it was that I swallowed some, but if the effects were already kicking in...

Hell's bells, this was not good. "We have to leave."

"Do it soon," Thomas said from where he stood, watching languidly. "The Red Court is already claiming their prey."

I looked up at the room. Thomas was right, and most of the human guests hadn't had the chance to spit up the poison like I had. Some had just fallen to the floor in a drugged stupor. A few were being led into the shadows by the hungry Reds. It wasn't looking good.

"What about the hospitality laws?" Susan finally sounded properly worried about the situation.

"Recreational poisoning. Everyone gets a sample and some fun times in the shadows. A few might even live through it." I wiped my mouth on my sleeve, disgusted and furious. "The kids with the armbands, they're initiates to the House, I'll bet you. Tomorrow they'll all have their game face."

Thomas frowned. "Game face?"

"Buffy."

"Oh, right." He hit his forehead with his palm, like he should have known that. Maybe he was a fan.

Lea glided by, all Fae grace and disinterest. She trailed her nails through my hair as she passed, sending an eerie placid feeling through me. "You're attracting attention, sweet." Then she vanished into the shadows with a swirl of her dress.

She was right. The Reds who hadn't claimed a guest as prey were circling like vultures, looking at Susan and me like we were prime cuts in the butcher's display case. I wasn't keen on getting vamped or losing my girlfriend to a bat monster with a human face. I caught Susan's hand and headed for the door, giving a nod to Thomas as we passed. I had no idea why he was so friendly, but I could puzzle that out when the threat of imminent vamp-age was gone.

"I don't suppose you had an escape plan in mind when you decided to attend the Monster Mash?" I asked Susan quietly as we headed to the entry hall.

"Leave with the rest of the guests once the party was over?" I gave her an exasperated look over my shoulder. "What? I'm an optimist."

As we got into the foyer, our way was blocked. A few Reds were leaning languidly against the doorway, watching us with hooded expressions. One shifted to prowl towards us, movements slow and sensuous. The others soon followed.

"Hospitality?" Susan asked, voice jumping up a pitch. Her grip on my hand tightened.

"They're going to hospitality us to death if they get close enough," I said, feeling the the pleasant pull in my blood, telling me it'd be so very, very nice just to tip back my head and let the approaching vamp kiss along the length of my jugular. "I'm pretty sure Bianca could frame my drinking that wine as accepting an invitation to fangdom." I started backing up until the back of my foot hit the staircase, a grand monster taking up most of the room. The upper level seemed deserted. "Come on."

Navigating the stairs was harder than I thought. My vision kept doubling and Susan had to catch me when I staggered up the top steps. The narcotic was starting to really screw with my system. I just wanted to lay down and sleep it off...

Susan slapped me across the face, waking me up in an instant. "Ow!"

"Sorry, but I was losing you there." She started to tug me along, taking the lead as we wound down some corridors, putting as much distance between us and the Reds as we could.

I stopped at a door and placed my palm against it, feeling for any traps. None were apparent, so I pushed it open. "Inside, quick."

Susan went in and I followed, shutting the door behind us. She immediately started pushing a massive oak bureau in the way of it. I grabbed the other side and pulled it along, helping. I had no idea how much it would aid us in holding off the vampires, but it was worth a shot.

After we hauled our probably ineffective barrier across the door, I shook out my shield bracelet and tried very hard to fight off the poison in my blood, humming at me to be calm, sleep, rest, all will be well if you just relax.

Susan walked over to me and hooked a finger in my belt loop. "Need another slap?"

"Uh... Not at the moment, but if I'm looking peaky, go for it." I took a deep breath. "I'm going to Listen for them, give me a sec."

I shut my eyes and Listened for what was coming from outside the room. I caught the sound of footsteps, a group of people approaching. Their stride was long and purposeful and coming right towards us. I shuddered and pulled my blasting rod out of my duster, holding it tightly as they got closer. If they wanted to break the hospitality laws, I would be glad to do the same, and a lot more explosively.

Then the damnedest thing happened. The vampires passed our door and kept walking. It surprised me so much, I blinked out of my Listening, then Listened again just to make sure I wasn't mistaken. Then I walked to the door and pressed my ear to it, Listening a third time.

"What? What is it?"

I frowned, confused by what just happened. "They... didn't find us. They didn't even pause, just went on by. Why the hell would they do that?"

Behind me, there was a laugh. "Why indeed, godson?"

Susan and I both jumped, whirling to face Lea. She smiled at me, eyes glittering. "I could hardly let my godson be taken by these creatures, could I?" She came up to me and cupped one of my cheeks in her hand. "I don't want your blood if it's poisoned, by iron or by this Red Court."

The drug in me sang out at her touch and my knees buckled. I leaned back on the bureau, gasping for breath. "Lea, stop it."

"You want to save your lady fair, do you not?" Her thumb pressed against my lower lip, tracing it idly. "Come with me, and I will see to it she has safe passage from this place, back to her home."

"And if I say no thanks, we'll handle it ourselves?"

Lea's smile widened. "Then your pursuers will find you and surely claim or consume you."

I groaned at the realization. "You, you're shielding the room."

"Yes, my sweet."

Susan broke in. "If you stop hiding us, they'll kill Harry. Then you won't be able to have him."

Lea tipped her head back to eye Susan. I took the opportunity to stumble away from Lea and collapse in a chair nearby. The glamour and the drug made for an extremely not good mix in my system, making it hard to keep my eyes focused, my breathing under control.

"The dear child would not sacrifice you to his own obstinance. There is nothing he can do but agree, or I will let the Margravine know exactly where he is," Lea said.

"He's your godson! How can you be so heartless?"

I snorted, drawing both their gazes. "Sorry, sorry. Was funny."

Lea waved a dismissive hand at me before turning back to Susan, but she walked to me as she spoke. "You assume I have no love for him. That is untrue. But he owes me a debt and I must take what is mine." She stroked my hair, like I was a favored pet. "He'll be much happier with me. I will give him peace, keep him safe from those that seek to undo him." She stared down at me. "All this indecision and confusion will be washed away, my sweet."

I shivered at the onslaught of her glamour, swaying into her. My face rested against the silky texture of her dress, cold against my hot skin. It was a balm, soothing the drunken, unpleasant feeling that came from fighting the narcotic.

I heard Susan calling my name, but I didn't care. I was so tired. All the stress that Marcone had forced into my life was gone. If I went with Lea, our contract would be useless. He couldn't chase me to the Nevernever. And Lea would make sure Susan got out all right. My whole purpose here was protecting her. Saying yes to my godmother would make things so much easier on everyone. Well, except Marcone, but he could find another magic consultant.

I opened my eyes blurrily and watched Susan across the room. She had her cell phone out, pressed against her ear. I dimly heard her yelling into it, "It doesn't matter how I got this number, put me through to him! It's an emergency and-- don't put me on hold, you bitch!"

She was pretty when she was angry, I noticed. Then I stopped noticing anything as Lea swirled her fingertip in a lazy spiral against my temple. "Isn't this nice, my sweet? Do you see how I can comfort you? Am I something to fight so adamantly? I only want the best for you. For you be at peace." She tsked, carding my hair. "So much pain for someone so young."

I knew, under all the sanguine calm that I couldn't just say yes to her. I needed to do things, important things. "Lea..."

"Shush, sweet. Unless you'd like to agree to come with me?"

Susan was still in my periphery, still talking on the phone. "Third floor, facing the west. Yes, make it fast, she's doing something to him. I'll try."

"Well?" Lea tipped my head up to look at her, and I saw her as a gentle, loving motherly figure of timeless beauty and affection. God, I wanted that. Just to lay at her feet and sleep...

I heard the tap of Susan's heels as she approached. "Hey, Harry, you're looking peaky," she said, then slapped me across the face.

I was so stunned by the blow, I fell out of my chair and onto the floor with a loud thud. Lea made an enraged sound, whirling on Susan.

But I'd been snapped out of my trance and I climbed to my feet, scrambling to get between them. "Enough, enough! Hospitality still in effect, don't even think about it!" I lifted my shield bracelet and poured some of my will into it, pulling up a half-sphere of force between us. "No deal, Lea. Nice try, though."

She glowered at me. "Reconsider, godson."

"No, that's my final answer, Regis. Get gone." I twirled my blasting rod. "I'll take my chances with the vampires."

"So be it." Lea lifted one pale arm into the air and snapped her fingers. The sound was amplified, her magic pouring into it. It echoed around the room, and surely beyond the walls. The vampires would certainly come running now that they knew where we were. Lea smiled at me and blew me a kiss before vanishing, likely back to the Nevernever.

As soon as she was gone, I turned to Susan, almost toppling over when my vision doubled. No, wait, tripled. Great. "I'm going to get you out of here. Bianca wants me dead after what happened between us two years ago. I'll distract her and you get out in the meantime, okay?"

Susan rolled her eyes. "You are so self-sacrificial, Harry." She walked to the far end of the room and opened the middle window. "Always have to be the hero. Always have to save the girl. Fight the monsters. The whole white knight thing." She tapped her ear and pointed out the window.

I stumbled over to her and leaned on the sill. "What?"

"Listen, Harry."

I took a shuddering breath and drew in my shattered will, doing as I was told. Very dimly, I could hear something, a low rumble or a buzz on the air. "What the hell is that?"

"Helicopter."

"Helicopter?"

"I made a phone call. Figured if anyone was going to get us out alive, it was the guy who paid a ridiculous amount of money for you."

I swiveled my head to look at her. "You didn't." She nodded. "You... you called Marcone?" That didn't make sense. "Where did you even get the number?"

Susan shrugged. "You left your black book on the table. I'm a reporter, you have the phone number for the private line of the crime king of Chicago. Do the math."

"Susan," I whined.

"Saving your life, remember?"

The door chose that moment to emit a deafening cracking noise, like a battering ram slammed into it. There was a scratching noise as well, like something with claws was trying to burrow through.

I steeled myself and leveled my blasting rod at the door. Despite my effort to keep myself steady, my hand shook, the tip of the rod waving in the air. Holding my will was like keeping a grip on a handful of sand. The more I tried, the fuzzier I got.

I didn't know how much longer I could remain conscious. I needed to do something now to at least help slow down the Reds. I pointed to the bureau blocking the door and gasped out, “Fuego.”

The wood burst into flames, crackling merrily. The walls were made of a similarly inflammable material, and slowly they started to smolder as the fire spread. I hoped I wouldn't burn the place down. It was always kind of embarrassing when I did that. My friends never let me forget about my acts of accidental destruction.

I was mentally tallying up how many places I'd partially or wholly burned to the ground when my legs went out from under me. Susan yelled something, but I couldn't quite hear it.

I obeyed my body's insistence and shut my eyes, falling into slumber.

 

I was getting used to waking up at Marcone's place. Hell, I now seemed to have a regular room, the same neutrally decorated guest bedroom I always ended up in. And, oh, look, more clothes waiting for me at the foot of the bed. This was getting to be routine.

The other side of the bed was mussed, like someone had been sleeping beside me. On the floor was the cloak Susan had worn to the party. So she'd been here. That was a relief.

Hell's bells, she called Marcone. That was just pathetic, needing to be rescued during my rescue. I'd never live that one down.

On the other hand, I felt much better. A little hungover, but no worse for wear. Hungry, though. I got dressed, admired my much more high-end attire in the mirror for a moment, decided I looked good enough to not care about the implications of Marcone's continued insistence on giving me clothes, and went to find my employer and my girlfriend.

I knew the way to the kitchen by now without being told. A few of the goons wandering around gave me respectful nods as I passed them, which I was slowly, slowly getting used to.

There was a stairway down to the ground level, and from the top you could see the kitchen. I lingered on the upper level when I spotted Susan and Marcone sitting at opposite ends of the kitchen island. Marcone was blowing the steam from his latte, watching Susan as she poured through a stack of paperwork. For a brief moment, I thought Marcone was billing her for the rescue or something. What I overheard made it clear I was very wrong.

"There is no way this is legal," Susan said, voice hot and upset as she waved a sheet of paper at Marcone. "This practically makes him your property. It's disgusting."

Marcone sipped his drink slowly, letting her stew in her anger for a moment. "I assure you it is legal. My lawyers were very careful in constructing the contract."

"You coerced him, you son of a--"

"Yes, and why don't you inform the police of your concerns?" Marcone replied dryly. "Tell them that I arranged it so that if Harry didn't sign with me, he'd be murdered by lycanthropes. I'm sure that will go splendidly." He sighed and set down his coffee, giving Susan a weary look. Not actual weariness, mind you, because Marcone didn't reveal weakness to anyone if he could help it, but weariness of her in particular. "Ms. Rodriguez, you should keep in mind that if it were not for me, you would be either dead or a fledgling of Bianca St. Clair's House."

"What, do you want a medal?" She leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms. I noticed that in contrast to my high retail threads, she was given just a plain tee and some drawstring pants. Was Marcone playing favorites? "Saving us doesn't make what you're doing any less immoral, even by your standards."

"And what do you know of my standards? What do you know of me that isn't a rumor I personally disseminated into the city?" He finished off the last of his drink and stood, moving to the sink to rinse it out. "If this conversation has shown me anything, it is that you have no idea what the relationship between Harry and myself is. Take that up with him, not me."

What? That wasn't fair. I mean, I didn't talk to anyone about the thing between Marcone and me. It wasn't because I didn't trust them, it was... It was my problem. I signed the contract, I had to deal with it. Telling anyone about the things Marcone had me doing, how he treated me, and the way he messed with my thoughts and emotions, that would make it someone else's problem. And it just wasn't.

"You're not turning me against him that easily," Susan snapped. "I've seen the contract now. I could expose what you're doing."

"And then the many readers of the Midwestern Arcane will be aware of the arrangement between Harry and I. At least, if you can summarize the contract in the half-page column you have. Perhaps you could do a series on it." He walked over to her and started gathering up the papers with neat efficiency, stacking them and tucking them into a file folder. "And then I would bring up charges against you for publishing such slander about my business tactics. Then I would make it so you'd never work in journalism again in the lower 48."

Fascinating as this was to witness, I'd had enough of Marcone treating Susan so rudely. It sounded like he was being reserved about it, sure, but I knew better. This was Marcone's version of talking smack about Susan's mother.

"Libel, not slander, scumbag," I said loudly, coming down the stairs.

Susan jumped and twisted in her chair to look at me, but Marcone just smiled. "Harry. I was wondering when you'd stop eavesdropping and join us."

Erk. Dammit, I hated when Marcone did that. I had no response for him, so I just walked up and gave Susan a good morning kiss. I was going for chaste, but Susan responded by grabbing my shoulder, pulling me a little further down, and introducing tongue to the equation, tasting sweet and tangy, like she'd had fruit for breakfast. Something citrus, I guessed.

When we broke apart, she shot Marcone a glare. They looked at each other with open hostility in each of their faces. I had a feeling I was missing something (again? stars...) but couldn't begin to guess what. I just knew Susan and Marcone were never going to be buddies.

Marcone tapped the folder on the island, straightening the papers. "Well, I should return these to my office. Ms. Rodriguez, please help yourself to anything before you go. Harry, if you'd come with me, I believe we should talk."

I shook my head. "If you're kicking Susan out, I'm going with her."

Marcone frowned, instantly displeased about this. "One of my men will drive her home. She'll be quite safe."

"I should just trust you?" Susan asked incredulously.

"I've made my point to you, I would have no reason to cause you harm."

I nodded to Susan. "Seriously, everything is a cost-benefit analysis to him. It's freaky. But I want to see you home anyway. Unless you'd rather...?" Susan put her hand over mine, squeezing. "Right. I'll take her, thanks."

Marcone's lips pressed together into an unhappy white line. "We have things to discuss, Harry."

I met his eyes. "I know. And we will. Just not right now, John."

It was the first name usage that did it, I thought. Marcone inhaled deeply, exhaled through his nose slowly, then nodded once. "At least let one of my men drive you home."

"Sure," I agreed amiably.

"Keep your schedule clear. I'll call on you soon." He stared at me for a moment longer, then walked out of the room.

Susan let out a breath I think she'd been holding a while and sagged back against my chest. She pulled my hand up to cup her cheek, pressing her own hand against mine. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm good. Did you tell him anything?"

"Besides the fact he's an asshole?"

I grinned. "Yeah, besides that. I need to know what he knows."

She nodded. "I told him that we were at a vampire party and needed help. I had to tell him your godmother was trying to screw with your head, but I didn't say anything about... you know." The fact that my godmother was a freaking faerie, I gleaned. "You were out for the extraction, and thanks for passing out right then, by the way."

"Sorry."

"You should be. So I got you hooked up to the rope lift, then I followed. I told Marcone about the venom. He gave you a shot after we got you inside, so I guess that helped you."

"Did you mention the Red Court or anything like that?"

Susan thought about it, visibly recalling anything she might have said. "I... no, I didn't. I'm pretty sure. You don't want him to know, I take it?"

I winced. "I think he's going to demand a few answers when he and I meet up, and I'd prefer to be the one to tell him." I rubbed my face. "Stars and stones, what a mess..." I sighed. "Ready to go?"

"More than," Susan said, standing up. "I feel like the fly in the spider's parlor. I just want to get out of here. I don't see how you can stand him."

I walked her to the garage and made a few hemming and hawing noises, but didn't elaborate. I didn't want to tell her that Marcone was a different person when it was just me and him. Mostly because I was still avoiding thinking about that. Down that road lead to sleepless nights wondering how much of Marcone was genuine and how much was him bullshitting me.

Either way, I had a standing appointment I was not looking forward to.

Chapter Text

And then there was this time John Marcone got my house firebombed and left me homeless.

No, no, wait. Let me go back and explain just how truly insane Marcone is. You can take this as a cautionary tale, true believers, a valuable lesson about life: anyone who invites you out to a lovely French restaurant to wine you and dine you only to inquire over dessert about your thoughts on taking on Bianca St. Clair and her Red Court House is crazy. It's the kind of crazy they don't have medication for. Your only chance is to run the hell away and never look back.

I, of course, didn't do this. I am now short one apartment.

 

I expected Marcone to call me the day after saving my skin if not sooner to set up a meeting. To my surprise, he didn't. He didn't contact me at all that week. Halfway through the next week, I looked at the calendar and groaned.

I've probably said this before, but it bears repeating: Marcone is an asshole.

When he finally called on the one-year anniversary of the day I signed his contract, I picked up the phone and answered, "You sentimental scumbag."

He laughed, a low, throaty, pleased sound over the line. "Good afternoon to you too, Harry. I'm sending a car for you, be ready in ten minutes," he said. "Please dress somewhat nicely."

"I'm going to be in a dirty t-shirt and raggedy jeans. I may be barefoot."

"Harry," Marcone rumbled. "I saved your life. Indulge me?"

I wore jeans, my boots, but also put a nice red button-down shirt on. Our relationship was one of compromise. When Hendricks arrived to pick me up, he looked up and down my body, a quick evaluation of my attire, then nodded. "Okay."

"Good, because it's what he's getting either way." I grabbed my staff and followed Cujo out to the car. He opened the back door, but I climbed into shotgun, just to be contrary. "Not my job to amuse him," I said. Cujo made a choked sound that sounded like a covered laugh. "Shut up."

Hendricks drove me to the far end of the Gold Coast, placing me squarely back in that kind of neighborhood where you didn't really belong if you didn't make at least six figures a year. In between some of the skyscrapers were some shorter, more modest buildings, and Fournier was one of them. It was a brick, octagonal building with a courtyard out front with umbrellaed cafe seats and immaculately trimmed greenery. The pathway up to the French doors was lit by lanterns, giving off a softer light than the usual electric lamps would.

Hendricks pulled up to the place, then stopped. "Go in, tell them your name, they'll take you to see him. Got to park this."

"They have valets." I pointed.

"Mr. Marcone's cars don't get touched by valets. Too dangerous."

"Oh, his paranoia thing again."

Hendricks gave me a cold look. "Someone put some plastic explosives under his car a few years back. Not paranoia if it's justified, Dresden."

I couldn't argue with that. I got out of the car and waved Hendricks off before heading inside.

A doorman was waiting just inside, all prim smile and eager hospitality. His smile slipped when he spotted my staff. It obviously wasn't a walking staff, but he didn't seem to want ask if he could store it in the coat room for me. I saved him the indecision by walking right past him and to the woman in charge of reservations, bringing my staff with me. "Hi, I'm supposed to be meeting someone here, my name's Harry Dresden."

The woman made a little gasping noise before nodding. "Of course, sir. We have you in the first VIP room. If you'll follow me?" She beckoned me along, leading me to the back of the restaurant and up a small flight of stairs. The top level was a long, curved hallway that seemed to loop around the entire building. It had a few doors to enclosed rooms in the middle. The woman walked me to one such door and opened it for me, giving me a half-bow as she waited for me to enter.

I did, and quickly, feeling even more out of place. "You don't have to, that's..." As soon as I was inside, though, she closed the door and left me alone.

Well, alone with Gentleman Johnny, anyway. He was sitting at the far side of a small, circular table, swirling something in a wine glass as he watched me with dark eyes. "Harry. My apologies, I should have remembered how being treated with respect upsets you."

I glared at him. "It doesn't upset me."

"All right," he agreed, obviously indulging me. He stood up, gesturing to the chair across from him. "Will you sit?"

I looked at the table again. It was... tiny, maybe six or seven feet across. At the moment, there was just a bottle of wine, some crystal glasses, and a few candles on the red linen tablecloth, but even then there wasn't much room. It was going to be an... intimate meal, for want of a better word.

I sat down, tucking my staff through the arm of the chair, trying not to feel like making an excuse and running away. Private room at one of the most luxurious restaurants in the city, what was this costing Marcone? All just for a meeting? Stars and stones.

Marcone poured me a glass of wine before settling back in his seat. He seemed content to just sip his wine and watch me, so I struck up the conversation with, "Okay, what do you want?"

"Mm, I don't know... World peace, an end to hunger, the usual things. You can drink the wine, Harry. I find poisoning drinks tacky." He kept his face a blank slate, all business, but his eyes were bright with humor. That was usual, though. Everything you needed to know about John Marcone was in his eyes if you cared to look. Sadly, I don't think most people dared.

"Ha ha, scumbag," I muttered, taking a sip. I wish I could sound sophisticated and say it tasted like it came from the hills of south France or that it was woody and well-aged, but it just tasted like red wine. What can I say, I lack the palate for this stuff. "What'd you want to talk about?"

"I make it a rule not to discuss business on an empty stomach."

"I had lunch. We can talk."

Marcone shook his head and slouched sideway in his chair, wineglass on his knee and head resting on his fist. "Allow me to rephrase. What I want to discuss is sensitive and I'd rather eat first, then talk. Less likely one of the staff will walk in at a bad time that way."

I leaned forward on my folded arms. "So you want me to just sit here and make chit-chat with you?"

"Is that so hard?"

"Well, let's see, you're a--"

"--criminal scumbag, yes," Marcone finished. "Yet we worked together for a month and a half, as you recall. We did develop something of a rapport in that time."

I shook my head. "That's different."

"How so?"

"You were trying to charm me. Get me to like you so I'd go along with whatever scheme you cooked up." I gave him an angry look, still sore from my realization of what Marcone was doing to me during our time in the Opal Office. "It's not going to work again."

Marcone stared at me for a long moment. Behind his eyes, I could see his calculating mind ticking away at me, running the numbers again. Then he drained the rest of his glass and shook his head. "Harry... Oh, Harry, what am I going to do with you..."

I dug up the words like a half-forgotten memory. "Don't call me that."

Marcone narrowed his eyes at me. "No, I think I will. It doesn't seem much to ask, given our relationship."

"We don't have a relationship."

Now he actually rolled his eyes. "Yes, because I often send helicopters and aid to people I don't know."

I was about to snap at him about how I didn't ask for his help, nor did I need it, but the door opened. A few waiters with silver trays walked in and started bustling around. Plates of steaming hot food were placed on the table, a new bottle of wine was poured, and dinner was served. Marcone said a few words to them before shooing them out of the room.

Marcone had some rich salad with a sweet-smelling dressing, piled with vibrant, fresh vegetables and grilled chicken. I had a hearty dish with braised duck in a heavy wine sauce that tasted even better than it looked. "You ordered for me?"

Marcone nodded. "Yes. Because I know you prefer duck to other types of meat though you don't get to eat it often. Just like you know how many languages I speak and that I require a latte in the morning before my higher brain functions can kick in. I know your decorating style is severely colorblind, but centered around comfort since you fill your home with rich, warm textures. You know that I am fastidious to a degree that would lead many to call me a 'neat freak.' You once knew nothing about me except my reputation and were fearless in my presence. Now that you've seen the sort of man I am in private, something about me scares you." He picked his fork and speared some spinach and tomato onto it. "What I don't know is why."

The silence after that was deafening. It lasted throughout the meal, as we each worked our way through our food. He didn't push, and I was glad since I needed the time to think.

I hated that he always knew when I needed him to back off.

He was right, of course. We did have a relationship. And, yes, he did scare me. I didn't want to admit that, but it was true. Maybe it was the fact that he would kill a man in cold blood then turn around and save both Susan and I from vampires. Maybe it was the fact he was the most dangerous man in the city who knew where I was and what I was doing at any given time, but sent people like Franklin to tail me when he was worried. Maybe it was the fact he worried, fretted over his people and me like some unholy mix of a CEO and a den mother. Maybe it was that look he got when he looked out over Chicago. Maybe it was the fact I'd caught him looking at me in a similar fashion.

Maybe the answer was D, all of the above.

I held out my glass to him, letting him pour me more to drink. As I sipped the wine, he moved to a covered platter the staff had left for us and lifted the top. He sliced the pastry cake inside and dished out a slice for each of us, mine twice as big as his. "Mille-feuille," he murmured, whatever that meant, before taking his seat again.

I took a few bites of my cake. Then I said, "What do you want from me, John?"

He set down his fork and laced his fingers together, resting his chin there. He regarded me quietly for a moment, eyes half-lidded and greener than usual. When he spoke, it was a quiet rumble that abruptly reminded me of the tiger he'd been in my dream, the tiger he was even as he sat there in front of me. "I want you to help me save Chicago. I want to drive Bianca St. Clair and her kin from this city and salt the Earth where they once stood."

"That's--"

He kept going. "I want you to teach me about the threats to my city. I want you to help me contain them. I want to help you become stronger and add your strength to mine in safeguarding this place. I want you, as my advisor and my partner in this. I want your trust, and to place mine in you in return." Marcone reached across the small table and put his hand over mine. "I want you to stop fighting me and realize what we'd be capable of together."

Hell's fucking bells. Marcone's gaze was boring into mine and I couldn't look away. It was all laid bare in his eyes, the pure honesty and the lethal determination. I'd seen his soul, and I knew now he was telling the truth, the spirit and the letter.

He wanted to get rid of the Chicago Red Court. And, unless I was misunderstanding, he didn't want to stop there.

My mouth was very dry. I croaked out, "You have no idea what you're asking."

"Then tell me, Harry."

"It's not possible, that scale of... whatever the hell you're suggesting."

"Tell me why."

"It's not that simple, John."

He smiled, not happily. "Neither was taking over the Outfit."

Okay, reason obviously wasn't going to work with him. Marcone was apparently some kind of crazy, obsessive about this in a way I hadn't seen before. So, yeah, scary. I tried to pull my hand back, but he tightened his grip. It wasn't enough to stop me, but it was a silent request.

I left my hand there, under his. I had a million questions, but one was both the shortest and the most important. "Why?"

Marcone hummed quietly, thinking. His gaze dropped to our hands, and his thumb started to rub circles into my wrist as he contemplated. "It... is something you should understand. After all, why do you help people as you do, a nearly thankless job done for people who consider you a fraud and con-artist, who have no idea what remarkable things you are capable of?"

"Because..." I shrugged. "I have to. People don't know what's out there, and the world's getting darker, more dangerous. Mysterious deaths, people gone missing without a trace, some driven mad because they messed with the wrong resident of the Nevernever... Someone has to do something."

Marcone nodded. "Exactly."

"You want me to believe Don Marcone, the most powerful man in the city, is just altruistic?"

"You gazed upon my soul. Don't be purposefully obtuse."

I used my free hand to take a gulp of wine. Nice drink, when it wasn't poisoned. "I'm not. Congrats, you're not a complete monster, but you still make money off of humanity's weaknesses and addictions. Why would I help you do this?"

There was a flash of something like doubt in Marcone's face then. I don't think he anticipated my reluctance. "Because..." His fingers toyed with one of the charms on my shield bracelet, a nervous gesture I never expected to see from him. "Because I have the ability to succeed here. And while you disapprove of what I do, you approve of how I go about it. I minimize collateral damage and follow certain rules."

"Doesn't make you a saint."

"No, but Harry," his eyes snapped back to mine. His words came faster, with more confidence, like he knew he had me. "I'm the best option. Just like you are the best option for me. If I wanted, I have another magical contractor waiting in the wings if you won't help me with this. She's just as capable as you are, but I would much rather have you."

"And why is that?"

"Because you will fight me. You have a moral code that, while it permits some grey areas, will not allow you to do anything you consider evil. And if I go too far in this, you will not hesitate to usurp me. And I want that. I need you to be my equal in this, to help me, even if that means going against me. And you are the only person I know who is both capable and willing to do that. I need you."

Hell's bells. That sounded... It wasn't the sort of thing you'd hear from a mafia lord. It seemed risky to me, to be giving me so much apparent power over him. Unless I was really mishearing him, I had permission to strike his ass down if I didn't agree with what he was doing. I... had no idea why he'd do that. Because he had to know I would. I really would take the opportunity if I felt I needed to. When you were dealing with Marcone, you were also dealing with Chicago at large by extension, and a lot of lives were at stake.

Marcone stood up and circled to my chair. Standing behind me, he put his hands on my shoulders. I stiffened at the touch, too keyed-up at the moment not to. He stayed there, and his warmth behind me made me have to suppress a shiver. "At this point I should give you another warning. This is the last chance I'll give you to walk away from me, Harry. Take on this vampire threat with me, and I swear to you we will win. And I will not end there."

I tipped my head back to look at him. "You sound like you're asking me to be your Merlin."

He smiled faintly. "I believe it'd be more accurate to say I'm asking to be your Arthur."

I don't know how long we both stayed there like that, me sitting and Marcone with his hands on me. I didn't give him an answer right away, and once again he didn't push me. But he remained where he was, making it impossible for me to think of anything else but his offer.

I couldn't believe I was considering this. This was big, and would mean my life would be filled with even more trouble than it usually was. I'd have to tell Marcone... everything. There was much more than just vampires in Chicago. The White Council would be furious at me, not just for enabling a mundane with knowledge of the supernatural, but this particular mundane. Even with all of Marcone's sources, there was plenty he had no idea about.

This wasn't a short-term deal. He was making that clear. It all made sense. That contract he had me under made arrangements for long-term employment. But given what Marcone wanted to do, it might take that long. This could be my life.

I got a wave of claustrophobia all of a sudden. "Hey, can't breathe," I gasped.

Marcone squeezed my shoulders and walked away. He wandered over to a sidebar along one wall of the room. He pulled down two tumblers. "Jack and coke?"

"Yeah, but you can hold the coke."

He smiled, a flash of white teeth in the dim light. "Liquid courage, Harry?"

"Fuck off," I said amicably, watching him pour me a whiskey on the rocks and mix himself another drink involving lemon juice and rum. "You realize you're crazy, right?"

"I do. Most people don't notice. I think wearing well-tailored suits helps."

"Pay no attention to the lunatic behind the pinstripes."

"Something like that." He handed me my drink. "Cin cin," he murmured, clinking out glasses together.

I sipped the whiskey, set it down, then said, "Okay."

"Hm?"

"I'm saying yes."

He froze, mid-drink, staring at me.

"But you have to listen to me when I tell you about what's what. I'm not just an underling you can order around. And I'm taking you at your word about being allowed to overthrow you if you get too megalomanic. And I will do it." I could barely believe I was saying this. I was signing on for the long haul. John and I versus whatever supernatural nasty showed its face in Chicago. I had no idea how to even go about that. I barely kept myself alive as it was. "I'm your partner in crime, without the crime because I'm signing on with you, not the Outfit, okay? And I reserve the right to piss you off without having to worry about you killing me." A thought struck me. "Or using those damn cuffs on me, that too."

"Yes, yes, of course," John whispered, sounding so happily surprised. He put a hand on the table, like he thought he might fall otherwise. His eyes were so very bright, and I could see him clamping down on his elation, his maddening control reining it in as best it could.

God, I was even crazier than he was. Hell's stars and bellstones, he was going to be the death of me and I had no one to blame but myself.

He swallowed thickly, his Adam's apple bobbing visibly over the collar of his dress shirt. "I can- I can draw up another contract. For myself. It’s fitting that I’m bound to you in return."

Huh. I was under the impression I would be essentially swearing my service to him, not the other way around. “We’ve moved way past mortal laws here, John. And no offence, but I don't trust your army of lawyers. A blood oath?”

He grimaced. "I'd prefer not. And I’m afraid I can’t give you my Name, either.”

I shrugged. "Handshake?"

"A little underwhelming, perhaps."

I smiled, hit by the obvious solution. I knew what I’d ask for from another wizard, from any one of my peers crazy enough to join me in something like this. John had no magic, there couldn’t be any metaphysical repercussions for his broken oath, but symbolically, I knew this would matter to him. “Then swear to me on your power, John Marcone. Swear on Chicago.”

He smiled at me slowly, approvingly, like I’d found the answer to a complex riddle. "Yes. I give you my allegiance, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, in return for your own. I swear by my power, and my city."

I had to remind myself this wasn't magically binding, not from a vanilla mortal. It couldn't be. But the part of me that could feel the hidden currents of power in the world, the part that was tied up in the energy around us, it was drawn towards him in a way that was almost physical. He was a mundane, but damn if he didn't feel like something else entirely, something I'd never encountered before. I had an urge to reach out and take hold of him, to get close, to see some physical representation of our allegiance.

“I accept.” I said, and then I picked up my drink, because I desperately needed something to occupy my hands. “Happy Anniversary, John,” I toasted him, and drained it down.

 

I woke up the next day in my own bed with a glorious hangover thanks to my overindulgence in wine and whiskey, and an unexpected lack of dread despite what had happened.

I drank a few glasses of water, popped some aspirin, and tried saying it aloud. "I'm teaming up with John Marcone to take on the supernatural world at large."

Nope. No panic, no urges to pack my things and move out of town, nothing. Well, besides the thought that this was all insane and John was going to get the both of us killed. That went without saying. I didn't know what I was getting into, but neither did he, really. At least I wasn't alone in being completely out of my depth.

I cooked up an actual breakfast, complete with bacon, scrambled eggs, and toast, which was something I only rarely did, even now that I could afford real food. I needed the fuel. It was the first day of the rest of my life, and I wanted to get started on it.

Okay, maybe this was going to end with both of us dead because we got in over our heads. But some little voice inside my said, hey, maybe not. I wasn't one for optimism, but I could be a little hopeful at the moment. Just a little.

First order of business was information. John already decided on Bianca as the biggest threat to Chicago at the moment, and he was right, considering her new position as Margravine. But John didn't even know about the Red Court and the different types of vampires. Time to fix that.

I tapped Bob's skull with a fingernail. "Wakey-wakey, Bob. We've got work to do."

"Mmmmhaaaaa," Bob yawned, and sleepily blinked his eyes on. "Boss, do you know what time it is? It's like..." He trailed off. "Boss."

I arched an eyebrow. "Aura looking weird?"

"You did something with Mr. Sexy Mafia Overlord! Was it sex? Please say it was sex."

"I made a deal. Not binding, but." I shrugged and sat down at my work table. I cleared a space to work, pulling over a spiral notebook and a pencil to write with.

"Oh." Bob sounded very disappointed. "Just a deal? That's all? Well, what sort of deal? Must've been a doozy to mix up your auras like that in the span of one evening."

I told him.

"Whoa."

"Yep." I nodded.

"Boss, you realize that's a little-- how to put this nicely..."

I offered, "Crazy?"

"I was going to say you just found the most roundabout way to form a suicide pact, but sure, crazy works too." Some humor dropped out of his voice and if I wasn't imagining it, I'd say there was some concern there. "You sure about this, Harry?"

I inhaled through my nose, held the breath, and exhaled slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm sure."

"'Kay." He peered at me for a long moment. "So. What's on the agenda for today?"

I smiled. "A crash course in vampires." I set my pencil to paper. "Talk to me, Bob. Tell me everything we need to know to take them out."

 

When you make a deal with the devil, it's good to talk it out with an expert on such things.

The Carpenter children were raking up all the fallen autumn leaves into piles under Charity's supervision. Even eight months pregnant, she commanded a stern presence, overseeing the work. The older kids had heavy duty rakes, building up big piles of leaves while the smaller ones had colorful plastic toy versions. They mostly staged swordfights, with the losers being tossed into the leaves. Michael and I sat on the back porch, observing.

"What's your heart tell you about this arrangement?" Michael asked in the tone he used when acting as parental therapist to his brood. I'm wasn't sure what it meant that he was using it on me.

"Hell, Michael, I don't know," I sighed. Michael reached behind him and grabbed an empty jar with a hole in the lid and handed it to me. I dug a dollar out of my wallet and tucked it inside. Uncle Harry's Ice Cream Fund was a big hit with the kids. "I mean, what was I supposed to do with an offer like that?"

"You could have told him no," Michael suggested. He didn't give me any indication that he had an opinion either way, just playing Devil's advocate. Heh.

"And let someone else take on the role? He's a stubborn son of a-- jerk." I didn't need to contribute to the swear jar any more today. "At least with me, I can hold him accountable and keep him on the straight and narrow."

Michael arched an eyebrow. "Harry."

"Okay, the less crooked and narrower."

Michael nodded. "That may be so. But he can't be a good influence on you."

"It's not like I'm a paragon of virtue in the first place."

"You're a good man."

"So's John," I said.

Michael didn't reply, just staring at me. I rewound the conversation and noticed belatedly what I'd said. "I mean, if we're using me as a point of comparison. He's not..."

"He is a criminal."

"It's more complicated than that."

"He kills."

"So have I," I murmured, quietly.

Michael looked back to his children. He did that a lot when he needed to think. I didn't understand it, having no frame of reference for that kind of companionship. I was a solitary person. The only 'people' I shared my apartment with were a cat and a talking skull and it'd been that way for a long, long time. Michael had a support system, and everything he did had to be what was right for all the Carpenters. I wondered if that was a burden or a relief for him. Probably the latter, for some reason I couldn't fathom.

Eventually he said, "You're an adult, Harry. I don't need to tell you what you're getting mixed up with. I cannot give you absolution for what you are doing."

"But should I be wanting absolution?"

"Do you?"

I groaned. "That's what I'm asking."

Michael gently grinned and patted my arm. I glared back at him. What was the point of the whole paragon act if you weren't going to help the less virtuous masses? Clearly Michael thought I had to figure things out myself. That seemed unfair to me, since he always had Charity to help him out. I wanted a Charity of my own.

Erm. So to speak. I watched Charity heave two of her quarreling children apart and start telling them off. I had over a foot of height on her, but I was certain she could knock me around easily. Fierce was Charity Carpenter, wife of the Fist of God.

"If I may?" Michael asked.

"Please."

"You seem content with your decision, but are trying to find justification not to be. You know what you've gotten yourself into and feel like you should feel shame or guilt. But you don't."

I nodded. "Sounds about right."

"Are you willing to go back on your deal with Marcone?"

"No." I'd sworn on my name and power. Even if I hadn't... I didn't want to. That was it, my issue with the whole thing.

Michael nodded in that sagely, zen way he had. "Did you want me to tell you what you're doing is wrong and you should stop?"

I shifted, looking away, out at the kids, who were back to diligently raking under Charity's watchful eye. "That would be selfish and an abuse of our friendship." Which meant 'maybe a little.'

He patted my shoulder again, the gesture comforting in that fraternal way that was almost completely foreign to me. Michael and I were more different than we were alike, but I considered him the closest I had to family. I assumed this was what having an older brother would feel like. All I could do was guess.

"What'll you do now?" Michael asked.

"Go see John. Brief him on vampires. Figure out how he expects us to do this."

"I don't approve of him, Harry." His voice was quiet, managing to pass judgement without sounding judgemental. "I don't know what this is going to mean for you. But if I can help you in any way..."

"Thank you." It was more than I hoped for, when I decided to tell my Knight of the Cross friend that I was voluntarily working with John. I still had to tell the Alphas, but I was waiting until our next game night for that. I was fairly sure if I explained the situation, they'd be okay with it. Susan... that was another story entirely. I didn't know how or when I was going to tell her. So far, that had me more nervous than the vampires.

Speaking of. "Well, I've got to run. Need to go find John's new office." I stood up and grabbed my staff. "Thanks, Michael."

He wished me godspeed and I accepted a group hug from the younger Carpenters before heading off into the Chicago night.

Chapter Text

Despite having pretty much designed the thing myself, I had yet to see John's new office-cum-magical bunker. It was in some building he was renovating. I called and got directions, and after an hour of navigating traffic wound up in front of a very nice multi-storied building with a clean, modern stone facade. The frosted glass doors proclaimed it Executive Priority. Which had to be up there with Ganymede as far as pretentious, vague names went.

Upon entering, being stopped by guards, and warding them off with a simple utterance of my name-- did the entire city know who I was thanks to John?-- I found out that Executive Priority was apparently a ridiculously exclusive spa and gym. The aesthetic seemed to be taking its cues from the old Opal Office, a lot of glass of varying opacities, shiny floors, chrome fixtures. A lot of it was still being finished with contracted workers carrying things from room to room, polishing floors, and cleaning out the dust. An electrician was setting up sleek, pearly computers up at the front desk. I steered clear of them, just in case.

I poked my nose around for a while before Cujo caught me in the zen garden. I was drawing a rocket into the smooth sands with the tip of my staff when he stuck his head into the room. "Dresden."

"Hi," I said cheerfully, adding some fire to the end of the rocket.

"What are you, five?"

"No, I just keep in touch with my inner child." I etched some stars into the scene I was making. "John busy?"

"For you? Nah." He waved me along, leading me upstairs.

The office was coming together. The floors were laid, along with the mock-threshold. I stood just outside it, looking around. I could see the realization of my design very well, as the furniture hadn't been brought into the room yet. The complicated parquet flooring was gorgeous off the page and actualized. I took a minute picking out the pentacle hidden in the woodwork and the empty slots waiting for the silver discs I'd yet to place.

It was hard not to look like an idiot when you were wearing a orange hard hat and a Dior Homme suit, but it would likely take concentrated effort for John to look anything less than immaculate. He was speaking in quiet tones to one of the workers, pointing to the mirror being embedded in the far wall, the basis for a mirror ward that would kick the ass of anyone who attempted a long-range curse on John. Mirrors always made me nervous, and I wanted to step forward and quiz the worker myself to make sure the mirror placement was perfect, that the barrier runes inscribed around the outside were correct, but stayed put, leaning on the door frame instead.

Hendricks waited for a break in the conversation and touched John's arm lightly. He turned, eyes finding mine in an instant and...

I looked away. I don't know why, exactly. There was just too much.... too much everything in his eyes. I wish I hadn't started noticing that because now it seemed I couldn't stop.

I heard him come closer and lean on the door frame, on the other side of the threshold. "Harry."

"John. Got some time?"

"Perhaps." I dared to meet his eyes again. He gestured to the office. "What do you think?"

I nodded. "It's... good. Really good."

"I assumed as much, since you haven't tried to come inside. The threshold works?"

"It'll work better once I get everything connected to the ley lines."

"Excellent." He left the room, fingertips just barely brushing along my arm. "I have a quiet place we can discuss things. Oh, but first," he turned back to me. "You have my standing invitation to enter my office anytime you like, Harry Dresden."

I bit my lip to suppress my grin. "You shouldn't just do that, John."

"I'll be careful. Come along."

I followed, head ducked, and mentally berated myself to chill out. Of course he invited me in. We were in this together, it'd only save time in the long run. But it still made my chest tight with... something. Excitement, anticipation, something else.

We shut ourselves in a finished, unadorned room that Marcone seemed to be using as an interim office. Hendricks stood by the door, which lacked a proper lock so a bodyguard version would have to do. I pulled my spiral notebook out of my duster pocket and tossed it on the desk. "There. Your briefing on Red Court Vampires."

John stared at the notebook for a moment. "Red Court Vampires."

"Yep." I flopped down in a loose sprawl in one of the guest chairs, slouched far down so my legs stretched out. "Bianca and her House are Reds."

"That... that would imply that there are other varieties of vampire," he murmured.

"Red, White, Black, and Jade. Though there's no Jade Court House on this continent that I know of, so we don't have to worry about them." I laughed at his sudden reticence. "Second thoughts, John?"

"No! No." He shook his head and sat down, pulling my notes towards him. "Just give me a moment to look at this, would you?"

"Have at." I shut my eyes and relaxed into the seat.

 

Over the next two hours, I snuck in a short nap, talked about some of the latest movies with Hendricks, and watched as John gradually ruined the crisp, perfect part of his hair from all the times he ran his fingers through it. He'd read my report three times, then went through it a fourth time with a red pen and blue highlighter, jotting things down all over my notebook.

"I'm not getting that back, am I?" At that, John lifted his head and gave me a long, slow blink. I relented with, "Buy me a new one."

"I'll buy you as many as you like." He flipped the notebook closed. "And something better than dollar store brand," he added, looking with distaste at the cover's gaudy, cheap paisley pattern.

"So." I rocked back on the hind legs of the chair, balancing so I swayed minutely to and fro. "Thoughts?"

"Yes. Many." He steepled his fingers, which was reminding me less of a supervillain and more of just him, one of his tics. He rested his mouth against his fingers, tapping lightly as he organized his thoughts. "If the Margravine's House is expanding..." He sighed. "A quick, scorched earth tactic would have been suitable the day after her taking power. By now, she will be in the process of collecting innocents to feed upon. Addicting them, bending their minds, putting the suitable ones to work in her Velvet Room..." He grimaced.

"You don't approve, I take it."

"I always disliked those who... sample their own wares, be it in the drug or sex trades. What the Margravine does is a perverse extension of that." He waved a hand. "My point is that we'll have to find a way to push this Red Court out of Chicago. To make it so Margravine St. Clair would benefit from leaving and taking her kind with her." He brought his pen to his lips, running the cap idly, tracing the bow of his mouth as he talked. You'd think he was orally fixated, the way he kept doing that...

I zoned out a little, watching him. "Sorry, what?"

John shot me a displeased look before repeating himself. "I said, however we proceed, we must avoid endangering the lives of those enthralled in the House."

"Yeah, of course."

He hummed, watching me. "You're slower than normal, Harry. Go home, get some sleep. The solution we need won't present itself immediately."

I bobbed my head. "'Kay. Sounds good to me." If I was dozing off while listening to him, he was probably right. It was never a good idea to deal with John without all your mental faculties in order.

As I stood and got my staff, he asked, "Can I have someone drive you home?"

"Nah, got the Beetle, I'm good."

Just the mention of my faithful automotive companion brought a frown to his face. "Let me buy you a new car for your birthday, please."

I laughed. I don't know what the Beetle did to offend him, but it had done a good job of it. There was the matter that John could afford to make good on getting me a car though, and I had to shut him down before he got any ideas. "You get me a car for my birthday and I swear I will drive the fucking thing into the Lake. I'm not kidding."

He sighed. "So can I expect you tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow? For what?"

"To go over some possible courses of action."

That seemed like jumping the gun to me. I mean, planning to drive out a horde of deeply entrenched Reds should have taken a little while. It wasn't the sort of thing you had hashed out over brunch. "Don't you need some time to plan first?"

I got another impatient hand wave. "I already have a few plans in mind. I simply need a few hours to see what favors are owed to me and how to orchestrate certain events."

"Favors? Is that your term for pointing a gun at someone until they answer 'how high' when you say 'jump?'" He made it sound so innocent, if that was the case.

John smiled at me, his expression amused but infinitely patient. "Harry, you'll find my favorite currencies are favors and secrets. Violence and threats aren't good for business outside of establishing dominance. It is always better to simply make it profitable for people to work with you of their own volition."

God, he was creepy sometimes. That hadn't changed now that we were signed onto this mad-cap scheme together. 'Establishing dominance,' who used phrases like that besides David Attenborough? I headed for the door. "Bye, John."

"Sleep well, Harry."

 

It was like I was back working on the project with John. I spent my day as I normally did, putting in some office hours, checking in on my friends, then went over to see John in the evening.

Tonight, the new office was empty and I took the time to install the thirteen silver disks into the floor under his watchful eyes. As I did, John paced in circles around the room, outlining his plan for Bianca.

"There are certain structural and health codes that must be followed by any business in Chicago, even one posing as an escort service." He sounded like he was speaking from experience there. "I have a friend in Health and Safety who could perform a surprise inspection for us."

I inelegantly pounded my fist on a disk to force it into the parquet flooring. John looked about to ask if I needed help, which I didn't, thanks. I pointed out a flaw in his plan to distract him. "Bianca will work her mojo to make sure the inspector doesn't care if she's using toothpicks as support beams."

John's face fell into something like a pout, but much more mature and befitting a man of his stature. Still, it resembled pouting. "Is there nothing we could do to counteract the venom?"

"Well..." I sat back on my haunches, brushing my sweat-damp bangs out of my face. Cujo stepped out of the non-existent shadows and pulled my coat off my shoulders, which helped a good deal. "Thanks, Cujo. I could probably make an anti-venom potion, but we'd have to find a way to make him drink it without clueing him in. And potions universally taste like crap." That's what happened when you cooked with metaphor and association instead of actual ingredients. In the end, you still had to drink the thing and symbolism wasn't tasty.

"I'll take care of it." John resumed his staid pacing.

He walked by me, and I glanced up at him through my eyelashes, hands still set to my task. "I thought you didn't poison drinks because it was tacky."

"This is not poisoning. If anything it's... fortifying."

"All right then, how about this? What happens when Bianca just up and eats your inspector buddy?"

"Your report says the Red Court works in close proximity to humans by influencing and manipulating mortal authorities." He stopped, staring down at me with his hands folded in front of him. "A mysterious disappearance would not attract the type of attention the Margravine wants. And, as opportunistic as it sounds, if she was stupid enough to act so heavy-handedly, it would make our task immeasurably easier. Trust me on the mundane end of our plans, Harry."

I snorted. If he thought he could handle it, fine, I could go with that. "All right, so your plan is to remove the Red Court via Health and Safety," I said, voice deeply sardonic.

He looked vaguely offended by my skepticism. "It's one step in the plan. If the Margravine's brought up on code violations, she'll have to hire a contractor to fix them. Thus, she'd have to use a contractor known for being discreet about... extra-legal activities like running a sex trade. At this point, she had no reason to expect hostility from me, and the company she will undoubtedly hire for her repairs is one that belongs to me."

I had to laugh at that. "Hell's bells, is there a pie in this city you don't have a finger in?"

John finally joined me on the floor, folding himself delicately down to sit across from me as I worked another disk into the floor. "I would have to check my records to say for sure. I daresay there must be something." He grinned briefly before his face went back to business mode. "Now, my people repair her building problems and at the same time install a few contingency measures in case our situation becomes dire. I'll have the newspapers report on the situation, coloring the Velvet Room as an unsafe business environment that will do absolutely anything to cut costs."

The entire idea was a little strange to me. Maybe because I was a direct approach kind of guy and John was... not. "So we're taking down a Red Court House with surprise inspections and smear campaigns."

"You are not actually this oblivious, are you?" He ignored my indignant noise and elaborated. "Think about it, Harry. We are threatening her House. The literal symbol of her power. She is meant to protect her people, give them safe harbor, feed them. What we're doing will bring up questions about whether she is a capable Margravine just after she received her title. It'll be humiliating and weaken her position in her Court."

"You think that'll help?"

"We are dealing with monsters, perhaps, but we are dealing with a society of them that is subject to the same politicking and social hierarchy. It is always prudent to weaken your enemy before open hostility."

I nodded along and had to admit, even if I had John's resources, I would not have considered anything like this. Maybe Bob was right to joke that I was a practitioner of the burn first, ask questions later persuasion. Then again, if you told me a year ago I'd be taking on a Red Court House, I'd have laughed in your face and told you even I wasn't that reckless. John made the endeavor sound like simple business. "Well, sounds like you've got all of this under control. Maybe I'll take a vacation."

John chuckled low in his throat. "Not feeling neglected, are you? I assure you, I'll need your services in a more hands-on manner soon. When you threaten someone's territory, they usually react violently in defense. You once told me something about not hitting beehives unless I wanted to get stung?"

I spun a disk between my fingers, showing off a little magician's dexterity. John watched appreciatively, which I was... okay with. "What do you want me to do?"

"For now, not much. Keep your head down, brew me that anti-venom potion, and please stop shaking the tails I put on you."

Oh, so he'd heard about that. Often when I went about my day, I'd discover a car following me at a distance. They never did anything, just observed. I got a kick out of losing them, if only because a seasoned mobster who can't follow Joseph's Technicolor DreamBug must have felt pretty pathetic. "It's good practice for my driving skills."

"They're for your safety."

"You're a fucking stalker, have I mentioned that?"

John didn't smile, but I could see he wanted to. "I believe you have, once or twice. But please, Harry. We're instigating trouble with the Margravine. I want to know you'll have backup when you need it."

I looked down at my work, wedging another disk in. There was that thing he did again, the worrying. For as overindulged he was with his fine suits and his palatial home and his magically reinforced offices, he never wanted his people to go to waste.

"Harry."

"Fine, fine. You owe me, scumbag," I muttered.

"I assure you, I don't mind," he murmured.

 

And so it was that the Business section had an article on Bianca St. Clair, owner of the Velvet Room, falling into a bit of trouble when her business license was suspended due to a major structural problem discovered in her establishment after a surprise inspection. I tried not to feel smug when I read the root of the problem seemed to be some poorly repaired fire damage. The article was scathing and blasted Bianca, just as John said it would. It managed to say, 'for all your brothel needs, go elsewhere' without actually mentioning what Bianca's business was.

"Interesting that this inspection happens right after the party," Susan said, sipping her cappuccino as she read the paper next to me. My apartment was filled with cooling anti-venom potions-- John thought it'd be a good idea to stock up while we could-- so we went out to a nice cafe instead of lounging around at my place.

"Yeah, weird timing, that," I said noncommittally. I didn't want to encourage Susan's interest. The last time she heard something juicy about the Red Court, she'd thrown herself into danger for the greater good, and that was my gig, thank you. Things were about to get infinitely more dangerous. John's inclination towards damage control would only stretch so far.

So I was keeping something big from my girlfriend. She didn't know about the Red Court and she didn't know about my new arrangement with John. It wasn't that I didn't trust her, but the situation was complicated.

And I was scared she'd disapprove. Hell, I expected more support from Michael and the Alphas over this than I did from my own girlfriend. Not that we didn't... have... emotions and such. (I have a deep-set fear of the L-word, it's stupid and macho, I know.) Because we did. I cared about Susan and I thought she cared about me as well.

But she did 'borrow' John's phone number out of my black book and she did take that invitation to Bianca's party. She used me as a resource for her articles and for tips. And I was okay with that most of the time, but that didn't stop me from wondering sometimes if we'd be together if that wasn't the case. If I wasn't so useful.

Sometimes, my relationship with my girlfriend was more complex than my relationship with the local crime lord and mafia don. My life was weird.

It got worse when Susan added a little cinnamon to the top of her drink and asked, "So, did you and that asshole Marcone have your talk yet?"

She was completely casual as she asked, but nervousness roiled in my gut. What was I supposed to say? Yes, John and I talked and swore allegiance to each to each other, I hope that's okay? "Yeah, we... talked."

Her dark eyebrows arched. "Talked? Just talked, right? He didn't..." She made a vague gesture, indicating something. "You know."

"Uh. No?"

"Good," she said, nodding. "I don't like playing the jealous girlfriend."

I drank my coffee and said nothing. I was missing a big piece of this equation, and it was probably related to that thing I wasn't allowed to think about in regards to John.

Sometimes my mind strayed when I was with him, just a little bit. It was simple curiosity, I assumed, the kind people got out of their systems by joining frat houses and sports teams. The kind I didn't need to indulge in because I had an incredible girlfriend. But sometimes it was... fun. To just banter back and forth with John. It was a small comfort now that I had this giant secret I had to keep from Susan. And John, ever competitive, seemed to enjoy our... whatever it was. Not flirting, because I, Harry Dresden, do not flirt with men. It was more like pulling his pig-tails. I mean, someone had to. I was practically fulfilling a civic duty.

It didn't matter. It didn't count. It was just something that took away the sting of fear I got when I remembered what I was doing. I'd attached myself to John, and we were opening fire on Bianca, which meant I was going to be right in the middle of a supernatural conflict I'd helped create. And I couldn't even tell Susan for fear that she'd be in more danger.

You take your comforts where you can. It wasn't kind to Susan but I refused to risk her safety again.

 

I was doomed to never have a good birthday apparently. It was like I'd been cursed.

I got two presents this year. The first was a large box sitting on my desk when I got into my office. It was completely unmarked and gave no sign of the contents, but there was a note on top that said, Next year, a car.

"Not on your life, John," I muttered, grabbing my letter opener and slicing through the tape.

He got me a box of notebooks. Customized Moleskine notebooks, half with the Chicago skyline etched into the front, half with a stylized pentacle. They were all different sizes and colors and each had a band of elastic to keep them shut. A small leather tag on the band had H.B.C.D. in fancy calligraphic lettering. I looked inside one book and found crisp, blank, lined sheets and a map of Chicago in the back pages.

The entire box had to be worth over two hundred dollars. I was never giving him permission to buy anything for me ever again. I almost called him to tell him so, but that would've been letting him get a reaction out of me too easily. It was bad to encourage him. I resolved to yell at him later.

Which was good, because I'd have to check in with John after my next 'present,' which walked into my office right after sundown wearing an extremely low cut red dress and an expression that was as sour as milk two weeks past its expiration date.

"Mr. Dresden," Bianca purred, shutting the door behind her. "I thought we could talk."

I responded by pointing my blasting rod in her face. "I disagree. Get out." My voice was cool and angry. I was glad that the fear that suddenly shot through me didn't show. Stars, I was scared though. A Margravine of the Red Court who gleefully bent Hospitality Laws to the breaking point and had a special vendetta against me-- I'd take a harmless, depressing Boystown exorcism case over this any day of the week.

I hated Halloween.

She held her slim, pale hands up placatingly. "I simply wish to talk, Mr. Dresden." She looked at the glowing tip of my blasting rod, then back at my face. "Though your reaction is enlightening, I must say."

"Office hours are over," I grit out.

"I'll keep this short then." She crossed her arms under her breasts, which did interesting things to her neckline. Or it would have if I hadn't already seen the monster under her fake skin. Knowing what was hidden beneath that mask was a big turn-off. "I know what John Marcone is doing. We've coexisted peacefully in this city since he took power and I am sad to see his greed is leading us down this path. I was happy to let him maintain his business with the more pedestrian trade. He should have been content with that."

I narrowed my eyes at her. "What makes you think I can deliver a message to John Marcone?"

She laughed in my face. "Wizard, do you think your dalliances with him are unknown to us?" Bianca gave me a long look up and down, eyes gleaming with lascivious hunger.

"Yeah, okay," I said, aiming for sarcasm. I didn't want to confirm whatever rumors were swirling in the occult side of Chicago. "If that's all, you can leave now before I torch you."

"Tell John Marcone this is his only warning, and he should be glad I am willing to forgive this trespass." She turned and sashayed to the door. "Any more attempts against my House will be met with overwhelming force." Bianca flicked her gaze back over her shoulder at me. "And I will only be sated when I have him on his knees before my throne, blood offered up to my children and me."

Hell's bells. "You should know better than to mix business and pleasure, Bianca. Only leads to trouble."

"Trouble for you, perhaps." She opened the door, but leaned back inside to leer at me again. "You'd make a delightful appetizer, wizard." Her pink tongue traced her lipstick red lips before she smirked at me and left.

I kept my blasting rod lifted and ready as I listened to her walk down the hall and get into the elevator. Only after the sound of the elevator's descent faded away did I sit heavily down in my chair and grab my phone, my rod still clutched in one hand, just in case.

"Hi, John," I said in a faux-cheerful voice as he picked up. "You'll never guess who was in my office just now."

 

By the time I got to the mansion, John was out of his suit and wearing yoga pants, a grey tee, and a gold crucifix around his neck. He stood barefoot in the foyer as I was escorted in, rubbing a towel through damp hair.

"Crosses only work if there's belief behind them to support the symbolism," I said.

"I'm an Italian-American living in Chicago, Harry. I know the act of contrition in both English and Latin," he replied. Then the conversation took a swerve when he said, "Let me see your neck."

"My what?"

"Neck. Unbutton your shirt and show me your neck or I'll have Mr. Hendricks do it for you."

It took me a second to figure it out, but once I did, I kind of felt relieved that he took my report so seriously. It was still a novel surprise when people listened to what I told them. I slowly undid the top three buttons of my shirt and pulled my collar away from my neck to display my unbitten skin. "Happy now?"

John let out a breath, deflating a little into someone less stand-offish and more familiar to me. "My apologies. I wanted to be sure. Have you eaten?"

I shook my head and let him settle me into the dining room. He padded into the kitchen, and I could watch him through the doorway as he worked. "Shouldn't we talk about the Bianca thing?"

"You should eat something," he called back. I watched him cut two slices out of a loaf of bread and pull five different types of meat and cheese out of the fridge. He assembled a sandwich, tossed it into a toaster oven, then added cucumber and tomato. He cut it neatly in two before carrying it out to me and taking a seat by me. Such a mother hen. "Button up, you look like an exotic dancer."

I felt myself go a little red, but did so. "You ready to talk now? Or maybe you want to fuss some more first?" I took a bite out of my sandwich and ohmygod. An embarrassing sound ground out of my throat as I tasted it, tangy and salty with an almost nutty cheese that was melty and awesome. "Stars, why is this so good?"

"Avocado spread," John replied a little smugly.

I was pretty sure I couldn't identify an avocado in a line up, but damn if it didn't turn the sandwich into ambrosia of the gods. "I see what you're doing," I said between bites. "You're conditioning me to like you. You're always giving me amazing food. It's positive reinforcement." I took another giant bite and licked a smear of green spread off my thumb. "Read abou' it in a magazine."

His lips twitched, the start of a smile. "Yes, Harry. I'm using food to bribe you into liking me. Is it working?"

"If I say yes, can I have more?"

John's smile finally appeared, sudden but bright, like it'd been accidentally spilled across his mouth. "Perhaps we could focus on the topic at hand?"

Right. Red Court Vamp showing up at my office to menace me and John. I worked on the other half of the sandwich slowly, explaining what happened and what Bianca had said. As I did, John's face gradually went grim and somber as I related Bianca's threat. "She went to you. Caught you when you were alone and vulnerable."

I waved a bit of bread crust at him. "Alone, yes. Vulnerable, no. I was inches away from burninating her ass."

"You're missing the point. She went to you, not me. She had no reason to do that but to send a message."

I shrugged. "Maybe she didn't want to make an appointment. I don't blame her; have you met your secretary?"

John glared at me, decidedly not in a ha-ha mood. I held up my hands in surrender and relented, picking at the remains of my meal. John simply sat there, drumming his fingers on the table as he thought.

He only came out of his head when a grandfather clock somewhere rung out. I counted twelve chimes, so it must've been midnight. John nodded at the sound. "It's late." He pushed his chair back and stood. "You'll stay here tonight. That is not negotiable." He didn't hang around, walking to the stairs without further remark.

Not this again. "Hey, hey, you forgetting that you swore to me, John? We're equals in this! You can't boss me around."

"I have my limits. Allowing you to return to your home, alone, without support right after the Margravine threatens to eat you just so you can remind me again of your autonomy is one such limit." He shook his head and suddenly looked tired, which was a new expression I'd not seen on him before. "Go to bed, Harry. We'll come up with a plan tomorrow."

Something about seeing him like that, silently weary, lacking that imperviousness and knowing something about Bianca threatening me had triggered it... I nodded to him. "Okay."

His smile then was the soft, melancholic one I'd seen only once before. The one that made him look so much younger, but made something in me tighten painfully. I examined the new lines of his face, how that smile relaxed his expression in strange ways. I tried to memorize the look, not knowing when I'd see it again. Now that I took care to notice, I could see the faint longing in his eyes. He always got that look when he looked out over Chicago.

Seeing it left me with such a calm, content sensation in my chest, I totally forgot to yell at him about the stupid expensive Moleskines I didn't need.

Chapter Text

For someone who was allegedly my equal, John was a bossy son of a bitch. While he made Bianca's life hell on the mortal side of things, I was stuck on a date with Susan and two unwanted guests. Bianca threatening me pissed John off something awful, and we'd had a small fight about putting a protection detail on me. Or, I had a fight at him while he just politely ignored all the really crass names I called him and told him where he could stick his protection detail.

I was pretty sure I'd won the argument through sheer bloodymindedness. Now, a few days later, I figured I was wrong. I didn't spot any cars tailing me, but I was beginning to think whoever John put on my trail was just better at being inconspicuous. That was the only explanation for the fact I looked over Susan's shoulder and saw two guys I knew from John's private guard in a booth across the room. What were the odds Tweedledee and Tweedledum had dinner in the same place that I took my girlfriend out to?

Susan followed my gaze over her shoulder. "What do you keep looking at?"

"Nothing. What'd your editor say about the vampire article?"

She shrugged and started winding a dark curl around her finger idly. "The usual. It's clever and entertaining. They don't believe a word of it. I even showed them the invite."

I had her hand in mine across the table and rubbed my thumb over her wrist. "There's plenty of people in the know who read your column. They believe it."

"I don't care about them," she said, frustration coloring her words. "I need the poor saps out there who have no idea. I need a bigger readership."

I felt for her, I really did. Mortals who would even read past the title of one of Susan's articles were few and far between. "I know, Susan."

"If I could just get more to read-- they don't even have to believe it, you know? They could just read it and in the back of their minds, they'll have the information for when the time comes." She brought my hand up to her face and I cupped her cheek, caressing soothingly. "Sorry. I know, you already know all of this. I'm preaching to the choir here."

"It's fine. I know you've got to get it all out sometimes." It was hard to squash the feeling that I had an audience. I glanced over at my babysitters again and resolved to really yell at John this time, no getting distracted.

"Okay, what is over there?" Susan turned around in her chair, looking at the goons in the far booth. She stared hard at them for a long moment and I could see one goon duck his head, looking sheepish under the scrutiny. I sighed and waved at them, and one waved back. I flipped him off and he smiled and got out his cell phone, probably to call John to give him an update.

Susan turned back to face me, looking upset. "Friends of yours?"

I tried not to look as guilty as I felt. "It's John. Something happened and now he's all paranoid. I told him to knock it off, but..."

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What happened?"

I dropped my gaze to the table. I didn't want to tell her, even if it was kind of a big deal. She'd be less than thrilled to find out how much I did know about the goings-on with Bianca St. Clair, that I was pretty much directly involved, and that I'd told a white lie about it. Hell, I was having a hard time justifying our date. Bianca had her eyes on me personally and Susan had no idea what was going on. I needed to either tell her or back off until things blew over.

See, I can be an adult sometimes, contrary to popular opinion.

"Harry," Susan said, drawing me out of my thoughts. I looked back to her soft, beautiful face. "What aren't you telling me?"

What was the right answer here? Or, what was the answer that would hurt her the least?

I was saved from having to decide when Tweedledee came up to the table and said, "Mr. Dresden."

I winced and looked up at him. "Can it wait?'

Tweedledee shook his head. "Mr. Marcone requests your presence at Executive Priority."

Not the time, John. I shook my head. "I'm busy." I felt Susan's hand tighten around my own. I wasn't going to just up and leave because John called. I didn't work for him anymore. Now he could work with me instead. Turnabout was fair play.

Tweedledee wandered away, getting his phone out again. Susan smirked at him as he retreated. "Going to finally put him in his place, Harry?"

"Something like that. I'm going to go see him later anyway. He can be a little patient."

Susan's smile faded. "You're going tonight?" She trailed her nails over my palm, light and tickling. "I was hoping to have you to myself tonight."

Oh. That sounded nice. It'd been a while since she and I had taken the time to indulge in crazy monkey sex. I'd been so caught up in things. "That sounds..." I sighed. "It sounds great, but I can't, not tonight."

"Fine." Susan pulled away, leaning back in her seat and resting her chin in both hands. "Enjoy your time at the brothel."

"Huh?" I thought over what I said, looking for where she was getting 'brothel' from. "I don't follow."

That earned me a signature, boy, are you stupid look. I get them a lot, not just from Susan. "Executive Priority."

"It's a spa gym thing."

"Yes," she said evenly. "And it's a high-class brothel." She stared at me for a moment, then laughed. "You had no idea, did you? Oh, Harry."

My dawning embarrassment was interrupted when Tweedledee came back. "Mr. Dresden."

"Yeah, what?"

"I informed Mr. Marcone of your response," Tweedledee said dutifully. "He again requests your presence with an added message, sir."

I rubbed my eyes. Pushy, bossy persistent son of a bitch. "What's the message?"

"Please."

I lowered my hand and boggled at the goon. He gave nothing away and said nothing else. That was the message. Just please.

I got a sick feeling in my gut. Something was wrong, I could feel it, like some sense of ill will was vibrating across the city from John to me. I shivered. "Okay. Call him back, let him know I'm on my way."

"Yes, sir." Tweedledee walked away again.

I stood up, and Susan rose as well. "Harry, you're not really going?"

I didn't look at her, because I'm a coward sometimes. "I have to. Something's wrong. He wouldn't call twice if it wasn't important, not when we're meeting up later." I pulled out a few twenties from my wallet and tossed them on the table before shrugging into my duster.

"Something is going on. Why won't you tell me?" She grabbed my arm as I tried to pass, stopping me. "Harry!"

I swallowed my nervousness and that ill sensation, and I looked at her. "I can't, Susan. There is something big happening, but I can't..." I put my hand on her shoulder, along the curve of her neck. I could feel the rapid beat of her pulse, something that usually made me long to stay with her and tell the rest of the world to go hang. Usually. "Let me take care of this. We can talk later."

The eyes were the windows to the soul. But as soon as I spoke, it was like she drew the blinds shut in hers. It was like she took a step away from me without even moving. "Okay."

"Okay?"

"Go, Harry." She sat back down, not looking at me.

I left. As soon as I got into the Beetle, I had the feeling I'd just screwed something up irrevocably. I hoped I was wrong, but either way, it had to wait.

 

Executive Priority had officially opened a little over a week ago and tended to get really busy in the late afternoons and evenings, after office hours. Walking in to find the place empty just made me worry more about whatever happened. I took the stairs by two, heading up to John's office as fast as my crane fly legs could carry me.

My anxiousness was unwarranted. When I got there, John was standing in front of his desk, facing a man seated in one of the guest chairs. Hendricks had his gun out, along with a few other goons who were lurking in the room, looking a mite jumpy. John looked calm, though, and that in turn calmed me.

After confirming that John was safe, I turned my attention to the guest in the room. He was a very handsome man in a paisley vest and a red shirt, soot-black slacks and shiny shoes, all his clothes showing a man of wealth and taste. He was almost pretty with a striking jawline and dark eyes. His attractiveness was hampered by how damn snooty he looked. He looked at me when I came in, sneered, and turned away again. I was impressed. It was hard to hold onto an air of superiority when you were tied to a chair with rope, zip-ties, and handcuffs.

"Harry," John said. "Close the door, if you please." His eyes didn't leave the man tied to the chair as he spoke to me, focused like a laser. I'd feel twitchy under than kind of attention, but the guy looked cool as a cucumber.

"Who's your friend?" I shut the door and sealed it with a touch of magic. John had asked for a way to shut off the room when we were designing it. It was now Hermetically sealed.

Get it? Hermetic because Hermetic magic?

Well, I thought it was funny.

"I mentioned that several of my employees were absent from work and had not phoned in to say why?" He was still staring at the sharp-dressed man. I took a closer look at John and noticed his hands fisted in front of him, the clipped sound to his words-- oh. John was pissed. The sort of pissed he only got when someone, say, accidentally got his right-hand man nearly killed by a Winter Fae.

"Um, yeah, briefly."

"Mr. Gomez here seems to be the cause of our missing workers." John pulled his crucifix out from his shirt and started to toy with it. He played it low, acting distracted, but the man in the chair-- Gomez, I guess-- watched him do it so carefully, leaning all the way back in the chair, putting distance between himself and the small symbol of faith.

Ah. Vampire.

"But what do the Reds want with a bunch of fitness instru- oh." What Susan said came back to me and it all kind of clicked together. "The girls, right? So this really is a brothel?"

Every head in the room snapped up to look at me.

John opened his mouth, shut it, and then rubbed his face. "Harry, really?"

"Well, how was I supposed to know?" And I saw Hendricks was fighting a grin, the traitor.

John made a soft sound, like my obliviousness physically pained him. His voice was muffled, his hand laid over his mouth. "What did you think the beds were for?"

"I don't know, I thought they were standard for stupidly expensive spas." Stars, self, way to look like an idiot in front of John's private guard, Cujo, and a Red.

The Red in question gave a high, conniving, annoying laugh. "This is the infamous Wizard Dresden? The way milady spoke of him, I expected someone a little more astute."

The humor was sucked out of the room immediately. Hendricks loudly clicked the safety off his gun, and five or so other guns around the room did the same as the rest of the goons followed his lead. The sound was like someone had dropped a lot of pins on the floor. John, without a word, took off his cross, wrapped the necklace around his knuckles, and punched Gomez in the face.

Gomez shrieked in pain, recoiling away and fighting against his bindings. There was an acidic, sizzling sound. Where John had hit him, there was a burn spot in Gomez's flesh mask in the shape of the cross. Gomez kept shifting, obviously pained, and tried to rub the wound against his shoulder.

"I have no patience for you after what you've done, Mr. Gomez. Be silent until you are spoken to," John said coolly, now spinning his necklace around a finger.

I walked over to stand by John, pulling my blasting rod out just in case. "He's behind the girls disappearing?"

John nodded. "Mr. Gomez has been a regular customer since opening apparently. During his time with the women, he's taken to biting them."

I wondered if John would've minded if I punched Gomez too.

What a vindictive, evil thing to do. Vampire venom was easy to get addicted to and was how they tended to calm their prey to make them compliant and to prolong feeding. But the feeding, the bite itself, did something to the victims that was extra nasty. It was some kind of inherent mind control magic that made the victim receptive to the suggestion and commands of the vampire that bit them. From what Bob told me, being bitten was almost like being enthralled temporarily. It worked with the aphrodisiac quality of the venom to snare someone in a drugged sex-haze of obedience.

"Did you get any of them? The girls, are they okay?" Anger simmered in me at the thought of someone doing this to innocent women. Maybe they worked for John, but they weren't a part of this conflict. At least, that's what I thought. Bianca apparently disagreed.

"Some." John shook his head faintly. "Most are with the Margravine. They all left Executive Priority and went to the Red Court House instead of home."

I shut my eyes. "How many?"

"We managed to intercept five before they could reach the House. We think as many as twelve have been taken."

Twelve women. I poured some anger into my blasting rod and leveled it at Gomez.

John put a hand on my arm. "Harry, don't. You'll damage the room and it's new." He was aiming for light and disinterested, but I knew he was just as livid about this as I was. His control was just better than mine. "I think we can dispose of him in a less bombastic fashion."

Gomez snarled. "This is just the beginning, mortal fool. The honorable Margravine will make you regret your arrogance! She will see you on your knees before this is over!"

John sighed. "She's said as much herself. Have you no original threats?" He touched Hendricks' arm. "Mr. Gomez is looking rather pallid. See to it he gets some sunlight before being returned to his House."

I lowered the seal on the room with a muttered word and watched Gomez, chair and all, get lifted and carried out of the room by John's goons. He started screaming in what was probably Spanish, the sound of it fading down the hall.

Good riddance.

 

John got quiet once Gomez was disposed of. He sat at his desk and made a few phone calls before resting his chin on his hands, his thinking pose. I didn't know what to say exactly, and he didn't start any conversation. Sometimes he looked at me while I wandered the room, checking the ley lines and wards. Sometimes he picked up his pen and jotted a few things down on a legal pad on his desk.

After a while, I meandered back to John and nosily leaned over to see what he was writing. It was a bulletpointed list, some brainstorming on paper.

- Perfume with holy water base.
- In house chaplain? Blessings, holy water supply? Would need to be lacking scruples to work in EP = poorly blessed water.
- Arm the women. Would have to brief them on situation. Also, weapons hard to hide when wearing lingerie.
- UV lights to emulate sunlight in all rooms. (Ask Harry.)
- Level the Velvet Room with C4.

"UV probably won't work," I informed him, moving to sit on the corner of his desk, facing him. "The whole sunlight thing is symbolic. Sunlight brings life and happiness and vitality."

"I assumed as much." He picked up his pen and crossed that option out too. He kept the pen in his hand for a long moment after, his eyes on the page. Then he sighed and set it down. "I can't believe you didn't realize Executive Priority was a brothel," he said quietly.

I let out a shocked laugh. "I... yeah, in hindsight, it seems obvious, I guess. It's a very swanky house of ill repute." Sadly, John didn't smile like I hoped he would. There was too much tension in his body. It looked like the fury had passed, but he was clearly still unhappy. I reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey."

"She came into my domain and took those loyal to me." His voice was barely above a whisper, cold and cruel. "The scorched earth strategy is very appealing right now."

I squeezed a little bit. "I know." I wish I knew what to say beyond that, but the whole situation just sucked no matter how you looked at it. John had fired the first strike, but Bianca had escalated things fast. She wasn't as neat as John was, with his rules and structures. I had no doubt he could play just as dirty as she had, but at the moment...

I just pressed a little harder against the cold jacket of his suit, wanting my warmth and support to penetrate, for him to feel a tangible comfort. John blinked, seeming to come out of his own head somewhat and looked at my hand, then me. "Is Ms. Rodriguez waiting for you back home?"

I shook my head. "Probably not. She didn't seem too happy when I bailed on her."

"I'm sorry if I ruined your date."

"Don't be," I said quickly. "Important stuff was going down. It's fine."

His gaze on me intensified. "Harry..." He trailed off, calculating, his brain ticking away. I waited for him to finish his sentence, but he muttered, "Never mind." Instead, he picked up his pen and added another item to his list.

- Ask Harry if he'll be willing to train some of my men to deal with vampires, similar to what he's done with Mr. Hendricks.

He gave me a questioning look as soon as he was finished. I nodded. "I could do that." It was worth it for the smile I got, weak but undoubtedly there.

 

I was expecting maybe a handful of John's goons to teach, and was picturing a similar format to my informal discussions with Hendricks. I could do that, that was cake. A few beers and a discussion of magical theory and defenses was my idea of a good time.

But no. Instead, I was in a board room on the upper levels of Executive Priority. John's spa-slash-gym-slash-brothel was apparently also a slash-business office. In a way, Executive Priority was like John himself. A nicely dressed version of the dark side of Chicago and a consummate multi-tasker. Me, I couldn't pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time. More and more, I was relieved John Marcone was on my side.

Or was I on his? Was there a difference?

I sat at the head of a long table in one of those amazing executive chairs, watching a group of besuited made men come in and take the rest of the seats. I recognized a few from the incident with Gomez, so some were John's bodyguards. One guy had walked in while tapping a stylus against some electronic thing in his palm, sat down, and continued to work at it. No one I knew by name.

I glanced past the goons to Hendricks, who lurked in the door, watching with narrowed eyes. He looked at me and nodded. I shook my head right back at him because I'd changed my mind and did not want to be left chairing a meeting with a bunch of strangers from the Outfit. John, I could handle. Hendricks, he and I had an understanding. These guys, I didn't know. This was going to be just like every other time I tried to tell a vanilla human about magic and the things that went bump in the night. Hell, if anything, these guys were going to be an even harsher crowd.

Hendricks shrugged, as if to say, 'what do you want from me?' And then left.

Me and him were so not buddies anymore.

So I looked upon the first initiates of the Harry Dresden Vampire School and thought about how each of them could break me in two with their bare hands.

Then I remembered I was a wizard of the White Council. If they tried anything, I could bend the inherent energy of the universe to sweep them all up into a cyclone and toss them over my shoulder. Which made me a little better.

I set my staff down on the table and rocked my chair left and right idly. "Sooo..." I got everyone except Mr. PDA to look at me. "I'm Harry Dresden. I prefer Mr. Dresden until we've been through a life or death situation or two. I guess I'll be teaching you how not to get yourselves killed in the coming months." I looked up at them, my head kept low, going for enigmatic and dangerous. "How much do you kids know about what you're up against?"

The guy closest to me raised his hand. I automatically dubbed him Franklin 2 in my head. "Vampires, right? That one of the gangs Mr. Marcone wants taken out?"

I shook my head. "No. I don't know anything about that. Not my department." Office of Supernatural Wackiness and Things With Big Teeth. "We're talking real vampires."

A roil of muttering and sideways glances crossed the table. So John had sent them to me without popping their magical knowledge cherry. I wondered why.

PDA Guy snorted and started chuckling under his breath. He kept working at his little toy. "This a joke, Dresden?"

I leaned back and fixed him with my best stormy wizard look. "Do I look like I'm joking?"

He smirked. "You're Mr. Marcone's 'wizard', right? That like a court jester? Mr. Marcone need a funny man to entertain him?"

Quietly, I said, "You're going to want to shut that thing off. Wizards and electronics don't mix well."

PDA Guy scoffed, tossed me a disbelieving look, and returned his attention to his stylus.

Okay. Now I followed John's train of thought. Of course he sent them to me fresh and unmarred by expectations. They needed to take me seriously and there was only so much John could instill in his men. Having the Outfit treat me as a VIP was easy. Making them respect me was harder.

I took hold of my staff, still slouching comfortably in my chair, and pointed my focus at the guy who mouthed off at me. I pulled up one of my favorite tricks, a minor bit of kinetomancy, extending my will along my staff and to the fancy tool in the man's hands. "Hexus."

The PDA exploded in a showy display of sparks and light. The guy yelped and dropped the thing, sliding his chair back and away from the table. His eyes were satisfyingly wide, expression perfectly surprised. Everyone looked similarly surprised, all murmurs and shocked gasps, and one mutter of "Mary, mother of Christ."

I smiled sharply. "It's Mr. Dresden. I am John's wizard. And this is Vampires 101." I let go of my staff, letting it fall back to the table with a loud thunk. The mafiosi all jumped at the sound. "Take notes."

 

"Not bad, old man," Alex the werewolf said, applauding my handling of my new students. It was game night with Billy and the Werewolves (which really needed to be the name of a punk band) and Billy was GMing a little Call of Cthulhu. Or he would be as soon as everyone settled down and actually broke out the dice. Since Cindy and Kirby weren't playing, working on papers or exams or whatever it was college kids worked on instead, I doubted we'd get around to the Eldritch abominations and sanity checks. Which was a shame, as Alex had mentioned wanting to play a guy with a phobia of books and I was looking forward to Billy tearing his hair out.

"Thank you, thank you." I clinked my beer bottle against Alex's. "I do try."

"How'd they react to that?"

I shrugged. "They shut up and listened to what I was saying. I'm not sure how much of it they believed, but I did my job."

Billy liberated the last slice of pizza with pepperoni from the box. I made googly eyes at him in hopes he'd give it up, but he looked me dead in the eye and took a big bite out of it. "Mmmm...."

"Flea-ridden mutt." I took one of the far inferior mushroom slices, trying not to sulk too much.

"You know, usually," Billy said once he swallowed, "getting you to talk about this stuff is like pulling teeth."

"Well, usually the Chicago Outfit isn't stirring up stuff with the Red Court."

Billy and Alex exchanged a look. Georgia elbowed Billy under the table. Georgia had one hell of an elbow too, and Billy made a wounded sound, frowning at her. She sighed and looked to me. "How serious is this thing with the vampires, Harry? Because there's been an influx of them in our area lately. Is it safe to say its related?"

I took a bite of pizza to make some time. So this thing with Bianca was blowing back on the Alphas. Bianca was obviously grabbing humans for feeding and converting. College kids would be a perfect target. Hell, with out of state students and those who were away from their families, it could be real easy to snatch them up. By the time their family realized they were missing, Bianca could ensnare them enough to have them call home and say everything's fine. No one would know.

I was willing to bet it wasn't just Hyde Park, either. Dammit.

"It's serious." I washed down my food with a swig of beer, then crossed my arms, leaning in towards the Alphas. "As far as I can tell, John intends to force the Red Court out of town entirely."

A hush fell over the table briefly. "Jesus, really?"

"Yeah."

Billy looked around the apartment at his fellow werewolves. I could see the pack mentality in him, how he was worrying about his clan. Georgia put her hand in his and they held onto each other for a moment. Billy regarded me soberly. "You think he can do it?"

"Yeah." I had to. Things were going to get worse before they got better. I had to believe this was all going to be worth it in the end. The endgame was either going to be hard-won victory for John and, by extension, Chicago, or it was going to be Bianca killing both of us.

Georgia put her head on Billy's shoulder, and he laid his against hers. On Georgia's other side, Alex took her other hand. I could almost feel the familial affection and support humming in the air around them. I was glad. They'd need each other in the months to come.

I tried not to feel left out, sitting across from them all by my lonesome. I shifted in my chair, wanting to excuse myself and go home. I was sort of adopted by the Alphas, an honorary member, as I was with the Carpenters. That said, I was with them, but not of them. Being there was a bit intrusive on my part.

Alex seemed to notice my discomfort and asked, "What about Susan? She hearing anything about this?"

I'd managed to dodge the guilt over keeping her in the dark until then. I'd kept busy, spending more time at Executive Priority, helping out where I could. I hadn't even called her since I bailed on her at the restaurant. And I'd gotten in the habit of dialing my voicemail every evening to check messages, so I knew she hadn't called me. But when Alex brought her up, the guilt hit me like a baseball bat slammed into my gut.

John was starting a goddamn war with the Red Court and Susan had no idea. And Bianca knew Susan was my girlfriend. If Bianca was getting aggressive enough she managed to sneak a saboteur into Executive Priority, Susan could be a target as well. I needed to stop being a coward and tell her. Maybe she'd hate me for making an oath to Gentleman Johnny. Maybe she'd hate me for keeping it from her for so long. Maybe none of that mattered because I needed to start acting like a halfway responsible adult.

So I gave some vague answer to Alex, bid my young werewolf friends good night, and headed back home. I could call Susan, ask her over-- No, it was night and Bianca's Reds were doubtlessly on the prowl. At the very least, I'd tell her to stay indoors for the night and set up a time to meet her and tell her. I'd come clean about it all. I just needed to be honest and...

I was halfway up the walk to my building when I instinctively grabbed my blasting rod out of my coat and spun around. I was already moving when I realized I felt something powerful behind me. I lifted rod and shield bracelet together, ready for anything.

A Warden's grey cloak shone almost blue-white in the full moon. The urban canyon we stood in sent the early winter air gusting around us. As he approached, Morgan looked like some sort of valiant, dramatic knight, the cloak blowing in the cold Windy City night. Unfitting, but true.

I lowered my blasting rod, but kept my bracelet up. "What do you want?" I didn't spare any pleasantries. That wasn't the kind of relationship we had.

"Wizard Dresden," Morgan growled, one hand on the hilt of his sword. It was still in its sheath, which was always a good sign. Not that he couldn't kill me without it, but Morgan was a stickler for the Laws of Magic and wouldn't go breaking them even to deal with me. The sword was a sign of the Wardens. As long as it stayed where it was, I couldn't be in too much trouble. I hoped.

"Don't take your time, Morgan. It's late and I have more important things to do than shoot the breeze with the magical McCarthy." No love lost, seriously.

"I come with a warning, Dresden," he ground out, and his sword hand tightened into a white-knuckled fist. "You've been consorting with a mortal crime lord." He bared his teeth and took a step towards me.

I threw up a shield, extending it as far out from my body as I could. A wall of pure force held Morgan a good few feet away from me. Maybe he would have liked to get close and growl in my face, but I wasn't in the mood. "I'm expanding my circle of friends. That against the Laws now? Rule Eight, thou shalt not have enough friends to throw a swinging party?"

Morgan went red in the face. "Do not joke so freely about the Laws. You may have wiggled your way out from under the Doom, but that does not prove your innocence. I know a warlock when I see one."

"Yep, that's me. I'm also a member of the Illuminati. And the Freemasons. And the number 23 controls the universe." I grinned maniacally at him. "You ever see the fnords, man?" I could see he now wanted to give me a good old fashioned punch in the face. "Are you just here to vaguely threaten me? Because I get plenty of that already."

Morgan breathed in hard through his nose and exhaled, visibly trying to calm himself. "By the Red Court, I presume?" I said nothing. "You are leaking information to the head of this city's criminal underworld."

"Not leaking. Pouring it on him. In buckets." I lowered my shield and took my own menacing step forward. "Informing vanilla mortals about magic isn't illegal, Morgan."

He glared hard at me. "Always fond of your technicalities, Dresden. You can get away with your yellow pages advert, and your pamphlets. But not with revealing the existence of the White Council. That's treason."

"I've never uttered the words 'White Council' to anyone not in the know. I'm just helping people protect themselves."

"And I should take your word for it?"

"Yeah," I snapped. "You have to. Because, as you said, I'm out from under the Doom of Damocles. You have no right to pull this bullshit." I tucked my blasting rod away and pulled out my apartment keys. "Now leave me alone. Get back to murdering kids or eating newborn puppies or whatever it is you do when you're not spying on me."

Morgan stared me down for a long moment, but there was nothing he could do and he knew it. "I'm watching you, Dresden."

"Uh-huh."

"I'm recommending to the Council that we take measures to censure you."

"Okiedokie, you do that." All he had was grouchy ominousness and I was tired. I turned away and headed back to my home. "Hope that works out for you. Bye now, see ya around."

As soon as I got inside, I pulled up my wards, made sure there were as powerful as they could be, and checked my proximity wards. Only when the candles on my fireplace died back to nominal yellow did I relax.

The Leanansidhe. Bianca St. Clair and her entire Red Court House. And now Morgan. Didn't I have enough problems?

Apparently not. I went to bed, exhausted and tense, hoping tomorrow wouldn't be so damn stressful.

Chapter Text

The building was on fire and it wasn't my fault.

... Why do I get the feeling you've heard this one before?

It was loud inside the building. Michael and I had pulled every alarm we could find and he was ensuring the few Friday night workers lingering in the building got to safety. Sirens blared and the fires I'd set burned merrily as I ran down the stairs.

I said it wasn't my fault. I never said I didn't start it.

It'd been a rough evening. I actually took a case from my real job, a client who wanted me to check out some strange goings-on in a stout, old office building on the Loop. I'd tried to call in to get some back-up from John, but either the lines were tied up or the pay phones didn't like me today. John, fussy mob boss that he was, kept insisting I go everywhere with some form of back-up. Bianca and her Reds were getting bolder, striking further and more frequently in John's territory, and he was worried about her threat on my life.

For the most part, I went along with it. Having two mafiosi follow me from a distance was starting to seem commonplace. Most of the time, I didn't need the help. Practically speaking, I was the heaviest hitter against the Red Court and generally ended up fighting off any attackers while the mobsters got their holy water paintball guns ready.

The guns had been John's idea, a weapon lethal to vampires but not civilians. He said he got the plans off a contact of his. I wasn't sure who you had to know to get information like that, but I was grateful anyway.

Today, though, I couldn't get a call through to John's office and instead called Michael to see if he wanted to accompany me on a totally safe, routine case. I'd told him it was going to be easy. Get in, see what was up with the building, get out.

It had been, up until the point an ambush of Reds tackled me and tried to sink some teeth into my neck. Michael took one out with a sweep of Amoracchius. We managed to get away, out of the cramped corridor and into a more open area.

I started lighting things up and Michael set to evacuating civilians, getting them out of the building before they got caught in the crossfire. I insisted that I could hold of the vampire hitters while Michael was busy, but that had been ten minutes ago. The fires were getting larger and I hadn't been expecting a fight like this.

I stumbled and fell down a few of the stairs I was running pell mell down. As I hit the ground and rolled, I brought up my shield, creating a dome over me.

Just in time. A Red leapt down the stairwell at me and landed on my shield, feet planted on the shell of force. I cried out, drawing in my will and trying to keep the shield up despite the onslaught. I could see, past the Red hovering over me, his vampire buddies coming to help out.

I brought up my rod, holding it so it rested against my shield. Time for new hat trick number 14, and I hated how I always ended up testing these in the field when their failure would likely kill me. "Contegus forzare!"

My shield flew away from me like a battering ram, launching the Red on me against the others, knocking them down like a bunch of undead bowling pins.

"Harry!" I twisted my head to see Michael working his way up to me. Above me, fire was raging, and I wiggled under the heat until I could get closer. Michael grabbed my arm and hauled me over to the downward stairs and off we went, We moved fast, because as nice as it would be if the Reds went up in the building's flames, I doubted we'd get that lucky.

We came out of the building in a narrow alley behind it. I looked up, seeing the smoke pouring out of the upper windows, black against the red of the sunset. It was almost nightfall, when the vampires could move around as they wished.

"You get everyone out?"

Michael nodded. "There weren't many, but they're all out."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, Harry."

"Okay." I walked back to the door we'd come out of and opened it to look up the stairs. A few floors up, I could see movement coming towards me. To hell with that.

I stepped into the building, just far enough to point my rod up in the center space, the open air around the stairs. I drew in my will, pouring all my frustration and pain into my magic. I hurt, I was tired, and aching in more than a handful of places. I felt awful, like something in my magic had been knocked loose in the fight. I just wanted to be done with this.

I took in a long breath and bellowed, "FUEGO! VENTAS FUEGO!"

A cyclone of fire erupted from my rod and soared up into the stairwell. Things got very hot very fast and I tumbled back out of the building. Michael slammed the door shut after me as I fell to my knees in the dirt, taking deep, gasping breaths.

Behind me, I heard the sound of things blowing up. I was a bit dizzy from overexertion though and didn't move right away. Michael grabbed me, one hand under my arm, and bodily carried me away from the building.

 

Michael drove us away from the building in his big truck. I could hear police sirens and fire engines in our wake. Hell's bells, I must have really torched the place.

I wearily lifted my head from where I'd been resting it against the window and looked at Michael. "Pay phone," I croaked.

"Are you sure?"

"If I don't call, John's going to have a conniption fit." He was going to get word of the exploding office building fast and he tended to assume the worst.

"All right." He drove a little further and pulled over, so close to the curb and one of the phones, I could probably just lean out the window and dial.

I opened the door, gave it a few quarters, and dialed John's new line. I'd let it slip about Susan having the number for his old one and the next day he'd changed it. I apologized, and he'd told it me was no trouble, but in the most passive aggressive tone ever. I sat back in the truck, my legs hanging out, leaning my elbows on them as I listened to the phone ring. At least it wasn't a busy signal this time, like it had been all day.

Ms. Reynolds, the secretary, put me through to Hendricks instead of John. "Dresden, tell me that building was you."

"Yeah. Me and a squad of Reds. Figured it'd be better to finish burning it down and make sure they didn't get out alive. Or... not alive, seeing as they're vampires."

"You sound like shit."

"Thanks," I grumbled. "Tell John I'm fine and we got all the people out before going Towering Inferno on the place."

"Will do. You need to come by. Boss wants to speak to you."

I scrubbed my face. I just wanted to go home and sleep for twelve hours. "Put him on."

"He's in a meeting."

"Can't he take a break?"

"Not that kind of meeting."

I sat back in the passenger seat, blowing out a breath. Oh, so John was handling some business. The not-legit kind. "Something happen?"

"You try calling in at all today?"

"Yeah, it's been tied up." My eyes widened. "Stars, someone was doing that?"

"Tried to bring down communications between the main office and everyone in the field." Hendricks sounded like he wanted to say more, but stopped himself. "Just get here. He'll be glad to see you."

"Okay," I murmured. "Later."

Hendricks hung up and I returned the phone to its cradle before climbing back into the truck. Michael, who'd overheard everything on my end, put a hand on my shoulder. "Are you and yours all right?"

"Yeah. Yeah." I sighed. "Someone tried to cut off John's people from the office. Phones have been out, I bet the pagers have been too." I sagged back, rubbing my face. "Do you have time to drop me off somewhere?"

Michael nodded. "To Marcone?"

"Yeah, thanks." The truck pulled away and I shut my eyes, letting Michael handle things for a little bit. I was grateful to him. He didn't have to come with me today and if he hadn't I'd probably have been killed or grabbed by Bianca. Things were getting rough, and I was caught in the thick of it. I didn't even want to travel at night anymore. It was fine when I had my local Fist of God helping out, but I'd been noticing more and more attempts on my wards after sundown. Nothing had gotten through, but that didn't stop Bianca from trying. I had to bolster the wards every other day now. It was starting to be a drain.

I mentioned none of this to John, as he'd likely respond by sedating me and moving me to a secure location while he blew up the Velvet Room. That's not an exaggeration either. John built a magical panic room into his mansion, using the office design as a pattern. When I went in to connect it to his threshold, I noticed heavy duty locks on the outside of the door, capable of holding someone in.

I cannot tell you how awkward it was to tell the Alphas and Michael that if I suddenly dropped off the map without warning, my friend the local Don might've disappeared me for my own good. Billy had found that hilarious. Michael, not so much.

"Do you want me to go in with you?" Michael asked, keeping his eyes on the road as he navigated traffic. We were past rush hour, but it was a Friday night and people were heading out to enjoy it. Lucky bastards, oblivious to the minor war going on around them.

"Nah, it's fine. He's apparently got bigger fish to fry at the moment. Besides," I tipped a grin at him. "Charity would kill me if I dragged you into the den of sin that is Executive Priority."

"She told me to invite you for Thanksgiving."

Oh, an olive branch from Charity herself. Interesting. I almost accepted on the spot, but, "Mass or dinner?"

Michael didn't look guilty, as Knights of the Cross tend to be above things like that, but it was a close thing. "Ah. Both."

I made a face. "Can I skip the Mass? You know I get nervous in churches."

"I don't see why. God may not be right with you, Harry, but I am sure you are right with him. You're a good man."

I looked out the window again. "Yeah, maybe."

Michael noted how uncomfortable that remark made me and switched to a safer topic. "You don't have to be Catholic to be welcome at Mass. You may think of it as a family outing. I know the girls would love you to be there." A smile sneaked out over my face. Amanda and Hope liked climbing all over me, as though I was some kind of human jungle gym. They were still tiny enough I could carry them around too. "And you have yet to meet Harry."

My namesake. If Michael's insistence I was a 'good man' didn't make me flush with embarrassment, the fact that he named his youngest after me did the trick. It was an honor I didn't know what to do with. It frankly scared me a little that my friend thought that highly of me to give his son my name. What was I supposed to do with that?

"Okay, fine," I muttered. "Barring any Red Court-related emergencies, I'll... be there." I sighed. "Mass and dinner."

A wizard who hung out with a crime lord going to church on a holiday. I was just asking to be smote, wasn't I?

 

I got held up at reception when I got to Executive Priority. Apparently, John wasn't done 'meeting' with the latest saboteur. There was something unsettling about that. The way he acted around me made it hard to remember that John was Gentleman John Marcone and tended to punish traitors ruthlessly. The same John who was addicted to hazelnut lattes and surprisingly tasty health food.

I would have gotten caught up in the dissonance, but I was too tired to care. I shelved it for later and asked, "Do you know how much longer he'll be?"

Reception girl Tanya shook her head. "Sorry, Mr. Dresden, but I don't. And Mr. Hendricks said you should wait downstairs until they're ready for you."

"Of course he did." I was being insulated from Marcone's criminal activities again. I didn't mind ninety percent of the time, but right now I felt so out of sorts and raw at the edges, I just wanted to go home and lay down. My magic still felt off from my throw down with the Reds' hit squad, like I'd pulled a metaphysical muscle. I wanted to go see Bob, ask him if my aura looked okay.

Tanya bit her lip, looking deeply sympathetic. I must have really looked like shit. Executive Priority's employees were resolutely professional and polite. To get a reaction out of them was a big deal. "If... If I may make a suggestion, sir?"

"Sure."

"It may be a while before you can be seen. Perhaps you'd like to make use of some of our services?"

How to put this nicely? Tanya seemed to just want to help, but... "Wow, okay. I'm... not... I have a girlfriend, so."

Her face gave nothing away, which I supposed was good when you worked at a secret brothel. "You misunderstand me, sir. I simply thought a massage would help you."

Oh. Right. It was also a legitimate business. The whole cathouse thing made me forget that sometimes. "That's... well, that's actually kind of tempting, but I doubt I could afford anything from here."

She blinked owlishly at me, like I'd said something confusing. "You have a Platinum Membership here, sir. It would be paid for."

This was news to me. "For real?" She nodded. "Double-check."

She waves a hand at her computer monitor. "I'm looking at your account right now, Mr. Dresden."

That did change the landscape a bit. I let her push a neat little brochure at me and flipped through it. My eyes fell on an interesting one. "Hey, you have a chakra therapy?"

They did. Tanya showed me into the now-completed zen gardens, gave me a robe, and pointed me to a shower just off the room. Telling me Anavi would be with me shortly, she left.

I ducked behind the privacy screen and stripped down gratefully. I had some blood and a lot of sweat on my clothes and, besides my duster, everything needed a wash. I left it all in a heap on the floor and got into the shower, rinsing off under the superhot, awesome water. Just because I was used to cold showers didn't mean I couldn't see the nigh-universal appeal of hot ones. It did a lot to undo knots in my abused muscles.

I came out of the shower, wrapped up in a robe that just barely covered my knees. I guess even Executive Priority couldn't find a robe that really fit me.

By the massage table was an Indian women, bent over her work setting up oils and rocks and things. She was pretty in a regal way, her cream tunic uniform completely without crease and wrinkle, her dark hair tamed in a large bun at the base of her neck. It was curly, and a few delicate strands framed her face. I suddenly felt really exposed and took a step back to duck back behind the privacy screen. Then I recognized her. "Hey, don't I know you from Mac's?"

The woman, presumably Anavi, looked up at me and smiled. "Hello, Mr. Dresden."

"I do, right?" I approached the table and examined her face while avoiding her eyes. She didn't try to meet my gaze, instead looking just to the right of my head.

"Mac's brew is amazing," she confirmed dryly.

"You're a practitioner? You work for Marcone?"

She nodded once. "I don't have much of the Art to me, but I have always had a talent for minor healing magics." Anavi patted the table. "I used to work freelance, but I got a job offer here and it seemed like a good idea to take it."

I timidly climbed up on the table, not sure how she wanted me. I'd never made use of a spa before. "How should I..."

"Lay down on your tummy and take your robe off," she said. I hesitated, and she added, "I'm going to cover you with a towel. And I'm a married woman, Mr. Dresden. I promise to keep my hands to myself." She smirked at me.

"It's not that..." I didn't want to say, I don't trust you because that sounded rude, but it was the truth. Another magical person, albeit not with power like my own, having me vulnerable wasn't an easy proposition. And I was extra paranoid in the last month or so.

Anavi held up a hand. "I do solemnly swear to not harm you in any way while you are in my care." She lifted her eyebrows at me. "Better?"

It was, actually. "Sorry. I didn't mean to--"

"Don't worry about it. Can't be too careful." She patted the table again. "Come on. On your front."

I started to comply, opening the robe and laying down. I struggled to get the robe off and stretch out all at once, and Anavi yanked it away. "Hey! You're not acting very professional!"

"Yeah, well, you're the guy who's supposed to help save us all from the Red Court." She pushed my face down into the headrest firmly. "And you've put yourself in this shape?" She tutted loudly and touched my back, lightly at first to warn me, then with more purpose. "Let's see the damage."

I wriggled under the attention. "That bad?"

"Hush, I'm looking." I could feel the soft curl of her magic against my skin, so subtle I doubted anyone not familiar with the Art would catch it. She was sensing, tracing up and down my spine. "Vishuddha is closed off. And..." She pressed her fingers to the area between my shoulder blades. "Anahata isn't much better. And Manipura. What have you been doing to yourself?"

The names rang bells, but not too loudly. Bob talked chakras sometimes, but I tended to tune it out. "Working hard, torching vampires." Anavi oiled up her hands and started to run her hands along my spine. "What's the prognosis, doc? How out of whack are my chakras?"

"Very. I'll do what I can. You may have to come back for another session if you abuse yourself this badly on a regular basis."

I wasn't paying for it, so I didn't think that'd be a problem. Once Anavi got to work, it started to feel really good too. She did a whole back rub first, warm hands against my shower-heated skin. She added some more oil, explaining aloud, "Eucalyptus. Protective plant," before starting again at the base of my spine and kneading up. As she worked at the chakra points, she laid a warm, smooth stone over each spot.

I found myself relaxing deeper and deeper into the table, my eyes going half-lidded and my breath evening out. I had to avoid shifting lest I move the stones, and all the sensation and stillness lulled me deeply. Anavi stopped narrating her work, just diligently working me over until I was completely pliant under her fucking amazing hands. I wanted to marry her hands, or at least have a long, passionate affair with them. Susan would just have to understand.

She took off the stones some unfathomable time later, added a sweeter-smelling oil to my back and doing a full back rub again. "Hey," I mumbled. "Izzat flowers?"

"Yes, you're going to smell like rose oil for a while," she said quietly, though still with that snarky tone to her voice. "It's good for you."

"Imma man. Don't make me smell like flowers," I whined, but didn't even attempt to move to stop her.

"Not secure in your masculinity? Can't handle some flowers?"

"What're you, my therapist?"

"Well, technically..."

She started putting more stones on my back, new, warmer ones. I groaned. "Screw it, I don't care."

Anavi patted my shoulder. "Good boy. Shut up and let me work."

"You're not very nice." She dug her fingers in my shoulders and worked at them. "Oooooh god, nevermind, you're... you're the loveliest woman in the world."

She laughed, but whatever retort she had was cut off by the door opening and the click of heels approaching. "Mr. Dresden?"

"Hi, Tanya," I mumbled sleepily.

"I wanted to inform you that Mr. Marcone's meeting is finished, if you wanted to see him?"

"Nah, I'm good."

"Are you sure, sir? He asked for you..."

"Tell him I had to wait on him, so he has to wait on me." Tanya inhaled sharply, sounding nervous. "Don't worry, he loves when I mess with him. S'my job." I yawned. "You'll be fine, Tanya."

"All right..." Her clicky heels sounded much more reluctant as she left.

Anavi sighed. "Now, let's see how you're doing." She framed my back with her hands and I felt her magic brush against mine again. "Hm. Not perfect, but no longer in the danger zone. You should definitely come back next week though."

"Twist my arm, why don't you." I lay there, unsure of how long ago it had been since the last time I'd moved. I was all nice and mellow. The whole spa thing made a lot more sense now.

Anavi touched my shoulder lightly. "I'll put you down for next Friday. Just relax for a while."

"Mmkay." I listened to her leave, the only sound left in the room the small fountain off to the side. The noise was gentle and nice, and I felt myself start to doze.

I have no clue how long I was out. I wasn't quite asleep, just deeply calm in a way that made me stop caring about how much time was passing. It could've been ten minutes or an hour before I heard footsteps again. Anavi didn't say anything, probably aware I was too out of it to engage in conversation. There was a rustling sound of cloth, the sound of one of the oils being shaken out of the bottle, and I got some hands on my back again.

They just ran soothingly over my shoulders. Blunt, calloused fingers traced lazy circles around the cooling stones on my back, warm against my skin. It was light, barely a massage, but nice. I was about to fall into a real sleep when the door opened again.

Anavi gasped. "Oh, sir, I..."

"These come off about now, yes?" John rumbled from above me and I felt pressure on one of the stones balanced on my spine.

"Ah... yes, they do. I was just about to--"

"That's fine. Thank you, Mrs. Kapoor. We'll see you tomorrow."

"Of course, sir." The door shut again.

It took a full ten seconds for my brain to rev up enough to put together what I just heard. As it did, John carefully plucked the stones off my back and set them aside. He palmed my back afterward, rubbing along my spine, helping the pinpoints of heat over my chakras diffuse. I felt like a big sleepy cat being petted.

"I thought you didn't take advantage of your people. Didn't like mucking up the subordinate-superior thingie," I mumbled eventually, lifting my head out of the rest and turning to lay my cheek back down.

John kept his eyes on my back as he rubbed idly. His suit jacket was gone and his sleeves rolled up. "You are hardly my subordinate." I shut my eyes again, wondering how bad it'd be if I ignored him and went back to half-sleeping. John's voice was feather soft, less than a whisper as he said, "I wonder, are you aware of what you're doing right now..."

"Mhm. Sleepin'."

He chuckled and stepped away, drying the excess oil off his hands on a towel as I blurrily watched. "I see that." He eyes finally flicked to me. "You burned down one of my buildings."

"Was yours? Sorry." With more than a little effort, I pulled up my arms and folded them under my head, propping myself up. I was slowly waking up. "Red hit squad. Tough ones. Didn't want to take chances." John nodded. "Heard you had a rough day too."

His eyes darkened. "The Margravine turned one of the men working in communications."

"I thought we were looking out for bites now?"

"We don't tend to check the entire body. The bite was on the man's inner thigh." He pursed his lips, expression frustrated and unhappy. "I would have a very hard time justifying full body checks of all employees."

I waved my arm at the robe hanging off Anavi's work table. John handed it to me, eyes gleaming. "Turn around," I told him sternly and waited for him to do so before pushing myself up and pulling the robe on, knotting it as I thought. I sat on the side of the massage table, not quite sure if my legs would hold me yet if I stood. They were a bit jelly-like at the moment. "I can see about finding something to help us out there. Some way to be warned when a Red or one of their thralls is nearby."

"Thank you," John said sincerely, turning back around. He stepped closer to me solicitously, hands careful folded behind his back. "May I ask another favor of you?"

"'Course."

He smiled. "There's a gala coming up soon. Formal party I have to attend. Come with me?"

That wasn't what I expected at all. "A fancy dress party?"

"Yes. Music and high society. It's a benefit I go to yearly."

Maybe I wasn't firing on all cylinders, but the idea was confusing. "Why do you want me to go? Do you expect trouble?"

"No, not of that sort. It simply gets boring after attending so many times."

I shook my head. "John, I'm not... you know I'm not a high society kind of guy. I don't even own a tux."

"I can get you one."

"I don't have time to get fitted."

He waved a hand. "I have your measurements." Which was creepy, but not surprising. "Harry, you're a figure of the community now." He reached out, touched my knee with just two fingers, so light I might've been imagining it. "Let yourself be seen a little."

I turned it over in my head as much as I could. My head was still a giant fog of contented repose and I think John was taking advantage of that. I couldn't think up any reasons to say no. "Can I bring Susan as my date?" John's smile slipped. "I know you don't like her, but she is my girlfriend."

John sighed. "I suppose." Something flickered in his face, an emotion too quickly covered for me to catch. "Provided... she is not otherwise indisposed." His lips curled up again. "So, is that a yes?"

I shrugged. "Sure. Why not?"

"Thank you, Harry." He nodded briskly to himself. "Now, I'm afraid I have to go. I have something to take care of."

"Anything interesting?" I leaned back on my hands, thinking about my empty plate for the rest of the evening. I could tag along if he needed.

But he shook his head. "No, just something to attend to out of town." He stepped back, towards the door. "Mr. Hendricks can give you a lift home, seeing as you arrived with Mr. Carpenter."

"Staaaalker," I sing-songed at him.

He laughed, picked up his discarded jacket, and was gone without another word. I lingered in the zen garden, enjoying the refreshed, newness in my body, fueling my optimism. I could take on Bianca herself right then, ready for anything the world could throw at me.

Or, so I thought. Turns out I really, really, really wasn't.

Chapter Text

It happened over the phone.

I slept the sleep of the just for half a day before waking up, making some breakfast-- or, brunch, considering the hour-- and dialing Susan as I polished off my eggs and checked my wards again. For once, they weren't severely weakened, so I didn't bother with my usual reinforcement of them.

"What're you doing Sunday?" I asked when Susan picked up.

"Harry? Oh, hold on a sec." I listened to some background noise for a minute. "Sorry, trying to get some stuff together."

I sagged into my easy chair, putting my feet up. "What for?"

"Well, you know how the Arcane is affiliated with some other publications? Newspapers, magazines, some bigger names in the business."

Most names in the business were bigger names than the Midwestern Arcane. We both knew that, so I didn't remind her. "Assume I do."

"Well," her voice got breathy and excited. "There's this conference going on back in New York and one of the slots opened up."

"And... they offered it to you?"

"I know, it's crazy, but they did!" She laughed, pure joy in the sound. It was a beautiful thing to hear, and I couldn't remember the last time I had. "It's been just dropped in my lap. I'll be rubbing elbows with everyone from the New York Times to the Washington Post. Getting my name out there and meeting people, setting up connections... This could be my one big chance."

"That's... great, Susan. That's wonderful." I pushed some enthusiasm into my words. I was mostly confused, not sure how I felt about it. Obviously happy for her, but was I regretful because she couldn't come to the gala with me? Shouldn't I have been?

"Yeah, it's... I'm resisting the urge to dance in the street." She took a deep breath. "So, what'd you need?"

"Oh, nothing." I said quickly "Nothing at all, I was just... checking in. I know it's been a while since I called."

"Hm, since you had that emergency with Marcone," she noted, and more guilt hit me. I'd intended to call her, to set up a nice long talk explaining everything. Things were just moving so fast, it sometimes felt like I couldn't get my feet under me.

"Yeah, I know. I called to, uh... There's this gala he wanted me to go to tomorrow and I was going to ask you to go with me, but seeing as you'll be busy--"

"I'll be on the plane tomorrow morning, yeah," Susan confirmed. "Maybe that's... it could be for the best."

"'Course. We could always do something once you get back. Something to celebrate."

Susan went quiet for a long moment. The line was so silent, I was about to ask if she was still there. She beat me to it with a very, very soft, "We... we don't have to, you know, Harry."

I frowned up at the ceiling in lieu of her face. "What do you mean?"

"I'm just going to come right out and ask this. I need to know. Do you love me?"

I knew this was the question every guy was supposed to dread. There was this whole myth about men not having emotions. Totally untrue. Men just aren't comfortable talking about their emotions. They're private. Hell, I didn't even examine my own emotions most of the time. That direction led to scary things I didn't want to admit to myself.

There was a correct answer to the question, but I was having a hard time remembering it. "Wh-what?"

"It's not hard, Harry. Do you love me, yes or no?" She laughed, sadly. "You can say no. It's... it's okay."

"That's not..." Say it, just say it, don't fuck this up, you need something that isn't complicated or you'll go crazy, say it. "I... Susan..."

She laughed again, and my heart twisted to hear it. "It's okay, Harry. It's not the end of the world. These things happen. If it makes you feel any better, I feel the same way."

"Wait, can we... can't we talk about this?"

"We are," she pointed out dryly. "You're a good man. Stubborn, too caring for your own good, and handsome to boot. You always kept things interesting." Hell's bells, past tense.

"Are you dumping me?" I sputtered.

She sighed. "I was going for amicable, mutual separation, but yeah, if that's the way you want to play it."

"Why? Did I do something... I'm sorry about that time I had to leave--"

"Harry," she said gently. "It's not that. This isn't going anywhere, and we both know it. And, you know, that's okay. Sometimes it's nice to just have someone. Not every date has to be a build up to getting hitched and turning into the Carpenters. But we've been like this for months. Your heart's not in it-- and that's okay!" She reassured me, sounding so understanding, like she had me all figured out and knew where I wanted to jump in and defend myself, to fight back. And, fuck, so far it seemed like she did. "It really is, Harry, I promise. What we had was great and I wouldn't trade it for anything, but... come on. You had to know this was coming."

Why was I always the last to know? I'm a good detective. I wouldn't have kept a roof over my head this long if I wasn't. I'd fended for myself for years before John Marcone started paying me way too much and dissolving my rent and food concerns. I'd survived because I was actually competent at my job (though having a good advertisement in the book helped).

So why did this blindside me so much?

"Yeah," I lied. "I guess so."

"Harry Dresden, I love you. You are the kindest, goofiest, most wonderfully eccentric man I've ever met. It's a cliche to say, but I do still want to be friends."

"Sure." My voice was coming out like a croak, my throat tight with barely restrained emotion. I needed to get off the line, because crying while on the phone with the woman who just dumped me would mean I could never look myself in the eye again. Which would be pretty easy considering I didn't own many mirrors, but still.

"I'll catch up to you when I get back, okay?"

"Yeah."

"Goodbye, Harry."

"Bye," I said, and listened to the line as it went dead. Numbly, I got up and walked the handset back to the phone's cradle and set it down.

Then I laid down on the couch. Mister, probably sensing how unhappy I now was, jumped up and curled into a giant purring ball of fur on my stomach. I petted him absentmindedly with one hand and didn't think about anything for a long time.

 

My blissful avoidance of the real world was ruined when someone wouldn't stop knocking on my door. I'd ignored the first series of knocks, then the second one. They'd stopped for about two minutes before a third set banged on my door.

"Dresden, I just called to check: surveillance says you're in there. Open the fucking door," Cujo said.

I sighed and rolled off my sofa, going to let him in. He took in my deathglare and unfriendly demeanor, and responded by brushing past me into my apartment, carrying a suit bag. "Tux is ready."

"I'm not going to the gala," I announced, returning to the sofa and slumping down on it.

Hendricks gave me a look, now actually taking in my bitter tone and foul mood. Anyone who worked with John on a regular basis had to be able to read people fairly well. "Who shot your dog?"

I laughed, darkly and utterly devoid of actual humor. "Susan dumped me." Hendricks' hand twitched, towards his pocket. "If you call and report that in, I'll blow up your car. I'm not kidding. My life is not gossip material for the Outfit."

Hendricks nodded. "Sorry. Why'd she leave you?"

"That's the thing I don't get; there was no reason. Just wanted to break up." I sighed and sagged bonelessly into my sprawl. I felt all mixed up. I was upset yet angry and I didn't even know who with. I'd thought dating Susan was a big deal. It had been for me. It'd been my longest relationships since Elaine, arguably the first important one since I was a teenager. And it'd just ended. How does that happen? How was it Susan and I were about the same age and yet she got to be so calm and mature about this while I hid in my apartment?

"Women," Cujo opined.

"Women," I agreed. It was nice to have a guy who understood. "Call John, tell him I'm not going."

"Nah, not yet." Hendricks looked at the suit bag he'd carried in, the mental wheels in his head turning. "Supposed to have you try the tux on to make sure it fits. Doubt the boss would get it wrong though..." He nodded to himself, like deciding something, then walked over to me and grabbed my arm, tugging me upward. "C'mon. You just got dumped. Need a beer."

Hendricks was getting all... autonomous on me. Always a little weird and off-putting, which was how he got me to my feet. I shuffled into my shoes and coat and let Cujo hustle me out the door, barely remembering to put up my wards as we left.

Before I knew it, I was coming out of my haze of self-pity as Hendricks parked the car in front of an edgy little bar called Typhoon. It was a notorious spot that everyone knew was a hangout ran by and for the Mob. I got out of the car and stared up at the place before telling Hendricks, "I'm not sure I'm going to be welcomed here. Not my crowd."

Hendricks snorted and beckoned me inside anyway.

Typhoon had the same classy, modern interior decorating sense that all of John's property did. It was swathed in blues and steely off-whites, the color of ocean surf. It was dark inside, the atmosphere halcyon, if not exactly welcoming. I could see a lot of tables and chairs, all filled. The only real noise was a low hum created by the mix of quiet conversation and the stereo playing some sax-heavy bluesy tune. It was hard to hear and it took me a moment to realize the acoustics of the room prevented sound from traveling. I looked around and found a table of guys talking animatedly, but I could barely hear it.

A hangout where you didn't have to worry about being overheard. Nice touch, John.

"There're no seats," I informed Hendricks.

"Don't worry about it," he said and lumbered past me, heading to the far end of the bar, away from the crowd. He approached an occupied table at an even pace. As he got close, the men sitting there simultaneously got up and moved to the bar, giving Hendricks and I respectful nods as they passed.

It hit me for the first time right then. "Oh my god, I'm in the mob."

Hendricks cracked up, deep, real laughs. It was a new thing and startled me at first. "That just now occurred to you, Dresden?"

"Maybe?" I winced and sat down at the table. "I thought I was... only mob by proxy?"

He kept chuckling softly as he sat. "You're Mr. Marcone's wizard."

"I get that now, thanks," I said, a little catty. It'd been a rough day. It got better when two Guinness were placed on the table. I snatched both and said to the bartender, "Appreciate it, but I think Hendricks is going to want some too."

Hendricks rolled his eyes and yanked one bottle back. "Ignore him." He waved off the bartender and popped the cap off his drink. "So. Wanna talk about it?"

Oh god, Hendricks wanted me to talk about my feelings? What crazy What If...? saga had I fallen into? Besides, "What, so you can report it to John? No thanks."

I had to give him credit, he looked ready to punch me, but refrained. "Fine, asshole, go back to feeling sorry for yourself."

I looked down at my bottle and started peeling the label off it. "Sorry. This whole being dumped thing is new territory for me."

He looked surprised, and I tried not to be insulted by that. "You usually the dumper instead of dumpee?"

"Well, the one other time, I didn't qualify as either," I admitted sullenly.

"One other time...?" He sat up straighter, peering hard at me, like his boss tended to do, though he lacked John's razor sharp intensity. "How old?"

"Sixteen." I took a long gulp of beer, halving the bottle's contents. "My teacher tried to mind mojo us into being his slaves. He got to her first. I killed them both."

I finished off the Guiness by the time Hendricks found the ability to speak again. Then, he only said, "Damn," and flagged down the bar for more beers.

"Yeah." And because it was nagging at me, I asked, "You going to tell John that?"

It was Hendricks' turn to avert his gaze. I probably shouldn't have put him on the spot like that. I knew where his loyalties were. Maybe he'd bend the rules enough to take me out for some commiserating instead of tuxedo-related activities, but I knew damn well he'd be reporting in as soon as I left his company. John's orders.

"He worries about you. Weirdest fucking thing," Hendricks said quietly, as if the acoustics of Typhoon weren't already masking our conversation from eavesdroppers. "You incinerate entire buildings and he still fusses at you."

"He fusses at everyone, like he's doting on the entire damn Outfit."

Hendricks shook his head. "Worse with you."

Okay, so it wasn't just me that noticed. "Yeah. No clue why."

The big guy blinked at me, like he was waiting for me to add a punchline to that. "You serious?" I nodded. "Fuck, Dresden, you can't be that dense."

"Never underestimate me," I grumbled, wondering if this was another thing I'd be last to know.

He glanced awkwardly around, then refused to look me in the face again. "You can be a moron sometimes, Dresden, but even you have to see it." His gaze flicked to me, then away again. "I gotta stand 'round and listen to it, the way you two just... cut into each other." His eyes narrowed. "You know. No one's that blind."

I thought about John's hands, the callouses that didn't belong on a businessman, the light touch of a man who could kill people in cold blood. I thought about the mix of those two opposite qualities and how they worked together to soothe me, leave me vulnerable.

Of course I knew. Maybe I refused to acknowledge it, but I could feel it to my core, how I'd gotten wrapped up in John Marcone. It should have scared the hell out of me, the realization that not only did I willingly go along with him, but I wanted to. I would let him close when I was stripped of all defenses, laying without shield or focus, and didn't attempt to stop him from treating me like some indulged pet. I wanted him to. I'd let him ply me as he needed, helped him without needing to be asked, and taken favors from him without worrying about the debt I might be racking up.

It was foolish. I'd soulgazed the man and I knew he was a tiger, predatory and territorial and lethal. As long as he thought of me as his, I was protected. The moment that changed, I would gain the most powerful enemy I'd ever faced, who knew my Name and everything else that mattered.

But I also knew how to read his emotions in his eyes, and that he let me see more of him than possibly anyone else in the city. That every time he pushed at this... whatever it was between us, every time we wound each other up with playful sniping and significant looks, I was the one to back off. He never did. The thought of what would happen if I didn't walk away made my blood pound.

I knew all that. I just... didn't know what it meant. Half of me wanted to find out. The other half made several arguments about why that was a very bad idea.

One of those arguments had been Susan. Not the only one, mind... I still wasn't ready to think about it.

But after a few drinks, when the conversation between Cujo and I lulled to an unexpectedly comfortable silence, I shut my eyes and thought about it. Just for a moment.

Money green and that vibrant wit under layers of politesse and the maddening images that haunted my dreams, that maybe under his suits and finely tailored shirts, I'd find a tiger's stripes.

Hendricks put his hand on my shoulder. "Come on. Let's get you home. You have a party tomorrow."

I nodded. "Yeah. Yeah."

 

The tuxedo fit perfectly. I wondered, not for the first time nor the last, if John had a dossier on me somewhere or whether all his Harry Facts were stored in the filing cabinet he called a head. I don't know much about computers, but I've read about them in magazines and the like, so I have the basic idea. When I think of computers, I think of John's mind, because that seems like an accurate comparison.

Bob wolf whistled when I gave in to the heckling and showed him. "You're going to be the prettiest girl at the prom, boss."

"Bob," I sighed, trying to work the bowtie for the umpteenth time. I couldn't keep both sides even, one loop always too small. I wondered if I could get away with a clip-on. Or maybe I could work out a spell to make the thing even. Or just a minor veil to make it look even.

"Never would have guessed that all it takes to turn you from a slob to a knockout is a tux."

"Knockout?" That sounded nice. I wished I hadn't gotten rid of all the mirrors in the apartment. Ah, the sacrifices for peace of mind.

"Well, as much as a doofy guy like you can be a knockout. Play your cards right and you might get some raunchy sex in the back of Mr. Sexy Mafia Overlord's limo." His eyelights gleamed. "Hey, bring me along, I'll make sure you get some action."

"No, thank you." I let myself smile, thinking maybe I looked good. I was dressed sharply and going to a freaking gala and maybe my girlfriend just dumped me, but I could bounce back. It wasn't the end of the world. "I can manage."

"Go, boss!" Bob whistled. "Get down with your bad self, as the kids say."

I left him down there, feeling pretty good and ready to try to enjoy myself with John.

There was a knock at my door. Think of the Devil, and he shall appear. I lowered my wards, which had survived another night of Bianca's pummeling, though they were looking a little weak. I needed to reinforce them tomorrow.

I opened the door on John's smile. It started polite and cool, but widened into something genuine as he racked his eyes up and down my body. "Mr. Dresden," he marveled. "You do cut a figure, don't you?"

I honest to god blushed. That had been forward, even for him. I guessed he'd heard about Susan. Just the way he said my name made me feel like he'd declared open season on me. Stars and stones. "I don't have a mirror, so I'll take your word for it." I hitched a thumb over my shoulder. "Just give me a moment, I have to get this thing tied..." I backed away from the door, leaving him to close it as I put some distance between us and tried the bowtie again.

John followed, watching for a moment, before pushing a chair towards me. "Here, sit for me."

I gave him a suspicious look, but did as he said. As soon as I was in the chair, he stepped behind me and put his hands on my shoulders, pulling me back. I felt the heat of him behind me before his fingers caught my bowtie and undid it, smoothing it back out against my chest. I tensed, sucking in a breath, and John whispered, "What, Harry? Don't trust me?"

"No, no, just..." I shook my head. "It's fine."

He hummed softly and obligingly got my bowtie on right, then fixed my collar around it solicitously. I stood up and backed away as soon as he was done. Hell's bells, was he going to be like this all night?

I bent over and pulled on my shoes, some black trainers that were likely the nicest pair I owned. John gave them a disapproving look. "Shoes. Why did I forget shoes?"

I snickered. He sounded so disappointed in himself. "You got me a suit that's worth more than my car--"

"What on this planet isn't?"

"--and it fits like a dream, and I didn't even have to get measured for it. You did good, John," I reassured him.

He glared at my shoes again. "Hm. Perhaps people will be so taken by your appearance, they won't notice."

"There you go, silver lining." God, I felt all bubbly and cheerful now. It felt healthy, to get out and go do things instead of moping around about Susan. I let myself have some high hopes for the evening as John ushered me out and into his limo. It was a modest one, not the stretch kind that made it impossible to navigate urban traffic unless you had the power to break the laws of physics in two.

I waved to Hendricks up front as I climbed in, and he nodded back before returning his eyes to the road. There was another goon in the passenger's seat, holding an anti-Red Court paintball gun on his lap, watching our surroundings keenly.

John noticed me peering at him and said, "It's a quiet night. No major incidents. I believe they are regrouping, perhaps reworking their strategy in wake of your removal of that hit squad."

"Won't be quiet for long," I said softly.

"No, probably not. This is merely a lull before the storm," John murmured, and I noticed right then that we'd both sat in the bench seat between the doors, ignoring the other row of seats across from the minibar. I'd forgotten that faint scent of his cologne, masculine but sweet. "We should enjoy it while it lasts."

I nodded, my mouth suddenly too dry to speak. John gave me a curious look, examining my face. After a beat, he relaxed, his mouth a contented curve, eyes dark.

I turned and watched Chicago go by around us. There was that thing I was refusing to think of again rearing its head, palpable in the energy vibrating between us. I felt John's hand rest against my leg, so fucking casually there was no way it was by accident. I twitched away and heard the rumble of his laughter in response, and it sounded far too much like a purr.

 

The gala was apparently a benefit for the Cook County schools and the ticket price was a big donation that went to funding after school and art programs for kids. When we arrived at the mighty fine shindig, they announced John's presence and added a bit about him being one of the most generous patrons of the charity, having attended the gala for several years running.

John's name was met with equal amounts of applause and scowling. It was easy to sweep the faces in the crowd and see who had heard "affluent entrepreneur John Marcone," and who had heard it instead as "Gentleman Johnny, possible Antichrist."

John didn't seem to care either way, waving down the applause and grinning at those who didn't clap, all smooth, dangerous charm.

"A third of those people were giving you the Evil Eye," I said as he put a hand on my shoulder and drew me with him into the crowd.

"Any truth to that superstition?"

"Yeah, it's called a malocchio. Form of entropy curse."

"Will you tell me about it sometime?"

I said I would, because it was the truth. Morgan's empty threats didn't scare me and besides, I'd put reflective wards in John's office to fight off curses like that anyway. He might as well know what I was guarding him from.

John gave me an unmistakably fond look before letting his eyes sweep the room. Some people shied away from his gaze when it hit them. It was weird, like everyone in the room was constantly aware of where John was. Or maybe I was just hyperaware of everyone's attention.

I belatedly realized John's hand had drifted down to my upper back. I gave him a capital-L Look, which he cheerfully ignored. I sighed and turned to Hendricks, opening my mouth to make a joke, get some support. John grabbed my arm and pulled me back.

"Leave Mr. Hendricks to his work tonight, Harry," he whispered to me. "Large crowds make him anxious." He grabbed my hand, pulling it away from my neck to my side. "And leave your tie alone."

"Sorry," I muttered. I still had that nice glow of happiness about me, but I suddenly felt like... not the center of attention, but the guy next to the center of attention. I'm not a self-conscious person, but standing in a tux in the middle of a ballroom with the Chicagoan socialites was making me anxious. I hadn't given a thought to it before because I'd planned to take Susan as my date, but now I wondered if I was John's date. Wasn't that dangerous, the Chicago Don showing up with a man on his arm? I saw periodic flashes of cameras, so what were the tabloids going to say? That was, if the film developed. Magic had a habit of ruining photographs.

And why was I worrying about that instead of the fact I was probably John Marcone's date and that was exactly what he wanted?

John's eyes narrowed at someone across the room, a man in a very handsome military dress uniform of some sort. "Excuse me a moment, Harry, won't you?" He gave a quick hand gesture to Hendricks before striding over the room.

As I watched, the uniformed man caught sight of John approaching and took a startled step back, but John reached him too quickly, a disarming smile on his face. It didn't reach his eyes as he offered his hand to Uniformed Guy, who shook hands briefly before crossing his arms protectively over his chest.

I tilted my head to the side, watching curiously. I'd rarely seen John in this capacity, so casually threatening. Uniformed Guy looked like he wanted to run and hide under one of the tables.

"New head of the local Coast Guard," Hendricks said sotto voce, still scanning the crowd for threats. "Took a bribe from the boss, then didn't deliver on his end later."

"Hell's bells," I muttered, feeling a pang of sympathy for the guy. Take a bribe, don't take a bribe, it was your business if you didn't have the integrity to turn down the Outfit. Yet I was taken aback that someone would take the bribe and not follow through. Maybe working with John got me accustomed to a certain amount of honor in dishonorable negotiations.

We played spectators as John managed to smile mirthlessly, laugh, and scare the pants off Mr. Coast Guard. In just two minutes, the man paled to the exact shade as his dress whites. It was so fast, so effortless.

"Where did he come from?" I asked.

Hendricks shrugged one shoulder. "Everybody's got a theory. Bony Tony says he's a robot Emmanuel created to run the city while he was in D.C."

I thought about that. Seemed possible except, "John could kick Rahm's ass."

"Rahm's a dick," Hendricks said with feeling.

I laughed. "What Chicago politician isn't?"

"Maybe they're the same person. You never see 'em in the same room together."

I shook my head. "Nah. Rahm's shorter."

Cujo's stopped surveying the crowd to stare at me. "You met Rahm?"

"Client. Wanted a talisman to ward off Republicans." I tried to look nonchalant about it. "I think he was drunk when he came in. Or maybe he's like that all the time..."

I got an arched eyebrow. "So... did you make him the thing?"

I put a hand on my chest, acting dramatically affronted. "Cujo! I'm a professional! That would be a misuse of my powers."

In truth, I'd tried, but couldn't figure out how to make the damn thing work. I'd been sad to see that two thousand dollars walk away. At least the crazy bastard didn't knife me.

John returned as Cujo chuckled and refocused on his job. A diligent man was Hendricks. John sighed deeply, and it was like his mafia boss mask slid off as he did, revealing a faint smile underneath. "Apologies."

"Sizing up his cement shoes?" I asked.

"Oh, Harry, you know how I hate the cliches," John replied, putting his hand on my elbow.

I looked down at his hand, then at his face. "John."

"Harry."

I couldn't make myself just come out and say, stop hitting on me, so I just took a step away, out of reach. "Am I supposed to be doing something, or am I just arm candy?" I layered the remark in sarcasm, insulating the honesty of the question as best I could.

John grinned, so openly I worried someone might see, might look over and notice John Marcone was acting so damn unguarded. There was my weird urge to protect him again. How mortifying. "The music's rather nice."

"No," I put a hand out, warding him off. It took conscious effort not to give into my instincts and fling up a shield. "Don't even suggest it."

"You are the antithesis of fun, Mr. Dresden."

My nerves were fraying, my control along with them. "Are you going to be like this all night?"

He edged forward until my palm pressed against his chest. "Do you object?"

I gulped and stuffed my hand in my pocket. Stars and stones, "I need a drink," I blurted out and walked away to steal some champagne from one of the servers. I lurked around the outside of the room for a few minutes, trying to find a spot where I couldn't feel John's eyes on me like he was calculating exactly what it would take to make me stop panicking and reciprocate. I had the impression it would take something big to distract him. If nothing came up... I didn't know what would happen.

Or, I had some inkling what would happen, but the thought of it made me want to down another flute of champagne and I really needed to keep a clear head tonight. It wouldn't do to make things too easy for him. I let myself smirk at my own besuited, nicely dressed reflection in the floor.

If John Marcone wanted me, he could damn well work for it.

 

John took a cocktail to the face about two hours in.

Take a moment to imagine what it would be like to be sitting in a ballroom in your fanciest threads, making conversation with your personal wizard (that might be a stretch for some of you, I imagine, we hardly grow on trees) and the deputy mayor. Out of nowhere, a woman walks up and throws her drink at you.

What's your reaction? That snap-back recoil? Instant anger and indignation? Numb shock?

Not if you are Gentleman Johnny. He clearly earned his nickname, simply shutting his eyes against the splash of alcohol and syrup, leaning down to wipe the cocktail out of his eyes, and patting his face dry.

On the other hand, I reacted with a violent start. Stupid protective urges. I got up, left hand and shield bracelet coming up. Hendricks, standing behind me, clamped a hand on my shoulder and pushed me back down in my chair.

John silently allowed the drink thrower to shout at him and call him some very unladylike words for a full minute before standing and walking away. I jumped up to follow while Cujo hung back, one big paw on the woman's shoulder, keeping her from following.

“John--”

“Restroom,” he said curtly, and lead us in the direction of the big, opulent corridor that passed as a bathroom.

I watched him wash his face and neck, unbuttoning his shirt a little and undoing his silk tie. He then grimaced at said tie, sticky and ruined, and threw it in the trash. “Question for you, Harry.”

“Hm?”

“Is it possible to turn a rude person who resorts to drink throwing into a toad? Or is that witches only? Sorry,” he waved a hand, “wizardesses.”

I choked a laugh, wondering if John had eidetic memory or something. “Possible, but against the Law.”

“Law?”

“No transforming humans against their will,” I explained shortly. “Law of Magic.”

John stared at me through the mirror, and I got the feeling I'd just misstepped somehow. “Law of Magic. Is that an inherent law enforced by the Art itself or one arbitrated by some form of governing body?”

Shit.

He took in the look on my face. “Interesting.”

“John, no, don't.” My voice was shaking. Shit, why did he have to be so fucking astute? “You'll get me killed for treason, don't--”

He turned to me and put a hand on my shoulder, saying in a hushed tone, “All right, all right. We'll talk about this later.” His touch shifted to my chest and he pushed me away a little, simultaneously pulling his Blackberry PDA thing out of his pocket. “I have to have someone bring me a new shirt and tie. Go back out, make sure Mr. Hendricks hasn't gotten overzealous in handling the superintendant.”

“You okay?”

John blinked at me, then smiled slowly. “I'll be fine. Go, I'll be out soon.”

I got out of there fast, before he somehow read the set of my eyebrows and figured out the Doom of Damocles or something. Hell's bells.

Cujo was still talking to the woman who'd given John a rum facial, and I left him to it. The ballroom was a massive, round affair with staircases along the edge, leading up to enclosed balconies overlooking the city. I loosened my tie as I headed to the upper level, a ring overlooking the ballroom. It was quieter up there, above the hum of music and chatter. I needed to think.

John was going to ask me about the White Council. He could be patient about it, wait for the best opportunity like he had with the Red Court, but in the end he'd do it. The problem was I didn't know if I'd tell him or not. The White Council was supposed to be a shadow organization to the mundanes. I'd never considered sharing the information before. It just wasn't done. I'd shrugged off Morgan's threats because of that.

Now that John had that blood-in-the-water thing going on, that was easier said than done. Last time I vehemently refused to tell him something about the supernatural, I ended up entering into a mutual oath of partnership with him to take Bianca St. Clair to the cleaners. I couldn't have failed discretion harder. It was like setting out to make a sandwich and subsequently getting radiation poisoning. It almost took concentrated effort to screw up that much. And I did it flawlessly, without even trying.

I leaned on the banister overlooking the ballroom, putting creases in my fine tux as I watched the crowd. The warm, cheery feeling I'd had most of the day was still lingering in my mind, resilient even through seeing John getting called out in front of the upper crust of Chicago. I've always been a pretty anti-establishment guy. Orphanages, getting the Doom, and being harrassed by figures of authority since childhood saw to that. That said, I was oddly sanguine about the evening. I felt less like a monkey wearing a tux and more like a respectable.... Heh. A figure of the community.

Cujo spotted me from downstairs and looked annoyed at how far I'd managed to run off. He snapped his fingers and pointed to the floor in front of him. I laughed openly at the suggestion and shook my head. He glared some more for some reason-- oh. He was meant to be guarding me. Yes, he was John's bodyman, his second in command, but he was also supposed to keep an eye on me as well.

That was an unexpected shift in the power dynamics. I thought I'd been the magical version of Cujo, guarding John from the supernatural threats. Apparently no, John still saw me as someone to be watched over.

Stars and stones, how many buildings did a guy have to burn down before people took him seriously?

I didn't need or want Cujo to play babysitter for me, so I backed off the barrister and started to head around the upper ring, just stretching my legs.

And that's where I saw her again. Like the ghost of failures past, she stood at one of the balconies, looking out at the River. She was out of her uniform, not even in the usual civvies, which was probably why I hadn't spotted her sooner. That or she'd been avoiding me which was smack dab between 'possible' and 'more than likely'. Her hair was up in a pearl clip, golden curls wisping out around it and framing her face. Her dress-- yes, dress-- was a dark blue, feminine and perfect with her big baby blues. She looked beautiful but powerful, the lack of sleeves on her dress making the strength in her arms more obvious. She was a pretty flower, but one with readily apparent thorns that would cut you if the messed with her.

She was looking right at me.

I stopped midstep and nearly overbalanced before I remembered to put my foot back down to avoid toppling over. The room suddenly seemed very loud, but that could have just been my pulse pounding in my ears.

Maybe I should have stayed downstairs with Cujo.

No. No. I was Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, wizard of the White Council and bane to any Red Court vampire that dared to step foot in my city. I was just as powerful as she was, my repertoire spells expanding, my will becoming more focused. In two months, I built what had to be one of the safest rooms in North America. My benefactor was one of the most powerful men in the country. With the exception of my cat, I feared no one.

Not even Karrin Murphy.

I walked over to her, “Murphy, you... that dress suits you.”

Murphy stared up at me, expression blank, and sipped her champagne. “Dresden.”

I floundered a bit. I wasn't scared, just... well, you try talking so someone you haven't seen in over a year after having departed on bad terms. Getting the ball rolling wasn't easy, but I was determined to do this and not to chicken out again. “So... how's SI? How've you been?”

“I don't make a habit of discussing police matters with criminals.”

Oh no. I licked my lips and said, “I'm not... Murph, it's not like that.”

She smiled in an ugly, disgusted way. “We keep an eye on Gentleman John Marcone, you know. You're on the list of his known associates.” She went on, sickly sweet, “Why don't you tell me what it's like?”

“Well, it's kind of like there's an underground war going on with the vampires and I'm trying to keep this city safe.”

“Wow,” she breathed. “You even sound like him.”

I grit my teeth, fighting down the surge of anger that flooded my system. Like she had any idea what John and I were going through... "I know he's a criminal scumbag, okay? I didn't wake up and think, hey, I'll sign up with John Marcone today. I didn't exactly have a choice when he came after me with a contract."

“Oh? So did he hold a gun to your head and tell you to dress up and hang onto his arm all night? Or did you do that pro bono?” She drew her lips back in a sneer. “You're not looking too forced right now, Dresden.”

I glowered. “How about you, Murphy? You never liked these fancy parties and yet here you are? Catch the short straw?”

“Something like that. We all drew lots to see who had to make nice with the lowlifes that hang around these parties. I thought it was bad enough that Marcone was going to be here, but...” She waved vaguely to me before knocking the rest of her glass back.

“Murphy, enough,” I growled. “You don't approve of Jo-- of Marcone,” she arched an eyebrow at my slip, “but he's got the resources to help and he wants to drive the vampires out of the city. How is that a bad thing? All those kids being killed or turned, we can stop that.”

“No, you know what you don't get? It's blood money.”

“At least we have a chance now! God, Karrin, you have no idea what it's like-- I've been standing aside, attempting damage control in the wake of these monsters my entire adult life. For the first time I think there's a real shot at hitting them back, hitting them first and hard enough they'll think twice before snacking on some innocents.” I ran my hands through my hair, resisting the urge to reach out and shake her until she listened to me. “If the chips fall right, John's going to get rid of Bianca's people altogether. And you don't know how much it needs to be done. They established an HQ in the city, they're just going to keep coming unless we send them packing!”

Murphy didn't look convinced. In fact, she looked even more pissed. “Hitting them first... Harry, that spike in SI's caseload... The fires, the bodies that are almost but not quite human we've been getting... That's your fault, isn't it?”

I gaped at her. It didn't make sense. I must have been so entrenched in this secret conflict that I forgot what it was like to not know what was going on. I heard the reports of the damage and what was going on from John and Hendricks, but we were holding ground. So I burnt down a building-- I'd taken out one of Bianca's best hit squads, sent after me specifically. We armed John's goons well and there had been some losses, but they were by some order of magnitude less than the number of Reds we took out in the process.

Murphy was SI. She had to know this was needed. Why else did her department exist but to be in the know?

“No, that's not what it's like,” I protested.

“Did you throw the first stone? Did you start this?” She was getting louder, just below shouting now. My voice rose in concert with hers.

“No, Bianca did when she celebrated her new House by trying to kill me and vamp out a bunch of idiot kids! I am not going to act guilty over this! She has to be stopped and I'm sorry, but John Marcone can pull it off. We can't sit on our hands and play by the book with a threat like this!”

“You think we sit on our hands?” She snarled at me, getting up in my face, standing on her toes and crowding into my space. “My people are trying, Dresden, dealing with things no one else understands. We do our best, but it's gotten difficult. See, this guy I knew who helped us out so we didn't have to go in blind, he abandoned all his friends for a cushier job being John Marcone's bitch."

My calm snapped like a rubber band pulled too hard, sudden and painful. "I didn't abandon my friends, I abandoned you! Funny how it's hard to stick around when your quote-unquote friend would rather rough you up and arrest you instead of listening!"

"You could have asked me to listen before I found your card at a murder scene. You were a goddamn suspect!"

"Do you always chip your suspects' teeth, or was I just that special?" The lights around me were starting to flicker wildly, my emotions out of control. I should have tried to calm down but how dare she, like she knew what I'd been through in the last year. "You know what, Murphy? John may be a criminal, but he still puts more trust in me than you ever did. I only ever tried to help you and you threw it back in my face."

Murphy bristled. "You did nothing but tell half-truths, how could I trust you?"

"I was trying to protect you!" My nails were biting into my palms, my hands fisted tightly. I felt myself shaking, I felt sick to my stomach. Under all my rage, I was raw and disappointed. This wasn't what I wanted for Murphy and me. I hardly expected to be making friendship bracelets or anything, but this... this wasn't supposed to happen. We were supposed to be on the same side. Where in my life did I make the wrong decision, sending us into this? Where should I have turned right instead of left?

Her eyes flicked past my shoulder. "Good job there, Dresden. I wish you and the Don nothing but happiness."

I looked behind me to see what she was looking at. I saw John coming up the nearest staircase fast, his coat on and billowing up behind him like a cape. I did not need him joining the conversation, and put my back to him before turning back to Murphy. She gave me a dark, bemused look that pissed me off. I started snapping at Murphy, "You know what, Karrin--"

Hands grabbed my arm. God, he reached me fast. "Harry, we need to leave," John said in my ear.

"No, shut up, I'm not finished!" I tried to yank my arm out of his grip.

It didn't work. Instead, John's fingers dug in hard. "Harry, calm down. I need you--"

Murphy snorted. I glared at her, growling almost ferally. "Not now, John!"

In one fast motion, John seized my shoulders, flipped me around, and slammed me back against the wall. "Listen to me, the Margravine's making another move. We need to go."

My anger popped like a soap bubble, over in the span of a second as my mind launched back into Get Rid of Bianca mode. "Stars, where?"

John didn't say anything, mouth a thin, white line. He stepped away, hands falling from my shoulders, and looked at Murphy. "If you'll excuse us, Lieutenant."

She looked at me. "Yeah. Sure." She turned on her heel and walked away, right back out of my life.

Oh god, I felt ill. I bent over, leaning on my knees, and took a few deep breaths against the bile rising in my throat. All my anger vanished, leaving me feeling hollow. "Where.... where's she hitting?" I gasped, trying not to drown in the... everything. It was all too fucking much.

"Come with me," John said, and helped me out the side doors. Moving was good, the effort to keep one foot in front of the other calming.

I slid into the car, John beside me. It pulled away into the street before the door even closed, accelerating fast.

"The Margravine is gunning for you again, Harry," John said quietly as he got ready. He tugged his crucifix out of his collar, stripped off the outer layers of his tuxedo, and started loading one of the holy water paintball guns.

I looked sideways at him, not comprehending. "What do you mean?"

"She's attacking your home, apparently trying to get through your wards," he explained. "We think she was under the impression you were home and planned to take you out of the equation."

The emotional rollercoaster just kept going. I did a one-eighty, from exhausted and bereft to furious again. It made me dizzy, actually, and I saw John's eyes widen as he looked at me. He set his paintball rifle aside and grabbed my face and neck, pulling me down and pushing my head between my knees. "Breathe," he commanded, voice broking no argument. "We'll be there in five minutes, get yourself under control."

His tone was harsher than usual, but I needed that. His direction cut through the miasma of turmoil in me. And as tough as he was on me, his hands were gentle against the back of my neck as they held me down. I stayed like that until the wave of nausea passed. By then, we were pulling up to my street.

I drew my blasting rod, wishing I hadn't left my staff at home, and shook out my shield bracelet. Then it was my turn to give an order. "Stay here."

"No, we're going to need the firepower until back-up arrives."

"I'm not taking you into a fight with vampires with me, John," I snapped testily. We didn't have time to argue.

"I am more combat capable than most people you've--"

"No, shut up," I reached out and put my hand over his mouth, and the physicality of the act quieted him. "You get taken out, this entire stupid thing is over and will have been for nothing, and I'm not going to give Murphy the satisfaction of being right about this. You can replace me, I can't replace you. Stay. Here." The car was slowing and I didn't wait for it, opening the door and tumbling out. Hendricks got out a second later, armed and dangerous, along with the other goon who'd been riding shotgun.

The area around the converted complex I lived in was masked in a translucent dome of darkness. The night got thicker in the dome, the light from the moon and the nearby lamps useless. I had to squint to see inside.

There was a group of Reds inside the dome. One was a tall, dark-skinned woman in a scarlet robe with a metal staff in her hand. The other three were barely visible, hidden at the far end of the dome, by my basement apartment. They were armed as well with canisters of something I couldn't identify. I didn't get the chance to get a good look-- the female Red screeched inhumanly and started flinging spells.

Great. A magic-capable vampire. Exactly what I needed. Bianca hauling out the big guns.

I stepped up and pulled up a shield, letting her dark magic bounce away. As she wound up to send another bolt of malicious force, the window of the car rolled down and John unleashed a string of shots. The sorceress drove out of the way, and I took the opportunity to level my rod down on her and scream, "Forzare!"

Invisible force soared towards her, but as soon as it hit the dome, it lost momentum and power, sputtering out. It barely glanced her. The darkness was thick enough to effect my spells, like trying to throw a punch underwater.

Many things about this were not good.

"John, stay in the fucking car," I yelled over my shoulder.

"I am in the car! What is that?" He replied.

"Dark magic, cancelling out my spells. Cujo, new guy!" I whistled and threw up another shield as they got out from behind the car and joined me. "Focus fire on the sorceress. I can't get in there until her dome is down."

"Can't we just charge into that thing?" Cujo asked. He listened to me though, taking aim at the Red woman.

"If it can do that to my magic, it'd be bad to make contact. Seriously bad juju."

The sorceress lashed out, shouting in some rough tongue I didn't recognize. A beam of dark magic came at me and I put all my will into my bracelet to hold it off. Normally I would tilt my shield, sidestep out of the way, but it'd hit the newbie if I did. Instead, I held it off with a wall of magic. Where our magicks met, blue sparks and black-red sparks showered down to the ground. The dead grass they landed on shriveled and blackened.

Cujo and Newbie put some pressure on her, firing in tandem with each other. When a few shots hit her, she shrieked in pain, her concentration weakening. The dome lightened somewhat, and I peered at the other vampires. They were doing something at my door, I couldn't see what. Probably nothing good.

Behind me, John joined in again with some supplementary fire. His rifle snapped off shots with all the accuracy of an accomplished sniper. One bulb of holy water hit the sorceress in the face, and she reeled from it. The dome shrunk instantly, its diameter cut down by several feet. I stepped forward to take up more ground.

The sorceress's fake, human skin hung off her face grotesquely, revealing the shiny, leathery black skin beneath. I heard Newbie suck in a breath, mutter, "Fucking hell," at the sight. "They're ugly."

The sorceress heard him and let out an unholy rodent-like squeal before sending a rage-filled bolt at me. The dome re-solidified at the same time, smaller but just as dense.

Inside the darkness, there was a light, a burst of bold yellow and red fire. A boisterous explosion came from my door as the three other vamps ducked and covered.

"No, no, NO!" I batted aside another bolt of magic, hot fury powering into me. Not my house, not my home, it may have been a hole in the ground but it was mine and Bob and Mister were in danger and I was going to shove my boot so far up Bianca's ass--

I heard John shout behind me, but it didn't quite register with me. I brought up a strong shield around myself, a sphere around my body, and walked right into the dome. It was less like moving through water and more like molasses. Molasses that slowly ate at my magic, forcing me to bring all my will to bear to keep myself separated from the darkness.

The sorceress's batty eyes widened as I got close, looking as scared as such a beastly face could. She probably didn't expect me to do something so stupidly reckless.

I did something even more reckless. I dropped my shield, lifted my hand to her face, and discharged the force stored in the ring around my finger.

The darkness wrapped around me and I screamed. It burned, not with heat but with stale, deathly cold, like magical frostbite. But it only lasted a second. I'd been wearing that ring for a few weeks without using it, saving it for an occasion like this. I didn't know how much bang it had, but it was enough to kill the Red in one fell swoop. Even with a Red Court Vampire's supernatural strength, there was only so much blunt force trauma one could take.

As the Red died, its dome went with it. I fell to the ground, overspent by the torrent of magic I just used with that shield. I felt blind from the stinging pain clinging to my aura, the darkness that wanted so very much to snuff me out. I dimly saw Cujo and Newbie stalk past me, guns blazing as much as paintball guns could.

John knelt on the ground by me, hand finding my neck, checking my pulse, then laying down some more cover fire as I gasped weakly, "Told.... told you to--"

"Don't talk," he snapped at me.

I turned my head against the dead grass until I faced my apartment. There was fire, and it was spreading quickly along the wall. It shouldn't have done that, it was concrete... Maybe they used napalm?

I wasn't going to get a chance to ask. In moments, the last Red went down. Cujo went up to the fallen bodies and pumped more rounds into each one, to be sure they were dead.

Meanwhile, my house was burning down.

"Bob," I croaked. "Oh, empty night." I struggled to my feet and headed for it.

"Harry, stop!" I heard John behind me.

My rod was gone somewhere. It didn't matter. I held up my right hand and focused as much as I could. "Ventas. Ventas!"

The wind picked up, a tunnel of air blowing down the steps and killing some of the flames. More fire was crawling up the side of the building. God, my neighbors. "John, get the place cleared! I'll be back in a moment!"

"Don't you dare, Harry," he growled, grabbing my shoulder and turning me around. "You're not going in there--"

"I have to! Bob and Mister are in there and if the flames get to my lab, this entire block is going to go up, and that's if we're lucky," I told him. He looked hesitant for a moment. The numbers were ticking in his head but I didn't have time. I shook his hand off and jumped down the stairs.

My door was metal and hot as hell after so much time engulfed in flame. I tried to open it and got some burns on my hand for my trouble. I tried to kick it down instead, but I was too debilitated by my earlier stunt against the darkness.

Cujo walked up next to me and kicked it in with one shot. I blinked at him, and he just said, "What're we grabbing?"

"Thank you," I said and lead him in with me. I quickly took stock. The right wall was alight, the fire having worked through the outside wall and down into my apartment. My bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen were going to be a loss momentarily. My staff, which had been leaning against that wall, was half-burned already.

I didn't have time to mourn it. I found Mister on the top of the sofa on the far end of the room, hissing at the flames. I grabbed him, and he clawed into me to say thanks. I passed my terrified cat off to Hendricks and headed to the corner of the room. The rug over the entrance to the sub basement was heavy in my feeble grip, but I managed to flip it away. Cujo helped me heave the trapdoor up.

There was a crunch behind us and we both turned to watch the other side of the apartment cave in as the support burned away. "Fuck, we can't stay here, Dresden!" Cujo shouted over the din of noise.

"Give me a sec," I called back before heading down the stairs.

Bob's orange eyelights were bright and awake. "Boss, what's happening?"

I scooped him up under one arm. "Fire, Reds torched the place. We don't have time!" I looked around at my very, very well-stocked lab. "I can't get this stuff out of here!"

"Magic fire or mundane fire?" Bob asked, all business for once, thank the stars.

"Mundane."

"Crap, we could have used a circle otherwise."

"We have to keep this place out of the fire, Bob, think fast!"

Bob went quiet under my arm. "Earth magic," he finally said.

"I don't have that kind of power," I told him, a frantic edge creeping into my voice. I wanted to get out of there. Nightmarish images of the apartment caving in and trapping me down there filled my head.

"Don't need much. Just bring the whole thing down," Bob said.

"What?"

"You want to keep this place from going up like a box of magical fireworks, you have to make sure it won't light up!"

I scanned the room desperately, hoping some solution would jump out at me. Anything better than Bob's suggestion. I could do it. It wasn't a large sub basement and if I took out some support near the entrance, it'd seal it off.

Seal it off from the fire and likely from any chance of recovery. In my lab was years and years worth of work. Components and notes and projects, my rarest ingredients and my silver ring in the floor. Artifacts and the memories of hours spent down here, tucked into the work I loved so dearly.

"Dresden!" Cujo hollered. "You're out of time!"

I couldn't help it; a scream started deep in my chest and tore its way out of my mouth, despairing and forlorn. It wasn't fair, it just wasn't fucking fair. I shifted Bob under my arm, took a precious few seconds to grab a worn box off one of my shelves, and climbed out of the basement and into the piping hot apartment. "Get out of the way," I thundered at Hendricks, pushing Bob and the box into his hands and him towards the door.

I didn't have words for the spell I needed, so I made some up, chanting, "Terra, terra, terra servitas," under my breath. I reached out with my magic, seeping it down into the earth around me. I felt the structure of the sub basement, gliding my magic along it until I found the corner of it. I curled my fingers, miming grabbing something, and pushed all my frustration and sorrow and anger into the motion.

Then I pulled, my arm sweeping down, my magic doing the same.

There was a low crunching sound and the floor shifted unsteadily. Under me, the earth moved, one corner of my lab giving in. It was inelegant, to say the least, but it had to do the trick.

Hendricks came back then as my overexertion caught up with me and sent me to my knees. He seized me bodily, pulling me up until I was in a-- ha ha-- a fireman's carry before he jogged out of the building.

I was disoriented and not quite following what was happening. It was all motion and sound until Cujo put me down on the ground, several yards away from my burning home.

"Bob," I managed before coughing, smoke in my chest making it hard to breathe. "Bob, where are you?"

"Here, boss," Bob said quietly. I looked wearily around and found John kneeling next to me, holding my skull out to me. I grabbed him, hugging the smooth old bone to my chest. I felt like I was sixteen all over again, my home turning to cinder as I clutched one familiar item to me like if I protected this one thing, everything would turn out. It'd all be okay.

I lifted my eyes to my current home and watched it go up in smoke.

"You're shaking." John put his hands on me, one on my shoulder, the other around my neck so his thumb lay on my pulse. "Harry, can you hear me?"

I nodded numbly but didn't say anything. John was touching me so lightly, like I was made of candy glass and liable to break any moment. Which was a funny coincidence since that's exactly how I felt too.

"Cat," I muttered. "Mister, where--"

"Safe, in one of the cars, along with that box," John said.

I glanced around wildly, looking for a grey cloak. "Can't stay here, Morgan might show up, see Bob. Have to--"

"All right, it's all right." John got me to my feet and led me along to the street before bundling me into a waiting car. I sagged against the seat, eyes closing. I held Bob tightly on my lap, my fingers splayed over the curve of his brow. John rubbed my arm soothingly, speaking softly. I couldn't make out the words through the mess that was going on in my head, but he was there, and it helped. He took my hand, the one I'd burned grabbing the door, and murmured about aloe vera, contact burns, and other things I didn't care about.

I shuddered as I quashed a surge of panic that tried to take hold of me. Not yet. Not just yet.

Hugging Bob's skull like some incredibly morbid worry stone, I drifted mercifully into sleep.

Chapter Text

I didn't want to wake up again.

After the quick succession of traumas I'd gone through, my subconscious took some pity on me and granted me a very normal, meaningless dream. I was laying in the Great Lawn of Millennium Park, under the metal web-like arches. I was spread out, my arms and legs sprawled bonelessly, as snow drifted down onto me. It wasn't cold. As it piled on top of me, it started to feel like a downy blanket, protecting me from the world at large. Slowly, snow covered my eyes and layered until the world faded from white to grey to black.

I stirred to the sound of voices.

"Lots of oils. Herbs, flowers, different types of stones. Everything from rose hips to obsidian can be used in rituals and potions. But some stuff he'll have to collect himself, unless you have some folded sunshine in storage?"

"Folded sunshine? Is that a euphemism?"

"No, I mean sunlight folded into a piece of linen."

"Surely you're joking."

"Oh, Mr. Sexy Mafia Overlord, ye of little faith! Under the right conditions, it's possible. I'm surprised you don't know. Last week or so, Harry could have folded a tablecloth with sunlight inside! Maybe not so much now, but... Oh man, are you embarrassed? Is it because I called you Mr. Sexy Mafia Overlord?"

"Are you going to act like this all the time?"

"Depends, are you going to be a slamming hottie all the time? You should be flattered! I thought your aura was banging, but maaaaaaan. No wonder you're all over the boss' aura. If I had permission, I'd cuddle up to you too and you don't even have boobs! See, I'm usually a bit of a ladies' spirit, myself..."

That was quite enough, I thought. I opened my eyes, met with the now-familiar image of the ceiling of my usual guest room in John's mansion. I turned my head to see John sitting on the side of my bed, talking to my lab assistant, whose skull sat on the dresser. John was, indeed, somewhat red in the ears, which was an impressive feat on Bob's part.

As I shifted to look at them, John noticed I was awake and twisted to face me. "Harry? Are you all right? How's your hand?"

My hand? I looked down at where it lay on my chest. It was wrapped in gauze and felt sore, but not overly painful. Everything felt a little fuzzy though. "What'm on?"

"Some mild painkillers, nothing too strong," John answered. His face was pulled into a vaguely worried expression, brow creasing. "Are you in pain?"

I shook my head and shifted my gaze to Bob. Hearing him chat up John was strange. I never expected the two of them to meet.

But that was before my apartment was firebombed.

It all came rushing back like a tidal wave. Susan dumping me, the gala with Murphy ripping me a new one, and Bianca's people destroying my home. She destroyed my home. I was homeless, girlfriendless, and lambasted by someone I once cared about all at once. My lab was gone. All the homey rugs and tapestries I covered my home with were gone. My fucking staff was gone. All my clothes, my duster, my toothbrush, the ridiculously comfortable sofa I'd bought for next to nothing, my black book, all the moleskines I'd started filling with notes, the bed that was almost big enough that my feet didn't hang over the side, my Royal Crown bag of gaming dice, my-- everything, it was all gone. My girlfriend, the woman who once my best friend, my home.

I didn't realize I'd gotten out of bed until my knees buckled out from under me and John lowered me carefully to the floor. "--breathe, just breathe, Harry, it'll be all right, just breathe through it," he was saying over and over like a litany. It was hard to hear over the sound of my own hyperventilating.

"Let go of me," I spat, drowning in anger. "Don't touch me, you scumbag."

For the first time in ages, it sounded like an insult and John froze, looking down at me. "Harry..."

"Don't. Call. Me. That," I growled and shoved his arms away when he didn't take the hint.

"Not this again," he said, like it was some kind of inconvenience for him, like I was some petulant child. "What have I done now?"

"What have you done? You ruined my fucking life, Marcone! Did you miss that? It might have been hard to pick up on, what with everything important to me falling apart here!" I was aiming for sarcasm, but overshot it. My voice was coarse from emotion and inhaled smoke, and I lapsed into a small fit of coughs.

I saw John start to reach out as I coughed, but restrain himself, letting his hand fall to his side. "You blame me."

"Well, yeah, seems the thing to do as it's your fault!" I could hear Murphy's voice in my head. John Marcone's bitch. No. No, I refused-- I couldn't--

I shut my eyes and saw a home burning behind my lids. It kept shifting from Justin's house to my apartment until they felt the same. I didn't want to do this again. It wasn't fair, and maybe life wasn't fair, but dammit not this again. I couldn't even think straight, I was so angry.

"Whoa, whoa, boss, hey!" Bob said from his perch. "Deep breaths, boss! Don't go volcano on us now!"

Right. Nuking Marcone's mansion would be a bad idea. Except for the fact it was a fucking brilliant idea. See if Gentleman Johnny would keep his cool when his home burned to cinders. I could make that happen. It'd be easy with all the rage I had in me.

John inched over to where I sat on the floor, leaving only a small space between us. "Harry, I know you're upset. You've had an... extraordinarily terrible few days and I didn't do much to help. But I would never through action or inaction hurt you like this. Your blame is misplaced."

Passing the buck. Just like any corrupt businessman. "Don't you get it? Because of you, I have nothing!" My voice broke, but I kept going. "My house, my things, my clothes, years of lab stock--"

"I can take care of that," John said quickly. His hands were up in that universal placating gesture that meant calm the fuck down, you possibly rabid animal. "I'll get--"

"You're missing the point!" I pulled at my bangs in frustration, the resulting pain fuzzy thanks to whatever he doped me on. "You can't write a check and fix this. I mean, you were actually human once, right? Before you woke up and decided to be a 'professional monster' instead?"

I couldn't have gotten a more stunned reaction if I'd slapped him. His mouth dropped open, his pupils dilated, and something that seemed like honest hurt flickered over his face. That almost made me stop, to reconsider but I needed to do this. I needed Murphy to be wrong about me. If I let go of how furious I was, all that would be left was the mourning. Anger was less painful. I knew from experience.

"I don't believe you mean that." The hurt was swept off his face, and in its place was an opaque, non-descript withdrawal. It was such a well-practiced expression, it almost looked real. "You're simply taking your pain out on the easiest target."

"You're never the easy target, Marcone! Nothing is easy with you!" I jabbed a finger at him. "You murder people. You deal drugs. You force out your competition. Anyone not marching to your drum, well, you'll fix that right up, won't you?" I shook my head and started to lever myself to my feet slowly, holding onto the bed when my vision tilted crazily.

"What are we even talking about? Is this about your apartment at all?" I heard him behind me, and he grabbed me under the arms, keeping me up when I nearly fell down again. Hell's bells, I wanted to yell at him for even presuming to help me, but without his grip, I wouldn't have made it to my feet. Once I had though, I shoved him away again. He looked exasperated under his mask. "I can't help you if you won't tell me what's bothering you."

He'd yet to raise his voice. It was a very one-sided fight, and I hated him for his endless supply of calm. It made me feel like I was being irrational. I'd just lost everything I had, I was being precisely as rational as I should have been. Including when I took a swing at him.

To my complete surprise, he didn't dodge or block me. I connected with the side of his face and he let me, turning his head with the punch to minimize the damage, but taking it nonetheless.

Stars and stones.

I watched him rub the sore spot on his cheek, touching it gingerly, like he was testing it. He didn't retaliate or do anything except shut his eyes and exhale hard.

When he opened them again, he stared into mine and asked, "Did that make you feel better?" Still quiet, still more composed than a man who'd been punched in the face had any right to be.

My anger was draining, replaced by guilt and a deep, crushing despair. "Hit me back."

"No."

"John, please--"

He shuddered, but didn't give in, even with the 'please.' "No. That isn't going to help anything."

"Anyone else would be clutching a knife wound right now," I pointed out a little desperately.

"You are not anyone else."

I shook my head and sat on the bed heavily, listening to the springs squeak under my weight. "I don't... I don't know why."

"Well, for a start, I think you might be having a minor breakdown," he said dryly. "What would I gain from threatening or intimidating you, Harry? That had its place in our relationship, but we are long past that point." He pulled a chair over and sat in it, in front of me. He was close enough that he could put his hands on my knees, hands warm even through my pants. I remembered that the tuxedo shirt and pants I had on was all I had left to wear. It was stupid, but my eyes started to sting, vision swimming for reasons that had nothing to do with the drugs. I made myself focus on his words. "I want you to be with me. I worked hard to have you on my side. Responding to you with violence or antagonism would only sabotage that."

I scoffed. God, for a while I thought maybe he liked me. "So this-- this is just another thing you've run the numbers on." I laughed, a choked, rough sound. "You don't actually give a damn about me, but making me think so works best for your plans."

This was dangerously close to that thing I wasn't supposed to talk about. He didn't seem much more eager to speak about it openly. John measured his words carefully before replying. "You say these things like they're mutually exclusive. I enjoy your company. I also need you. Treating you... as I have been," he hesitated, "it just makes sense."

"Hell's fucking bells, I don't want you to do this because it makes sense!" It hurt, it really did. I didn't need more hurting at the moment. I had a surplus, seriously. "Can't you just be a person for five seconds? Can you stop tallying up the costs and benefits?"

He was a little baffled by the route of the conversation, I could tell. I was too, for that matter. But John Marcone's presence in my life had screwed me over in the last few days. To hear our... relationship was just business, I hated that. All the loss wasn't worth it. Maybe, yeah, the banter and the-- the flirting, it made me happy at the time, but if it was all hollow on his side, I couldn't deal with that. Not on top of what had already happened.

Losing the simple companionable pleasure that was the memory of his hands on my back and his warm smile, it would be too fucking much. If Murphy couldn't be wrong about me, let her be wrong about him.

"Harry," John said softly. "That's the kind of person I am. What you're asking of me would be a lie. And I don't lie to you."

"I'm not asking you to lie. I'm asking you to be honest! That's the point!"

He shook his head. "You are a very emotional person. Not just now, but generally speaking. Everything you do is tied up in how you feel. I am not like that, Harry. Everything I do is calculated. I operate by logic. That doesn't mean I'm being dishonest."

I just stared at him, not sure how to even wrap my head around that. I felt off. Severely unbalanced. So much had happened, and now John was saying something I knew was important, but I couldn't make it fit into my head with everything else. It was crowded, all convoluted and twisted. Maybe John was right about me in that respect. I was just carrying too much in me and I couldn't figure out how to get it out before I burst.

I didn't speak for a while, just sitting there numbly. It was like my head couldn't pick what to go with. I was mad at John, I was glad he was there with me, trying to help me understand. I wanted to go home and curl up in my own bed and not leave for a week. I wanted to march over to the Velvet Room and incinerate Bianca St. Clair until she was nothing more than a pile of blackened bones. I wanted to find Murphy and beg her to listen to me, let me explain. I wanted to bury her memory and never think of her again. I wanted Susan back, that basic comfort of having someone. I wanted to go back in time three or four days and make sure none of this happened.

Mostly, I just wanted to stop hurting. Just for a moment.

John watched my face raptly, barely even blinking. Then he sighed, "Christ, Harry," and took my face in his hands, his rough palms curled over my jaw.

I felt his forehead against mine and shut my eyes, shaking. I inhaled deeply, finding his cologne had mixed with the smell of smoke from the fire, the scent making something tighten in my chest. I could feel his breath against my cheek, the heat of his skin against mine. I wondered what he'd taste like, smoke and heat and that underlying, secretive sweetness.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't want it. That I hadn't wanted it for a long while. But right then, I couldn't. It was too much.

I ducked my head down. "John, I-- I can't, I can't do this right now, I'm sorry, but I can't."

He hushed me quietly. "All right. All right." I almost changed my mind when his lips brushed against my hairline, so goddamn gentle, but he pulled away and stood before I could act on the new urge. As soon as he was away from me, his tone flattened, back to business. "My people are doing their best to salvage what they can from the fire. I'll see how they're doing."

I nodded, eyes still shut. "Thanks."

"Of course," he murmured, then generously left me to my thoughts.

I took a few shaking breaths, getting a hold of myself.

Behind me, I heard a groan. "That," Bob said, "was disappointing."

I put my head in my hands. "Shut up, Bob."

 

Michael skipped Thanksgiving Mass with his family to help me sort through the ruins.

Maybe it was how unbalanced and delicate I felt, but I kept hiding stray tears in my coat sleeve whenever I thought about that. Usually it took a Blues Brothers mission from God himself for Michael to miss holiday Mass. After the fire, I called my friends to give them the heads up. The Alphas instantly offered to let me couch surf with them. Michael got in his truck and met me at the site of my once-was-an-apartment.

"How are you feeling, Harry?" he asked, handing me a cup of coffee so hot it steamed the air around it slightly.

"Like my home just burned down along with all my possessions," I answered dully. I was hoping if I said it enough, it'd sink in and the shocky numbness would fade.

It'd been weird, waking up in the morning, getting dressed in the clothes John provided because I had nothing else. There was a still-packaged toothbrush, soap, and shampoo in the bathroom suite off my guest room. I would've killed for some Frosted Flakes or similarly sugary breakfast cereal, but I had to settle for some fruit I found in the kitchen.

Then, of course, John showed up and informed me his men had retrieved what they could, that everything was in boxes at my former home for me to sort through. "Except the somewhat inexplicable supply of depleted uranium, which was disposed of before the arson investigators could get suspicious," he remarked wryly.

"Needed it for wizarding," I told him.

"Oh, I have no doubt." He gave me a considering look. "Do you want me to go with you?"

I shook my head. "Nah. Going to hop over there, see what's not completely destroyed. Michael's going to help. Not a big deal."

It was a massive lie, but he showed some mercy and didn't call me out on it. He did, however, pull his coat off, the well-worn suede jacket I saw him in so often, and handed it to me. When I didn't immediately take it, he said, "I have meetings today that require a somewhat more sophisticated wardrobe. I won't be using it."

It was the end of November and there was a light snow falling, so I swallowed my pride and pulled the coat on. It was body-warm, had that distinct John smell, and even had a set of gloves in the pocket made of the same brown suede as the jacket itself. It wasn't my duster, but it was nice. "Thanks," I murmured.

John put his hands on my shoulders. "This will pass, Harry. You'll come through."

"How do you know?"

"I've gazed upon your soul." He idly fixed the collar of the jacket, not looking me in the eyes for once. "It would take far more than this to break you."

I got out of there pretty fast after that. The Beetle had been moved to John's garage, parked in a far back corner out of sight, like it had insulted John by not having the decency to burn down with the rest of my stuff. Its trunk wasn't big enough for what I needed, so I intended to toss boxes of not-completely-incinerated stuff into the back of Michael's truck.

Michael found my duster. There wasn't much left of it. The spells I'd sunk into it couldn't hold up against prolonged exposure to fire and the canvas material was blackened and irreparable. My staff had gone the same way, the only reminder of it a stump of rune-carved oak. I made a note to call Eb, see if he could ship me another chunk of the oak tree it'd been carved from.

Nothing really survived. Any lab components that had been dug up were contaminated from the cave-in. No clothes came through. My books were a lost cause. In the end, I got rid of the potion ingredients I had to deal with carefully, piled everything else together, poured salt over it all, and torched it. It was necessary. Bianca was using magic now and leaving anything she could use as a thaumaturgic link to me was suicidal.

I sat in Michael's truck, watching the flames for a while. When all that was left was a smoldering black spot on my lawn, he drove us away. Neither of us said anything until I noticed we weren't heading towards Executive Priority or the Gold Coast. "Where're we going?"

"Dinner," Michael said.

"No offense, but I'm not feeling very friendly at the moment. I'm not going to be good company for Thanksgiving."

He put his hand on my shoulder. "Harry, we are not fair-weather friends. You are welcome in my home when you are going through a rough patch just as much as any other time. Family doesn't stop when things get tough."

Okay, I was touched. My throat got tight, and remained so for a long time. I was still shaky and unsettled when we got to the Carpenter house. It'd been too long since I'd been there, and little Amanda glommed onto my leg, making me walk like an idiot while I bade hello to all the other Carpenters.

Then I was sitting at the table with Baby Harry on my lap as Michael said Grace over the spread of mashed potatoes, candied yams, steamed vegetables, homemade gravy, turkey, and ham-- there was enough food for a platoon. Or, just enough for a big hungry family.

I didn't have to talk much. So many voices chattering about the minutiae of life and requests for more carrots/turkey/sweet potato/et cetera filled the air. I enjoyed the palpable energy of the house, loving and homely, without contributing. I just ate my food, then held Baby Harry as Charity stuck a spoon into his little mouth. She and I never really got on, but that night was devoid of any backhanded insults. She even gave me one of the bigger pie slices after dinner.

Who knew it'd only take losing my home to get some voluntary kindness out of Charity Carpenter?

I settled in the living room, drowsily enjoying my tryptophan coma as it snuck up on me. Molly sat next to me.

"Your apartment really burn down?"

I nodded. "Yup."

"Sucks."

"It really does."

"You look like you need a hug," she said with all the severity of a doctor prescribing medical treatment. Then she leaned over and gave me a hug.

Then Hope yelled about Molly hogging 'Uncle Harry' all to herself and my hug layered and grew as some of the rugrats crawled up around me and joined Molly.

Some manly tears were shed. I felt I was entitled to a few. I had to get them out of my system either way, and if anyone saw them, they didn't comment on them.

Good people, the Carpenters.

 

I got back at why-are-you-awake-stupid o'clock. I was sure Michael wanted to offer me a place to sleep that night, but I knew that couldn't possibly go well. John was on high alert about the Reds and it seemed cruel to make him worry on top of punching him in the face earlier.

When I got to the guest room that had unofficially become mine, Hurricane Marcone had hit, leaving well-organized affluence in its wake. The closet was filled with clothes, Mister was giving himself a bath on the bed's new winter linens, and the photos of my father and mother that had been in the care-worn box I'd saved were framed and sitting on the nightstand.

Bob was on the dresser still, but was now surrounded by jars and bottles. It wasn't even close to what I'd had in my personal stock before the fire, but John had done his solid best in digging up plenty of spell and potion components. The spread was like a homeopathic experiment that had become sentient and started multiplying. I picked up some of the oils and looked them over.

"I tried to tell him to pick up chocolate," Bob said, coming awake with a yawn. "He wouldn't believe I was being serious."

"Yeah, he's like that sometimes." I put the bottles back down and regarded Bob. "Has he been bugging you?"

"Stars, no, Harry. In fact, he can bug me all he likes. It's a shame he's such a gentleman," Bob gushed, giving a simpering sigh.

"Hey, don't sexually harass him."

"Well, someone should since you're clearly not. Speaking of, what are you waiting for? Saving yourself for marriage?"

"It's complicated," I said shortly, because it was. "We're probably going to be here until I find a new place, so some ground rules--"

Bob cut in. "You're going to find another place? Oh."

"Oh? What, oh? Of course I am."

"You should probably tell him that then. Unless it's normal to put in a new bed for a temporary guest?"

I frowned and looked at the bed in question. I was still tired despite catching a nap at the Carpenters', so I'd missed it before, but it was a new bed. It was longer, to be more precise. I climbed onto it and stretched out to test it and, yes, it was big enough my feet didn't hang off the edge.

Huh. Maybe John and I did need to have a chat.

In the morning, I caught him enjoying his latte and an ultra-healthy parfait thing. I made a show of grabbing the newspaper and opening it to the Classifieds, sitting next to him at the kitchen island.

He gave me a look, less sharp than it would've been if he was fully awake. It was hard to find him intimidating in pajamas, even if they were pinstriped and probably very expensive. Add a dress shirt and a tie and he could've just worn that to his business meetings. "What're you doing?"

"Looking for a place to live. See, my apartment got firebombed thanks to you starting trouble with Bianca." I may not have been in the throes of a raging break-down, but I was hardly going to just let that go.

"You have a place to live," he pointed out evenly.

"My own place to live."

He slid the newspaper away from me and folded it shut, tossing it aside. "Later."

I folded my arms and leaned on the island. "No. Not later."

"Harry, I appreciate your attachment to your bachelor lifestyle, but, as you just reminded me, your apartment was firebombed by the Red Court. The only reason you aren't dead right now is pure luck. If you think I'll let..." I saw him stop, revise his sentence, and try again. "Until this business with the Red Court is settled, you should remain here. Any house or apartment you purchase will lack a threshold you could build solid wards on and would leave you vulnerable. It'll take time for you to recoup your losses to the point you could defend yourself against the next inevitable attack from the Margravine. If you're here, you're guarded by my security force and the protections we've already worked on."

All of that made sense, and I was sure he really believed all of it. But at the same time, I knew those weren't the only reasons for this.

Staying would be easy. I could let John take care of the little things while I restocked and got ready to make that undead bitch Bianca pay for what she'd done. But if I did that, if I took the easy way, I wasn't sure I would get back out. It would be effortless to get further tangled in John's life. I knew by now that our relationship was one of compromise, but if I made too many concessions, he'd push for more. He couldn't help himself. Give John Marcone an inch and he'll plant a flag into it and conquer you. It was just how he was.

"I'll think about it," I told him, because I didn't have a counterargument that didn't involve quoting The Spider and the Fly at him.

 

Before I even considered house hunting, I needed a staff. Not having mine felt like missing a limb. I was glad my blasting rod had survived, but without my other wizardly equipment, I didn't feel completely safe.

I waited for John to leave to check on a prostitution ring or head a budget meeting or whatever was on his agenda, then let myself into his office. All the phones in the house were too advanced for me to use, each possibly capable of college-level trigonometry on their own. I needed to make a call though, so I dug the Stonehenge bracelets out of John's desk and reluctantly put them on.

Then I used the stone sphere to unlock the bracelets and take them off, just to be sure I could.

I put them back on and dialed a Missouri number. It was early still, and I caught Ebenezar before he went out to tend to the farm.

"You got any leftovers from that oak tree?"

"Hoss, what'd you do?"

I sighed and leaned back in the chair. Then I noticed how comfy it was. Oooh, massage buttons. "Some Reds burned down my apartment. Staff was inside."

Eb blew out a breath. "Yeah, I'll bring some up to you."

"Thank you, sir. You planning on visiting soon or something?"

He got quiet. "Hasn't Warden Morgan gotten a hold of you yet?"

"No?" Last I saw Morgan, he randomly menaced me for a few minutes then left. I barely remembered it, with what'd happened in the meantime. Hell, if Morgan needed to find me right now, it'd be quite a task, seeing how I'd been forced to relocate.

"Damn, haven't you heard, boy? There's gonna be a Council meeting about your fool antics. Bianca St. Clair wants to declare war on the Council. You're looking at censure or worse."

My mouth went dry. War? With the Council? Bianca had to be out of her mind, she didn't have a leg to stand on. I was involved, yeah, but her conflict was with John. It was a Chicago matter more than anything.

"What's worse than censure?" I heard myself ask.

"Your rank as a wizard," Eb said quietly. "They want your stole for this."

Oh.

Great.

Chapter Text

All was not lost. I had to remember that. It was just that the cards were stacked against me.

The White Council never liked me, never did anything about Morgan's obsessive, crooked cop routine, never took kindly to the fact I'd broken the First Law and escaped execution. I avoided every Council meeting that had come up since I was sixteen, even when they were in my neck of the woods. Now they were calling on me personally and, according to Ebenezar, with the implicit purpose of excommunicating me to avoid conflict with the Red Court.

My gut reaction was to tell them where they could shove their excommunication, but I made myself stop and calm down. As much as I hated the Council, I was a wizard, all the way through, and I'd never really considered they could turn around and say otherwise. I'd earned my stole and it was mine. I wasn't in the mood to lose anything else to this war with Bianca.

I sagged back in John's chair, turned it on to massage up and down my back, and thought about where I stood.

Had I violated any rules? None of the Laws-- vampires didn't count on that front. I hadn't revealed the Council's existence to any mundanes, though John was extrapolating in dangerous ways. And with the Accords...

My copy had been lost in the fire, and I'd never actually sat down and read through the entire thing, but I did know someone who had.

I went out, purchased the latest three issues of Playboy and FHM, and stacked them on the dresser, setting Bob's skull on top.

His eyelights came on dreamily. "Oooh, what's this, Harry?"

"Payment," I said. "I need your expertise on the Unseelie Accords." I sat down on the bed facing him and explained about Eb's warning.

"Yowch. Hm. You want to know where you stand legally..." He hemmed and hawed for a moment, thinking. "You never started any fights and only engaged in combat when the vampires attacked you, so you can't be said to have instigated anything."

"But...?" Because I could tell there was a 'but' on the way.

"You enabled a mortal to instigate conflict. Johnny is acting under your advisement and arguably your supervision. You could be cast as an accomplice by the Red Court."

That was true enough. It would be easy to argue that without me, none of this would have happened, and the Red Court would have peacefully coexisted with the supernatural community and unsuspecting mortals of the city. Which was a bold-faced lie because Bianca would have been snagging up humans as food if John and I didn't hold off her power plays. Also, John claimed he had another magical consultant in mind in case I turned him down, but I had no way of proving that without bringing John in to testify. Which would require telling him about the Council, which would be treason, and I was back at square one. Ugh.

The problem was I didn't have a head for legalese. This was the sort of thing I left to John, who seemed to get a perverse thrill out of finding loopholes and exploiting the grey area between legal and illegal. I needed that talent and an actual copy of the Accords.

At dinner, I sat next to John as he shared his reports on the Reds' movement with me. There was wine and pasta with pink vodka sauce and candlelight, which was probably very romantic for the average person, but was a regular meal for us. Shop talk and a date-like atmosphere. Just another night with John.

I was short on the shop talk though and eventually John noticed. He lounged in his chair, watching me spin linguine around my fork without eating. "You're quiet," he observed. His voice was hushed, reserved. It'd been like that a lot lately, ever since I broke down on him.

"Hm," I hummed noncommittally.

"Harry, I know you're still getting back on your feet after the apartment fire. You could take some time off. I can handle things until you're ready."

I took a gulp of wine, which didn't have the kick I wanted. It'd probably be taken as a bad sign if I asked for a whiskey sour though. The minibar across the room was practically calling my name... "Not that. Something else is going on."

He raised his eyebrows at me, not saying anything, but silently bidding me to go on.

"I might..." I put my fork down, because I wasn't hungry anymore. "After Christmas, I might..." I leaned my face into one of my hands, rubbing my brow. "I have this thing I have to do, and it's important, and..." I might be beheaded or handed off to Bianca, trussed up with a bow. "I'm not sure if-- when I'll be back."

"That's not at all suspicious." His somber expression belied the light tone.

"I can't tell you," I said quietly, like Morgan might be lurking in the shadows, waiting with his sword at the ready. "It's trouble on my end of things."

John leaned on the table and put his hand on my arm, gaze boring into me, reading me. "You're scared. Like you were the night of the gala. When I asked about your Laws."

I pushed my chair out and got up. Letting him do this, find the answers he wanted in my face, was only going to complicate things further. "Don't, John."

"No." He got up and followed me. I made a game attempt to get to the hallway before he could catch up, but yelped when I was jerked back suddenly. I glanced back to see he'd hooked two fingers into one of the belt loops of my jeans to stop me. Who does that? "That night, you said you'd be killed. There's a threat to your life and you want me to sit aside and ignore it?"

I smacked his hand away and turned to face him. "Yeah, I do. If you get more involved, the situation will get worse."

He stepped in close, meeting my glare with his own. "Tell me why."

"Because it's about you. The fact I've already told you so much, that's going to bite me here." He started to snap back, and I put a finger on his mouth. It instantly hushed him, his eyes widening. I doubted it would last, but for now I was totally willing to take advantage of the fact physicality on my part startled him. "I just have to argue that I didn't break any rules and I'll be fine."

He grabbed my hand and pulled it away from his face. I noticed absently he didn't let go afterward, his hand warm and tight around mine. "And if not, you'll die?"

I nodded. "That's kind of how it works in this case."

John shook his head. "No. Absolutely not. You want me to entrust your life to what sounds like a legal battle. I have phenomenal faith in your abilities, Harry, but law is not an area of your expertise."

"Well, that sucks for you," I said and made to leave again.

He didn't let go though, holding fast. "There is a governing body that you're meant to keep secret from non-magical humans that enforces certain Laws over the use of magic. Overt acknowledgement of magic isn't illegal-- you advertise in the yellow pages, after all. Nor is discussing the details of magic with non-magical humans, or else you would not have explained so much when you designed my office's protections. That leaves our business with the Margravine."

"John, stop," I pleaded, trying in earnest to break his grip.

He stepped forward and grabbed me by the shoulder, holding me still as he went on. "There is a distinction between the help you gave me against the Margravine and the office design. You treated the prospect of taking the Red Court on as preposterous. Obviously your governing body must be aware of the Red Court feasting on innocents, but actual confrontation wasn't something you considered. Now why is that." It wasn't a question, merely him thinking aloud. I waited for him to go on because Hell's bells, he was good. As much as I was afraid of him getting me in further trouble just by knowing too much, it was a little riveting to see how that rational, logical mind sorted things out.

I wasn't disappointed. He kept going. "An obvious answer is that this governing body isn't powerful enough to enforce law on the vampires, but that doesn't seem likely. You and I have been doing a fine job ourselves with my resources, and this group threatening you must have more power than I do. You never feared me, but this group makes you nervous. You see them as more dangerous than I am."

"Kind of," I said. "They... they wanted to kill me before. Not without reason, I guess."

His face got hard and I could see him mark the Council on his list of enemies right then, simply because they'd tried to take me out and would try again. "You weren't supposed to tell me how to handle the Red Court. No, no," he shook his head. "Knowledge itself isn't the issue here. The fact something came from the knowledge..." Click-click-click went the details, lining up in John head. "You need to prove this situation with the Margravine isn't your fault, because instigating conflict is illegal."

"You're terrifying sometimes, did you know that?" I just stared at him because holy shit. He wasn't completely correct, but close enough it was scary.

"I'm correct, then?"

"I..." I pressed my lips together and mutely nodded.

He took a breath and seemed to relax somewhat. Not knowing what was going on really bothered him, I think, and having worked it out was a relief. "Well, then you definitely won't be doing this alone. If the burden of proof is on you to show you're innocent, you'll need me."

"I can't, John." I looked down at our feet instead of at him, hoping that would help me refuse him. "If you know this, you'll be in as much danger as I am."

"Harry. Harry." One of his hands curled around my neck, tilting it back so I'd meet his gaze again. I wondered if he was through respecting my personal space anymore. "I think you have forgotten who I am. I run the drugs, the books, the numbers, the guns-- every vice trade worth anything. Also, I have a vampiress who's made it her mission to drink me dry." He grinned faintly, reassuringly. "One more enemy is not going to make my life that much harder."

"This is different," I insisted.

"Tell me why."

"Could you... stop? Quit the whole reasonable thing? It's really annoying." It wasn't helping that he was rubbing his thumb in little circles against the skin under my ear, running over my hairline. It was making me want to tense up and relax all at once. Very disorienting.

"Help me understand, Harry. Please." His eyes bored into mine imploringly. "I will do everything in my power to protect you from these people, but I have to know what exactly I'm up against."

"It's treason," I said helplessly.

"I assure you, I am excellent at keeping secrets."

I just wanted to protect him. Yeah, I was scared for my own skin, but being afraid of Council retribution was something I was very much accustomed to. I had no idea what they'd do with him, if they decided he knew too much. It wasn't something wizards talked about, as telling the mundanes about the Council just wasn't done. By bringing up the topic, you were practically asking for a Warden investigation. Mundanes weren't meant to know. Hell's bells, plenty of magical mortals didn't know about the Council. The world was too big and it's not like the Senior Council held open houses. I would bet a lot of money that the first most people heard of the Council was from a Warden warning young practitioners to toe the line or risk execution.

But I didn't want to die and John was trying desperately to help me.

I was not used to having someone to rely on.

I licked my lips and whispered, "It's a long story."

"I'll make us some coffee."

I let him back me into the kitchen and usher me into one of the chairs around the island. I made him clear out the guards lurking around, not wanting anyone else to overhear. This was stuff that wasn't going to show up on the Outfit's curriculum.

John gave me a hazelnut thing with a dash of nutmeg on top. He stuck to his usual latte.

I took a sip, swiped the foam off my lips with my tongue, then said, "They're called the White Council."

It took a while, but I explained the Council, the organization that appointed itself as lawmaker and policing force for mortal use of the Art. I explained about the Wardens, about Morgan being eternally suspicious of me and convinced of my status as a warlock. I finally told him about Morgan's threats to me, about investigation and possible censure.

I told John about the Accords, as much as I could with my limited knowledge of them, the loose treaty that bound so many factions of the supernatural world. The rules that had to be followed, the fact it entreated each signatory to take care of the problems in their own domain, and how I might be in danger of censure or expulsion if the Accords were interpreted in a certain light.

Around then, John gave me another coffee, something a bit more Irish, if you get my meaning. "I'll need to see a copy," he said.

"Mine was lost in the fire, but..." I shrugged. "I'll see what I can do."

"You say you don't think you've broken any of the rules of these Accords?"

"Yeah. It might not matter, though." I looked down at the drink in my hands, stirring it absentmindedly. "The White Council's never liked me. A lot of them think I should've..." I swallowed thickly. "I'm going to tell you something. It's not... anything I've told anyone before, not the details. It's not a secret, but I don't like talking about it. But it's important if you're going to try to help, I guess. And you should probably know anyway.

"All right," he murmured evenly. When I went quiet, he didn't push, just waiting for me.

I took a deep breath. "My mother died when I was born. And my father had a brain aneurysm when I was six, so I ended up in the system for a while." John nodded, like he knew this. It was probably in whatever records he'd dug up about me, come to think of it. "Then I was adopted by a wizard, Justin DuMorne."

So I told him everything. Justin, Elaine, my home, my training. I meant to keep it brief, but details kept leaking in before I could stop them. How I trusted Justin, how I fell in giddy teenage love with Elaine, the harshness of my lessons. The shock of betrayal, escaping Justin's enthrallment even as I lost Elaine to his will. He Who Walks Behind stalking me. My stupid deal with my Godmother. Banishing the Walker and killing Justin and burning down my home and my innocence with it.

My trial, being placed under the Doom of Damocles, and my parole officer Warden. Then meeting Ebenezar. That was easier to talk about. Long days doing honest work, then studying magic into the evenings, learning to respect the power I had and how it should be used.

Somehow, over the course of the night, the mugs were pushed aside and I ended up laying half on the island, my head on my arms. John's hand returned to the back of my neck, brushing through my hair in a way that left me oddly tranquil after having confessed my life story to him. The only worry I had was why he hadn't reacted in any other way to all of it.

I shifted so I could look at him over the fold of my arms. "Say something, John."

He hummed softly, continuing to soothe me for a moment. "Well... I admit your issues with authority make much more sense now, as well as your resolute autonomy."

I snorted. "See if I ever bare my soul for you again."

"You bared your soul the first time we met."

"No," I corrected, "you tricked me into letting you see it. Totally different."

"My apologies." He let go of my neck, pulling away with some reluctance. "It is very late and you're clearly tired. Go to sleep, we'll figure out a plan of action in the morning."

Part of me didn't want to. I felt... I don't know. Every breath was a little difficult after reliving all those emotions. I would've been perfectly happy to sleep with his hand in my hair, like that presence would fend off the nightmares about Justin and the Walker I was sure to have after talking about them. But there was no way I could ask him for that. So I nodded and went to my room, stripping out of my clothes, falling on the bed, and hoping for a restful night.

 

My copy of the Accords was kindling, and John insisted he needed a copy if he was going to keep my ass out of the proverbial fire. It was harder to find one than I expected. Bock's place was fresh out when I checked. I went to Mac to see if he'd loan me his, but I took his silent, thousand-yard stare as a no.

Bob offered to recite the entire thing to me in exchange for a night out on the town, but I turned him down. He'd been extra annoying since meeting John and I didn't want to know what he'd do if set loose. And besides, I didn't want to copy the Accords down by hand.

I broke down and called John towards the end of office hours. "Meet me at the Blackstone Library. And, uh..." I didn't want him to scare anyone. "Can you not be in your suit?"

"I can dress like a civilian."

"You are a civilian."

He snorted. "Former military, Harry."

They'd left that out of the rumor mills and the endless write-ups in Entrepreneur Magazine. "I didn't know that."

"But now you do," he said in that low, rumbling tone he only used when talking to me. "We certainly are learning about each other, aren't we?"

"Can we not flirt right now?" I said, even as I started grinning like an idiot. "My imminent death is kind of a turn-off."

"Is that so? My, I always assumed you found a certain thrill in near-death experiences. It would explain so much about your lifestyle."

Standing at a payphone getting hit on by the local Don. Average day in my life now. "You going to be here or am I getting stood up?"

"I wouldn't dream of standing you up. It would only exacerbate your hard-to-get routine."

"You like a challenge," I reminded him cheekily.

"I do. I have something to see to, then I'll meet you. Give me an hour."

"Bring something to take notes with." I tried not to feel disappointed when he ended the call. We really had a rhythm. It was nice to get that rapport going. Nice, and gratifying. Flattery would get him nowhere, but the game was still fun to play.

I leaned against one of the columns in front of Blackstone as I waited, tucked up in my borrowed suede jacket. The library was one of the oldest ones in the city, from way back in the 1900s, and had Classical architecture with a bold white facade and Greek-style columns. The whole place felt old and strong, if a bit outdated. The rotunda lobby was large and impressive, but the color scheme was very Fifties and probably in need of a fresh coat of paint. It was a landmark though, so that wasn't likely to happen. That said, it was sort of homey. It felt like an actual library, unlike the palatial Harold Washington Center south of the Loop. Blackstone wasn't the prettiest building in Chicago, but it had it where it counted.

John strolled over to me in blue jeans and a sweater, utterly normal. Cujo shadowed him, and I'd never seen him out of a suit until that moment. The lug had on a wool overcoat to ward off the winter chill, and it made him look even more formal, albeit in a more comfortable way. He looked less like a monkey in a suit and more like a respectable guy. Still broad and powerful, but no longer reading as an obvious goon. Hell, he might've had John outdressed a little. Which was weird.

"Afternoon, Harry," John greeted me mildly, a smile in his eyes if not on his lips.

"Hi, John. Cujo. So," I scratched the back of my neck, which didn't really work with John's gloves on. "I couldn't get a copy of the Accords. No one had one to spare. But we can find one here."

"Filed under fairy tales?" Hendricks asked.

"We call those cautionary tales in my neighborhood, pal. But no. Somewhere else. Back room of sorts." I nodded to the doors. "I'll show you. C'mon."

John kept an easy pace with me, but Cujo lagged behind a little. I was surprised to find his gaze wandering the shelves as we walked. Something in the non-fiction section had his eye.

Eventually John turned to Cujo and said, "Mr. Hendricks, if you'd like--"

Hendricks looked almost bashful. "Nah, I'm good. Sorry, boss."

John smiled at him, kind and empathetic. "Please, Mr. Hendricks. I'm certain we'll be fine without you for a few moments. Should we run into trouble, Mr. Dresden should be able to guard me for a while." He glanced sideways at me. "Worst comes to pass, he could just burn the building down."

I scoffed. "That was once!"

"I've done a thorough background check on you, Harry. Don't fib."

I threw my hands into the air and looked to Cujo for back-up. He was busy perving over the books. Useless. "You act like my response to everything is fire. It's not like it's linear thinking for me."

John got even more smug. One of these days I was going to smack the smile off his face, I thought, then immediately got a full-body flash of guilt. John looked surprised, so I was sure it'd shown on my face. He stared at me for a moment, then told Hendricks, "We'll meet up with you shortly."

Cujo actually shuffled his feet for a moment before wandering away. John watched him go, a paternal, indulgent set to his face. I wondered what I didn't know about them. "What's with him?"

"Another time. Shall we?" He put a hand on my arm and I sighed, leading him on. He didn't remark on my... moment, there, and I was grateful. It was a shock to me too. After telling him everything that made me tick and accepting that what we were doing was undoubtedly flirting, it wasn't okay to entertain thoughts like that. Something changed.

I took us to a shadowy back corner of the library, where the tables had a thin layer of dust on them and the books always remained on their shelves. People didn't walk back here when browsing. The reason why slowly wrapped itself around John's mind. He started to fall out of step with me, looking dazed. I reached back and caught the front of his shirt, pulling him along. "Come on."

"Harry, what is this?" His voice sounded drowsy, like it was pushing through a layer of something to get through.

"Minor veil. You ever read Douglas Adams?" He shook his head slowly, frowning deeply as we moved deeper into the veil. "Well, there's this thing from his books, a Somebody Else's Problem field. You can hide things with it. The thing you're hiding is there, and your mind knows it's there. But the field makes you think it's not important, that you don't need to pay attention to the thing. You could look right at it and not really see it."

"Does it always induce headaches?"

"Sorry, just give it a second. Once you see the door, you'll be fine." I could dispel the veil. I knew where it was and while it was subtle, strong work, veils were easy to break through once you knew about them. But walking into someone else's domain and shattering their careful magic was kind of like tracking mud into a friend's house when visiting and putting your feet up on the chairs. Not polite.

"What door?" John sounded genuinely pained.

I turned and grabbed his shoulders, directing him to our destination. I caught his hand, unrolled the fist it'd twisted into, and pressed his palm to a old, ornate yew door. It was carved with various sigils and runes, a large yantra in the center. As soon as John's skin made contact with the lines of the yantra, his face relaxed, his tightly-shut eyes opening like the pain had never been there. He peered at the door, taking it in.

"That door," I answered finally.

"Yes, I'd noticed, thank you." He squared his shoulders, composure restored with one languid shrug. "That was unpleasant."

"Yeah, sorry. But you wanted a copy of the Accords to look at." I opened the door for him and bowed slightly. "Welcome to the supernatural branch of the Chicago Library System."

I have no idea when the room was set up. It was one of those word of mouth things in the city, like Mac's pub. It had just always been there. It wasn't a large room, but it used the space well. The shelves were tall and set close together to hold the maximum amount of literature possible. It wasn't as well-kept as the rest of the building, probably because it was so closed off. With no windows and thus no airflow, it smelled dusty.

A elderly woman sat behind a desk and gave me a severe look as I let John in. "Mr. Dresden," she said, contempt clear in her voice.

I winced. I'd avoided the library for years for... um. Certain very good reasons. I was hoping Mz. Krentz had been replaced by someone who wouldn't recognize me on sight. "Ma'am. We won't be long, just need to look at the Unseelie Accords."

She narrowed her eyes at me. "Do you."

I gave her a friendly smile, then pretty much shoved John into an aisle of shelves, eager to get both of us out of her sight. "Hell's bells, memory like an elephant."

"Something I should know?"

"No. Don't worry about it. Let's just find the Accords..." I started scanning the shelves, reading the spines of each book.

"What would it be under?" John started searching the shelf behind me.

"Complicated... Probably not under anything. They try to organize by subject or author, but most of the stuff here doesn't have a confirmed authorship. If you see books on treaties or the Fae, that'd be the place for it."

I slunk around the room, running my fingers along the books as I hunted for what we were looking for. John helped, but seemed to be getting distracted by all the reading material on offer. More than once I spotted him about to pull a tome from the wall before visibly quashing his curiosity. I made a note to bring him back sometime. Maybe he'd like to see some informed literature on the supernatural world.

The Accords turned up in the section about the Fae and their deals, next to a slim book about phrases and tricks to look out for when bartering with faeries. I handed it off to John who wasted no time finding a reading table and starting in on it with his fancy fountain pen and a blank legal pad.

I stood around watching for a moment. "So, um."

"Working," John said curtly, jotting notes.

"Okay." I tapped my foot, trying not to look over my shoulder. I could feel Mz. Krentz's gaze boring into me from behind. "I'm... gonna go check on Cujo."

"I assumed you would," John murmured and waved me off in that bossy, superior way he had. I eyerolled at him even though he didn't see it. It was a good thing I knew he wasn't trying to be an asshole and didn't hold his little habits against him. I'm generous like that.

Upon finding him, Hendricks glared at me. "You left him alone?"

"He's behind a veil, chill. You're getting worse than him." I leaned on the shelf and eyed the stack of books tucked into Cujo's arm. "Descartes, Hume, Kierkegaard... What're those for?"

Cujo shrugged. "Dunno. Like them, I guess. Early existentialists more than Cartesians, but it's good to get background, right?"

"I have no idea what you just said," I admitted.

"Philosophy, Dresden. Christ." He shook his head and started putting the books back. "Never-fucking-mind."

"Whoa, whoa, hey. If that's your thing, go for it?" I averted my gaze as Hendricks suddenly looked me dead in the eye. "Find your bliss, or however the phrase goes."

"Nah. Too busy anyway."

I had the idea this was the thing I was missing eariler when John and Hendricks did their whole pretending to talk about one thing when really talking about something else routine. So Hendricks wanted to broaden his horizons but felt beholden to his job. Made sense, he really was almost as protective as John himself. That was to be expected when you worked in close proximity with the Chicago Don for long periods of time. He monopolized you. I'm speaking from experience here.

But I didn't think John would mind Hendricks branching out. That odd, fond look he'd given Hendricks before was more blatantly obvious than John tended to be in public. Even I'd caught it, and I have it on good authority I miss signs like that most of the time.

Oh, stars, maybe I was supposed to catch that? Maybe I was supposed to talk to Cujo?

I couldn't decide if John's communication skills were terrible or amazing. Could go either way, that one.

"I don't think so. I mean," I rubbed the back of my neck awkwardly, "you're John's right hand guy and he needs you for his enforcing and all, but how long do you spend just sitting in the office when he does paperwork or meetings? They got night classes and I know a werewolf who takes his gen eds on the internet. You got internet at John's office, right?"

Cujo gave me a long, incredulous stare. "Yeah, Dresden, we got internet."

I nodded quickly. "Well, good, see... the option's there, is all I'm saying." Where was one of the Alphas when I needed them? I had no idea what I was talking about. "I'm just... going to check on John now."

I sauntered up behind him, noticing he had four pages of notes already. Man worked fast. "I hate you," I told him, leaning over his shoulder to watch him work.

"What did Mr. Hendricks say?"

"It's Hendricks. I can never get a read on him. Hey, tell me next time you're going to use me as a pawn in your mental game of chess?"

John smiled secretively. "A pawn? Harry, give yourself credit."

"Rook?"

"Knight, I think. Are they not known for their erratic movements and devastating, unpredictable strikes?" He abruptly shut the book. "I need to take this with me."

I glanced over at the attendant. "Uh. No. Can't."

"Is there a rule that prevents these books from being checked out?"

"No, more like a rule that prevents me from checking them out. It's a long story," I muttered.

John stood up and gave me a look, then went to the desk. I flailed out, trying to catch his sleeve, stop him, but he sidestepped out of my reach.

"Excuse me." He said politely at Mz. Krentz. "If I may bother you a moment. Why is it Mr. Dresden cannot borrow a copy of the Accords from this library?"

Mz. Krentz glared over her half-moon glasses up at John, face sourly pulled into a frown. "Outstanding fees."

John arched an eyebrow. "Outstanding fees?"

Mz. Krentz grabbed a file folder from the corner of her desk and flipped it open, checking it. "Two hundred seventy six dollars and sixty cents."

John didn't react at all, his face completely blank. He didn't even blink for several seconds, then did once, very slowly. "I see." He started to turn towards me, mouth opening, then he stopped and shook his head. "Nevermind." He pulled a wallet out of his back pocket and put three large bills on the desk. "Please, keep the change. Consider it a donation."

"Thank you," Mz. Krentz said, snatching the bills up and stashing them away under her desk. "Have it back in two weeks, please."

"Of course. Harry?" John picked up the Accords and beckoned me to him. I shuffled over, resisting the urge to open a gate to the Nevernever and disappear.

To his credit, John managed to not say anything until dinner several hours later, when he suddenly dropped his silverware and ran both hands through his hair. "I'm sorry, I don't understand. Over two hundred dollars, how exactly did you do that?"

I flushed bright red. "You... take out a few books, forget to return them for a few months, then let them just sit on your bookshelf for a few years?"

John Marcone doesn't boggle much, as few things truly took him off-guard. I'd managed to find something that did, it seemed. "You're amazing," he said earnestly. "You are a singular, remarkable man."

"Anyway, all those books are kind of... gone... now." I cleared my throat. "Anyway, how about those Accords, huh?"

"I've received smaller payments from my protection rackets."

"Hey!" I waved a fork at him. "You got my apartment burned down! No making fun of me, scumbag!"

That quieted him. Even if he did spend the rest of the night mumbling, 'Twenty cents a day, twenty, and he managed that. Mother of Christ,' under his breath.

That was fine. I liked surprising him.

Chapter Text

The universe seemed to notice I had my hands full with the White Council and decided to lay off for a while. The fact that the Red Court stopped pushing into our territory probably had more to do with Bianca waiting for the Council to slap some thorn manacles on me and hand me over to her. I was grateful anyway and wasn't about to look a gift lull in hostilities in the mouth. Or something.

It calmed down in time for the holidays. Just the fact we were still alive, not turned or drained of blood, was enough to inspire a certain festive spirit in my usually Grinchy heart. Unfortunately, John sequestered himself in his home office most evenings, pouring over the Accords, making phone calls, and planning some kind of miracle to get me out of my mess. He didn't appreciate my good cheer, often shooing me out of the office.

Dinners alone were frankly kind of depressing after getting used to sharing a meal with someone, so I spent a lot of time out of the mansion. I patrolled Chicago with my ragtag team of goons, who continued to follow the Blue Beetle even though the Chicago battlefield was quiet. I DMed my first game with the Alphas, worked on some Christmas gifts, and babysat the Carpenter kids again. We built snowmen, using the grossest vegetables in the house to decorate. One tall snowman had a green afro of broccoli that both looked good and meant the kids wouldn't have to be scolded on eating their greens that evening.

I also taught Molly a good lesson on why a girl her age shouldn't be going around in that skimpy of an outfit. A snowball right in the chest made her stop and actually put on a coat. She responded by 'accidentally' spilling my hot chocolate all over my shirt though, but I still considered it worth it. Charity would have a fit if she saw the edgy henna tattoo Molly had gotten.

"Where did you even get that?" I asked her once I got the younger kids to bed.

"Boyfriend did it. You like it?" She pulled the neck of her shirt down to show me some of the design.

"Boyfriend? You don't have a boyfriend. You're ten."

Molly groaned. "I'm fourteen!"

"You don't have a boyfriend," I reiterated. "You're fourteen."

She crossed her arms and pouted at me. "Lemme guess, I can't hang out with guys until I'm... what? Sixteen? Eighteen?"

I shook my head gravely. "Never. Avoid men. They're evil and universally scoundrels."

She smiled sunnily at that. "So I should go lesbian."

"Ye-- No! Oh god, no! No dating!" I pointed in a random direction. "Get thee to a nunnery!"

"Nuns can be sexy," she said, rubbing her chin as she considered it.

"Hell's bells, nevermind." I just couldn't win with Molly. It was like her favorite game was driving the adults in her life up the wall. "Cover that up, Charity will kill you if she sees it."

She beamed at me. "You're not going to rat me out?"

Damn my secret desire to be Cool Uncle Harry. I poured us both more hot chocolate and gave hers a few extra marshmallows. "No. But if I catch you with another one, I totally will."

Molly let out a happy noise and hugged me hard enough it knocked the breath out of me. "Thank you, Harry," she gushed while I gasped for air and patted her on the shoulder. I know, I was a terrible influence and a worse authority figure. I just hoped that fact would balance out with the force of nature that was Charity.

"Dad says you should come over for Christmas," she said into my shoulder, muffled. "And no skipping Mass this time."

"My apartment burned down! The Almighty should respect I had bigger fish to fry."

Molly snickered and pulled away. "Hey, I like your gloves," she said, having snatched the things out of my pocket while hugging me. Tricksy little hobbit.

"Thou shalt not steal, brat." I made a dive for them. I liked those gloves. They had the perfect balance of warmth and pliability. And they didn't soak through when I made snowballs. Such a thing was rare.

Molly stuffed them in her shirt, which meant there was no way I was getting them back unless she gave them up. "Say you're coming to Christmas."

"Fine, fine! Gimme." I clicked my fingers at her until she retrieved the gloves from wherever it was women put things when they stored them in their... chests. Strange creatures, females.

So on Christmas morning, I got picked up in the family car, squeezed in next to Hope with Baby Harry on my lap (who kept telling me he was "Hawwy," with all the pride of a child who'd just learned to say their name), and was carted off to St. Mary's.

Father Forthill did the service. It was... nice? I was glad to be with the family, but churches made me twitchy. There was singing too, which always struck me as a little odd since the average person didn't have the sort of voice made for singing, but when you were serenading God, I guess it was the thought that counted. I didn't sing, but I stood and sat when Michael nudged me to do so. It must've been tough to be Catholic if you had dodgy knees.

"Well, that was awkward," I muttered when we left. "Why did I come along?"

Michael clapped a hand on my shoulder. "Because Charity's making her butterflied turkey again."

Oh, right. Yum.

As Michael and Charity made dinner, Daniel and I got busy handing out spiced apple cider as everyone showed off their presents.

There was a wadded ball of wrapping paper in the living room, leftovers from the morning. I quietly grabbed a few pieces and started flattening them out, tearing them into squares and folding. I whispered nonsense Latin under my breath as I did, thinking about movement and flight as I let my will flow out through my fingers with every crease I made in the paper.

So I was a bit of an arts and crafts guy. I'm tactile, I like working with my hands. I especially liked the awed reaction the origami animals got when I set them on the coffee table and they moved on their own. The horses walked in slow circles, the cranes hovered a few inches off the table, frogs hopped at their own volition, and the lion flicked its tail as it curled up to sleep. It was subtler work than I was usually capable of, but the soft glow of familial happiness in my chest made it possible. The charm wouldn't last more than an hour, but, again, it was the thought that counted.

I went home full of turkey with a ziploc full of extra meat for future sandwiches. I stashed it in the fridge in the kitchen and grabbed myself a beer as I wound down from my surprisingly satisfying holiday.

My bed was calling me, but as I headed down the hallway, I noticed a light shining under the door to John's office. He'd been in there when I'd left in the morning.

I let myself in, opening the door quietly and peeking inside. "John?"

John was still sitting at his desk, writing notes on one of his legal pads. When he'd started in on the Accords, his desk had been as meticulously neat as ever. As days slipped by, it'd turned into a bit of a mess, stacked papers and file folders and printed notes from his lawyers splayed everywhere, yellow sticky notes all over the place. John himself looked somewhat tired, his hair showing signs of having been fingercombed too many times, his face long and drawn, dark smudges under his eyes.

He didn't look up when I called his name. He hadn't heard me. Stars and stones. "John," I called again.

He blinked and looked up at me. "Yes?"

"Have you been working all day?"

"No. I stopped and had dinner a few hours ago." He returned to his notes. "Is there something you need? I only have a few days to fine tune this."

"No, sorry." I felt bad for interrupting. At the same time, I felt bad for not interrupting him hours ago. "I'll just..." Go. I should go. Before my mouth got me in trouble by saying something like... "You don't have anyone to spend Christmas with, do you?"

John's pen stopped moving for about a half second before he resumed writing.

I licked my lips, dry and chapped from the winter cold. "Your family?"

"Needless to say, they are not a part of my life anymore." His tone gave nothing away, more opaque than I had ever heard him.

I apparently lacked the sense to shut up while I could. "Is there anyone you trust?"

John's pale green gaze flicked to me, then to the page again. "You know the answer to that, Harry."

Right. Trust wasn't a part of his life either. Trust was for people who didn't rely on paranoia and ruthlessness to survive. Trust was incompatible with the way his mind worked, with what he did.

He gave no sign of being bothered by that. But I was.

It got worse when I got back to my room. On my bed was a black fold of leather with a wide cloth bow wrapped around it. The bow came loose easily, and unfolding the leather revealed a coat. A duster, long and sleek, dark as oil. I carefully slipped out of John's suede jacket and tried on the duster. It was warm and heavy, the hem swinging a good few inches below my knees.

Bob looked at me as tugged at the duster, belting it, checking the many pockets, finding the cord looped in the folds waiting for my blasting rod. "He's got your number, boss."

"Yeah," I said softly. "I know."

I didn't think of getting him anything. I mean, really, what do you get for a man like John Marcone? A man who had enough money to wage war on vampires and buy himself a live-in wizard, what could I give him?

It was stupid and impulsive, but I had to do something. There was a pressure in my chest, like a balloon in my ribcage that slowly expanded until it hurt. I dug out a blank sheet of paper and a black sharpie, drew wide zig-zagging lines over the paper, then started. I pushed magic into the papercraft, poured it into every fold until the origami began to radiate a faint light. Next to me, Bob offered a few suggestions on my spell work.

I felt a little drained by the time I was done, but it was probably the best parlor trick I'd ever pulled off in my long history of playing with magic. I urged my creation into my palm and cupped my other hand over it, petting its back to urge it to be calm. The amount of life I'd given this one was in a whole different ballpark than I had with the Carpenters'.

I walked into John's office and set the it down on one of the few open spaces on the desk. He, so absorbed in his work, didn't notice until the little origami paper tiger let out a quiet roar.

John's head snapped up, eyes wide and alert in an instant. He took in the enchanted bit of origami that was prowling around his paperwork with soundless awe. It was an angular but recognizable white tiger, moving around with a territorial grace.

It was off the cuff and not much compared to the duster than was wrapped snugly around me, but it was something.

John eventually tore his eyes from the tiger to look up at my face. "Why a tiger?"

I forgot he wouldn't know why. It was so obvious to me. "When we soulgazed, I saw you had a tiger's soul. It seemed fitting," I confessed, swallowing thickly. "Merry Christmas."

"Thank you." He stared at me with eyes like jade, dark with some intense emotion I wouldn't put a name to.

Empty night. My blood started pounding in my ears. I wanted to circle the desk and step into his space. I wanted to take his face in my hands, run my thumbs against the circles under his eyes, brush his mussed hair back into place. I wanted to lean in close, breathe against his lips and spur him into getting up, shoving me back against the desk with one of my hands in his hair as he bit my neck. Or maybe climb onto that roomy chair with him, pin his hands to the armrests, and drive all that stress out of his mind. I didn't exactly know how I'd do that, but I was a fast learner. He could help. Anything for that soft, warm, tired look in his eyes.

I didn't do any of that though. Instead I looked away, nodding. "Welcome. Goodnight."

I turned and left as fast as I could without running. The tight, hot feeling in my chest didn't stop, instead grew upon seeing the open, naked expression on his face. I needed to get away from him before I gave into some very unwise urges. It just wasn't the time. Not yet. Not now.

But it had stopped being an if and started being a when.

 

Ebenezar agreed to meet with us before the Council meeting, and McAnally's was as good a place as any. I convinced John to give Cujo the day off, accepting the job of protecting him myself. Bringing Hendricks to the Council would only lead to bad things.

It was still early when we sat at Mac's, John having coffee while I had soda. I was jittery, my knee bobbing up and down rapidly as I watched the door, waiting for Eb. Something about my mentor meeting John made me nervous. I'd given Eb the lowdown over the phone about what had gone on in the last year and a half; John forcibly recruiting me, convincing me to sign on with him, the fight we hadn't started with the Reds but had probably escalated it. Eb hadn't passed any judgment. I had no idea what he thought of my situation.

"You sure you don't want to stay home?" I asked John suddenly. "Smaller chance of decapitation."

John subtly reached under the table and tapped a single finger on my leg. I stopped fidgeting. "I'm aware of the risks. Your White Council doesn't scare me, and you'll need me there."

Before I could argue further, the door to the pub opened and Ebenezar McCoy meandered lazily down the steps. He looked like he always had, shorter than me and looking good for his plus-three hundred years. He looked clean and honest in a long sleeved white shirt and dark overalls that had likely been black once but had been worn, washed, and sun-faded until they were a navy blue. He had his robe folded and slung over one shoulder and a long chunk of oak in one hand. His eyes lit up from behind his gold-rimmed glasses as he spotted me, and that pale twinkle in his eyes instantly calmed me. Such was Ebenezar, the man who had taught me when I'd been a young angry warlock.

"Hoss," he called and tossed the oak at me. "Didn't I teach you to respect your tools?"

I caught it with one hand. The wood was familiar, thrumming against my skin with a resonance I knew well. I'd have another functional staff in no time. "This time the fire was not my fault." I got up and went over to shake his hand. "Good to see you, sir. Thanks for coming. I know you don't like Council meetings."

"You don't show up to these things, you're first on the list when they need a poor sap to shove an apprentice at. And I like my new barn, thanks."

"That was an accident," I said, laughing.

"S'what you always say, boy." He nodded to my would-be-staff. "You take care of that one. I don't have much more. You need to get your own."

"Yeah, I'll just pick up a lightning-struck oak down at the five-and-dime." I heard the scrape of a chair behind me and remembered. "Oh, right." I half-turned away so I didn't stand between my mentor and my partner in not-crime. "Sir, this is John Marcone. John, this is Ebenezar McCoy."

Eb and John sized each other up, and Eb did not offer his hand. That didn't stop John's need to be courteous; he bowed respectfully. "It's an honor to meet any person Harry holds in high enough regard to address as 'sir.'"

Eb gave him a chilly look. "So you're the man who snared my apprentice into a contract."

Yikes. I've never known Ebenezar to be overly protective, but the amount of trouble I could find in Hog's Hollow was negligible next to what I got up to in Chicago. I'd... not forgotten about what John did to get me to sign on with him, but I'd gotten past it. But Eb had just heard the tale from me a few weeks ago. And clearly wasn't happy about it.

John didn't let that put him off though. "Harry and I might've gotten off on the wrong foot, and I won't deny some blame for that is mine, but that was in the past."

"Uh huh," Eb drawled. "I'm sure you're all flavors of regretful."

"Not at all. I did what was necessary to secure his loyalty." John's hand came to rest on the small of my back in such a proprietary gesture, I nearly stepped away. My mentor was right there and John was sacrificing all semblance of subtlety for his cause.

Eb scratched at his white beard, contemplative. "Way I see it, the best way to resolve this spat with the Council is to tell them you bound Harry against his will and you should be the one taken care of, Marcone."

No reaction showed on John's face, but I felt his hand against my back twitch. The two of them stared each other down, the energy between them practically crackling with their opposing wills. This wasn't going well. "Hey, Eb, it's not like that--"

"Harry," John said warningly, tilting his head to look at me. Really look at me, his eyes locking solidly with mine. He held my gaze for a long moment, then looked away again.

Eb frowned at Marcone, looking pissed about something. They were at loggerheads with each other, and this must've been what it felt like to be Baby when she was in the corner. It was strange to be fought about and simultaneously sidelined from the fight. Strange and deeply irritating.

I shoved John's hand away from where it'd gotten comfy against my spine. "Okay, you guys can duke this out. I'm going to see if Mac serves beer before noon."

I hoped Eb would try to stop me, but he was just as bad as John, apparently, and all the more willing to bicker about me without my inclusion. Stars and stones. If they had met on better terms, I bet they would've been best pals. They had so much in common.

Mac grunted at me when I got to the bar and nodded to the Accorded Neutral Grounds sign on his wall.

"Tell them to take it outside if you want," I told him. "I don't care. You'd think the looming threat of my excommunication would be more urgent to them." Not that I was bitter. Wasn't it supposed to be flattering to be fought over? Perhaps that was just my chivalry talking. At the moment, it wasn't so much flattering as stressful.

Mac grunted more sympathetically. He had a dictionary of guttural, non-verbal sounds. Any regular at his pub knew his language. He took the cap off one of his brews and set it in front of me.

I lifted the bottle to him. "Bless you and all your endeavors." I took a long drink before going back over to John and Eb.

"I got a better idea," Eb was saying. "How about I introduce you to my shotgun? See you talk your way around a double-barrel."

"Wow, good to see you kids are getting along," I said sardonically.

Eb sighed. "Hoss, what did you expect, for me to invite him over for dinner? I know you court trouble like you're lovesick for it, but I'm not going to take to anyone who thinks he can force a wizard's hand."

"Well, lucky for you then, since that's not what's going on here," I shot back. "John gave me a no strings attached out back in October. I didn't want it. We're in this together. It's stupid and suicidal and he got my apartment burned to the ground--"

John twitched, like he wanted to move but aborted the gesture. His ability to do that, just shut his reactions down, was freaky. "That was not my fault."

"-- but we're doing this and I trust him, sir. He's a criminal scumbag, but oddly enough he's not a black hat."

Eb looked between us for a long moment. It was nerve-wracking. As far as family went for me, I had a lot of adopted family and Eb, who may not have been a father figure exactly, but he wasn't simply my mentor. He'd taken me in when the alternative was death and taught me what was important in life. I loved Michael and his kids and the Alphas, but this was Eb and I felt uncannily like I was presenting John to him for approval. And I wanted him to approve, because I was beginning to think John and me versus the world was going to be a long haul.

"You are not convinced," John observed quietly. "If I may make one final argument?"

Eb snorted. "This ain't a court hearing, boy."

"Nevertheless." John folded his hands primly behind his back and stepped forward, so very formal. "If you want your apprentice to live, you need to help both of us survive this Council meeting. Obviously we need the Council to not disbar him, or they will hand him over to the Margravine to balm her anger. But if I do not make it through the meeting, then Harry's life is in nearly as much danger. The Red Court has a personal vendetta against him. My security forces and protection keep him safe. I cannot guard him if I'm disposed of."

Eb narrowed his eyes at John. "That a threat?"

"No," he replied, tipping his head back and meeting Eb's gaze. "It's a statement of fact."

The tension between them grew to a fever pitch, and I watched them stare each other down. One second slipped by, then another, then Eb slid his gaze away from John and to me. "You sure can pick 'em, boy."

John chuckled, bowing his head respectfully. "Apologies. That trick worked once before."

"I can see that," Eb muttered, looking at me like I'd done some fool thing.

Hell's bells, I realized. John just tried to soulgaze Ebenezar McCoy.

John Marcone had brass ones to rival wrecking balls.

"You speak Latin, Marcone?" Eb asked suddenly.

John blinked. "I'm familiar with the liturgy, but I don't know how helpful that would be. I speak Italian though, some of the vocabulary should be similar."

"What about you, Hoss? How's your Latin?"

I winced, then tried the dead language out on my tongue. "Ego non adsuesco assuesco en diu tamen bonus satis ego spero."

Eb slapped a hand over his eyes. "Hell's bells, kid." At the same time, John groaned quietly, shaking his head. Eb went on in a strained tone, "Right. What's say we sit down and suss out how we're going to do this?"

"Agreed," John said gravely.

Uniting people in exasperation against me. Maybe I'd stumbled on the secret to world peace.

An hour before the Council meeting, we wrapped up and Ebenezar left. It was a smart move, as the three of us showing up together would've made him look bad in front of the Senior Council. Eb had promised to see what he could do about talking to the more reasonable members there to garner us some sympathy points.

It wouldn't save us though. Eb warned us about the Merlin,

"He'll have three volleys against you. I'll help where I can, but you two idiots are going to have to be prepared."

Good to know, though there was little I could do about it. This wasn't my show. After Eb left, when I was alone with John, I gave him a long look over the table. "So... what's the actual plan?"

John smiled over the rim of his coffee. "It's best you don't know. You'll try to help and you are a terrible liar."

I eyed him. "You're going to lie?" John nodded. "You never lie."

"I never lie to you. Please, Harry. I have been in front of a judge and under oath before."

I was torn between the fuzzy feeling of being special and the reminder that John was a decent man whose business was crime, and one day it might catch up with him. I wasn't ready to worry about that, not with everything else on the agenda today, so I smiled coyly at him instead. "You big softie."

John smirked, finished his coffee, and stood. "Come on. We have enemies to make."

I got up to follow, but paused to take something out of my pack. I didn't know why, but I was big on the gestures lately. Maybe because that was usually John's game; he never said anything, but he did everything, took care of things I didn't realize I needed. Hell, he ran himself ragged over the Accords, exhausting himself in a way that he never had by running the city.

And I wanted.... I just wanted. Talk about picking the worst time the get with the program, huh?

But I walked up behind John, whispered, "Hold still a sec," and put a robe over his shoulders.

My old robe was gone, so I'd sewn a new one for this Council meeting. It was ink black and matte, perfect for fading into the shadows. A tall guy like me was rarely unobtrusive, but my robe would help me lay low in a dimly-lit arena of wizards.

John's robe, on the other hand, was similar in all ways except for the fact it was a few inches shorter and it was a midnight blue.

I smoothed it out over his arms, tugging it to lie straight down his body. John watched me, his eyes ever so slightly wider than usual. "Harry."

"Need a robe," I explained quietly. "Wizards wear black. Wardens wear grey. Apprentices wear brown."

"And who wears blue?" he asked, his eyes following mine insistently until I gave in and made eye contact.

"Well, you do. If you want. We're already breaking every rule by having you show up. You could just wear your suit if you prefer."

He looked down at himself, considering, and adjusted the cloak until he could latch it at his neck. It hung placidly around him, sheathing him in blue.

It had to be blue. Magic was all about belief, and while there was no reason to this, there was plenty of rhyme. Blue was safety to me, it was protection. It was the color of my raw power, when I shielded, when my will was visible. In my head, I knew there was no practical reason this cloak would protect him. I didn't dare modify it or sew any magic into it like I would my duster. But in my heart, my will, my magic, the weird little things that made me who I was, it helped.

He could die today. All to help me. To make it clear we did this together or not at all.

It was a gesture. It was all I could do at the time.

John stopped messing with the cloak and tucked his hands under its thick, warm cloth. He nodded approvingly. "All right."

"Yeah?"

"Yes." He smiled at me. "Shall we?"

We left the pub and set out to face the White Council.

Chapter Text

It was just my luck that Morgan was one of the gate Wardens, guarding the entrance to the old-style theatre that the Council had sequestered themselves in. Already things were going badly. There was a very good chance I'd get decapitated before we even made it inside. Damn, damn, damn.

Morgan caught sight me of me right away. He took a moment to glare at me before he looked to my side and saw the blue-cloaked John Marcone. Morgan was regional commander for this area. He knew who John was.

I saw a cruel, victorious smile crease Morgan's mouth.

I was so screwed.

Morgan walked out to meet us, ignoring a good number of the other wizards shuffling into the meeting. He put a hand on the hilt of his sword as he reached us.

"I never took you for suicidal, warlock," he said in a loud, booming voice. Heads turned to look at the commotion. "But I shouldn't be surprised. Black magic has clearly warped your mind, turned you mad."

I rolled my eyes. "Come on, Morgan, really?"

Morgan drew his sword in one smooth, practiced motion and pointed it at my chest. "You are called before the Council for your war-mongering. And you bring the criminal overlord of this city. You have told him of the Council. Your treason is more blatant than ever, Dresden."

John coughed delicately. "Excuse me, Wizard Morgan. As admirable as your zeal for justice is, you cannot take punitive measures against Mr. Dresden for this charge."

Morgan twisted to snarl at him, "You do not belong here, criminal. Be silent until you are removed."

John showed his hands, palms up, then carefully grabbed his briefcase and opened it. "If you wish to act against someone for informing a non-magical mortal of certain sensitive topics, I'm afraid you'll have to bring it up with Donar Vadderung of MonOc Securities." He drew out a file folder and from that a sheet of thick paper vellum. A functional, professional letterhead adorned the top, centered around a simple emblem that reminded me of a knife pointing at an eye.

Morgan's eyes widened somewhat and he snatched the paper from John. "Where did you get this?" His tone was demanding, but under it he sounded... alarmed, or maybe even scared.

I made a note to ask John who the hell Donar Vadderung was if we survived the meeting.

"I have others like it. I maintain regular correspondence with Mr. Vadderung and the agent he assigned to me. We have a very beneficial relationship."

Morgan gave John a dark, but more respectful look before placing his hand over the thick sheet of paper and murmuring something quietly.

A snowflake watermark appeared across the page, glowing icy blue.

I felt the presence of power behind us and turned to see Ebenezar walking up, flanked by a tall, regal black woman and a man with hair braided long down his back and skin like sun-dried leather. Both wore the stoles of the Senior Council.

"Holding up the line, Hoss?" Ebenezar asked mildly. His eyes were hard on Morgan though.

"You know me, can't go anywhere without being threatened with decapitation," I jibed. Being at the mercy of Morgan's jingoist paranoia made me a bit twitchy, but I didn't think I'd get my head lopped off while Senior Council was around.

Or maybe they'd give Morgan permission to go ahead. Could go either way, but I was banking on any friends of Eb's to not be extremist crazies.

The black woman stepped forward and alighted her hand over the snowflake-emblazoned sheet. "A missive from one of the Signatories of the Accords. What is the meaning of this, Warden Morgan?"

A Signatory? I turned to John, a question on my lips. He shook his head minutely before I could ask. Yeah, let him handle things and don't mess things up for him. Surely I could pull that off. Right?

He turned to the Council member. "Warden Morgan accused Mr. Dresden of revealing the existence of the White Council to a... I believe the common term is vanilla mortal. I brought evidence of my contact with Mr. Donar Vadderung with me to show I have been briefed on matters of the supernatural by a person with right to inform and educate."

The wizardess looked back at Eb, expression dryly amused. "This is the man you spoke of, Ebenezar? Interesting." She turned back to John and inclined her head slightly. "I am the Wizard Liberty of the Senior Council and this is Wizard Listens To Wind."

John bowed. "I am honored to meet you, sir and ma'am. I'm John Marcone."

I could see the dismay on Morgan's face as things slipped out of his control. "Council members, Dresden brought this man, a well-known member of the criminal community, to this location without permission."

Liberty looked to me. "The Warden has a point, Wizard Dresden. While Mr. Marcone may have learned of the White Council through legitimate means, you shouldn't have brought him without first contacting the Wardens. He doesn't belong in our enclave."

"As I understand the situation, Mr. Dresden's life could be in danger. I am here to help him defend himself. Or do you not hold trials before excommunication and decapitation?" He played it so cool, no sign of disdain coloring his words even though he was plainly passing judgement.

Listens To Wind laughed. "He don't need magic, using words as a shield like that. You a lawyer, Marcone? Politician?"

"No," John replied. "Simply a businessman looking to protect what's mine."

Morgan snorted in clear disbelief.

Liberty cut him a cold look that had Morgan shrinking back, chastised. "As crude as the Warden's argument is, I see his point. We have no authority over your actions as they pertain to federal law, but that doesn't mean we can let such a potentially dangerous person into our inner sanctum. Too many lives are at stake."

John nodded slowly, mulling this over. Tick tick tick went his brain as he looked for a solution. "Names have meaning to your community. Perhaps an oath on my name? I solemnly swear that I, Jonathan Marcone, will do nothing to endanger this Council this day."

Listens to Wind smirked. "We might take that on face value. If that were your True Name."

Say what now? Again I boggled at John. "Your Name isn't John Marcone?"

John shook his head. "Later, Harry." Then, to the others, "Tell me what I can do to enter the chamber. There must be something."

I didn't know his name. That threw me out of the conversation, just the strangeness of that. I lived in his house, had his clothes on my back, worked so closely with him I could feel how our energies intertwined. He would drop all his masks for me, smile and laugh. I could read him so well.

I'd already spent some time wondering if he'd taste like hazelnut and coffee. But I didn't know his Name. And I didn't know he had a relationship with a member of the Accords.

I still trusted him. Maybe I shouldn't have, but that ship had sailed.

John and the Council members were still talking when I said, "I'll swear on my power." Everyone looked to me. "I swear on my power John and I will do nothing to endanger the White Council today. Will that work?"

Liberty nodded. "With some reinforcement. Wizard Dresden, do you take this man as your charge and responsibility before the Council?"

"Yeah."

She stepped forward, standing between us, and lifted her hands to place them on us, her palms against each of our foreheads. "Then I bind you together."

I felt her will coaxing against mine, a tendril of will forming and being pulled to John. She tied our auras together with subtle, strong magic. It felt like that connection that formed after we worked together for hours, but more obvious. I imagined my magic woven into a thread and looped around John's wrist. It was like that, John's aura reverberating into me. I could feel the bottomless ocean of calm, the calculations he was making, his keen awareness of everything.

It was kind of exhausting, just that piece of his spirit bound to me. I couldn't fathom what it must've been like to be him. Did he ever switch off?

John fixed me with a steady, evaluating look. He must've gotten a glimpse into my psyche as well. As if his mind-reading routine needed help, stars.

Liberty walked by us and towards the chamber. "Welcome to the White Council, Mr. Marcone," she said as farewell.

 

We all headed inside after that, much to Morgan's eternal dismay. Eb touched my shoulder and whispered, "Save me a seat up front," before vanishing into the crowd.

And what a crowd it was. A lot of people had shown up to this Council meeting. The room was filled with black-robed wizards of every ethnicity I could name, the buzz of many languages filling the air. There was a palpable atmosphere around us. It was like taking a bunch of cotton balls and stuffing them into a jar until they compacted. So many magical individuals in one place left the room thick with combating energies, everyone's aura pushing against everyone else's, melding and compressing into a morass of slurried willpower.

Through all that, I could feel John's will tethered to mine. The link Martha Liberty set up was strong. If I were to break my word and by doing so damage my magic, that would flow into him too, breaking his spirit. The charm laid on us was simple, but something far beyond my abilities. Senior Council members knew their stuff.

I felt a faint frisson of tense worry from John and turned to look at him. "What?"

John's face was blank as ever. "Hm?"

"Why..." I pitched my voice lower. "Why are you nervous?"

"I'm not."

"You are. I can feel it." I shut my eyes and focused on the metaphysical thread binding us, tugging it gently.

John inhaled sharply as he felt the pull. "I... Harry, I'm in a room filled with people so powerful I can feel it just walking by them. And you are my only protection here. I have much faith in your abilities, but..." He looked around. "We are quite outnumbered."

He had a point. As a vanilla mortal, he was walking into the lions' den and I'd just made an oath that tied our hands. Some anxiety on his part made sense. It was just weird to be able to feel his emotions, to finally have an idea of what he stifled and how much he kept from showing anyone.

We started drawing looks from the other Council members around us. John and I were just standing in the middle of the theatre, and the hue of John's robe was obvious, as was the fact he wasn't one of us to anyone who probed at his aura.

Given the way John's face was setting into a harder, deeper frown, I could guess he was getting poked with metaphysical sticks more and more.

They knew who I was already. Harry Dresden, black sheep of the White Council, who now brought an outsider into our sanctum.

Did I know how to make and entrance or what?

I hustled us to an empty set of chairs up front, wanting to get out from everyone's view. "God, I hope you know what you're doing, John."

He just nodded. I think he hoped he knew what he was doing too.

We'd only been sitting a few minutes when a freckled redhead in a brown cloak approached. He was a young, lanky thing and his aura vibrated and crackled like static electricity.

I looked up at Gregory Vail. "Hey, are... are you Harry Dresden?" The kid asked softly.

"Yeah, that's me. Vail, right?"

"Yeah." The boy reddened. "Do you, uh, remember me?"

"Sure do." I'd saved John from Vail when the boy had gone a little mental after his sister's death. I also was the person who reported him to the Council. He had a ton of raw power and desperately needed an apprenticeship. Judging by his brown robes, it looked like he got it. "How's it going, kid? Learning anything?"

Vail smiled faintly, biting his lip. "A lot, yeah. I... these wizards showed up at my house before I got sent away. They talked to my folks and got me shipped over to France."

I grinned. "I hear it's nice there. Paris all it's cracked up to be?"

"Oh, um, I'm... I'm in Toulouse, actually."

John sounded very amused beside me when he said, "There is more to France than Paris, Harry." He turned to regard Vail and said in lilting, elegant French, "Je tiens à vous informer que...la mort de votre sœur a été vengé."

Vail stiffened like he'd been slapped, then looked at the ground. He rubbed his hand, and I saw around his hand was a chain. His focus. It was the same pink heart necklace, reinforced with other interwoven chains of copper and silver. Eventually Vail mumbled, "Merci...je regrette que..."

"Ça ne fait rien. C'est du passé," John replied gently. "J'espère que ça vous apportera la paix."

Vail blinked hard, eyes wet and shining.

Painful, tense silence stretched for a moment before I broke in. "So, what books they teaching you with? You get to read Elementary Magic yet?"

The topic shifted to Vail's studies and how he was doing. The boy had issues with controlling his volatile lightning magic, hated potion work, and missed being able to play video games. I thought he'd be fine, given enough time. He might make a good wizard someday.

As wizards stopped streaming into the theatre, Vail was called away by his mentor and the kid slunk away. He obeyed quietly, shaking both our hands before going to sit next to the woman who'd called him.

"Good kid," I whispered. John smiled faintly in agreement. "What'd you tell him?

"That his sister's death was avenged."

Well then. I didn't know what to say to that. Good job murdering a guy? Shame on you for killing a guy who dealt to little girls? At the very least, it seemed to give Gregory Vail a measure of peace.

God, John made my life complicated. He wore grey morality like a fashion statement.

Thankfully, it was then that Ebenezar joined us and the Senior Council took their places on the theatre stage. I felt the tension in the air as the Wardens sealed the room from outside influence. The meeting had begun.

The Merlin, instantly recognizable from his long white beard and blue, clear eyes, stood and thudded his staff thrice against the floor until silence fell. The seven Senior Council members stood at their podiums, as the Merlin brought the meeting to a start. This one, despite the threat of Bianca filing a war declaration under the Accords, was not a mandatory meeting, and it started with regular pleasantries.

As the roll call started, John leaned over me, one arm along the back of my chair, to ask Ebenezar, "What are the names of the Senior Council?"

Eb leaned back towards him, talking quietly. "You got the Merlin, front and center. LaFortier and Pietrovich, who usually vote with the Merlin," he pointed to each in turn, "Ancient Mai. You know Matty and Listens to Winds. The Gatekeeper's worth playing nice with. Even the Merlin defers to him at times and he's less... political."

John eyed the Senior Council. "Noted. How does one address the Merlin and Gatekeeper?"

"Honorable Merlin. Gatekeeper doesn't need any fancy talk."

I stood for a moment when my name came up on the roll call, then sat again. "You guys want to sit next to each other or something?"

John gave me a guarded, but amused look. "Are you uncomfortable, Harry?"

I wished he wouldn't do that in front of the entire White Council. I grimaced and John backed off instantly, back into his seat. "Apologies."

"S'fine," I muttered, looking away. "I don't... Not here, though."

John nodded, then turned his attention back to the proceedings.

On my other side, Eb frowned at me. "Hoss, what in tarnation is with you and--"

"Wizard McCoy!" the register-reading wizard called.

Eb did the whole stand-nod-sit routine. "This is why I don't come to these things."

"The roll call?"

"We've got some of the most magically adept men and women in the world here, we still gotta call a damn register. Half-waiting for them to introduce tardy slips." He sighed. "You're lucky I like you, Hoss."

"I do appreciate it, sir."

"You better."

Eventually the attendance finished and the Merlin called for order again, before truly starting the session in as smooth and perfect a Latin as any Roman citizen would've had. "Assembly, our first order of business is our most grave one, and the reason this meeting was called. Margravine Bianca St. Clair of the Red Court believes she has been wronged by this Council. She demands reparations to be made to her or she will submit a declaration of war under the Accords."

An urgent murmur roiled through Council.

Eb asked John, "You getting this, boy?"

"Well enough, thank you."

The Merlin went on. "As the leader of the Red Court in this area, the Margravine has stated that her people have been jeopardized and killed. The safe havens they have cultivated have been threatened. Their secrecy is under attack." He turned to the podium next to him. "Wizard Pietrovich, our liaison with the Red Court, if you could speak on the subject?"

Pietrovich nodded solemnly. "Yes, Honorable Merlin. I have long attempted to maintain diplomatic channels with the Red Court. They are creatures as social as we are. Soon after their newest House was established, its ability to protect its people was compromised, preventing it from creating a proper foothold in the community."

I tipped my head back and whispered, "That's a roundabout way of saying they haven't gotten a chance to turn enough people into soulless blood-sucking monsters yet."

"Hoss," Eb said warningly.

"The Margravine's House is the weakest of the Court," Pietrovich said. "She feels it is in danger of being wiped out entirely, depriving her people of a home."

"What a damn shame," I muttered.

John put his foot on my toes and pressed down. I sighed and made a zipped lips gesture at him. I knew he and Eb would team up on me at some point.

Pietrovich shot us a dirty look before turning and holding out a hand to where some of the Wardens stood against the wall, observing silently. "Upon hearing this, I asked the Regional Commander of the Wardens to look into the situation to ascertain whether the White Council could be linked to these events. Warden Morgan, if you please."

Morgan stepped up to the stage, standing before the Council. He produced a candle and a crystal. He lit the former and held the latter in both hands, framed carefully in his fingers. Light from the candle drew up and into the crystal. From there, it refracted out into the air like a hologram you'd see in a sci-fi movie. It was a sphere, a representation of Earth floating in transmuted candlelight.

Morgan twisted the crystal in his fingers, like a man adjusting a telescope. The image zoomed in on North America, then Illinois, then the familiar shape of Chicago.

Color flowed into the pale yellow light. The area around Bianca's Velvet Room glowed red, fittingly enough. Splotches of it spread over the city, presumably where there was a strong Red Court presence. Over time, the red shifted. In some areas it grew. In most, it receded drastically.

Next to me, John took a pocket notebook out of his robe and started jotting down something. I leaned over to look. Businesses and street names. He was making note of where the red remained. I tried not to smirk.

Morgan reported in a low, sonorous basso about the losses the Margravine was experiencing. He concluded that rather than thriving under the wing of their new House, the Red Court was not just missing its recruitment goals but was running at a deficit.

I rubbed my fingers together. "World's smallest violin."

John's lips twitched, but he put his hand over mine, stopping me. "Not now, Harry. Tonight, dinner at Fournier."

"Mmm," I agreed. "If we don't get beheaded."

"Well, yes, obviously."

Pietrovich asked Morgan, "Have you found any evidence that would make the White Council culpable, Warden?"

Morgan's eyes found me in the front row, gaze dark and severe. John slipped his hand away from mine and tucked his notebook away. His face took a blank set, the mask on as he prepared himself. Morgan answered, "Yes, I have. Forces combating the Red Court in the Chicago area are being led by the Wizard Dresden."

The sound the assembly made then was half shocked gasps, half dark mutterings. I heard someone say, "I knew it."

"I am sure no one is truly surprised. Dresden has a history of ignoring the rules of our society," Morgan said acerbically. "The fact he could bring the fragile peace between us and the Red Court crashing down was probably part of his plan."

I sputtered and stood, anger firing through me. "Want to elaborate on my history, Morgan?" I shouted, in English. "One count of self-defense enough to damn someone now? Gosh, it's a good thing you never had to kill anyone to save your life before!"

The Merlin slammed his staff against the floor and called back in Latin, "Wizard Dresden, we are still briefing the uninformed Council on the situation. The floor is not open. Be seated and silent!"

"Harry, sit," John said curtly, grabbing the back of my robe and pulling me back down. "We'll make a rebuttal in due time."

"But--"

John looked me in the eye. "I will handle it. You need to trust me. Please."

Hell's bells. I wanted to dearly so tell Morgan where he could shove his report, but I wasn't in on John's plan. If I screwed this up, we were both done for. I'd let him come here, endangering himself.

I took a long, slow breath before nodding. "I know. Sorry."

John nodded back, then carefully stood. "Ebenezar, if you would...?" When Eb nodded, he said, "Please excuse Mr. Dresden's interruption. He is under a lot of stress, given the situation. But also please acknowledge that the Warden was not called to act as character witness and his judgements on Mr. Dresden should be struck from the record and not considered for this session." Eb tersely translated.

All eyes were on John. The Merlin in particular leaned forward on the stage to look at him. "Who is this? You speak for Dresden?"

John bowed his head. "In a sense. I speak for myself and my interests, honorable Merlin, assembled wizards."

"You are?"

"My name is John Marcone."

The Merlin frowned. "You cannot fool a member of the Senior Council with a false name, outsider. What is your real name?"

John showed his teeth, mouth twisting into what had all the elements of a smile without quite being one. "Tell me yours and I shall tell you mine."

Next to the Merlin, LaFortier raised one thin hand. "If I may, Merlin. This... person's presence here is evidence of a far more evident and indefensible crime by Wizard Dresden. Clearly he has brought a non-magical mortal into this most secure, private place, putting all of us at risk. This is treasonous." He sneered at me. "Deep deliberation regarding the Red Court may not be... necessary."

Right. If they had me for treason for bringing John here, they could throw me to Bianca without fuss. I could feel the regard on John and I and the shift in the air of the room from staid to unfriendly. I hoped John knew what he was doing.

"If I may," John said, oozing politesse and respectfulness. "I realize letting anyone not a member of this Council in is a grave thing to be taken seriously. But I am simply here to defend myself against the charges leveled against me."

The Merlin's brow furrowed in confusion. "Explain."

"Mr. Dresden is not to blame for the war with the Red Court raging in Chicago. I am."

Rabble, rabble, went the crowd around us.

"Si placet," said John in the tone he used when issuing commands, effortlessly authoritarian. He didn't yell, but his voice carried anyway. "I am quite willing to elaborate, but as I am working through a translator, quiet would be appreciated."

And the place quieted, just like that.

For some reason, a smile tried to steal over my face. It wasn't often I saw John like this. It was impressive, to so easily command a room of people who didn't know who you were. There was a reason he ran things in Chicago.

Once the white noise of the room faded, the Merlin looked sourly at John. I got the impression he wasn't so taken by John's display. "I suggest you get on with it. I have half a mind to have you forcibly removed from this session."

John bowed again. "Of course, honorable Merlin. You are missing key information regarding this situation. Harry Dresden did not instigate this conflict. I did. I went out of my way to threaten the Margravine's House and her people, first through covert methods, then violence."

Morgan cut in then, his face twisted like he'd swallowed a lemon. "You acted through Dresden."

"I did not," John countered. "Mr. Dresden is bound to me by a contract. He provides information on supernatural threats at my request. I used him as a resource to arm my substantial work force, to prepare them against the Red Court. He never participated in any raids on Red Court strongholds in the city or in any of the physical battles that have occurred during the conflict. The only times he has engaged in conflict have been in self-defense."

Ancient Mai drew herself up to her full height. Which was short, for the record, but still imposing. "You say you bound Wizard Dresden to you. You are mortal. Such a thing should not be possible."

"He signed a contract with me."

Pietrovich laughed coldly. "A contract?"

"Along with his True Name as insurance. If he refused me, I would have given his True Name to those who could do him harm," John explained.

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, suddenly aware of Eb staring at me. "Hoss..."

"It's fine, Eb," I replied.

"A mortal contract does not bind a wizard's power," Pietrovich pointed out.

"It doesn't need to." John began to walk as he spoke, pacing a long ellipse into the area in front of the stage. He suddenly looked like a man in a board meeting, albeit one with a weird dress code. "Unlike much of the magical community, Mr. Dresden exists within the confines of both the mundane mortal world and the supernatural one. He must obey the laws of my world, not just yours. The contract I forced him into was very restrictive. If he broke it, I could bankrupt him, take control of any assets I'd given him or that he purchased with my paycheck. I'd have him in my debt for the rest of his life." The fact all of this was kind of morally repulsive didn't seem to bother Marcone at all. "Perhaps I could not cripple his magic if he broke contract, but I could make his life in the mortal world incredibly difficult."

LaFortier said, "That is hardly an excuse for his actions."

"Tell me, if a wizard makes a deal with one of the Sidhe and is compelled by their deal to do evil, do you hold session to discuss punishment of their actions?"

"The Sidhe can control the agency of one who has made an oath with them."

"As can I," John said, and if I didn't know any better, I'd say he sounded smug, too self-assured. "Not with such absolute power, but through coercion and threats, I can control someone who has entered into an arrangement with me."

The Merlin strode forward until he stood at the edge of the stage. He looked down at John.

John, being John, met his gaze. The Merlin looked away, but nodded to himself, like he had seen something telling even without the soulgaze. Pietrovich went silent, waiting like everyone else on the Merlin's word.

"It sounds to me, Mr. Marcone," the Merlin said softly, "that we should be giving you to the Red Court."

I could feel over the aura connection between John and me that he was thrilled. He'd anticipated this. It was obvious. Despite his excitement, he sounded contemplative as he replied, "That's the funny thing about this situation. I am not a magical being. I am not a member of your Council. I do not acknowledge or accept your authority. You have no grounds to respond to my actions. That is the price you pay for being a shadow organization."

Morgan, who had stepped over to stand out of the way, beside the Senior Council, snorted loudly and derisively. "So says the head of the criminal underworld."

John nodded slowly, ignoring the jeering tone. "Yes, but while I choose not to have 'Lord of the Mafiosi' on my business card, say my name to any person in the city and they will know who I am. They acknowledge the reality of my power and authority. This White Council cannot say the same thing, as to even speak of its existence to a non-member is treasonous."

"As the Wizard Dresden has done," Pietrovich said, pointing an accusing finger at me.

John retreated to his chair and opened his briefcase, withdrawing a folder. Out once again came the letter from MonOc Securities. "Long before I knew of the White Council, I have worked with Donar Vadderung. He's assigned one of his agents to me to work as an informant on matters of import in the occult side of Chicago."

The name Vadderung hit the Senior Council like a slap in the face. The Merlin's grip on his staff tightened to a white-knuckled grip while Pietrovich and LaFoutier exchanged a surprised look. The Merlin said, "Let me see."

John handed one sheet up to the Merlin. The Merlin scanned the sheet, then brought up the Accords symbol on it as Morgan had earlier. His lip curled and he threw the sheet back at John, making him stoop to catch it. "Regardless. You used Wizard Dresden as a tool of war. As a weapon. Signatories of the Unseelie Accords must police their people. I would like to bring the possibility to the floor that Wizard Dresden has violated the Accords through his alliance to Mr. Marcone. He has allowed himself to be used irresponsibly, in a manner ill-befiting a wizard. At the very least, his title should be revoked."

I couldn't keep silent through that. I got to my feet and stepped forward. "Bullshit! You can't toss out anyone on a whim! I earned my status as wizard the old-fashioned way!"

John joined my complaint. "Mr. Dresden did nothing to warrant such action. This is ridiculous!"

Pietrovich left his podium to face us. "By joining with a crime lord, you have abandoned the Council, Dresden!"

"Yeah, 'cause that totally crossed my mind when I was picking between signing Marcone's contract and being left for death at the hands of a bunch of lycanthropes!"

Listens To Wind lifted his hands into the air, collected some of his will, and clapped once. The sound echoed loudly, making my teeth rattle from the force behind it. The Merlin and Pietrovich whirled to look at the source of the sound.

Listens To Wind smiled. "Peace, brothers. Let's act like wizards, not petty siblings." He put his hands down. "Wizard Dresden has a point. To remove his stole like this without concrete evidence would set a nasty precedent. We are all old souls. We have seen what happens when those in power abuse it out of fear. Calm yourselves."

The Merlin inclined his head. "Thank you, Wizard Listens To Wind. Let us comport ourselves in a more fitting manner." Like he hadn't been just as heated as the rest of us.

Martha Liberty waited until the Senior Council returned to their podiums-- or was it podii?-- before speaking. "Wizard Listens To Wind is correct. To cast Wizard Dresden out just because we disapprove of his actions would lead us down a dark road. If someone has solid complaint against his actions, let them speak now."

Everyone held their peace.

"Then let us shelve this motion, honorable Merlin. The Wizard remains such."

There was a murmur of agreement across the room. I let out a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. "Hell's bells," I muttered.

John discretely touched my arm, then drew us both back to our seats. As we rejoined Ebenezar, he said, "Nice job so far. Whatever plan the Merlin had has been fumbled."

"Perhaps I destroyed his plans, but I doubt he's through," John replied under his breath.

The Merlin finished composing himself, then tried to retake control of the session. "There is still the matter of the war itself. By your own admission, John Marcone, you have begun a war, involved one of our number, and have created conflict where there was once peace."

"Might I venture a question, honorable Merlin?" John asked.

"What is it?"

"What constitutes a peace?" He sighed and stood again, taking the floor. "I run the city of Chicago. I know its problems and address them as best I can. I do not consider a growing threat to its citizens within city limits a sign of peace. I do not consider women being taken off the streets and drugged into slavery a peace. I consider it an act of aggression."

"You speak as if it were your domain."

"How is it not?" John waved a hand. "I regulate much of its commerce. I control its vices. I defend it from any violent upstarts. I operate outside the confines of law, but I enforce rules for the betterment of the community. I have done so since taking power. Through the Margravine, the people I consider my citizens were endangered. My war on the Red Court's presence is a reasonable act of protection."

"You paint yourself as a benevolent dictator." The Merlin indicated Morgan. "Our Warden says you are a criminal."

"Perhaps I am," John said mildly. "But mortal law is not the purview of this Council, and so my profession is irrelevant."

"If you meddle in our affairs, then everything about you is relevant."

"Your accent betrays you as British, Merlin. Perhaps you'll understand then how I am with you, but not of you." He spread his hands wide apart, stance open and confident. "I ask of you, Council. If you have any real authority to stop me, please let me know. As far as I can tell, I am a non-magical mortal, therefore not your responsibility. I am backed by another Signatory of the Accords, so my pursuit of knowledge of the supernatural is permissible. And having read the Unseelie Accords over several times, I can tell you this war is mine. Your wizard is my counselor, and there is no provision in the Accords preventing accorded parties from lending their aid to a second non-accorded party to the detriment of another accorded party, so long as no unlawful acts are offered by the first accorded party. Harry Dresden has never offered to attack the Red Court on my behalf. He has never instigated battle. He has acted only to preserve his own life." John steepled his fingers in front of his mouth, seeming to think about something. "In fact, I do believe you, White Council, have more grounds to file a complaint to the Red Court than they do to you."

Ebenezar's translation was smooth and steady, but as soon as he finished, he shook his head in disbelief. "Hell's bells, hoss."

"Yeah," I said shallowly. "He's kind of terrifying sometimes. I do my best to ignore it."

LaFountier shakily licked his lips and said, "True, as far as it goes, that Dresden avoided breaking the letter of the Accords. But it is also true that he is in clear violation of the cooperative spirit they embody."

The effect of LaFortier's statement was immediate. The Merlin shut his eyes and leaned his head against his staff. Petrovich looked ready to hex LaFortier. Mai looked away, disengaging from the debate just like that.

John's face lit up. Like everyone else, he knew he'd just won. He said, clearly and slowly, "Wizard LaFortier, you should know as well as anyone. There is no spirit of the letter. There is only the letter, and the letter has been followed."

Checkmate.

He didn't stop there. John turned from the Senior Council to face the assembly. "You are a governing body of wizards that postures as a guardian of humanity," he said with all the pomp of a politician giving a speech. "And yet I am the one moving to actually save lives. Better than that, I am succeeding. I understand you have the Accords to mind and likely a swath of unwritten rules of your society that a person such as myself cannot understand. I am not of the Old World as you are."

He tilted his head, glaring darkly at the Merlin. "Perhaps you cannot abide by the laws of man. I daresay that's a lucky thing for you. If you were subject to them, you would be accomplices to murder, child abuse, and neglect. 'Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster.' I've seen your Council now and I know what you do with children under your protection who need your help. Instead of offering sanctuary, you kill them, or dog their steps and shroud them in vague threats indefinitely."

The Merlin slammed his staff again. "Enough!"

Eb stopped translating, but John went on. "Hide behind your magic circles and your secrecy. You'll need them. If you were of my people, I would tear you from power and dash you all against the pavement of my city."

The staff cracked against the ground so hard, I thought it might break. "You come into our cloister and presume to threaten us?"

"You threatened one of mine!" John's voice finally rose to a shout, the volume ratcheting up even as his control didn't seem to waver. Adamant, righteous fury was clear in his eyes. "I will not tolerate this a second time."

"You have no authority or power here!"

"Yet," growled John. "And I would take it as a boon if you continued to underestimate me. It will make my job much easier."

Visibly furious at being talked to in such a way, the Merlin called the Council meeting into a recess. As soon as the Wardens' circle was broken, he stormed off the theatre stage, into the wings.

"You, boy," Ebenezar said to John afterwards, "are a special kind of stupid."

I couldn't disagree there. But as a sort of stupid afficianado, I knew John's brand of stupid was the best kind.

He's just saved both our lives and verbally bitchslapped the White Council that had made my life hell for so long. I wanted to kiss him right there on his amazing, legalese-speaking mouth.

"So," I said. "You promised me dinner."

 

We skipped out on the rest of the meeting. It wasn't John's business and as far as I was concerned it wasn't mine either. I wanted as little to do with the Council as possible.

Hendricks was waiting for us outside the theatre in a boring black sedan. He drove us off to the Gold Coast for Fournier. We ditched the Council robes in the car and got a private room for dinner.

As soon as our orders were placed, John popped open a bottle and got the wine flowing. I don't usually drink since lowering a wizard's control tended to lead to bad things. Magic could make you creatively destructive if you weren't careful. But I was flushed with victory and let him refill my glass a few times. "John... Christ, the pair you have."

John smiled faintly. "Necessary evil. I had reached my endgame and needed the meeting adjourned before anyone found a counterargument." He carefully swirled the wine in his glass, like you were supposed to do.

I giggled in a manly fashion. "I can't believe you broke out the Nietzsche on them."

"Mr. Hendricks suggested it," he admitted.

"Still. Mouthing off to the Merlin like that."

"It... was foolish." He dropped his gaze to the red liquid in his glass, face pensive. "I had already won my argument. The White Council is an important player in the supernatural world. It would've been wiser to extend an olive branch, not to make enemies."

His solemnity calmed me. I leaned forward, my cheek propped up on my hand as I watched him. "Then... why'd you do it?"

"I found I couldn't play nice with the sort of people who threaten a victim of child abuse with execution for defending his life."

"That..." Stars. My mouth went dry and I gulped down another mouthful of wine. "That was a long time ago, John. It's over."

John smiled soft and sad at me, that candid, vulnerable curve of his lips that floored me every time I saw it. "Perhaps. The fact remains I... wish you had a better life."

I stared at him, head so full of... everything. The way he transformed from a lawyerly force of nature into this quiet, reserved man who mourned my unhappy childhood. That the man hid so damned much from the world... Not that he wasn't scary at times, the way his mind operated, how he just didn't work like anyone else I'd ever met, but despite all of that, despite the fact he could blasely call himself a professional monster... despite the fact I didn't know his name...

I said in a hoarse voice, "Well... right now, it's pretty good."

Chapter Text

"I know your life motto," I told John over breakfast the next day. I was nursing a hangover after last night, a steady, persistent pressure behind my eyes. John gave me some mild, bland food, a tall glass of water, and two aspirin.

He, of course, looked fine. He was already in his suit, tie hanging loose around his shoulders as he drank his latte and tore through a bowl of Greek yogurt and fruit. I had no idea what made yogurt Greek or American or whatever, but he always made a point to specify.

"Hm?"

"I know your life motto."

"Do tell," John said in that tone that meant he was listening, but humoring me. He started trying to do his tie with one hand as he finished his breakfast.

I didn't take it personally. I knew he had all the Red Court locations Morgan had shown us at the meeting to look into. Hurricane Marcone was about to descend upon Bianca's people. "No rest for the wicked."

"Am I wicked, Harry?" He tugged his tie into a neat half Windsor.

"Duh."

He smirked at me playfully. "And yours, Wizard Dresden, would be what? There is no kill like overkill?"

"Bite me," I mumbled through a mouthful of toast. "I bet you'd pick some pretentious Latin motto."

"You speak Latin."

"I think most would disagree with you there." I was well-aware what I spoke would be generously referred to as Dog Latin. "Come on, tall, dark, and pretentious."

John took his bowl to the sink and washed his hands, not responding right away. I waited, because John never backed down over little things like this. And I was right. He tossed me a grin and said, "Si non confectus, non reficiat." He grabbed his briefcase and touched my shoulder as he went to the door. "Mind your headache, and tell Ebenezar thank you for the help at the meeting." And just like that he swept out of the room.

I puzzled over the Latin he'd tossed at me. It sounded familiar...

Oh. God, he quoted Discworld at me. That... that just wasn't fair. Fitting, though. John Marcone clearly took his lessons in heroism from Machiavelli and Vetinari.

I didn't have too much time to ponder the squiggly, warm feelings a little nerdy book-quoting gave me. I was meeting Ebenezar before he left for Missouri. He'd insisted on it. Given how much about John and I came out in the Council meeting, I wasn't exactly looking forward to it.

But... all things considered, I probably needed to talk to him anyway. The squiggly feelings made that obvious.

 

I found the place Ebenezar was staying at and met with him in the hotel's restaurant. I wasn't hungry, still nauseated from my hangover, but the cafe-bar mixture reminded me of the calm dark of Mac's Pub. The dark helped my headache too, so it worked out pretty well.

Eb ordered a soda water and a big BLT sandwich, tucking into it before striking up any conversation. "So. Marcone."

I leaned forward on the table. "Okay, he may have... made me an offer I couldn't refuse."

"With lycanthropes."

"Yeah." God, it felt like a lifetime ago. It was, in a way, a whole other life ago. So much had changed, I could barely keep track of it all. "But that was... do we have to talk about this?"

Eb took a big bite of his sandwich, letting me stew for a moment. "Don't have to do anything you don't want to, Hoss."

Which meant yeah, I did. "That was back at the start. It's not like that now." I stole a fry off Eb's plate. "It's not like I'm in thrall to him. I chose this, he chose me. He swore his loyalty on the city and to John that's... that's as close as he can get to a wizard swearing on his power. We're partners."

"Partners," Eb repeated slowly. "Hoss, at the risk of... hearin' something I don't want to, what's that mean?"

"I-I didn't mean it like-- sir, I did not get hitched or anything." God, that he even thought that was kind of mortifying. Moreso because I could see where he got that impression. I lived with John, I was his pet wizard, we got kind of... flirty. Sometimes. Okay, a lot. "It's him and me against the world. People threaten Chicago, we take care of it. He's not going to try any mafia crap on me and I kind of turn a blind eye to his shadier business."

"That all, boy?" His blue eyes settled on me, quiet and calm.

Out with it, Dresden. You've been knee-deep in a backwards river in Egypt for a while. I took a deep breath, then said softly, "Would... would it be bad it that wasn't all?"

"How much more is it?"

"Hell's bells, I don't know. This is kind of..." I gestured vaguely, trying to encompass the whole novel craziness of my life. "It's a new thing for me. I don't know. But I like him, I guess?" I shrugged and dropped my gaze to the bar top, toying with a cardboard coaster there, just to occupy my hands. "A year ago, I didn't even like him, now I just... get this tightness in my gut and..."

Eb held up a hand. "You can spare me the intimate details, Hoss. Just want to make sure you know what you're getting into."

I chuckled. "I really don't."

"You know he treats you like you're his, right? Never seen a man that handsy." He sipped his water. "Might be dangerous, letting him that close."

"I know. He's got my Name and a contract I signed to serve him. He could do nasty stuff to me. I... don't think he's going to, though. Hell, he could've died yesterday, doing that."

"Protecting what he saw as his."

"Okay, yeah, he's territorial, but he's not that bad-- no," I changed my mind, laughing. "No, he is. But I knew that signing on. And it's screwed up sometimes, but it works." I looked sideways at Eb. "Sir... he wants to do something no one else has tried. And I think he's got a shot. I want to help him. Be part of that."

Eb nodded like he expected that. "Council's not going to like it."

"I know."

"Might get hard with them, if you stick around this guy. More ways than one."

"It's worth it," I said, before I even realized it was true.

"All right, Hoss." Eb lifted his glass to me. "You're being more of a damn fool than usual, but at least you're aware of it. That's important."

I... think that meant I had his blessing. I was doing this. It was for real.

Huh. Now what?

 

Even knowing I wanted a... relationship, I guess? Even knowing that, I could hardly just go and jump John's bones. For one, he was John Marcone, and startling him would probably end in me being stabbed or shot. For two, the son of a bitch wasn't around. Whatever was going on with the Reds was taking up a lot of his time. I'd hoped after the Council meeting I'd see him more, but instead of shutting himself up in his home office, he just didn't come home until insane hours in the morning. I found myself worrying about him, whether he was eating and sleeping enough, which was such a turnabout, it gave me whiplash.

So I had to figure out what else to do with my shiny new revelation that I wanted to make good on the ridiculous amount of flirting we'd been doing.

I babysat the Carpenter kids, even though Molly swore up and down she was capable of watching everyone herself. Michael and Charity were taking a day to themselves, which they rightly deserved. Even if it meant I was stuck with the rugrats all evening, I got all fuzzy thinking about my friends who were lucky enough to have a marriage still going strong after so many years.

Daniel and I moved the sofa and the television in the living room as far apart as possible, then crowded everyone on the sofa as Pixar movies played. The distance between me and the DVD player helped, though the subtitles kept cycling at random points in the movies. Toy Story's audio track changed to German for the last half of the movie, which was weird since I didn't think a German track was included on the disc. That Sid kid was fucking terrifying in the language though. Otherwise, it went well. The little ones got teary at the end of Monsters, Inc and crying must have exhausted them because they dropped off halfway through Finding Nemo.

I ended up under a pile of little Carpenters. Baby Harry was tucked under one arm while Hope lay under the other, and Amanda slept with her head in Molly's lap and feet in mine. Daniel wisely elected to sit on the floor, leaning back against the sofa with Alicia dozing on his arm.

"When are your parents getting back? I'm cramping up," I complained.

"They didn't say," Molly said breezily. "Why, got somewhere to be?"

"Yeah, a hot date," I said sarcastically, nudging Daniel in the shoulder with my knee. If I bothered him enough, he might try to unload some of the tykes off me. Unlike Molly, he was a good kid who respected his wizardly elders.

Or so I thought. "You, on a date?" He crossed himself gravely. "Godspeed to the poor soul."

I snorted. "You kid, but he's out fighting vampires right now. He could use the blessing." Molly and Daniel both whirled to stare at me, eyes bright and wide. I rewound what I said, looking for what caught their attention. Oh. "Hang on, now--"

"He? You're dating a guy?"

"Who is he? Do we know him?"

"Does he really hunt vampires?"

"Ohmigosh, are you dating Sanya?"

Daniel rolled his eyes. "Harry's never met Sanya, Molly."

"They should meet!" She grabbed my shoulder. "Can we set you up with Sanya? He's really nice and sexy and has this amazing Russian accent."

"Wait, so you're gay?" Daniel finally asked, a little late, I thought.

"I-I am not gay! And I'm not being set up on a blind date! Hell's bells, you two," I snapped in a hushed shout, trying not to wake the children.

Molly clapped. "You're bisexual! That is so cool!"

"I am not-- bedtime, now!" I didn't stop to think about the fact that I might've been bisexual. I mean, that's the term for people who enjoy sex with their gorgeous reporter girlfriends then go on to want to crawl into the laps of their mafia lord benefactors, right? I didn't have time for an identity crisis. "Daniel, wake up Alicia and take Harry. Molly, get Amanda, I'll get Hope."

There was much grumbling at my delegating, but it got done right before Michael and Charity got home. I caught sight of them after tucking Hope in and let out a sigh of deep, profound relief. "Oh, thank God."

Michael smiled. "That bad, Harry?"

"Your kids are going to eat me alive one day," I said, already grabbing my coat. "How was dinner?"

Charity eyed me severely. I guess running out on them as soon as they walked in made a bad impression. She was on her guard already. "It was fine. Did the children give you trouble?"

"No! No, no," I said too fast. "No more than usual. We just watched movies and had the stew you left for them. They're all asleep, so don't worry there. I'll just be on my way--"

Molly bounced out and threw her arms around me. "You're leaving? Without saying bye?"

"Uh," I said, flushing red. Please don't say it, please don't say it, I thought frantically at her. "Bye, gotta run and you need sleep, Molly, so--"

She let go, pouting cutely at me. "Right, your hot date with the mystery man," she said, wriggling her fingers.

"I'm not gay, Molly!" I half-shouted on reflex, then felt myself go beet red. "I mean, shit, I mean..." I ducked into the kitchen, out from the three sets of eyes boring into me. I found the swear jar and shoved a dollar into it before turning to make a dash for the door.

Michael's a big guy. He wasn't Hendricks big, but he was larger than I was. When he stood in the doorway, it was impossible to get by him. "Harry, calm down. What's wrong?"

"I'm not gay!" I seemed to be stuck on that. Stars and stones, I had to sort my issues out. Was there a therapist in the entire city who could handle me though? Not likely. Once I told them about the part where I set my surrogate father on fire after making a deal with my faerie godmother, they'd probably need psychiatric help themselves. "I-- erm. I may be... not... straight though?"

Michael looked a little shocked. Confession in the middle of my best friend's kitchen at a quarter to midnight was probably not the best idea I'd ever had. "I... see," he said slowly. "Want to sit down? Talk about it?" He held out his hands, like he was coaxing me down.

I was feeling a mite twitchy. I made use of my wizardly focus and took a moment to chill the hell out with a few deep breaths. "I'm good. Sorry."

"Of course, Harry." He leaned against the archway, subtly giving me enough room to run for it if I so chose. "You know I'm here if you need to talk."

Oh stars, really? We were going to do this now? The panic drained out of me, replaced by incredulity. Michael and I fought demons and monsters together, working together fluidly and effectively. But sit us down and start talking about feelings...

Admittedly, that was more my issue. Michael was nothing if not open about his emotions. I guess weekly confessionals will do that to a guy. Me, I clammed up so hard, you needed a crowbar to pry me open.

"Look, it's not a big deal, but I may be kind of interested in a guy. That's not a big deal, right?"

Molly poked her head into the kitchen. "Daddy, is Sanya gay or bi? 'Cause I think we could set them up--"

"Molly, come on." I put my face in my hands. The girl was going to drive me crazy. I had more and more respect for Charity as I spent more time with her.

"I'm... not sure," Michael said bemusedly, putting an arm around his oldest's shoulders and leaning down to kiss her forehead. "Harry and I need to talk. Why don't you head up to bed?"

Molly sighed, but trod off obediently.

I winced. "Talk? Really?"

Michael shrugged. "Not if you don't want to."

Unlike with Eb, that really did mean it was up to me. But it'd either be now or later, and Michael deserved to know. "So. Um. John Marcone."

"Ah," he said.

"'Ah'? What's 'ah'? Is 'ah' good or bad?"

"It's..." Michael rubbed his eyes, looking tired. "It's a non-committal noise, Harry."

Oh... Hey, maybe there was a silver lining to this. "So, does this mean I don't have to go to Mass anymore? Non-believer, practitioner of witchcraft, and not-straight, that's like Heathen Bingo, right?"

Michael cracked up into a loud, echoing laugh of genuine mirth. Which I think meant we were okay. Which... good. Because until that moment, when the knot in my chest loosened, I didn't really get that I'd been more scared of losing my title of Uncle Harry than I had been of losing Wizard Dresden of the White Council.

But it was fine. We were fine.

Cool indeed.

 

I was secure in the knowledge the Carpenters already put up with enough from me so this wasn't going to break the bank. That left me with a giddy, soft feeling in my chest and I walked around smiling like an idiot for a while.

Not that anyone was around to see it. The mansion was empty but for the usual house guards. After the third dinner alone, I figured I needed to get out for a while. I decided to go bother Chicago's tabletop-playing canine Justice League.

Sadly, the Alphas' game was a long campaign I wasn't going to ruin for them. Mitchell already was playing tank for the party, so I rolled out a bard to tag along who was a glorified buff-bot. It wasn't my usual role, a guy with higher charisma than strength, but I made do.

Georgia was behind the GM screen this time. She kept having to shove Billy away when he tried to peak past it at her papers. Since he started doing that, the monsters his cleric fought had suspiciously high rolls against him. "At the end of the hall, you come across a light after so long in the dark. The rough cave walls gradually give way to carefully hewn stone blocks and mounted torches guide your path. Ahead is the gate to the dark king's stash of treasure."

"Wait for it..." Alex murmured.

"Before the gate is a knight. He is grand and terrible, radiating power as he stands in the way. He has guarded this place for many years. You are not the first party to face him," she continued.

Billy tried to appeal to the knight's higher nature to make him move. The knight was resolute in his devotion to the king.

Alex tried to cloak and sneak around the knight, but couldn't roll high enough to counter the fact that the knight could see him go invisible.

Cindy, playing ranger again, worked with Andi's druid to try and feint past the knight only for Cindy to fumble the Lockpick skill check.

"Hell's bells," I said, laughing. "Maybe we should pack up and go home. Try something easier, like infiltrating a dragon's nest."

"Nuh-uh, you gotta try too," Alex said. "Let the bard make an attempt on the impervious knight or be cast from the party! Yea?"

"Yea," said everyone in the party.

"Oh, fine. Hm." I looked at my character sheet. Charisma and dexterity. Not a lot else. "Okay, I have a good Bluff skill. I'm going to distract the guard, then the rest of you guys can sneak by. Alex, pick the lock." Once he nodded, I turned to Georgia and said, "I saunter up to the knight and start to chat him up."

Georgia stared at me for a beat. "What?"

"Chat him up. Ask him when the last time he got to the pub was, if he gets out often, ask what kind of music he likes. Maybe offer to play him a song."

"I... right, okay." She shook herself and looked at something behind her screen. "The... the knight it clearly listening, but says nothing."

"Well, maybe I ramp it up a bit. Touch his arm, ask if he ever gets stuffy in that big suit of armor of his. Oh, hey, I'll attempt to Fascinate him with a song." I picked up my dice and rolled. "Fourteen with the plus-three on my instrument, right?"

Andi held up a hand. "Hang on. Are you... hitting on the knight?"

"I'm experimenting with play style a bit," I said quietly. "Is that okay?"

Andi instantly nodded. I figured. I'd heard about her... 'play style' from the others. "Nah, just... You know."

Cindy bobbed her head along too. "Unexpected. But good. It's good to try out new things."

"Yeah," Alex added, catching on. "Plenty of guys like playing bard once they try it. A lot don't realize it's their thing until they've been playing for a few years. Totally normal."

Billy groaned quietly and took a big gulp of beer.

I silently concurred, even if I was grateful the Alphas were in the same boat as the Carpenters with this. I looked to Georgia, who seemed to be waiting on us. She rolled the die. "The knight's saving throw fails. You've got his attention with... a playful love song?" She was looking to me for approval.

Worked for me. "Perfect. Guys? Want to get that door open while I've got him distracted?"

"Right... yeah..." Alex smirked and made his Pick Lock skill check. This time everyone managed to get into the room thanks to my flirting with the NPC.

We weren't ready for the goblins inside, but that was a different story.

 

I was all ready to walk into John's office towards the end of his day and whisk him off for... something. I was still working on the specifics when I headed to Executive Priority, but I had a knack for playing things by ear and making it through. I was all ready to bank on that talent of mine.

But John wasn't there. Surprise, surprise.

Hendricks looked at me as I came in. "Not here."

I threw my hands up. "Right. Of course." I spent the last few days coming clean with my friends and I couldn't get five minutes with the guy anyway.

Hendricks shook his head. "S'not personal. He's out of town for the night."

"His monthly thing? Oh. Well, my timing just sucks apparently." I sighed dramatically. "I really wanted to talk to him."

Hendricks shut his briefcase and wandered over to me, waving me back. I took the hint and backed out of the room so he could lock it up. "Been a rough week for him. Lot of juggling. Big push on the Reds and we found someone skimming funds. Gotta launch an investigation in the Outfit, which is always tricky."

"I didn't know that," I murmured. "He doesn't tell me these things."

"I know. S'why I am." He got the office nice and sealed before looking me up and down, carefully dodging my eyes. By now, he was good at that. "Anything important?"

"No. Uh, yes, but..." I did not shuffle my feet like a nervous schoolgirl. If only because I was lacking the blond ringlet to twirl coquettishly around my finger. Stars... "It's important, but not like that."

He nodded slowly. "Up for Typhoon? Friday they have fried calamari. Really good stuff."

"Isn't that squid?"

"No. Coming or what?"

I went along. With John on his randomly monthly sabbatical to wherever it was he went, I had time to burn. Typhoon remained as effortlessly chic, classy, and quiet as ever. Outfit bar or not, it was a nice place. One day I needed to take Cujo to Mac's as thanks. He'd love the brew, if not the lack of wi-fi.

We got a giant bowl of crispy fried loops with thick, spicy-tangy sauce to dip. "This is great, what is it?"

"Squid," Cujo said with a little smug smile.

"You asshole." I looked at one ring of battered almost-spongey goodness and decided fuck it, I didn't care what it was made of. It wasn't like it was caviar or escargot. I popped another in my mouth. "How's the admission essay going?"

Hendricks shrugged. "Fine. Just left out the parts about how working for the Mob's given me a unique perspective on relativistic philosophy."

"Good?"

He chuckled, then launched abruptly into an explanation of the basic schools of philosophy that he'd been reading on. Words like 'moral absolutism,' 'Cartesian,' and 'Epistemology.' On the flip side, I finally learned how you were supposed to say 'Descartes.' I'd been doing it wrong, apparently. You weren't supposed to pronounce about half the letters.

"So what about you? You good?" Hendricks asked solicitously, like a luggish, red-headed agony aunt.

"Yeah, can't complain." The calamari dwindled by then and I licked the salt and lemon juice off my fingers. "Just... No, I'm good."

Hendricks watched me keenly. "What'd the boss do now? He says stupid shit sometimes. He doesn't think. Or thinks too much, I dunno."

"No, he didn't... we're fine. More than fine. Great."

Hendricks' eyes widened. "Oh. Oh, shit." It was dark in the bar, but Hendricks has the sort of skin tone that showed color really easily. He was blushing, Hell's bells. "I didn't know you were--"

I put up my hands. "Whoa, hey, we're not yet."

"Boss couldn't be more obvious about it, but I didn't know you two got your fucking acts together already--"

This was mortifying. Way to jump to conclusions, Cujo. Though it was telling just how fast he got from Point A to Point Harry and John Are Together-Together.

Together-Together. Stars, I was being an idiot about this. Sleeping together. There.

"Cujo, buddy," I said slowly. "We aren't. I'm not saying it won't happen, but it hasn't yet."

"Oh." He frowned. "How... how soon we talkin'?"

"I don't exactly have it penciled in on my calendar!" A thought hit me. "John doesn't have it on his, right?"

Hendricks groaned and leaned his face into his hand. I took that as a no, and damn you for making me think of that.

While we were on the topic, though, I couldn't help but want to ask... Hendricks was John's right hand man. Unlike me, he wasn't insulated from anything John did. He'd be the one to ask about anything. So I shifted nervously in my seat and asked, "What do you think?"

His eyes narrowed at me, stare so intent I could feel the pull of a soulgaze. I broke contact just in time to avoid it. "Bit of a foregone conclusion. I've had to watch you two forever now." Cujo shrugged, like it was no big deal. And it probably wasn't. Watch your boss flirt with a man, watch your boss kill child abusers and traitors in cold blood. One of those things was probably more disturbing than the other. "But it's good. You make him..." He glanced around, checking for eavesdroppers like he always did when he talked about sensitive information. "More human. Sometimes I watch him and I think he's too good at playing the hardass mafia boss. Maybe he can't stop. Then you show up and he does."

I squashed the girlish voice that said, he really likes me! upon hearing that. Man up, Dresden.

"Then again, there's times I think he wants to put a leash on you," Cujo said. That wasn't news to me. I could see the fierce, protective worry every time I got into a tough scrape and barely survived. I lived in fear of the day I did something too reckless and woke up in the mansion's panic room tied to the bed.

"Think I should get out while I can?"

Hendricks snorted. "Yeah, right. We wouldn't be talking about this if you could, Dresden." He took a long drag of his beer and leaned back in the chair. "That's all I gotta say. Good luck. If you ever give me any details, I'll break your neck."

I laughed and saluted him with my bottle. "Ten-four, Cujo."

 

When the weekend finally rolled around, I sought out the elusive man himself. Over the last week, I only got to see him for two or three hours cumulatively.

But finally, finally, I found John in the home office after his morning meetings, undoing his tie with one hand as he checked his Blackberry with the other. He wasn't wholly distracted though. When I walked in, his eyes flicked to me, swept up and down me like he was confirming I was all right, then returned to poking at his fancy phone thing.

"All quiet on the western front yet?"

"Getting there," he said cautiously, like he was worried about jinxing it.

"What'd I miss?"

"We confirmed the Warden's reports on Red Court strongholds across the city. Then we made a concentrated push, like a domino effect. We took out each shelter in turn, herding the Reds in the directions we needed. Once we had them cracked down in the last three hovels, we wiped the lot out." He nodded to himself and shut off his Blackberry, tossing it on his desk before leaning against it himself. "The papers tomorrow will be talking about mysterious gas explosions in the Princeton Park and Longwood Manor."

I sauntered forward, leaning across the back of the guest chair and batting my eyelashes. "Aw, John, you went setting fires and you didn't invite me?"

"How remiss of me. I apologize," he murmured. "I didn't mean to leave you out."

That was as good an opening as any. I took all the courage I'd been storing up all week and said, "Want to make it up to me?" Just like that I had John's full attention. Some hot shade of nervousness ran through me. "Dinner, this evening? If you're free?"

John blinked and his face went utterly and totally blank, which meant I'd surprised him. "I am."

"Dinner, then. And, uh..." I looked away, then realized I needed to grow a spine and just do it; I met his eyes again. "Movie? The theatre I use near the Art Institute, I think they're doing the new Kill Bills back to back. Or that weird new Burton one if that's more your thing."

"Ultraviolence does loose its artistic appeal when you run the Mafia," he said dryly. He looked a little taken aback though. His hands were curled over the edge of the desk and I saw his grip tighten. I wet my lips, anxious, and his eyes snapped to my mouth. Oh man. "And a double feature would mean we'd be tired when we got back."

"Wouldn't... wouldn't want that."

"If you'd deign to wear the bracelets, we could go to an arthouse theatre I own," John suggested.

I didn't really care at that point what the hell we watched, but I needed to keep the banter going or I might do something drastic like jumping him. "Trying to get me to expand my horizons again, John?"

The intensity of his stare ratcheted up. "Only if you're ready for such a thing, Mr. Dresden."

I shivered right down to my toes. We so weren't talking about movies anymore. "Tell you what, I'll take care of dinner, you take care of the movie. You're..." My face got warm. "You've got more experience in that kind of thing."

"I think I can do that," John said on a low exhale, eyes dark.

"Don't get too... out of my league, okay?" This metaphor was getting tortured, I could tell. "Nothing with subtitles or anything."

John bit his lower lip, smothering a smile. I think he also knew this whole conversation was getting out of hand. "Baby steps, I understand. What time would you like to leave?"

He was putting it on my terms, as always. I was grateful. I let out a sigh of relief. "Five-thirty?"

"Done."

"Cool. Great. Okay." I nodded to myself and backed up to the door. "I'll... see you then." I ducked out into the hallway and nearly ran to my room to hide.

Oh god, what was I doing?

I was...

I was going to get dressed and try to look decent and pick out a nice restaurant to bring Gentleman Johnny Marcone out to. I'd pay, then let him take me out to some artsy movie that would be deeply allegorical and cerebral. Then we'd come back and...

I went into my bathroom and splashed water on myself. As I leaned over the sink, letting the water drip off my face and into the basin, I thought of that dark leafy hue John's eyes turned, the gun and knife callouses on his hands, and the possibility of tiger stripes underneath his clothes.

Yeah. I wanted that. Maybe I wasn't totally sure about the details of the that I wanted, but I wanted it bad. And I was going to get it.

Chapter Text

I was going on a date with Gentleman Johnny Marcone, evil overlord of Chicago, mafia don, and terrifying force of non-magical mortal will.

Or, as I kept telling myself, I was going out with John. Which was a lot less scary. John, who fancied himself a Roundworld Vetinari (or knew I thought of him that way, one or the other), who was a fastidious health nut, who liked kittens. He still had all the trappings of Gentleman Johnny, but there was a person in there too, a person I liked a lot.

So I didn't worry about having dinner with a cold-hearted criminal scumbag. I worried about picking a place, then deciding what to wear.

In hindsight, it was obvious where I was going to take him. It was another gesture, but I was a big subscriber to actions speaking louder than words.

I dug around in my walk-in closet, trying to pick out something that hit that right balance between dressing up and not looking like an idiot considering where we were going.

"Nooooo, don't wear the black jeans. Do you know anything about fashion, boss?" Bob was awake and 'helping' me.

"You don't even have legs, Bob!"

"Black is slimming, idiot. You'll look like a pipecleaner man. Try something with color. Hey, you look pretty good in red! Got any of that?"

It was sad that I was using my spirit of air and intellect for such trivial things, but I didn't have anyone else at the moment. Hendricks had the day off, I didn't know the patrolling guards around the mansion by name yet, and John was out of the question. So Bob it was. Given his keen interest in getting me laid on the off-chance he might see some action, I didn't think he'd yank my chain about this.

I grabbed a red cashmere sweater and pulled it on, abruptly thinking about buttons. If John wanted to get my shirt off quick, would buttons or no-buttons work better?

Screw it, he had knives hidden on his person. It'd work out.

"Niiiiice," Bob said. "But lose the jeans."

"Red and black are supposed to go together."

"You and black don't mix. Like oil and water, magic and technology, Sidhe and virgins."

I retreated back into the closet and flicked through the rack of pants. "What about grey?"

"Grey's totally different, you can do grey."

"Grey it is," I proclaimed and changed into the grey slacks instead. I tugged my pentacle out so it lay on my chest, tied my shield bracelet on, and put on some of my force rings, doubling them up on some fingers, skipping others until the pattern was eclectic and random.

"Wet your hair then mess it all up," Bob commanded from the dresser. "Sexily unkempt hair just ups your chances of getting some."

I didn't actually think I needed to artificially boost my chances, but did as Bob said anyway. "Better?"

"Well, boss, you look like the mafia moll you should've been, what, a year ago?"

"I'm still not a moll."

"Not yet, but tonight?" He whistled. "If you two make it back to the mansion, you should get it on in here. Nice big bed, the candlelight..."

"And you playing voyeur?"

"I'll do it quietly! Come oooon, boss. I've had to watch your auras get all hot and bothered, I want to see the flesh get with the program too!"

I shrugged into my coat, then hesitated before grabbing my blasting rod and tying it to the inside. I grabbed my new staff too. Date night or not, there was a war going on. Better prepared than sorry. Or vamped. Or dead.

When I glanced at clock-- an antique grandfather clock old enough to withstand my magic that John snuck in there a few weeks back-- it was five-thirty-five, which meant I was late. I swore, pulled on my shoes, and headed out.

John was sitting on the main staircase, waiting for me. He looked... really good, mixing casual with formal to be ready for anything. His button-down was tucked into pinstriped slacks, but he skipped the suit coat. The suede bomber jacket that he'd loaned me was swung over his arm, waiting for the brisk January cold.

There was a slight dusting of grey stubble along his jaw, something I'd never seen before. I stared an embarrassingly long time at it, wondering how it'd feel against my face.

I'd find out later, I was sure.

"Hey, sorry I took so long," I said, coming down the steps. "Didn't mean to keep you waiting."

He stood to face me and swept his eyes over me. Unusually, his assessing check was slower, lingering on me as he took me in. A smile dawned on his face. "I daresay you're worth it, Mr. Dresden."

I thought about telling him it was Harry for tonight, but... he had this throaty baritone rumble and said my name like he was tasting each syllable as he did. It was distracting. And since we were going out on a date, it was okay he was distracting. It was allowed.

I smiled goofily at the thought. "Sweet-talker."

We headed out to the garage and John took two steps towards the limo he kept along the back wall. I caught his arm. "No. It's not exactly a black tie establishment we're heading to, John."

He scanned the selection. He had way too many cars, most non-descript black sedans, but a few luxury European cars as well as a few off-road vehicles. Ready for any occasion, as usual.

Then, of course, was my Beetle, parked between the massive military Hummer and the heavy duty pick-up. Every day it was a scavenger hunt to find where the goons tucked my car. I was fairly sure they were on John's orders to hide it from me in hopes I'd give up on it and let him buy me another one. He didn't understand my car had personality, which was much better than functionality.

"We could take my car," I suggested, already knowing what the answer would be.

"Absolutely not."

"Come on, Mike's got most of the issues fixed and I got new seats put in." Disposable income was a new, exhilarating experience for me.

John's sour expression deepened, so I decided to show some mercy. "Okay, not my car then. But nothing flashy, all right?"

He let out a faint sigh of relief and nodded, leading me over to a sleek, sexy Lexus. It was still way too high-end for what I had in mind, but I had a sudden rush of car envy that silenced any protests I might've lodged. I didn't even say anything when John got the door for me, flipping my chivalry on me, before getting in behind the wheel himself.

It was like being in the Batmobile. I took a few deep breaths, calming my magic, pulling it tight to my chakra points to avoid frying the mess of complicated equipment on the dash. "So is this car a status symbol or a penis extension?"

John laughed, turning the car on with a button-push instead of a key. "Why don't you let me know?"

Oh hell yeah. I made a show of checking John out. "Aren't we confident."

"Don't let me pressure you, Harry." His tone was deceptively light, but I caught a flash of light green as he stole a look at me.

I sagged low in the seat, shaking my head. "You're not." The extra bite and promise to our banter didn't scare me. "Don't worry, if you push me too much, you'll know it. I hear I have a habit of setting things on fire when I feel threatened."

"Duly noted," he replied wryly. "Where are we going then?"

I smiled. "Head for Lake Shore Drive. Going to the Loop."

John frowned. "At this hour, it'll be gridlocked..."

I shrugged. "We have time."

"Still. Would you object to a scenic route?"

"Is the car going to mysteriously break down once we're all cozy and alone?"

"You have the car-killing capabilities, Harry. You tell me." He pulled us out of the estate and off we went into the late afternoon. The sun was in the process of setting, the eastern sky darkening as the west started to burn orange and purple and red. It was freezing outside, but the car was well-heated and I wanted to curl up like a cat and let the drive lull me to a doze. Except for how much I didn't because I had steak dinner, the best beer in the city, and a movie on the itinerary.

Once John got us on our way, driving parallel to Lake Shore Drive on side roads, he asked, "Where are we going, exactly?"

"Close to my old apartment. That place I go to all the time. McAnally's."

John looked perturbed. "You know, I hadn't heard of it until you brought me there to meet with Ebenezar."

I looked at him, at the slightly upset expression on his face, and laughed. "Of course you hadn't, John. It's a Accorded Neutral Zone. Vanilla mortals aren't supposed to know about it."

"If it exists in Chicago, I should know about it," he complained.

I just laughed. I knew he took his dominion over Chicago seriously, but he really expected to know everything about the city. I loved the city and I knew a lot about it, but John had a nigh-symbiotic relationship going on. He was almost a physical extension of it. Not knowing something about Chicago offended him on some deep level. "Well, you know now, don't you?"

Before he could whine about his lack of omniscient knowledge of Chicago some more, there was a buzzing sound. He shifted, got his hand to his back pocket, and pulled out a pager.

"Really, John?"

"I left my Blackberry, if that makes you feel better," he muttered, gaze flicking between the road and the page display. "Hm."

I straightened in my seat. "Problem?"

"The road is tied up ahead." He sounded puzzled and I could see why. We were on a mostly deserted little two-laner. There was no traffic to cause an accident to get it tied up.

"That's... not normal."

"No." He slowed the car, looking around with a sudden hawk-like keenness. "Under your seat is a Red Court rifle."

I wasn't surprised at that precaution; I think every one of his vehicles along with every Outfit car had a few stashed somewhere in reach. I ducked down and grabbed it. Just in time too. The car suddenly sputtered and died. John slammed on the break as the power steering went out, cursing under his breath.

I felt something building in the trees to the east and turned to look. "John." The something built fast, a power converging on a figure in shadows. "John, out of the car now." I didn't wait for him to move, opening my door and grabbing his sleeve, yanking him with all my strength.

He crawled over the gear shift and fell inelegantly on top of me on the ground next to the car. As soon as he was out, I threw my hand up and pushed my will into a shield around us. I knew the power threatening us. I could remember the icy, morbid feeling of the magic. I knew it very well.

My shield raised over us. Two seconds later, a dark dome of black magic fell across the road.

The same black magic the Reds had used when they burned my house down.

Oh shit, shit, shit.

The thick morass of darkness pushed down on my shield, trying to engulf us. The shield burned as I fought back. It was claustrophobic, like being in a small bubble of air at the bottom of the ocean floor where no sunlight reached. The setting sun was blocked out and the white-blue of my shield seemed to be the only light.

Fear caught my breath in my chest. I remembered how that darkness hurt, the lethal cold of it. Given the amount of pressure on my shield, we were smack dab in the middle of it. If I couldn't keep us protected...

I heard John slam a magazine of holy water-filled capsules into his rifle and looked at him where he sat next to me. He had the rifle braced against his arm, finger laying against the trigger as he squinted into the darkness, trying to find our assailants.

Neither of us said anything.

So Bianca St. Clair was the first to speak.

"What a delight!" Bianca crowed from behind us, past the car and in the treeline somewhere. "I had hoped to catch the mortal, but his wizard too?" Her laugh was gorgeous and thick as the dome. "I have dreamed of this chance. I told you, John Marcone, I would have you on your knees."

"Someone didn't learn the 'don't gloat until you've actually won' rule," I muttered to John.

"How long can you keep that shield?" he asked instead. No banter. That wasn't good.

"Don't know. Not for long. Where're the goons?"

His teeth ground together, loud enough I could hear it. "The road blockage, it'll slow them down. That's if they even realize what's happening."

"Just us then," I breathed. Not good at all. I lifted my head to look through the car's windows at where Bianca's voice had come from. It was hard to see even a few feet away, but I thought I could see Bianca's willowy, curvy figure flanked by a number of other man-shaped things.

More importantly, I felt the dark magic coming from her.

"Hell's bells," I whispered. "She's casting the spell."

"Fix that soon enough," John said and turned to take aim over the hood of the car.

I grabbed him. "Magic shield, scumbag. It's two way!"

He looked over his shoulder at me. "You cannot fire through your shield."

"Haven't gotten to that upgrade."

John's face pulled into a snarl, frustration leaking through the resolute soldier's mask. "Then what do you propose?"

"If I may make a suggestion?" Bianca called out to us, malevolent laughter curling her words. "Simply lower your shield, wizard. You can wear yourself down and die tired, but come to me now and you will die in rapture." The dark figure taunting us held out her arms, invitingly. "Why make this more difficult than it must be?"

"You know me, Bianca!" I shouted back. "Never take the easy way out!"

"Harry," John snapped. "Ideas, now."

"Nothing yet!" I looked around. "We can make a break for it, hope for the best?"

"The Margravine is no fool. I expect she has us well pinned down." He shook his head.

He was right. I twisted to examine the open space behind us. I couldn't see anyone, but that meant nothing. It was just too easy an escape route. Something had to be there, but if it was something I could take on...

"Hold on a moment," I said and shut my eyes, Listening.

I heard racing heartbeats, something big shifting in the dead grass. It snorted, snuffled, so it was some kind of animal, maybe. It was just one creature, which was not as comforting a thought as you would think. One big thing could cause as much trouble as ten little things. Or, considering Bianca was slinging some heavy, sustained magic around, fifty little things.

I opened my eyes and looked at John again. He read my face and grimaced. "Bad?"

"Yeah. Something big. Probably with teeth. Could be a construct." Constructs, beings crafted from magic, random raw material, and ectoplasm, could come in any variety of nasty flavors. But if this one was Bianca's, that gave us one sole advantage. "If Bianca's animating it, then it's based off her magic, so it'll have her weaknesses."

John thought about that and nodded, setting his rifle against his shoulder again. "Holy water."

"Yeah. She's going to try to run me low on magic, make me do something awesome and heroic like holding her off while you escape--"

"More like idiotic and suicidal," he muttered.

"-- and let the construct gobble you up while she grabs me. She'll want to enthrall me; wizards are a hot commodity."

"Oh, I know." He gave me a small, tight grin.

"But we can turn that against her. You can take out the construct, I'll take out Bianca." Easier said than done. John arched an eyebrow at me, which meant he was thinking the same thing. It was one thing to say we were going to do it this way, but without any specifics, we were still sitting under my shield, waiting for my will to fade and let the dome of black magic take us.

I had to figure out something. A way to protect John and get myself out alive too. I had to think of something fast while I still stood a chance.

"You know how to make a magic circle?" John shook his head. "Right inside pocket," I told him, and he leaned in close to get there. He pulled out a chunk of chalk. "Make a circle around yourself, perfect as you can."

"Just me?"

"I got a shield bracelet, you don't. Do it, now."

He set the gun down and dragged the chalk across the asphalt, spinning cleanly on his heel and arching his body like a giant compass, drawing the line in the cleanest arc I'd ever seen done without a guide. Sometimes John's minor case of OCD was brilliant.

"Okay, when I tell you to, you need to prick your finger and put it on the circle. Imagine yourself pouring water into the lines, but the water is your will, your spirit. Picture a wall coming up around you," I instructed tersely. "And it will work. You have to believe it will or the whole thing's going to fail and I won't be able to..." I shut my eyes, took a breath, then looked at him again. "It'll work."

John nodded. "And you? What's your plan?"

I didn't have one yet. My brain was still flicking through the tools I had at hand, the factors around me. I was coming up dry. "When I go for Bianca, the construct will probably come for you. When you shoot it, the bullet will break the circle. The black magic's going to hit you and it'll hurt, but keep shooting. If I break Bianca's concentration, the dome should falter and you can run for it."

"How'll you break her concentration?" Because of course he had to ask that.

I didn't say anything because I had nothing yet. The dome almost completely negated my magic and protected Bianca. She was a creature of the night, and I of the day. I didn't have any idea how to fight back effectively.

But I had to try. I had to save John. He could replace me, maybe, but I couldn't... Especially not now.

It wasn't fucking fair. I just got my shit together, I finally knew what I wanted, and even worked up the courage to reach out and get it. And then this. I just wanted to take John to Mac's, to see whatever stupid pretentious movie he picked out, and then kiss him until that hot ache in my chest spread through me, lighting me up like I was channeling a lightning storm. I knew it would, and I wanted that.

But my life was never fair, I was learning. So I'd have to save John and be content with that.

I bowed my head, feeling so overwhelmed. My voice was thready and fragile when I said, "I don't regret asking you out."

John's hand twitched toward me, then stopped. Then he seemed to change his mind and reached out, cupping my face and making me look him in the eyes. "I'm glad," he murmured. "But I wish you'd picked another day."

Day.

Day.

Hell's bells, it was right there waiting for me.

"What time is it?"

John blinked. "Three minutes to six."

That was... exact. "Really, you can just--"

He frowned at me. "Focus. You just had an idea. What is it?"

Right. My idea. I was going to roast Bianca St. Clair alive. Just not with fire.

"Shut up, I need to focus." I leaned forward and pressed my forehead to his. I was scared and feeling drained from maintaining my shield under the onslaught. I was disappointed in not getting my date. I was furious Bianca had decided taking my home wasn't enough, she was going to try to make me her slave as well. I was even more angry that she'd dare to make an attempt on John's life. He was under my protection as much as I was under his. I was filled with hate for how she operated, taking innocent people and turning them, addicting them, drinking them dry.

It was a lot of emotion. But I was missing the one I needed.

"I'm going to do something stupid again," I whispered to John. "But go with it, okay?" I opened my eyes, staring directly into his. "Another leap of faith?"

John swallowed hard and this close I could see he was afraid under that mask of his. Afraid for me.

I didn't need fear.

I shut my eyes and dug back into my own memories. I remembered the last time he trusted me with his life and leaped out that building with me. The Council meeting, feeling his aura entwined with mine so intimately that the loss of it woke me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Standing next to him in his old office, watching the unbridled passion he had for his home, this White City.

It wasn't enough, so I thought of his hands on my back, soothing up and down. He had me completely vulnerable and reacted with tenderness. I thought of being broken down and lost, and how his lips against my temple acted as a balm to my hurts.

There.

I caught onto the warm, welcome emotion that stirred. I thought about the lingering glances over wine and home-cooked dinners. I thought of the bright gleam his eyes got when our plans came together. I thought about that-- that smile, the sad one that told of so much sorrow and loss and ruefulness, that made him look so damn weary and how I just wanted to kiss him whenever I saw it.

There.

I opened my eyes, took John's face in my hands, and kissed him.

He stiffened under my hands, but only for a second. Then he got desperate, fast, and grabbed my shoulders, dropping his rifle, and dragged me down until I was leaning against him, chest to chest. He kissed, fittingly enough, like a man about to die would. It was hard and rough, our teeth clicking together once before he tilted my head and ran his tongue over my lips, asking.

Then, because he was John, he didn't wait for me to say yes. He pushed into my mouth, fisting one hand in my hair to hold me still.

He was bossy and took absolute control of my mouth, sweeping his tongue in like a fucking conquest, a lord mapping out what he knew was rightfully his. It was indelicate and completely unlike kissing Elaine or Susan or anyone else had ever been. It was perfectly him.

He tasted like hazelnut, like I always suspected, and something about that filled me up with a ridiculous, bubbly joy. Even his five o'clock shadow, that silver stubble scratching my jaw felt good.

God, yes.

I could've gone on like that for hours, but there was still something I had to do.

I had to push him off me. He didn't want to stop either. He looked dazed when I smiled at him, taking in his mussed hair and the wet red of his lips. Happiness swelled in me.

Perfect.

I stood up, grabbing my staff with my left hand, my blasting rod with my right. John was still in the scope of my shield. I grinned at him and said, "Pull up the circle."

"Harry--" His voice was strained and hot and yes.

"Circle. Come on. Let's go kill some monsters."

He frowned, but flicked a knife out of his sleeve, cut his finger, and bloodied the chalk line. I felt the snap of his will bringing up the shield.

I took a few steps back, then ran forward and vaulted up onto the car, my shield still around me. It left John, but enough energy of it was still trapped in his circle, it protected him. His little ring of will glowed with mine as well.

I nodded, satisfied my plan had worked, and stood up on the roof of the car. "Bianca St. Clair! This is your last chance! Get out of this city and take your fucking House with you!"

From my new perch, I could see her and her lackeys in front of me. She was expelling dark magic like a fountain, red hair a darker, bloodier shade in the lack of light. "Or you'll do what, wizard?"

"Light you up like a Roman candle," I retorted, joyfully confident. "Whaddya say?"

She smiled at me. "I will see you bowed at my feet before this night is over."

I laughed, a little crazily, but I was running hot. "Bit preemptive there, honorable Margravine. After all," I tossed my staff up and grabbed it by the very end so a full five feet of oak lay above my hand, "the night hasn't even begun yet."

I dropped my shield and lifted my staff straight up.

For those who missed it... I'm tall. I'm six-foot-nine, to be precise. I was standing on the roof of a Lexus that reached about four and a half feet at its apex. My arm's length I'm not sure of but it's gangly and long, and my staff rivaled my own height.

So when I lifted my staff up as high as I could, it easily cleared the shell of the dome and broke into the light of the setting sun.

I drew it down, the warmth and light and raw energy of life that came from the sun. It filled me, pure radiant power pooling in my body as I coaxed it down. The darkness of Bianca's magic wrapped around me, but I hardly felt it. I was simmering with sunlight and affection and happiness, the kind that only came from a phenomenal first kiss.

To fold sunshine into a napkin, you had to be happy.

To wield sunlight like a hammer of the gods, you had to be blissed out.

I pointed my blasting rod at Bianca and laughed as I said, "Soli, lucis soli!"

Light flew from the tip of my rod like a solar flare. It sliced through the darkness like a hot knife through butter and hit the Reds. Bianca, standing front and center, got it first, and screeched in unadulterated agony as the force of it tore into her fake flesh. It shrived and blackened as she threw herself out of the way, still screaming.

The dome dropped and I could see the group of Reds she'd brought with her, all armed and ready for combat.

I soaked up more of the sun's rays and leveled both my rod and staff at them. "Soli servitas!"

The light thickened and plumed, firing at them like a cloud. I saw the fear in their eyes as they tried to beat a retreat, but I just poured more at them.

To the left, I saw movement and turned to look. A fleet of Outfit cars was tearing toward us. The cavalry, plenty of John's goons ready to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and they were probably all out of bubblegum.

I spun around to check on John. He... I'd never seen him truly fight. Not before then. But he fired shot after shot into the construct which might've once been recognizable as something, but was currently a steaming lump of furry ectoplasmic flesh, writhing as the holy water did a number on it.

John walked staidly towards it, steps measured and even as he emptied his magazine. He tossed the gun aside and reached up his back, under his shirt, and drew out a knife. Not a sleek little throwing knife that fit in your palm, no. When Dundee said 'That's a knife,' he was talking about this kind of knife.

Like a predatory jungle cat, John descended on the thing and wrecked it with a few fast, agile strikes.

Stars and stones.

About then, my body remembered I just lit up a score of Reds, including their Margravine, and my knees went out from under me.

 

Bianca was a mess when two goons carried her over. She put up no resistance to being manhandled. Between the huge stretches of sun-crisped not-skin and the Stonehenge bracelets we'd slapped on her, she didn't have much fight to put up.

Goons One and Two tossed her at our feet. Well, John's. He stood tall and regal, feet spaced apart, shoulders squared, hands clasped behind his back like a Gentleman.

I was sitting behind him across the car seat, a blanket around my shoulders and bottle of water in my hands. I might have gotten a little shaky after pulling that trick on top of the car. But, hell, I wielded light like a sun god and saved the day. I was entitled to a little shaking.

Bianca looked up at John and flinched away from the look in his eyes, hissing quietly like an upset cat. She looked less scared than she should have, more shocked than anything, like what happened hadn't quite sunk in for her.

"Margravine St. Clair," John said in that commanding, steely tone of his. "Do you concede defeat?"

She said nothing.

John nodded to Goon Two, who put two paintball shots into her. She screamed, shrill and inhumane as she writhed. "Yesssss, yessss!"

"Say it."

"I-I conceeede defeat."

John nodded. "Then you will respond as an Accorded entity should."

She gasped, a broken gurgling sound, and looked up at John. "You... you are not an Accorded entity!"

"No," I said in a slow, lazy drawl. "But I am. And you attacked me directly."

"And he defeated you. And I speak for the Wizard Dresden of the Accorded White Council," John added.

Bianca ducked her head, just hissing quietly to herself on every exhale, like whatever humanized her voice had been broken in the fight. John let her do that for a minute, then kicked her in the chest with one sure blow. She landed on her back, screeching again until he stepped forward and put his heel against her throat. She quieted, staring up at him, then at me, glassy black eyes bright with wonder, like she'd never seen anything like us.

"What do you want?"

John nodded. "A deal. You have twenty-four hours to remove yourself and the rest of your Court from this city. Take any longer, and we will react with overwhelming force. I have a very powerful wizard and the detonator to the C4 I had installed in the foundations of your House. Do not test me." He pressed down harder, until Bianca squirmed under him. "And you will swear upon your House and your power that the Red Court shall never enter or hunt in my domain again."

"And-" she coughed until John lessened the pressure on her throat. "And if I refuse?"

"You'll die here."

Bianca didn't answer right away. She and John just stared at each other, two monsters in their own right.

Something passed between them, and John stepped back so she could sit up. Then they stared some more.

"Do you know what you are doing, mortal?" she asked him. "Do you have any clue what terrors you are stirring up?"

"Yes or no, Margravine, I don't have all night."

She chuckled softly to herself. "The honorable thing would be to say no and die a martyr of my people so they may come back to claim Chicago as theirs." She shook her head. "But for the sake of one city, I think I shall agree to your terms, John Marcone. I want to live to see the day someone destroys you and lays your little human empire to ruin."

Slowly, she staggered to her feet, clutching her arm where the sunlight had damaged her worse. "I agree to your terms. I swear upon my power and upon my House, your domain will be free from our influence."

John nodded his head. "Acceptable." He held out his hand. Bianca looked at him with that sense of awe again, and took it with both of hers. John's other hand came up and swept over her wrists. The Stonehenge bracelets fell off her, clinking on the ground where they landed. "You have twenty-four hours. Get out."

She inclined her head to him before turning and leaving, stumbling into the night.

John watched her go, gaze on her until she disappeared from sight. Then he turned to me, hard expression melting into something softer. "Mr. Dresden."

I raised my water bottle to him. "John."

"I believe our evening's been thoroughly derailed."

I shrugged. "Vampires. What're you going to do."

He smiled, quicksilver and bright in the moonlight. A nod to the goons sent them off, and John moved to me. "Mind your legs," he said before shutting the door. He stooped to grab the bracelets before circling the car to get in behind the wheel. "We could still go out, if you wanted."

I shook my head. "Nah. Let's go home."

John turned on the car, put it in gear, and drove us back to the mansion.

This car was a different model, one with a sunroof that happened to be open at the moment. I leaned back in my seat, tipping my head back against the rest, and let my eyes go half-lidded, watching John Marcone washed in the blue-white of the moon.

Chapter Text

Upon getting home, a bunch of goons were waiting for John, all vying for a moment of his time. Reports on Bianca sightings, strange Red Court activity, the Velvet Room being abandoned en masse-- a flurry of information. Several Outfit personnel disappeared, likely ones who'd been turned by Bianca to infiltrate John's businesses, which was paranoia-inducing. A few of the remaining Red outposts were abandoned. Things were happening fast.

John looked at me, shiny ectoplasm and blood still smeared across his cheek from his tussle with the construct. "Harry."

I nodded. As much as I wanted to just revel in the victory, I knew that there was aftermath to take care of. "Go. I'm going to see what's in the fridge."

He took his entourage to the office, shutting the door behind them, leaving me alone.

What did you do after you staked claim to the third largest city in America and defended it from the Red Court?

I had a sandwich.

I felt completely drained, yet excited. It was a weird dissonance. I'd spent joy-fueled magic like I was hemorrhaging happiness, so that emotion felt distant. But the fact remained we'd just been jumped by Bianca St. Clair and we not only survived but won.

I nearly choked on my pastrami-and-provolone when I started laughing. As exhausted as I was, I had some delirious glee going on. We did it. I had enough happiness in my life to control the sun. John had just made himself liege lord of the city, and I couldn't even begin to think what Bianca's deal with him meant under the Accords, but I could tell it was going to mean something later.

But that was another day. For the moment, I just ate my sandwich, had an orange and a can of Coke as I waited for John.

I very briefly thought about heading up to my room and going to bed. I really was tired enough I could sleep a good ten hours. But... I didn't want that. Not yet.

He finally reemerged from the office over an hour later, looking as weary as I felt. There was cautious contentment in his eyes as he prowled over to where I was sitting on the couch in the living room. He still had that smudge on his face.

"Hey, c'mere," I murmured, grabbing the napkin off my plate and tugging the hem of his shirt. He put a knee on the cushion next to me, leaning down. I curled a hand around his neck and wiped at the dying blood. "What's the word?"

John smiled. "Well, you put three of my men in the hospital for severe sunburns."

I started laughing again, shaking uncontrollably. That'd be fun to explain to the doctors. "I... Sorry, that sucks for them, it's not funny... But I just barbequed the Red Court with sunshine. That's..."

"Remarkable," he murmured, whisper soft. "Awe-inspiring."

I quieted, looking up at him. "You too." I swallowed hard. "What else happened?"

"I've sent a group of my people to the Velvet Room to secure the safety of those the Reds were feeding on. They'll see to it the addicted are taken care of."

"Good." A lot of women had disappeared off the streets. We'd worked to stem the tide of innocents Bianca snatched, but we knew our control wasn't absolute. I just hoped we got there in time to save most of them.

"I put a call through to Ebenezar and asked him to pass word to the Council that the Red Court will not be entering Chicago while I am here."

Something about that pinged to me. I knew how to-the-letter deals with the Old World were. And John knew too. But the phrasing of his deal with Bianca left a huge opening. "When you had Bianca swear, you said that the Reds would have to leave your domain. If... Not to tempt fate, but if something happens to you--"

"I know," he said. "Don't worry about it for now. I know what I'm doing."

"Yeah, but--"

"Harry." He put a hand on the back of the sofa and leaned in close to me. "I told you when this started we'd defeat the Red Court, and I was right. I also told you it wouldn't stop there, did I not?"

He had. God, that was terrifying to think about. The potential this lunatic had to not just win the game, but change it. Driving the Reds away from Chicago and by doing so proving it could even be done... The supernatural world wasn't ready for him. Hell, I wasn't ready for him. I couldn't even piece together what that meant. Not yet. It was too soon and John was the big picture guy, not me.

My hand was still on his neck, and he was still leaning over me. I started to rub my thumb up and down the line of his throat where I could feel his pulse steadily thrumming. This close, I could watch, count the beats it took for his eyes to darken, the iris shrinking to a thin ring of green as his pupil dilated. It was the only tell he gave, so minute and intimate.

His other hand landed on my thigh, right above my knee, warm and heavy. I exhaled hard, suddenly very aware of him on a base level. All that coiled power, the ability to destroy me, magic or no, just crowded in on me.

I licked my lips. "I... can't believe we did that."

John's smile went feline and pleased. He swayed forward, falling against me in a very controlled way. "It's only the beginning, Harry." His breath was warm against my lips. "Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to make a request." When I didn't object, he went on, "The next time you kiss me, may I have a little warning? Just enough to get you somewhere more private. Where I can reciprocate thoroughly."

That sounded good to me. Really good. "Sorry for springing it on you." I knew he'd been... looking forward to it, and I picked the middle of skirmish to finally get around to it. "But I needed it then, or we would've died."

I saw curiosity flicker across his features, taking over the want. He couldn't resist knowing more about magic. He was positively greedy for it. "How so?"

"I told you about sunlight. Its energy is very similar to our own. It's a force of life, so theoretically easy for any practitioner to use. But there is one condition." I paused on a sigh as his hand slid along the outside edge of my thigh, tracing the seam of my pants. His fingers pressed insistently. Mm. "You have to be happy."

His hand stuttered to a stop and he fixed me with this look, suddenly naked and surprised, all his pretenses and masks forgotten. "Harry..."

"Yeah," I said. "It's stupid and soppy, but sun-based magic has to come from happiness." I waved a hand, borrowing that easy 'don't worry, just listen' gesture he used so often. "I didn't make the rule, I just have to follow it."

He took hold of my wrist and brought it back to his neck, his hand covering mine as he splayed my fingers over his skin. "And kissing me turned you into the avatar of Helios."

God, he was such a mythology nerd. "Take it as a compliment."

"Oh, I do, Mr. Dresden," he said, leaning into me. His hand returned to brushing up and down my thigh for a second, then slipped under my sweater, fingers rough against the smooth skin near my waist.

"As, you know... riveting as this discussion is?" I tugged him towards me impatiently.

"Yes, I do believe we've danced long enough." That questing hand found my back and John lowered me to lay across the sofa, casual strength at play.

"Going to teach me to tango, John?" He got my legs up on the couch, bent at the knee as he settled between them. He lay his weight to bear on me, only holding himself up on one arm.

"Harry. Quiet."

I jutted my chin at him challengingly. "Make me."

He did, dipping low to slowly run the tip of his tongue over my lower lip. I shut up real fast, tensing my whole body in an attempt to keep still. Key in ignition, turn, boom, my engine turned over just like that.

Before had been frantic and rushed, a last-first kiss. Now, John took his time. He traced the shape of my lips with his tongue, then dryly kissed around my mouth. teasing and light. He was slow, but methodical, like he'd written up a plan for this and was following it step by step, no cutting corners.

For the moment, I let him, a reward of sorts for not being as domineering as he had been before. Not that it wasn't doing anything for me. Slow was just what I wanted after the crazy evening we'd had.

When he finally kissed me properly, I opened right up for his mouth and tongue. He swept past my teeth, pushing against my tongue until I tried to kiss him back. He loved that, taking great care to earn control, the right to take hold of my hair and turn my head just as he wanted, sealing our mouths together.

His other hand palmed my skin under my sweater, taking in the lanky sinewy spread of my chest. The petting motion felt good, heat suffusing through my body. I stretched languidly under him, arching up against him.

John grunted low in his throat, his hand clenching against my skin and nails raking down my chest. That felt awesome and I pushed up against him harder. He was still braced above me and I thought that was a waste of opportunity. It didn't take more than me tugging him with one finger hooked into a belt loop to get him to come down on me, hot and heavy. It forced my legs to spread more, and was worth it for the pressure of him lying on me. I wasn't hard yet, but having John's body to grind up against was helping fix that.

Now I could take him in. Unlike him, I didn't treat seeing someone half-asleep on a massage table as an open invitation. I got my hands under his shirt and along his back where he was all muscle. His skin was smooth and rough in turns, the puckered lines of scars catching under my fingertips. I traced a few, the irregular patterns, trying to figure out each one. A gunshot wound here, a dull gash there, like he'd been thrown backward into something. Several lines that ran almost the width of his broad back.

They weren't stripes, but close enough I huffed out a breath, opening eyes I hadn't realized I'd shut. John was watching me, carefully guarded as I took in the ways he'd been marked through his life. I'd been banged up in the past too, but wizards healed better than vanilla mortals. Scars faded to nothing over time.

There was history etched into John's skin, hidden every day beneath his clothes.

I brought my hands to his front, against the buttons of the shirt. "Can I see?"

He nodded slowly and leaned up so I had room to work down the buttons. I pushed the shirt down his shoulders and let him take it off while I just looked at him.

There was, as I always suspected, a harness there. It was an incredibly detailed custom job, thin leather that fit him like it was part of his skin. It had various holsters and sheaths, but with most of them empty, they lay perfectly flat against his body. There were a few knives still tucked into place though. I passed my hands over them, not sure if they came out first or what.

John sat back on his heels for a moment and undid a little buckle under his arm, then took the whole thing off. He set it and his shirt aside before lying across me again. "Better?"

I didn't say anything, just touched him. Beneath the harness, he retained that natural olive tone, but it was marked with lighter scar tissue. There wasn't as many as I felt on his back, but there was still more than I had. I pressed two fingers to a circular one low on his chest, then reached around and found a twin next to his spine.

"What were you?" I asked quietly.

He smiled humorlessly. "Someone very good at his job."

"Yeah? What'd the guys who weren't good looked like?" I knew the answer before I finished asking: dead. I'd seen him fight, the way he moved, the confidence with which he handled rifles and throwing knives alike. Those were not the things you learned in the Outfit. Those were abilities you brought to it from elsewhere. Likely somewhere military, possibly private contractor. Someone taught John Marcone how to kill.

Probably before he was even John Marcone.

I lifted my eyes to John's face and found him staring at me. Waiting. He was waiting for my reaction.

"Hey," I whispered. "Come on."

He huffed out a breath he'd been holding, relief obvious. "First, though." He caught the bottom of my sweater and pulled it over my head, forcing me to sit up to get it off. He tossed it aside, abandoning fastidiousness to push me back down on the sofa. I thought he was getting bossy again, but he ducked down and pressed his lips to my belly, right beneath my ribcage.

A gasp hitched in my chest, and I swallowed the sound as John's mouth skimmed over my skin, nipping and dryly kissing in random patterns. He worked his way up, making me jerk when he bit my collarbone and sag back against the cushions when he licked the hollow of my throat, dragging the blade of his tongue up to my chin. The damp skin prickled cold in the air and I shivered. It was eerily like being tasted, and I wasn't sure if that disturbed me or not.

He chuckled low in his throat and kissed me, coffee and hazelnut undercut by the taste of my sweat on his tongue and that should not have been hot, but revved me regardless. I dug my nails into his back, arching again even though he was right on top of me and I had nowhere to go. The friction was good, though, and I kept moving, trying to tangle our legs to get more.

"Pushy," John commented, grinding down against me in kind.

"Look in a mirror," I told him, letting my head fall back as I managed to rock against his thigh. Even through his jeans and my slacks, that felt so good and I couldn't quite stop. I wanted... yeah, I wanted.

John lowered his head again, this time to the side of my neck and grazed his teeth against my skin, biting a little harder. I suddenly got a full-sensation flashback to months and months ago, that weird dream with the white tiger and John marking me, branding me with his mouth while I helplessly shuddered beneath.

Now, it felt even better. The dream memory and reality synced up in my head. I grabbed John by his hair and pushed him against my neck again when he started to back off. "Please."

He exhaled hard, shocked, but obeyed. I turned my head to the side, stretching out my neck for him and was rewarded with a mix of bites, suction, and feather-light kisses that took me apart until I was shaking.

Fucking prophetic dreams.

There was a bright red mark no turtleneck could hide by the time John pulled away, licking his lips. "Harry."

"Mmgh." I lifted a hand and pressed it to my neck. The skin stung under my touch, vividly sharp, the feeling shooting down my spine and to my cock. I groaned, just rubbing at it and reveling in that tiny pain.

John kissed my ear before saying in a rough, coarse voice, "At the risk of sounding presumptuous--"

I laughed and twisted to look at him. "John, I swear to God, if you keep up the Gentleman thing all night, you're going to bed alone."

He nodded in understanding. "We can move this to a bed then?"

It was probably my last chance to bail out, but I didn't want it. I didn't even consider it. "Yours. I got a peeping skull in my room."

"I should really set you up with a proper lab space," he noted contemplatively.

I rolled my eyes and shoved him off me. "Come on. Bed. Before you get the urge to do your taxes or alphabetize something."

He climbed off the sofa and offered his hand to me. I took it and let him pull me to my feet. "I didn't mean to imply you didn't have my full attention." He took my hips and pulled me close and I could feel his attention against my hip.

"Okay, wow." I looked down at him, letting that sink in. Undeniably male, so this was going to be different. A less secure man would be freaking out a little.

I just traced a thin scar on his bicep. "So... where is your room?"

It was upstairs, past mine, and down a long hallway with a turn here or there. If you gave me directions to find it, I'd likely get lost for a while first. With the big, empty mansion, it felt remote, far away from everything else in the house, let alone the world outside. I think that was the point.

John stepped away from me as soon as we entered his bedroom suite, his holster and our shirts under his arm. "A moment," he said softly, padding away.

Everything about the room just screamed comfort. There was a bookshelf full of books, arty novels, thrillers, and some law texts. Only about half were in English. There was a big cushy armchair next to it, and the table near it had even more books. There seemed to be mythology, religious tomes, and a few things that I recognized from the Blackstone's supernatural branch. John'd been doing his research.

There was a laptop on the work desk, and I hoped it was off. There was also an armoire, a stereo with stacks of music next to it, and a massive bathroom suite off to the far side of the room.

And a bed. A big bed with study, dark wooden posts, a rich cream comforter, and dark sheets. It looked like it'd be very nice to sleep on. But I couldn't know for sure if I didn't try it. I toed off my shoes and, after two seconds' deliberation, took off my pants as well, letting them lie on the floor, a speck of messiness in John's orderly bedroom.

I climbed onto the bed and sprawled out, sinking into the downy comforter. It was soft against my skin, cool where I was a bit too hot. I shut my eyes and stretched, letting one arm lie lazily bent over my head as I poked at the mark on my neck some more, buzzing pleasantly in my skin.

The bed dipped and I cracked one eye open to watch John sitting next to me on the edge. "For the longest time, I thought I'd have to trip you into bed."

"You calling me easy now, John?"

He danced his palm along my side. "I could fill a book with words to describe you. Easy would not be among them."

"So you're saying I'm difficult." I made a show of turning onto my side, away from him. "The romance is dead."

There was rustling behind me, catching my attention and making me want to drop my charade and face him. I remained resolutely on my side, waiting him out. Eventually, he slipped up against my back, chest against my back, one arm coming around me, and dick nestling against my ass. Hello there. I opened my mouth, not to protest or anything, but to say something, but John's hand suddenly cupped the tent of my boxers and whatever I was going to say morphed into a low groan.

He started rubbing in a leisurely, maddening clockwise circle. "You're a little past playing hard to get, don't you think?"

I really was, considering the way I sucked in a breath through my teeth and pressed back against John, wanting more contact. Doing so got me closer to him, but also got his cock snugly pressed as far into the crease of my ass as the boxers would allow.

John's hand stopped and I think he quit breathing for a moment. Giving me time, if I needed it. And... I wasn't sure if I did. The fact I was in bed with someone with a penis wasn't hard to swallow (shut up) as the fact he dealt drugs, killed people, and thought pissing off an entire Court of vampires was a good business move. I took a second, leaning back against him to let that sink in, letting my anxiousness pass. Then, just to try it, I pushed back on the thick heat of it.

John made a strangled noise and rocked against me. At the same time, his hand got back against me, stroking. "Yes?"

"Yeah, m'good." I wriggled around until I was on my back and could lean up to kiss him.

We kissed slow and deep for a while, John letting me return the favor and explore his mouth like he had mine. The stubble was still catching my attention every time my face brushed his. It was a constant reminder, like that text crawl at the bottom of 24-hour news channels going, male, male, I mean, pretty hot and amazing, but still male. But this close, his cologne was sweet and distracting and I didn't put up a fuss when he rolled on top of me. I'd had him on me earlier. This was the same thing. Just... with less clothes.

John traced the curve of my ear with his lips even as he slid his hand under the elastic of my boxers. "Still yes?"

"You going to ask explicit permission before doing anything? Do you have a bureaucracy fetish?"

"You make terrible jokes when you're nervous," he pointed out.

"I make terrible jokes when I'm not nervous too." He started to say something in reply, but I didn't want to hear it. I reached down myself and started to shuck off my last shred of clothing, ending the argument right there.

There was that winded, heated sound again, low in his throat. Then he kissed me briefly on the mouth, then on my chin, then on my shoulder, then oh okay, if he was offering, sure.

John untangled my boxers from my ankles and threw them off the bed before touching my legs, urging them to bend and spread with him in between. Looking down the bed at him like that was hot enough by itself that my dick twitched, practically waving at him. Stars.

He smiled and took it in hand, dry and a little rough. "Bedside drawer, if you would."

I so would. I scrambled to get at it without moving out of John's grip. It took a moment of searching-- "Have you hid them or what?"

John sighed and crawled back up the bed to look. "I don't exactly require them often."

That was... It was unexpected even though it kind of made sense. I couldn't see John bringing many people back here, deep into the mansion, where the castle became a home for him. Hell, I couldn't imagine him going to bed with anyone either. It was such a trust. If I was an assassin or something, this would be the prefect opportunity to kill him.

My mouth was suddenly dry. How lonely was it to be John Marcone?

I'd have to think about it later. John found what he was looking for and returned to his spot between my legs. He tore open one of the little foil packets and I said something stupid and impulsive, because that's sort of what I do. "I'm clean, you know. Or, well, any wizard would be, by now."

John arched an eyebrow at me. "Explain."

"Wizards, we heal fast, right? That includes sickness like... that. Long-term stuff mundanes have to deal with doesn't work on us." I shrugged one shoulder, trying to seem casual. "I mean, I'm just saying."

I got both eyebrows then. "You cannot sustain venereal diseases."

I flushed red. "Oh Christ, nevermind. Forget I said anything."

"I'm just trying to be sure--"

"You just said that, this is the worst sex ever," I told him earnestly.

"Let's see if I can correct that," John murmured and lowered his head to press the flat of his tongue against the head of my cock, just hot, wet pressure in that one spot. I almost pulled something holding down the instinct to thrust up into his mouth, moaning embarrassingly loud. John made a pleased, smug sound and slowly, slowly took my cock into his mouth. It was so fucking gradual, my breath kept catching over and over until I just couldn't breathe.

"Oh fuck," I gasped once I thought he had me as deep as he could get me. Then he swallowed, let me slide to the back of his throat, and I lost coherency altogether.

Not the worst sex, by any means.

He apparently liked me when I was keening and moaning like that and worked to keep me at that point with the same steady determination he gave everything. He kept one hand pressed to the flat of my stomach, stopping me from getting too enthusiastic with the thrusts. His other hand I lost track of-- I had other things to think about-- until it returned, wet and slick, sliding down from my balls to my ass.

I jerked in surprise, held down by John's arm like he'd be expecting that. "Um."

John lifted his head. "You told me to stop asking."

I did. Right. Because it was all new and strange, every detail burning into my mind with the novelty of it all. But I wasn't panicking. I was okay. And I trusted John.

I propped myself up on my elbows and nodded carefully to him. He held my gaze as his fingers got friendly down there. I couldn't see what he was doing, but I think that helped. I simply felt it all and waited for the moment it was too much and I'd say stop and he would.

I almost objected when the first finger slid in. It was... weird, that stretch. Slick enough that it didn't hurt, but was really obviously there. When I didn't say anything, John licked his way down my cock and swallowed me down again. That made it easier. I dropped back to the bed, shutting my eyes, letting the sensation drown me. In my mind, the weird of his fingers started to mix with the amazing suction and heat of his mouth. The second finger he gave me was long overdue. I reached down to pet his hair and shoulders, uncoordinated. My hips rocked, up into his mouth, back on his fingers, like my body couldn't decide which to go for.

John hummed around my cock, making my spine go all melty and my eyes roll up. Then the suction on my cock was gone and he asked, "How about something else," as his fingers worked somehow deeper into me.

I pulled out of my daze of arousal. I knew without being told what he was asking for. "Uh. I don't think... I mean..."

John nodded once, shelving it. "Some other time."

I stared at him for a moment even as I tried to get his fingers deeper into me, pushing down on them. Why was I saying no? I felt amazing and I wanted more. I had no one to impress here, hidden away in a big bed with the world outside seeming so far away. What did I have to lose?

"Hey..." I nudged him with my knee. "You know what? Go for it. Convince me."

John's face lit up with a grin and he leaned forward to kiss me. In the process, his fingers slipped out and I moaned at the loss. "God, Harry." He ducked his head, took a breath, then whispered, "Turn over. On your front."

I did, and after a moment John urged me to lay across a pillow, kissing down my back as he pushed me down on it. I shivered, trying to relax. My tension had to be clear to him, because John started just running his hands over my skin, soothing along my back and sides. His fingers on the back of my thighs made me tense further, but he just dug his fingers into my muscles and dragged them up and down, calming.

Eventually, I sighed and laid my head down in my arms. When I exhaled, I pushed all my nervousness out of me with some effort.

John's fingers slipped back into me, slicker, more focused on a goal this time. I started to... like it. When John withdrew, I made a soft sound at him, wanting that full feeling back. John shushed me, then put three fingers in.

I had to lift myself on my elbows and push back. I couldn't not do it. Now I started to get the appeal. It was sensitive, but good. It could get better too, I could tell. I just needed more.

John chuckled fondly. "Impatient."

"Shut up and do it," I replied because, yeah, I was.

John took his fingers out. Before I had the chance to mourn them, both his hands were on my hips, his knees pushing my legs further apart, and he was there, pushing in so fucking slowly.

I stopped breathing. I stopped thinking, except that it was nothing like his fingers. It was warmer, more solid, inexorable. His cock pushed in with one smooth, constant thrust until his hips were against my ass and fuck. I whined, pressing my head to the bed and clenching my hands in the sheets and comforter. "John, oh god."

I had no idea how long John had wanted to do this, but I got the feeling it was entirely too long. He tightened his hold on my hips, pulled out, and thrust back in, somehow getting further and my whole body jolted like I'd had an electrical shock. There, that was what the fuss was about. Of course the bastard hit it right away. He just refused to be sub-par at anything, including making me come apart at the seams. I scrambled to brace myself, one hand on the headboard, the other trying to keep a handhold on the sheets as John thrust into me, every stroke as steady and deep as the last.

My hips pushed into the pillow under me, the friction painful but good against my dick. It wasn't quite enough for me though. I got myself together enough to snake a hand under me, pushing up on my knees to lift up to get a hand where I needed it. The extra height just made the angle that much better for John, and my cock was still slick from his mouth, and it was all just too fucking much.

He tipped me forward onto my shoulders, and the loud moaning I was doing got muffled in the bed. Not by much though; I was still loud and begging for it. Over that, I could hear John, his voice ragged and shallow as he kept moving. "That's it, that's it, Harry, knew you'd be... be like this for me, come on."

Possessive and a little brutal, but I came to the uneven cadence of his voice. It felt like orgasm smashed into me, almost violent. I lost my balance, sagging to the bed, and John followed me down. His rhythm broke for a half-second before I spread flat over the sheets and he kept going. His hands on my hips were going to leave bruises and his breath was harsher than I'd ever heard.

He pushed in once, twice, thrice, then fell against me with a strangled groan. I felt him release, wet and hot inside me, and shivered weakly, unable to do anything else.

Stars and stones. That was something.

John spent a long moment lying against my back, panting against my shoulder. It was satisfying to see him as broken down as I was. In fact, the whole thing was just that: satisfying. I was sore and full and sated. I'd spent a lot of magic earlier, but the rush of sex had given me a lot of juice. I shut my eyes, controlling it, pulling it back to me, putting my magic back under my command.

As I did that, John moved, pushing himself up and out of me. I sucked in a gasp as he did and received a long, lingering kiss on my neck in response. "I'll be right back," he whispered.

Stars. I'd done it. I'd done him. Was this my cue to freak out? I didn't feel freaked out, I felt... good. Exhausted, but good.

And I felt a little different, yeah, but not because the sex. I'd seen a new side of John, frantic and desperate, maybe a little feral. He kept a lot locked up inside. And now I was privy to that. Which... okay, I was already in for the long haul, but now I think John had his hooks in me. Or claws, considering.

For the moment, I was fine with that. I stretched and smiled. More than fine.

"That's a nice look on you," John murmured as he came back, sitting on the side of the bed.

I tilted my head to look at him. Still unabashedly naked, flushed, and wonderfully mussed. "You too."

He smirked and moved closer, running a warm, damp towel over my back. I hissed when he swept along my ass, more than slightly sore. He turned me over, did the same along my chest, gentle against my dick, thank god. I was utterly spent and more sensitive than I'd like.

The towel and the ruined pillow disappeared somewhere before John pulled down the covers and got me under them. He slipped in next to me, close. "Well?"

I snorted. "You looking for constructive criticism, John?" I was crashing, hard and fast, because I was male and that's what we did after getting laid.

Unless they were John Marcone, apparently. He crowded my space despite the fact it was a truly massive bed with plenty of room to spare. I was too tired to care, shutting my eyes and rubbing my cheek against the high-thread count pillowcase.

John sighed my name softly, faint but amused, and I felt him press a scratchy kiss against my neck. He curled up against me, cuddling me all of a sudden. His arm was thrown over my side, and while I had him beat height-wise, he was broader and could spoon me easily. Stars, if I wasn't half-asleep, I'd elbow him or something.

I just shifted and got comfortable, settling down. "You gonna let me do all that to you later?"

John hummed, thinking. "Is later on the table?"

I kept my eyes shut. It was somehow safer that way. "You tell me, John. Reds are gone. You say you've got plans. You through with me?"

"Mr. Dresden," he said in that almost-purr he had, territorial and self-assured. Hell, he'd already marked me, I shouldn't've been surprised by the proprietary tone. "I think it's fair to say I've barely even started with you."

"Good." And it was. It really was. "Then later is on the table. A whole lot of later."

Later, with more borderline-suicidal schemes to bring the supernatural world to heel. More existing in that massive grey area that went with being John Marcone's wizard. Being this close to him sent my moral compass spinning out of control. I didn't know what was becoming of me thanks to his influence. I conjured a solar flare to demolish a Red Court Margravine. I was pissing off the White Council more than ever before, choosing a vanilla mortal over them. I was letting John pull me into his home and life, and I had the feeling it was a one-way trip.

But I wanted that power he offered. I wanted the safety and to not have to live month to month worrying about rent and basic needs. I wanted to have time to stay close with the Carpenters, watch over the Alphas, and have the occasional drink with Hendricks. I wanted to protect Chicago.

I wanted John. That didn't stop now that we'd had sex. In fact, I wanted to do it all again. I wanted to see what else we could do. I wanted to know where his sad, quiet smile came from. I wanted to know who he'd been before he was John Marcone. I wanted... him. Basically.

One day at a time.

I had no idea where my life had gone so completely haywire. How I'd gone from living on my own with my skull and my cat and my lonely life to this. It's like I'd made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in a strange new world. I was happy though, for the first time in a long time. So maybe it wasn't a wrong turn at all.

I shivered as I started to drop off to sleep. "Is it cold in here?"

John lifted his head, looking around. "It is," he mused. "I think you've blown out the heating unit, Harry."

I snickered into the pillow. "Takes two to tango, John."

"True enough, I suppose." He brought the comforter up and over us before curling around me again, welcomely warming me up. "I'll have it fixed tomorrow."

"Mmkay." I settled back down, thinking about tomorrow and what was to come.

One day at a time.